Living with the Apple TV – Long-term test
I’ve been living with the Apple TV for several months now and it’s a testament that in a home full of tech and streaming boxes it has retained pride of place under the TV.
Most days when I get home, I still jump on the sofa and pick the Apple TV as my binge watching tool of choice – well when the newborn baby allows it, anyway.
The Apple TV is undoubtedly a great product. It’s a slick streaming box with wonderful voice and search functions that I use daily. The remote is so good, in fact, that plenty of pretenders are entering the scene – check out the new Sky Q remote, for example.
The touchpad on the remote is also simple to get to grips with, if you’ve ever used a laptop, and the interface is bright and classy, but with more depth to it than a Roku or Amazon Fire TV box.
Not having to mess around with batteries or constant charging is a final major selling point for the remote. The Siri remote was already charged when I received the Apple TV and it lasted for more than two months of regular use before I had to tether it to a Lightning cable and plug. Not bad for something so slim and light.
Related: iOS 10 release date
On the whole the Apple TV works very well, particularly if you’ve already bought into the Apple ecosystem. Some competitors have richer app stores at the moment, but this isn’t a big deal.
If you’ve got a reasonably recent iPhone or iPad you’ll be able to use AirPlay to stream directly from your device. So most of the missing apps, like Amazon Prime Instant Video, can still be viewed on an Apple TV.
What’s more Apple TV’s native app library is catching up fast. Apps like Plex and iPlayer that weren’t available at launch quickly came on board.
For the thing you’ll want it to do most – streaming content – the Apple TV is brilliant, even though it lacks 4K support. This might feel like a major omission, but it’s a problem for another day. There’s currently very little 4K content that can be streamed and by the time it becomes a standard you’ll probably want something new and shiny anyway.
Some other features don’t stack up quite as well.
Gaming is one of them. The Wii-style remote functionality is fun but the games that support it fully are few and far between. Beat Sports has limited appeal and Galaxy on Fire: Manticore Rising just doesn’t work well with motion controls. Still gaming on the Apple TV is not entirely without merit and will give little tykes some hours of joy.
Then there’s the occasional slow-downs.
99% of the time the Apple TV is incredibly responsive. Asking Siri who’s in a movie or waking it up and opening an app takes no time at all. Every so often though, things grind to a halt.
It happens to me about once a week and it’s frustrating, particularly as there’s no easy way to restart the Apple TV without accessing the System menu. Apple TV isn’t the only streamer with this issue and if you give it a few minutes and it will go back to normal. But the slowdowns are still infuriating when you’re with company.
If you’re not fussed about paying a little more for the Apple TV than other streaming boxes then you won’t be disappointed. This is the best one out there at the moment and is only let down by its lack of 4K support.
You can read our original Apple TV review below.
What is the Apple TV 2015?
I’ve never been that impressed by Apple TV. I found the 3rd generation one from 2012 too basic, and the Chromecast took its place as my streaming solution of choice in 2013.
It’s not that previous Apple TVs were bad – far from it – they just didn’t do very much.
The 4th gen Apple TV is a total reinvention of the little black box that makes your TV smarter, and Apple has got most things right. It has peered into a crystal ball and decided that the future of TV involves apps, lots of them.
2015’s Apple TV is speedy and powerful, the Siri remote is clever and innovative and the brand new tvOS comes with some brilliant features and nifty touches.
So what are the downsides? Well the Apple TV doesn’t support 4K. That’s not much of an issue at the moment considering how little 4K content is actually out there, but it means that it’s not future-proof.
Gaming doesn’t yet live up to my high hopes either. Apple TV is certainly not a replacement for a family-friendly Nintendo at the moment.
For many, though, both these points are minor. If you’re already in the Apple ecosystem then the new Apple TV will be a welcome addition to your home, especially if you’re not a streaming stick convert.
Apple TV 2015 – Setup
This year’s Apple TV is about twice as tall as the previous model (35mm tall, 98mm square) but still remains a compact black box designed to blend into the surroundings of your TV setup.
And blend it does. One tiny, white LED light lets you know it’s on and the matt black plastic is inconspicuous.
All connections are tidily hidden on the back. And while it doesn’t have as many connections as, for example, the Roku 2 or Amazon Fire TV, it has what most of us need.
The box connects to your TV via a HDMI 1.4 cable (not included). This allows signals to pass through to the TV so you can turn it on and off and adjust volume, but only if your TV supports the 1.4 standard.
Newer TVs should be ok, but the TV I’m using to test is a model from 2010 that doesn’t. Check with your TV manufacturer if this is a feature you’re keen on using.
Outside of this the Apple TV features an Ethernet port to connect directly to a router – if you don’t want to use the 802.11ac Wi-Fi – and a USB-C port, but that’s for Apple to use when servicing the Apple TV.
Connect everything together and the Apple TV is quick to get up and running, though I did notice a couple of oddities during the setup processs.
It all starts promisingly. Putting your iPhone close to the Apple TV sets it up with your home Wi-Fi settings so you don’t need to input them manually. Your Apple ID is also automatically populated, although for security reasons you’ll need to input the password manually.
Unfortunately that’s all that is transferred. The apps you have on your phone that have tvOS counterparts aren’t considered and even when you do add them you’ll still need to enter your login details most of the time.
To be fair to the Apple TV this isn’t so different to the experience you’ll have with any other streaming TV box on the market, it just feels that Apple could have made life a little easier for its customers.
Apple TV 2015 – Siri Remote
The Siri remote and the way it works with the new tvOS operating system is one of the new Apple TV’s key selling points.
It is slim, well-crafted, light, has just six visible buttons and a clickable touch pad at the top. The button layout lets you easily navigate menus and it’s easy as pie to recharge – a lightning cable can top up the battery when needed, which is approximately every six months according to Apple.
There’s more to it too. Apple has attempted to create something akin to Nintendo’s Wiimote on the controller. Though to take advantage of this safely you’ll gave to invest in a Remote Loop – a lanyard that keeps the remote from flying off your hand and costs a frankly ludicrous £11/$13.
Even then, while it comes with an accelerometer and gyroscope for motion gaming, it’s not perfect and the remote lacks a little precision that certain games require.
Skipping through menus is a lot quicker using a touch pad than a D-pad or analogue stick, although typing out an email address, for example, can still feel like a chore.
The Apple TV uses a A-Z virtual keyboard so you swipe from one letter to the next to type. Unfortunately you can skip from the end to the beginning, so if you type a Y and the next letter is an A you have to swipe all the way back to the beginning of the alphabet.
An IR blaster is built into the top edge so you can set up with your TV or sound system to control volume, however I could not get this to work with my Sony soundbar or LG TV.
The Siri remote has all the obvious buttons needed: volume, play/pause, home and menu; the latter also functions as a back button. The sixth button is dedicated to Siri, and she’s at her most useful on Apple TV.
Apple TV – Voice commands
Having a mic on a remote isn’t new, Roku has had one for a while but it only let you search for a movie, show, actor or director. The voice function on the Apple TV does that, plus a lot more.
Let’s start with search. Apple has enabled universal search on the Apple TV so you find content across apps. Calling it ‘universal’ is an overstatement, though.
At the moment search covers Netflix and the iTunes store – it’s up to app developers to add themselves to it. It’s still early days for this feature and I fully expect plenty of apps to join Apple’s party.
It’s smarter than simply finding titles you ask for.
If you don’t know what you want to watch you can ask Siri more general questions, like I did this Halloween. “What are the best scary movies on Netflix?” popped up a list of some great titles, like the odd indie-flick Spring, based on critic scores from Rotten Tomatoes.
Search is contextual to whatever it is you’re watching or the app you’re in. So ask “who’s in this?” while watching a movie and photos of the top billed cast appear at the bottom of the screen. Click one of the floating heads and your movie is paused and the screen taken over so you can see some of the other films that person has been in. Clever stuff and an easy way to get that itch in the back of your head scratched when you really can’t recall where you’ve seen an actor before.
There’s a bunch of clever voice commands that make the Apple TV a joy to use, too.
You can fast-forward or rewind by swiping the touch pad, of course, but you can also tell Siri to move you forward a set amount of time. Didn’t quite catch what an actor said? Tell Siri and you’ll immediately go back ten seconds so you can listen to it again, with subtitles.
My favourite command has to be “continue playing”. Say “continue playing Netflix”, for example, and you’ll carry on right where you left off without having to go near the home screen or app icon. Seamless stuff.
I was surprised how quickly I got used to talking to the Apple TV. Speaking to a machine can feel a little awkward when you’re in public, but in the comfort of your own home that self-consciousness evaporates. It helps that the noise cancelling mic on the Siri remote and voice recognition are so solid. You don’t even have to lift it to your mouth, it works from a distance of several feet.
Apple TV 2015 – tvOS
I’ve already covered a fair amount of tvOS with the Siri Remote, but it’s worth going a little deeper into Apple’s new operating system that’s been designed specifically with a big screen in mind.
If you’re an iPhone or iPad user then using the Apple TV will come easy. Actions like double pressing the Home button to get a list of open apps and swiping up to close them closely matches iOS’ user experience.
Even if you’re not an Apple user, though, it won’t take long to get used to tvOS. Icons are large and navigating is simple enough using the Siri remote’s touch pad.
What surprised me was the amount of settings Apple lets you tweak compared to previous versions of the Apple TV. There is some depth to tvOS.
The settings are comprehensive, from being able to alter your screensaver (some beauties are already included) to locking down app and movie purchases.
There’s a bunch of restrictions you can add too, mostly based on age appropriateness. This is great if you have young kids you don’t want accessing content that’s not right for them, but the process is convoluted and doesn’t cover all apps.
Adding an age filter to films, for example, doesn’t restrict 18 rated movies on Netflix, but it will require a PIN to watch the equivalent from your iTunes library.
It’s miles away from Amazon Fire TV’s family-friendly parental controls and really should be something Apple beefs up sooner rather than later if it wabts to appeal to the family market.
Elsewhere Apple TV does better.
You can tweak sound settings from Auto to Stereo or Dolby Surround and tick the option to reduce loud sounds. This muffles explosions in an action movie, for example, so you don’t accidentally wake the baby.
You can also change the resolution from 640 x 480 to Full-HD at 60Hz.
Connection settings can also be altered so you can change your IP address and DNS settings easily – an important feature if you want to access Netflix catalogues from other countries.
Aside from the Ethernet connection there’s dual-band Wi-Fi with MIMO that can be used to connect to the internet. It’s solid – the Apple TV works well in a room on a different level and 10 metres away from my Netgear Nighthawk X4S router. The rule of thumb in my experience is that if an iPhone 6S Plus can get a Wi-Fi connection so can the Apple TV.
iCloud brings all the content from your Apple devices together, so you can create your own slideshows and look at all your photos on a TV using the Photos app.
AirPlay is also supported so you can throw content or apps from your phone or tablet to the Apple TV.
This is important because the Apple TV is light on apps at the moment. That’s not unexpected considering this version of tvOS is so new, but it does mean that if you want to watch Amazon Video, for example, you’ll have to stream it to the big screen via your phone.
Apple TV – Performance and specs
The Apple TV is powered by the same A8 dual-core chip as last year’s iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, but it’s backed up with 2GB RAM as opposed to the 1GB you get on those phones.
It’s plenty fast and I’ve not experienced any stutters or delays opening or using apps. The one exception is the beautiful game Lumino City. It drops a few frames here and there. However other games and apps work perfectly.
The Apple TV comes in 32GB (£129/$149) and 64GB (£169/$199) storage configurations. Which you go for depends on how many apps you want to keep on it. If you are planning to use the Apple TV predominantly for streaming services 32GB should be ample, if you’re planning to install loads of apps and games then go for the 64GB option.
Apple TV – Apps
There’s a whiff of tumbleweed when it comes to the Apple TV app store. There’s a smattering of games, a few dozen video streaming apps, and a few other bits and bobs. This is a far cry from what I’ve come to expect from the iOS App Store.
This is to be expected, though. The all new tvOS has only just been released so it will take some time for developers to adapt their apps for the new platform. Others will wait and see how popular Apple TV becomes before jumping on the bandwagon.
Apple stringently vets third party apps before they are released. I know of a couple of apps that have been rejected because they haven’t worked perfectly.
Sure the app shortage is annoying right now, but it’s a good thing that Apple TV doesn’t just take the apps from the iPhone and blow them up to TV proportions in my mind. The Siri remote is a unique controller and requires apps that work with it, as opposed to a touchscreen. So it’s better Apple’s making developers tweak their apps to work as they should on tvOS.
The other plus point is that if you’ve paid for an app on your phone you can get its tvOS counterpart for free, and vice versa.
I’ve already mentioned that Netflix is available, but no other major streaming services are, unless you’re in the US where you can also get Hulu and HBO Now. There’s no Amazon Video or UK specific apps like iPlayer, 4OD and ITV Player at the moment.
Shopping and travel apps like Gilt and Airbnb look great on the big screen and you don’t need to spend ages logging in to every app with the remote. Instead some apps give you a short code you enter on a website using a phone or computer.
Apple TV – Gaming
Gaming is the other big focus for the Apple TV and it’s a bit of a mixed bag.
Adventure games that have a sedate pace or simple controls look stunning and work well on the big screen. Lumino City and Alto’s Adventure are great examples of Apple TV gaming done right.
Apple’s showcase, Beat Sports, is one of the pricier tvOS apps and aims to do for the Apple TV what Wii Sports did for the Wii. It won’t. The gaudy colours and cartoonish graphics will appeal to kids, but the repetitive, and sometimes tricky gameplay, wears thin quickly.
Galaxy of Fire Manticore Rising seems more promising, and I’m a fan of the series on iPhone and Android.
By twist and moving the remote you can control your spaceship. The touch pad lets you boost, slow down, avoid incoming missiles and fire special weapons. While it looks great on a TV, deep space dogfights lack finesse and I found myself giving up after dying multiple times on just the third mission.
Third party iOS controllers can be connected to Apple TV for some multiplayer action, and Crossy Road is a hoot when played with company. Games like Manticore Rising might also work better with a controller.
Should I buy Apple TV?
It’s too early to tell the true potential of the new Apple TV – I need to see a lot more tvOS apps before I know for sure. Regardless, this is another great bit of kit from Apple that comes with touches of brilliance.
It is more expensive than some competitors like the Roku 3 or Amazon Fire TV, but it’s worth it for the voice controls and remote alone. Once more app developers hook into the universal search, what is already a very good feature will become excellent.
If you’ve got an older Apple TV and like it then don’t hesitate, this is a monumental upgrade. It’s fast, slick, polished and offers so much more.
I prefer it to a Chromecast, too. Not having to tinker with my smartphone to get it working is something I like. It also means anyone in the house can use it.
If all you care about is Netflix then the Roku 2 is a cheaper, albeit less refined, alternative.
The app store currently lacks content and its gaming credentials are a little suspect, but the new Apple TV is a brilliant new way of interacting with your TV and will keep you glued to a big screen instead of a small one.