New Apple TV (fourth-gen, 2015) review
We've been talking about the possibility of a new Apple TV for a long time now. The last time Apple updated the Apple TV was way back in January 2013, and even that was just a minor update. Therefore, the announcement of a brand new Apple TV alongside the iPhone 6s, iPad Pro and iPad mini 4 at Apple’s September event was welcomed by fans, especially as the Apple TV had been seen as a ‘hobby’ by the company in the past.
"Our vision for TV is simple and perhaps a little provocative," Apple CEO Tim Cook said on stage. "We believe the future of television is apps. In fact, this transition has already begun - we are spending more time watching TV on our iPhones and iPads via apps."
Cook continued: "We need a new foundation for TV. One that's built on powerful hardware, a modern OS, and with developer tools so that developers can create apps, and has an app store so that customers can find those apps and personalise their experience better than ever before."
"We believe the new Apple TV is the 'future of television'," he said, introducing Phil Schiller to the stage.
In this article, we're bringing you a preview of the Apple TV based on Apple's announcement with our own comments and critiques. It should give you an idea of what to expect from the new Apple TV when its available to buy in late October, and help you decide whether the new Apple TV is worth buying.
See also: Apple September event as it happened
New Apple TV: Design and build
So, the first Apple TV in two and a half years has been announced – this merits a new design and form factor, right? Not quite. With regards to the design and build of the Apple TV, it’s pretty much the same as its predecessor. It measures in at 98x98x35mm and weighs 425g, making it slightly thicker and heavier than the third generation TV which was 23mm thick and weighed 153g less at 272g. However, with this being said, it’s not a big enough change for it to be noticeable when comparing the two set-top boxes.
While on the subject of set-top boxes, it’s hard to define what category the Apple TV falls under. Typically, we refer to these kind of devices as either set-top boxes or multimedia streamers but with all that the Apple TV can do, it doesn’t fall under either. It offers on-demand video services as other multimedia streamers do, but also a suite of games that work with third-party Bluetooth controllers.
It’s like the PS4 and Xbox One – although it started with one main focus, the product has developed into something more over the years. Can we still call the PS4 and Xbox One games consoles when they offer services like on-demand video, music and, with the Xbox, live TV streaming?
Anyway, back to the Apple TV, or more importantly, its new remote. The new Apple TV remote has had a considerable face lift compared to the third-gen Apple TV offering, touting features including a touchscreen, a gyroscope and an accelerometer. It also connects to the Apple TV via a Bluetooth connection instead of IR, which means you no longer need to point the remote at the TV to control it.
But why does a TV remote need a gyroscope and accelerometer? Because with the Apple TV, users can use the remote for much more than selecting which film to watch. For one, the touchscreen interface allows users to explore the brand new tvOS in a way that’s familiar to them, instead of using directional buttons, an input that has become quite outdated in recent years. The new Apple TV remote can also be used as a gaming controller, but we’ll come to that in more detail below.
New Apple TV: tvOS and Siri
With the introduction of the New Apple TV comes tvOS, Apple’s iOS 9 inspired operating system which, sadly, isn’t coming to older Apple TVs. tvOS changes the Apple TV from one of Apple’s hobbies into a serious contender, mainly thanks to the additions of a native App Store and Siri integration. Let’s first discuss the introduction of the App Store – developers are now able to create universal apps that work across the iPhone, iPad and Apple TV and use many of the development tools available for the iPhone.
These tools include Metal, which is described by Apple as providing “the lowest-overhead access to the GPU, enabling you to maximise graphics and compute potential of your apps” along with UIKit, On Demand Resources, CloudKit and Game Center. Apple gave us a demonstration of the kind of games to expect on the Apple TV at its announcement, showcasing ‘Beat Sports’ which uses your remote as a motion controller to play the musically themed game. The hugely popular Geometry Wars 3 is also heading to the Apple TV, a visually stunning and addictive game that’ll look amazing on the big screen.
It’s not just games either, as the Apple TV should feature a variety of apps to use. If you’re in the mood for shopping, simply download the Gilt app, or if you want to plan your next holiday, download the AirB&B app. Although, there is a limit to what the Apple TV apps can do, as Apple has set an app size limit at 200mb. Apps can download additional assets if/when needed, but this must be done on a per-use basis.
A small number of developers will be able to use and develop apps for the Apple TV before launch to help populate the App Store from day one, and we imagine they’ll continue to improve in terms of both variety and capabilities over time.
Apart from the introduction of an App Store and a complete UI overhaul, the big addition to the Apple TV was of course Siri.
The hugely popular virtual assistant has been made available on the new Apple TV, and commands can be spoken via the remote – no need to shout your request across the room at the TV! In terms of its functionality, it can do some pretty amazing things, including being able to search through not only iTunes for movies, but also Netflix (Hulu and HBO Now are also included, but its US only at the moment) with other services being added over time. This means that you can say “Hey Siri, show me new animated family films” and view results from multiple services at once, making for a better browsing experience.
It doesn’t stop at movie discovery though; Siri has a host of tricks up its sleeve. Let’s say, for example, you’re watching a movie with a friend and they speak through an important part of the film. Instead of having to give your friend evils, scramble for the remote and try to rewind the movie yourself, you can say “Hey Siri, what did he say?” and Siri will know who you’re referring to thanks to its contextual abilities, and rewind the movie by 15 seconds and temporarily enable subtitles. It’s a really nice touch, and is only one example of what Apple can do with Siri on the Apple TV.
You can also do all the usual things you do with Siri on your iPhone, like checking the latest sports scores or the local weather. Siri will display any results on the lower third of the screen, allowing you to continue with what you were doing. If you want any more information, say for example a more in-depth weather report, just swipe up on the Apple TV remote and it’ll go full screen. Once you’re done with checking the weather, just double click the Home button on the remote to access the iOS-style multitasking menu and return to what you were doing previously.
See also: Apple TV streaming service rumours
New Apple TV: Spec and other features
So, apart from the introduction of tvOS and Siri, what else is new with the Apple TV? Let’s take a look at its internals. The third generation Apple TV came with an A5 processor coupled with 512MB of RAM, which is fine for using AirPlay or watching movies on iTunes, but it wouldn’t deliver the performance needed for many modern apps. With this in mind, Apple boosted the spec of the new Apple TV from an A5 to an A8 processor, the same processor that’s found in the iPhone 6, along with a whopping 2GB of RAM. It’s also available in two storage options; 32GB and 64GB.
With regards to resolutions, the new Apple TV supports both 720p and 1080p HD output, but 4K TV users will be disappointed to know that there’s no native 4K support. Most TVs automatically upscale a 1080p output into a 4K output, but the quality will never match a native 4K output.
Apple launched its music streaming service Apple Music back in June, and users of the service will be happy to know that it’s coming to the new Apple TV. You’ll be able to browse your Apple Music library and play songs directly from your Apple TV instead of having to use AirPlay like you do currently. Sadly, Apple won’t be bringing the Apple Music app to older Apple TV’s, so if this is a deal breaker for you, you’ll need to fork out for the new one!
There is one change that some Apple TV users won’t like; Apple has removed the optical out port that’s been available in every Apple TV since its inception, and replaced it with a USB-C port. The optical out port is important for people that use Soundbars/Hi-Fi systems for TV audio output, but don’t have an optical out port on their display. This is true of a Macworld UK colleague that relies on optical audio connections to watch TV – he waited until Apple announced the new Apple TV to get that instead of an older one, but with no optical out port, it’s useless to him and it’ll be the same story for other users.
As mentioned above, Apple has decided to include a USB-C port at the back of the new Apple TV. Although the company haven’t outlined what the USB-C port could be used for in the future, we’re guessing that the company will release various Apple TV accessories over time that communicate with the set-top box via USB-C. These could range from games controllers to an Apple TV camera (for FaceTime? We’re speculating here), but we won’t know until Apple officially announces what the port will be used for.
New Apple TV: Pricing and availability
Okay, so now you’ve found out everything you need to know about the new Apple TV, you probably want to buy one right? Well you have a month to wait, as Apple announced at its event yesterday that the Apple TV won’t be on sale online and in stores until “late October” with no specific release date given. The 32GB Apple TV will set you back $149 and the 64GB Apple TV will set you back $199 – if you live in the US anyway. The company is staying tight lipped on UK pricing, stating that the pricing will be revealed when the new Apple TV is made available.
See also: Alternatives to the Apple TV
We had such high expectations for the 4G Apple TV that we have to admit to being a little disappointed with it on launch day. However, many of our main complaints seemed easy to rectify, and updates to tvOS and the Remote app have indeed resolved several significant niggles. Things still aren't perfect - there's far more potential here than is being fulfilled at present - but as of the tvOS 9.2 update we're prepared to raise our review score for the fourth-gen Apple TV from 3 to 4 stars out of 5.