The new fourth generation Apple TV might not be the future of television that Apple promised but it does put competing media streaming devices on notice.
With the release of the fourth generation Apple TV, Apple’s mission to control the centre of your living room experience is no longer a hobby project. The newest Apple TV, with its revamped hardware and a brand new software experience to go along with it, is more of a reboot than an annual refresh. You can still use the Apple TV to AirPlay content from your iDevices and purchase movies and TV shows from iTunes to play on your television, but now with a built-in App store, Siri Remote, and beefier horsepower onboard, you can do much, much more.
Let’s start with the hardware.
The new Apple TV retains the same hockey-puck-like design and 3.9” by 3.9” footprint of its predecessor so it should have no problem blending in with your existing home theatre setup.
The remote is also Bluetooth instead of infrared, so hiding the unit behind the television for a cleaner setup is now an option.
The box itself is a little taller than before, to accommodate the powerful internals, which include 3GB of RAM and Apple’s own snappy A8 dual-core processor — the very same chip that powered last year’s iPhone 6. It’s a significant jump up from the single-core A5 chip found in the previous model, but what really makes it sing is the revamped remote (now called Siri Remote) and the new tvOS software.
Siri Remote is a Winner
The top part of the remote is a glass touch surface and the physical buttons are positioned around the centre. There are also dual microphones for issuing voice commands to Siri, and an accelerometer and gyroscope for motion control in games. You’ll still find the Play/Pause and menu buttons, but the directional navigation buttons have been replaced with swipe gestures which works really well when combing through apps or fast-forwarding to a specific moment within a movie or TV show.
The entire touch surface is also a multi-direction click button which can be used for handy shortcuts like skipping an ad on YouTube or quickly jumping back 10 seconds within a video.
There’s a dedicated volume control which can adjust the volume of your TV or A/V receiver (AVR) via HDMI. It can also turn on/off your TV and AVR and automatically switch the input to the Apple TV, as long as your connected gear is HDMI CEC compatible. If you’re like me and have a habit of losing the TV remote, this can be a real timesaver, as long as you have the Siri remote in hand.
In practice, however, I found this feature to be hit and miss. With my particular setup, the Apple TV would either turn on my TV and AVR but not switch to the correct input, or fail to turn on the AVR entirely. Hopefully this gets ironed out in a future software update as it’s a really convenient feature when it works.
The setup process is seamless as long as you have another iDevice lying around. The Apple TV pairs with your iPad or iPhone over Bluetooth and automatically transfers across Wi-Fi passwords and iTunes account information so you don’t have to manually enter anything. Third party apps like Netflix and Stan however, still require account logins when you fire them up for the first time.
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App Store and Multitasking
Speaking of apps, there’s a wide selection available from within the App store and you can download and install as much as your storage can handle just like on your iPhone. The Apple TV’s software is called tvOS and since it shares the same codebase as iOS, you should expect to see many of the popular mobile apps crossover in due time. The home screen has the familiar grid of app icons and the slick design aesthetic is more in line with iOS.
There was already a wide variety of apps available at launch, ranging from popular accommodation resources like Airbnb and Tripadvisor, to workout apps such as Zova, through to shopping apps like Gilt.
Games make up the bulk of the App store library and I was surprised with how responsive the Siri Remote felt with games like the adventure platformer Rayman Adventures and the racer Asphalt 8. There’s even a Wii Sports knockoff called Beat Sports. If you really want to get the most out of the gaming capabilities, then you will need to invest in a dedicated game controller, which you can pair to the Apple TV via Bluetooth.
On-demand apps like Netflix, Stan, hayu, DocPlay, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, AnimeLab, TED, and Cricket Australia are now on there, and you can view your own personal library of TV shows and movies using PLEX. Of course, you can also make up for any lack of native apps by beaming the content from your iPhone or iPad to the television using AirPlay.
Aside from the app store, the other killer features of the new Apple TV are voice commands and the ability to quickly switch between recently opened apps with a simple double-click on the home button. In one scenario, I was checking accommodation options with Airbnb, bouncing between the Netflix crime drama Narcos and a tech focused podcast on YouTube, all while also popping in and out of a game session with Rayman Adventures.
Voice Commands that Actually Work
Siri is also well implemented and while she remains an unused feature on my iPhone, I found myself calling upon her services whenever I needed to find something to watch on the Apple TV. It feels quite natural too. You can say things like “Show me all the Bond movies with Daniel Craig” and then further shorten that list with “Only the good ones”. Siri will pull results from iTunes and Netflix, as well as any other app that has had Siri search support added. Another handy voice command is, at any point of a movie you can just ask “What did he say” and Siri will skip back and temporarily turn on closed captions, so you can see what you missed.
Unfortunately, you can’t use Siri to search for apps within the App store and, surprisingly, she can’t be used to play tracks from Apple Music. She also struggles when it comes to common foreign language words and names. For example, Siri was way off base with commands like “Show me movies starring Aziz Ansari”. It wasn’t until I completely butchered the name with an American accent that she finally understood who I was referring too.
Since this review was originally published, Apple has continued to enhance and expand the capabilities of the Apple TV through tvOS updates — we’re now up to tvOS version 11 — and Siri’s universal voice search now works with most of the popular streaming apps. Almost every provider of streaming video is now represented by an Apple TV app, with Foxtel Now still on the way. And if you’ve got a 4K-capable TV, Apple has released an updated version of the Apple TV to support it — though this 4th-generation, 1080p-only model still remains a current product.
The new Apple TV isn’t quite the future of television that Apple claimed, but in time it might be the only streaming box you’ll ever need. At $249 for the Apple TV 4, it’s not exactly cheap and Telstra’s Roku box currently offers a similar selection of local SVOD and catch-up services at half the price.
However, the Apple TV is light years ahead of the previous model and it also happens to have the best remote on the market. The polished software experience is also a notch above the competition and the App store has the potential to provide endless entertainment experiences once developers get accustomed to the new hardware. If you’re an Apple fan who owns a lot of TV shows, movies, and games on Apple devices already, the new Apple TV is absolutely worth the investment.