Apple TV 2015 (4th-gen) full review
Apple has followed in Google's steps by announcing a 4K version of its media-streaming box. Though the fourth-gen (non-4K) Apple TV is still available at £149, a 4K version that also supports HDR is now available from £179 (32GB).
Both the Chromecast Ultra and Apple TV enable you to stream video and audio to television. And both come with iOS integration, so you can use your iPhone or iPad to control what plays on your TV. The Apple TV and Chromecast both have app integration enabling you to stream from popular media services such as BBC iPlayer, Netflix and YouTube.
The Google Chromecast Ultra costs just £69, whereas the fourth-gen Apple TV is £149 for the 32GB model, and the fifth-gen 4K box is £179 for 32GB and £199 for 64GB. (The Apple TV 4K will be available to pre-order ion 15 September and buy on 22 September - Buy Apple TV here.)
But the Apple TV works as a standalone player, and features a Siri remote control and support for apps. The Apple TV is much more than a media streaming device; you can play games on it (with support for console-like controllers).
The Chromecast responds to apps on your iPhone or iPad (or on an Android device). Despite working very differently, both offer similar media functionality on the surface level: YouTube, BBC iPlayer and Netflix on your television. But should an Apple user in the UK buy a Chromecast or an Apple TV? Our Apple TV vs Google Chromecast test looks at the following:
- What are the Apple TV and Google Chromecast Ultra?
- How to set up an Apple TV and Chromecast
- Streaming video, music and photos to the Apple TV and Chromecast
- What apps and services are available for Apple TV and Google Chromecast?
Read next: Does Apple TV support Google Chromecast?
What is the Apple TV?
The Apple TV is a media-streaming device designed and sold by Apple. The first Apple TV was released in 2007 and there have been five revisions since. The current Apple TV is a small black box measuring roughly 10 cm square, while a new version that adds 4K and HDR will be on sale on 22 September.
The Apple TV is designed to sit underneath the television set and connects via HDMI. We're looking at a fourth-generation Apple TV here, which was released in 2015.
The original plan for the Apple TV was simply to create a device that made it easy for people to shift content from iTunes running on a Mac computer to the television. So you could sync and watch movies, music and photos. The Apple TV then evolved to offer direct streaming of content from an iPhone or iPad using an Apple technology called AirPlay. Apps that support AirPlay can send video directly from the iPad or iPhone to your television.
A wide range of apps support AirPlay including major media streaming services and many games. If an app doesn’t support AirPlay you can mirror the display of an iPad, iPhone or recent Mac computer and view the whole display.
The current iteration of the Apple TV also involves App Store support. The apps contain a range of built in apps with big hitters like Netflix, YouTube, and Sky Sports alongside smaller names like Vevo, Vimeo and Crunchyroll.
Amazon Prime Video and Spotify remain noticeable absentees from the Apple TV App Store, but Amazon Prime Video is coming, and you can stream content from these services to the Apple TV.
App Store support gives the Apple TV another ace card. You can play games on it. Either using the supplied Siri remote control (with a touch surface), or by buying an optional games controller. Although at £40 this takes the overal cost of the Apple TV into games console territory. Much as we love the Apple TV, it's not as effective for gamers as a similar priced Xbox One or PS4 console.
The Siri remote control enables you to chat to your television. Reqeusting programs from supporting apps, such as Netflix.
Finally can also access iTunes to rent, buy and stream any movies, music or content you have bought from the iTunes Store. This content can be streamed, along with your iTunes Match music, directly from Apple to the Apple TV.
With the fifth-generation the Apple TV will finally support 4K video playback, as well as HDR.
What is the Google Chromecast Ultra?
Google Chromecast is a round HDMI dongle that plugs directly into the HDMI socket on a television. You connect the Chromcast to your local Wi-Fi working using an iOS or Android app available on the app store. The Chromecast is USB-powered so you can connect it to a USB connection on your television, or use the supplied USB Power Adaptor to plug it into the mains.
Once it is set up you can use it to stream video, music and other content from supporting providers to the television screen. A supporting internet service integrates Chromecast code into its apps, and a Chromecast button will appear (alongside the AirPlay button on iOS devices).
One tap of this Chromecast button in an apps, and the Chromecast device starts streaming the content from the service provider to the television. Unlike the iPhone, the Chromecast Ultra does not stream the content from the iPhone, or iPad (or Android device). Instead, it streams the media directly from the internet.
The Chromecast Ultra has faster innards than the Chromecast it replaces, so it responds slightly faster. More importantly, it has support for 4K video streaming from compatible sources. It's slightly more expensive than the regular Chromecast 2 (which does not support 4K).
There is no remote control and you control the Chromecast dongle from your iPhone or iPad (or an Android device). In key apps, such as YouTube and BBC iPlayer, you tap the new Chromecast icon and the video continues playing on your television. Chromecast has been available in the US for a while now, and Google has a SDK (Software Development Kit) available so other app developers can integrate the Chromecast button into their apps: BBC iPlayer, YouTube and Netflix are big hitters..
Alongside this is a plug-in for Chrome on the Dekstop called Chrome Cast. With this installed in Mac OS X you can stream any web tab from a Chrome browser to the Chromecast. This enables you to stream content from any other web-based video service. We found it even worked with ITV Player, which is currently locked on the iPad and iPhone.
How to set up Apple TV
Getting the Apple TV up and running is remarkably simple. Here are the steps:
- Plug in a HDMI cable (you'll need to buy one separately).
- Use the Apple TV remote to click on English.
- Select your Wi-Fi network.
- Enter your Wi-Fi password.
You can also use the Remote App (available from the App Store) to enter the Wi-Fi password. It will connect to the Apple TV that is in Setup Mode via Bluetooth and you can use the iPhone or iPad’s on-screen keyboard to enter the Wi-Fi password.
How to set up Google Chromecast
Inside the Google Chromecast UK box you find the Chromecast dongle, a HDMI cable extender (in case the dongle does not fit into the television), a USB power cable and a UK power adaptor.
We tested out setting up the Chromecast using an iPhone. The process was not as straightforward as the Apple TV (but certainly not difficult):
- Plug the USB cable into the back of the Chromecast and plug it into the mains adaptor.
- Plug the Chromecast dongle into the television using the HDMI cable.
- Visit www.chromecast.com/setup on the iPhone’s web browser to download the Chromecast app from the app store (or click this App Store Link).
- Click Accept and wait for the app to scan and locate your Chromecast.
- Tap on Set Up A New Chromecast.
- Tap on Home > Settings > WiFi and tap on Chromecast to select it.
- Return to the Chromecast app (it should say We Found a New Chromecast). Tap on Next.
- Select your Country (you should tap United Kingdom).
- Pick a name (it will be Chromecast with some numbers after it). Tap Next.
- Tap Choose a Wi-Fi network and tap on your Wi-Fi network in the Select Network screen.
- Enter your Wi-Fi network password and tap Set Up.
So, not as simple. But certainly not beyond the technical limit of the average beginner. It’s the same system that lots of Apple AirPlay speakers use to connect to the local network: they broadcast a public network to a corresponding app, which you then use to add your Wi-Fi router and password information to the device. This then enables the device to connect to the Wi-Fi router. Google makes a good job of making this as easy as possible, but we still don’t think this is simple enough for some consumers who just want a plug and play solution.
Set-up is absolutely a score one for the Apple TV. Having its own integrated remote enables it users to set it up without having to download an app, or go through a complex procedure with Wi-Fi networks. Even if entering your Wi-Fi password using the Apple TV remote control is a long-winded and clunky process, it’s at least straightforward.
Apple TV vs Google Chromecast Ultra: Playing video
To play video on the Apple TV you click on the AirPlay icon and select the Apple TV. Here is how to play a video in the YouTube app
- Open YouTube and select a video
- Tap the AirPlay icon
- Choose the Apple TV
The Chromecast doesn't work on the iPhone at the system level, like AirPlay but can stream video using an app that features Chromecast, like YouTube. When using the YouTube app on the iPhone follow these steps:
- Open YouTube and select a video.
- Tap Chromecast icon.
- Choose your Chromecast from the list at the bottom.
As you can see the steps are the same. Indeed in a supporting app like YouTube there really is very little surface difference between the two different services. The only key difference is that with AirPlay the content is streamed via your iPhone, whereas with Chromecast is is streamed directly from the Internet.
Apple TV vs Google Chromecast Ultra: Playing iPlayer content
It’s largely the same story on app when using BBC iPlayer on the iPhone or iPad. When playing a video you will see the AirPlay icon at the bottom (to the left of More) and the Chromecast at the top (to the right of the 'S' for subtitles). Tap on the corresponding icon and choose your device to start streaming content. On Netflix you also tap either the AirPlay or Chromcast icon.
Apple TV vs Google Chromecast Ultra: Playing iTunes videos
Where things get a little trickier for iPhone owners is if you want to stream content that you have purchased from Apple, or synced to your iPhone using iTunes and the Videos app. This can be streamed to Apple TV, again at a tap of a button, but it cannot be sent to Chromecast. This is because Videos on the iPhone is an Apple app, and Apple is unlikely to integrate Chromecast support at any point.
Apple TV vs Google Chromecast Ultra: Playing music
Streaming music from your iPhone to an Apple TV or Chromecast is also an area of division. On the Apple TV it’s easy to stream music to an Apple TV using the AirPlay button found in Control Centre:
Open the Music App and choose a song.
Swipe up to open Control Centre.
Tap AirPlay and Choose Apple TV.
As with the Videos app there is no way to stream your iTunes music from the iPhone to Chromecast. Instead you have to first copy your music from iTunes to Google Play and use the Google Play Music App. This can tell the Chromecast to play music from Google Play Music. On the upside, Google makes it easy to sync your music to its Google Play service and Google Play is a good service to have up and running. If you install the music manager from Google (Download Link here) it will automatically scan your iTunes library and send it to Google’s cloud server, from here you can play your music from any web browser or using the Google Play app for iPhone. Google Play Music acts a lot like iTunes Match, but is a free service. There is also a paid-for Spotify-type option (£9.99) per month that enables you to stream any track.
You can also use the Chromecast button to send your music from the Google Cloud to the Chromecast device. We're not sure if having to switch everything from iTunes to Google Play Music is something we'd really want to do, though, if we're going to move away from iTunes it'd be more likely that we'd go to Spotify. And Spotify doesn't support Chromecast (yet) but you can use it with the Apple TV via AirPlay in Control Centre.
Apple TV vs Google Chromecast Ultra: Viewing photos
This one is pretty simply. You can send Photos from your iPhone to your Apple TV. Open Photos and tap on Share > AirPlay > Apple TV to view the photo on the television. Of course there is no Chromecast button inside Apple’s Photos app so there is no simple way to share photos using Chromecast.
There seems to be no straightforward way to send any of your photos to Chromecast. We would have thought that Google+ would be an obvious place for Google to integrate photo streaming, but apparently not. This isn’t just an iOS issue, we fired up an Android phone and the Photos app on Android didn’t show support for Chromecast. Maybe Google is focussing on movies and music instead of photos, but photo streaming does strike us as an odd omission.
Apple TV vs Google Chromecast Ultra: Apps and mirroring
Developer support for Chromecast is mounting and there are already small names like Art Kick along with big hitters like Netflix and BBC iPlayer. But there are also big names missing from Chromecast support, like LoveFilm. So with the Chromecast you will find yourself using iPlayer, YouTube and Google Play Music on a cycle, whereas with an Apple TV you have vastly more choice available.
The iPad and iPhone has built in support at the iOS level for all apps, and you can mirror the entire display to the Apple TV. So pretty much every app you use on the iPhone or iPad can be streamed to the television. There are a few exceptions, notably ITV Player cannot be streamed to the Apple TV, but this is because ITV has chosen not to support AirPlay so it’s online service doesn’t interfere with its television service. Beyond a few locked-down media services it’s rare that something doesn’t stream easily to the television using Apple TV.
Google has an extension called Google Cast that enables you to stream content from a Chrome web browser to a television. This enables you to stream the content of any Google Chrome tab onto a television, and we found it worked happily with services like ITV Player. You have to use it on a Mac (the extension doesn’t work in Chrome for iOS), and to be fair you can also mirror the display of a Mac on the Apple TV. But Google Cast does mean that you can stream a lot of web content to your television using Chromecast and a Mac. It may not have whole desktop mirroring, but it has the Internet, which is a large part of what you'd use anyway.
Apple TV vs Google Chromecast Ultra: Which should you buy?
It's fairly clear from a support and features point of view that the Apple TV has a considerable feature set that outperforms the Chromecast, especially now it includes 4K content. The Apple TV is better at streaming video, movies and has mirroring support for the iPhone, iPad and recent MacBooks. The Apple TV is certainly better for music and can stream photos. We also found it a lot easier to set up and use, despite Google making considerable effort to make the Wi-Fi connection aspect of its setup process as simple as possible.
But specifications aren’t everything, as we’re often keen to point out. The areas where Chromecast and Apple TV crossover, most notably in the streaming of content from services like BBC iPlayer and YouTube are almost identical. And in our experience this is the vast majority of time we spend using an Apple TV. By just focussing on these areas to the expense of other services the Chromecast is a more straightforward device. You plug it in, and it streams BBC iPlayer, YouTube and Google Play content using the iPhone apps as a remote control. That’s pretty straightforward; it’s also the most useful part of our streaming experience.
The Chromecast Ultra is considerably cheaper too, at £69, it is an £80 saving on the Apple TV and you don’t have to buy a separate HDMI cable (£15 from the Apple Store). That’s quite a lot of money really, and the Chromecast does offer great functionality for a scant price.
Whether Google is successful with the Chromecast depends on a lot of things. For our part we think the space underneath our televisions are already cluttered with boxes, and although the Chromecast isn’t a television box, as such, it’s still going to take up another HDMI space. We’d be much happier if both the Chromecast and Apple TV had HDMI passthrough so they could be connected to the television without taking up a HDMI slot already being used by a set-top box or games console.
The Chromecast is cheap enough to be an impulse purchase, whereas the Apple TV is less impulsive. But there’s no doubt that for a person invested in Apple products, the iPhone or iPad, the Apple TV is a more rounded product. But if you've put off buying an Apple TV because it's just a bit too much then the Chromecast is a good device to own.