This is the new and improved Apple TV – the much-awaited fourth generation digital media player. Despite the growing multitude of other streamers that cost much less, the Apple TV has always been considered the set-top box pinnacle. A device unconvincingly described by the Cupertino-based company as a mere exercise, a engineering hobby success that other rivals could only dream to replicate with such finesse.
And the timing couldn’t have been better with the latest iPhone and iPad debuting this year, but also due to the fact it’s been over three years since the third iteration debuted and was clearly showing its age. Needless to say, the latest Apple TV has been a long time coming if you’ve mostly committed yourself to the iOS camp, but after a week of getting acquainted you get the feeling that the competition has come a long way for dominance even with the traces of genius present.
It’s Still Gorgeous
Both me and my colleague Cory Galliher (we’ll get back to him later) experienced the Apple TV differently for this review, but one thing is immediately apparent – the look remains black and follows its predecessors’ sleek styling to a tee. The top and bottom are matte while the sides are glossed, and is taller by half an inch (1.4 inches) with both width and depth unchanged at 3.9 inches. The box is just a little bigger and will fit anywhere discretely. But exterior connectivity is narrowed down to just an lone HDMI, 10/100 BaseT Ethernet, AC power, and a USB Type-C port that’s strictly limited to service and diagnostics purposes. If you’re trying to connect a basic sound bar you might be out of luck since optical audio output (TOSLINK) has been purged in favor of HDMI-capable 7.1 surround sound.
The internals are also on par with current Apple products, specifically the SoC (system on a chip) A8 dual-core 64-bit ARM processor with an integrated PowerVR 6XT GX6450 GPU. Other upgrades include Bluetooth 4.0, 802.11ac Wi-Fi (which is theoretically faster than the Ethernet port), and a noticeable RAM bump of 2 gigabytes (2048MB) from the previous 512MB. Much larger NAND storage exists in the form of either 32GB ($149) or 64GB ($199) flavors – we recommend the latter model considering the price differentiation and possibility of people loading their Apple TVs with scores of apps.
The Remote Is Also a Looker
All of this is fine and dandy but it just wouldn’t be an Apple hallmark without a radically unique method of control, and the new Siri Remote certainly earns its place on the mantle. Aesthetically, it’s a good marriage of discreetness and functionality. Making good use of its dimensions with a clickable touchpad on the matte top, which rely on natural cursor-based movements that dutifully replicates a touchscreen feel. And minimal use of actual buttons (Menu/Back, Home(TV), Siri/Microphone, Play/Pause, and a volume rocker) occupy the center portion. You’d almost forget that a remote this thin also houses a lightning charge connector, dual microphones, accelerometer/gyroscope, and a secondary IR transmitter to control the basic functions of your other AV devices.
We (mostly) agree that using the touchpad is easy enough, but tackling menus takes some getting used to with Apple’s typical attempts at minimalism. The navigation can be buttery smooth but the revelation comes with equal annoyances such as overshooting your target selection, or requiring very direct swipes for the uninitiated. The onscreen keyboard promptly illustrates how far opposite the Apple TV can go in convenience as long horizontal non-wrapping rows of characters brings typing to a crawl. It’s laborious in terms of swift execution. And finally, because the remote is so thin and sexy you will eventually lose it between your cushions, frenzied panic followed by instant sighs of relief will be had by all at some point.
Siri: The Lovable Dunce
Obviously, this makes the implementation of Siri more attractive than just tapping out letters, and works satisfactorily. Mind you, this isn’t quite the expected entity which lets you input text along with voice recognition. This incarnation of Siri is activated by holding down the corresponding button and can easily decipher most phrases you’re saying, but seems less keen on filling in the gaps when searching the iTunes stores for specific content or using shortcuts. She can handle some tasks with ease but comes off as a slightly dumber and stripped down shell of her former iOS self; essentially she can help with basic tasks once you understand how to properly ask for what you want. Ultimately she isn’t as dynamically useful as we hoped and simply exists as a minor platform companion.
The new Apple TV utilizes a modified build of iOS 9, called tvOS 9.0. The interface appears largely unchanged with only necessary tweaks for user-friendliness, with larger and more vivid icons, and performance that’s optimized to work quicker as a whole — than with just a handful of applications. If you own or ever played with an iPhone, iPad, of iPod Touch for any period of time, then the experience will be instantly familiar with the better-known functionality elements intact, just without the touchscreen.
The result is an ecosystem that’s more comprehensive. The App Store, Like before, grants you the usual choices of Hulu, FOX, NBC, YouTube, Netflix, and new additions like HBO Now and QVC; although some apps will undoubtedly be more worthwhile than others. Apple even tries to lure you into their ambitious suites of iTunes Movie, TV Shows store, and Apple Music subscriptions. Aside from that, I do appreciate the renewed focus to make this the only smart TV box many will ever need.
AirPlay Highs and Bluetooth Lows
Local streaming on the Apple TV is roughly similar to an HTPC, except you’ll need to set everything up through iTunes. On a Mac the process makes more sense but comes off rather cumbersome and redundant on PC since there’s already standard DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) available. It’s not my favorite approach since it feels like I’m jumping through hoops and is more finicky when it comes to file types not related to MP4, AAC, AIFF, or ALAC files. Fortunately, AirPlay and by extension, screen mirroring is much less of a hassle if you’ve already got your favorite music, videos, and games on your favorite iOS device.
Bluetooth is even more of a compromise. Remember how the previous iterations of the Apple TV could play nice with wireless keyboards? Well, it’s a no-go here.
I held out hope since my initial pairing did recognize my portable Wacom keyboard as a general device, but I quickly learned that it was a fluke since Bluetooth keyboards aren’t supported at all; not even the Apple’s own Wireless Keyboard can be used, adding to the triviality. Ironically, other things such as headsets (JBL Synchros E50BT) and game controllers (SteelSeries Stratus and SteelSeries Nimbus) had no problem connecting.
A Eventual Promise of Gaming
One of the more anticipated features would be the ability to play games, although not the absolute reason to buy an Apple TV. The selection was relatively sparse except for a few titles like Oceanhorn, Asphalt 8: Airborne, BADLAND (these either play fine by themselves or can be supplemented with a MFi controller), and the frogger-inspired, Crossy Road. However, it’s worth noting that many promises were made that haven’t panned out during its launch – I’m less single-minded and predicted some setbacks, but our resident game reviewer Cory Galliher has his own first-hand impressions and personal opinions of the Apple TV’s gaming credentials.
Depending on your preferences – or prejudices – the refreshed Apple TV continues as one of the more versatile entertainment devices around, especially if you’ve fully dedicated yourself to the Apple world and not just one or two aspects. The UI is neater and still comparatively robust against the likes of Roku and Amazon Fire TV, but it’s impossible to ignore that the competition has done a lot to catch up, or exceed, the king in other areas. It doesn’t do 4K UHD resolution natively, and currently lacks the endearing niche appeal of Android boxes.
It’s still a significant jump but the fourth generation definitely needs more time to grow, and a lot of effort behind it to reach its real potential.