Update: Apple TV is getting its second major update starting today, Tim Cook has announced. The latest update, tvOS 9.2, will bring improvements to the user interface like iOS-style folders for file management and Siri support for the App Store. Finally, the new update will let users access their entire iCloud photo library (including Live Photos taken with iPhone 6S and iPhone 6S Plus) instead of the limited number they had before.
Original review continues below…
If it existed in a bubble, the new 2015 Apple TV would be a stellar product. It offers a steady improvement over its three-year-stagnant predecessor – a device built for the then revolutionary new standard of 1080p – and comes with one of the most premium remotes on the market.
If there was nothing to compare it to, it’d be hard to point out the number of flaws the system has. It’s lacking native Amazon Prime Video support, for example, and Siri recognizes less than half the commands on the new Apple TV than it does on iOS, watchOS or OSX.
That’s not to mention the fact Siri is voiceless at the moment, relying on text and graphics to respond to any inquiries you might have.
The remote itself I really like, as do many of the developers I’ve spoken to about it. But it isn’t the panacea Apple marketed it as. Entering text one letter at a time for a password is tedious, and as of right now there’s no way to connect your iPhone or iPad to step in when you get tired of slogging through the long row of letters.
But that’s the snag with the new Apple TV: it’s just shy of being the product we were promised.
It might very well be one day once the system grows up, gets a few patches and more developers see the same promise in the living room they see in our pockets and tablets. But, for now, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done and the competition shows no signs of going easy.
Before we dig into the latest prodigal fruit from Apple, let’s first delve into the core of what made the original three Apple TVs worth buying.
Apple TV: What is it?
The Apple TV in question or, more precisely, what the company is calling the new Apple TV, is the fourth iteration of a “hobby project” Steve Jobs started in 2006. Jobs’ vision was to create a dead-simple entertainment hub, one that could access your media in a few simple steps.
That came to fruition in 2007 with the first Apple TV. (Apple wanted the name iTV, however the major British broadcast network of the same name threatened to take legal action should Jobs brand Apple’s new device using that moniker.)
In the time since then we’ve seen two sequels that upgraded the internal Wi-Fi antenna from 802.11b to 802.11a/b/g/n before landing on 802.11ac for the latest build. The processor has been radically changed in that time, too, starting at a 1 GHz “Dothan” Pentium M equipped with 256 MB and ending on a vastly improved 64-bit Apple A8 processor.
Yes, a lot has changed since the first Apple TV. There’s less hard drive space on the new unit, ironically, but that’s because streaming has overtaken the notion of owning content.
Speaking of hard drive space, the new Apple TV comes in two sizes and price points: The 32GB version costs $149 (£129, AU$269) while the 64GB version comes in at $199 (£169, AU$349). The only difference between the two is the amount of memory which, considering how small most streaming apps are, means the former will probably have sufficient space for years to come and offers the better value right now.
The new Apple TV is driven by apps of all shapes and sizes, not just first-party ones anymore. For the first time ever you’ll see the wealth and power of the Apple App Store in the living room, and I expect that once the system matures it will be a sight to behold.
Finally, unlike the bastardized OS of systems past, the new plastic runs a platform of its own called tvOS, a nomenclature taken from the Apple Watch’s watchOS.
What hasn’t changed is that Apple still cares first and foremost about Apple products. The new Apple TV works best with iPads, iPhones and Macs thanks to Apple AirPlay and will allow you to easily stream content from your phone or tablet to the big screen.
And while there have been steps taken to make the system feel less Apple-centric, the iTunes store stands firmly in the center of everything. Every search includes results from iTunes. Every purchase goes through iTunes. You can’t go more than five minutes without being shown some new TV show or movie that, as soon as you click on it, will bring you back into the icy-cold money-loving hands of Apple’s ecommerce magnate.
Apple TV vs the competition
If you’re entrenched in the Apple ecosystem (by which I mean you buy movies and shows from iTunes, subscribe to Apple Music and/or stick to phones and tablets running iOS), then the Apple TV will be a supremely good addition to your living room that will only improve with age.
The less of those features you care about, however, the less you’ll like the new Apple TV against the other extremely strong contenders in the streaming video space.
Apple TV vs Amazon Fire TV: The Amazon Fire TV has been a thorn in Apple’s side since its launch in 2013. It presents its own problems by restricting a good deal of content to Amazon Prime subscribers, but the most recent revamp of the system saw a huge improvement with the addition of 4K streaming.
The Fire TV is not nearly as good a game console as the Apple TV has the potential to be (or even currently is), but it does have the advantage in price – $99 (£79, about AU$140) vs the Apple TV’s $149 (£129, AU$269). All that said, if you want Amazon Prime Instant Video you’ll need to use an Apple device with AirPlay – Amazon hasn’t made a native Apple TV app for Instant Video and it’s unlikely to ever do so.
Apple TV vs Roku 4: If you’re in the US, own a 4K TV and are more concerned about streaming video content than any app or game, stop reading right now and buy a Roku 4. At $129 (about £85, AU$180) it’s about $20 cheaper than the new Apple TV and worth every cent.
The Roku 4 is the most egalitarian system of the bunch. It doesn’t care if you pick Netflix over Amazon, or Vudu over Hulu. It doesn’t want to sell you an Rdio subscription, and it could care less if you join YouTube Red. At the end of the day, all Roku’s new device cares about is getting you to the content you want through the most affordable means possible. It’s entertainment on your terms, and in my opinion the epitome of the cord-cutting movement.
Apple TV vs Android TV / Chromecast: It’s hard to compare a full-size system to Google’s pint-sized streaming disc, but if you could put the two against each other pound-for-pound, the $35 (£30, AU$49) Chromecast would probably eke out a win.
Google’s streaming stick plays nicely with both iOS and Android apps, and while it doesn’t have an interface of its own it boasts a relatively impressive app that essentially performs the function of a full streaming video box at a quarter of the price. Admittedly it’s up to developers to support the Chromecast, whereas Apple can control its own destiny for the Apple TV, plus the Siri Remote – while troublesome at times – is actually pretty svelte.