In the fight for the living room space, Apple has been uncharacteristically behind the curve. The Apple TV launched a few years ago was described as a “hobby” for Apple, something else to give the devotees while the company focus their attentions firmly on phones and tablets. In the intervening years, Google, Roku and Amazon have all brought out their own streaming solutions each with their strengths and weaknesses but all offering a more fully-featured user experience than Apple. The sleeping giant has now woken up, however, and this past week has seen the launch of the 2015 version of the Apple TV, bringing with it a brand new UI, increased functionality and an aim to occupy the living room space just as it has dominated the zeitgeist of the mobile market for so many years now. Is it up to the task?
For a company which is known to change the look of its products every once and a while, it is somewhat of a surprise that the new Apple TV looks like its older brother – if it had been drinking. The same puck-like, minimalist appearance still reins but this time he’s a bit bigger, a little under twice as tall but still the simple, black thing which will sit under your TV with just a single light giving off its presence. It’s typically sleek, but if you want your Apple products to scream flashiness, the unit itself won’t do much for you. It’s also worth noting that the optical audio out on last generation’s model is MIA for those interested.
Starting at £129 for the 32G version and £169 for the 64G, this is in the very top end of price for media streamers but if you are an Apple fan, there is an expectation that you’ll pay more for an experience that feels unified and connected. Frankly, they could have charged more and people would still buy it. It’s worth noting that Apple’s excellent returns policy is fully in force here, if you don’t like the thing and take it back within 2 weeks, they’ll give you a refund.
The set-up experience is a breeze, the TV taking internet settings off your iPhone or iPad – although using the on-screen keyboard to enter passwords, only needed for first-time use, is a pain and considering some menus let you use your phone or iPad to enter these, it’s a puzzle that this isn’t used consistently throughout the experience.
While there is more content available on day one compared to the old Apple TV, it is fair to say that if you’re not heavily invested in the Apple ecosystem, you haven’t got much here right now. None of the catch-up TV services are available, although BBC iPlayer is in active development, and it’s safe to assume the other channels must be talking – while Netflix is there, MUBI, Amazon Prime Video and plenty others aren’t available. NFL, NHL and NBA have apps, however, with the ability to watch live games through an Apple subscription, which could prove tempting if you are so inclined.
For those interested also, the App Store and its included games are a thing Apple is trumpeting but at the moment, it’s a mixed bag. The store itself is fairly bare bones but there are apps that make interesting use of the larger screen, including AirBNB and fitness app Zona, which even goes so far as using Apple Watch to display your heart rate on-screen. If more developers can exploit multiple devices feeding into the on-screen display, we really could be looking at something incredible. In brief testing, Asphalt 8 plays well with the wireless remote controller but the frame rate occasionally dips and the loading times are a touch excessive.
Interface and Image Quality
The new Apple TV’s interface is a much more pleasing experience than the old version. The 3rd Generation unit had a functional and OK-ish looking interface but it certainly felt its age, having little in the way of the modern day Apple look and flow and instead just doing its thing with as little fuss as possible. This has changed in a variety of ways, but what immediately strikes is how nice it is to look at. A bright white background and colourful text replaces the white-on-black of the old look, while the animations between the icons and menus create a nice sense of flow that feels intuitive and, frankly, just more Apple.
Usability seems to have been Apple’s focus here and for the most part it works in spades. Correcting smaller things like the baffling way you couldn’t access subtitles without drilling into sub-menus is a welcome relief, but the most prominently advertised stuff here does turn out to be the most impressive. Siri proves to be a very useful companion – unless you are actively trying to make it stumble, you’ll likely do well out of it. It had the odd issue for me – it would not recognise my daughter’s favourite dog related cartoon, Paw Patrol, despite it being available through Netflix and my wife’s Welsh accent caused some issues, although far less than with her Android phone. These things aside, and the accent issue is a potential deal-breaker for some, you can ask it very specific queries and it’ll fly through them. Asking it to “Show Me Patrick Swayze Films From The 80s” brings up a list as does asking for “Well Reviewed Horror Films Released This Year”, which is very impressive, but it gets the basics right too: asking it to play a film you’ve bought on iTunes opens it up straight away and asking it to rewind a specific period of time is also fine. While it won’t completely remove the need for some sort of on-screen navigation, this is certainly moving in the right direction.
Universal search is also a real boon, being able to find films and TV shows and then letting you choose between any available apps you can access is fantastic. While it has been done on previous streaming devices, the sheer speed and ease of use is a real joy. The increased processing power within the unit itself means that things load a hell of a lot faster than the old Apple TV – that unit took a solid minute or so to actually start up a film at times, whereas in our tests, the wait hasn’t been longer than 10 seconds. Having fast broadband helps but even in comparison to the old unit, there’s a substantial increase in speed.
In terms of AV quality, 1080p content looks as good as any streaming service – not as good as a Blu-Ray but still perfectly good – and up to 7.1 Dolby Digital Plus is offered where available. A sticking point for many has been the lack of 4K but frankly, the content is only just getting out there and if you’ve bought a TV over the last few years, by the time you get a 4K set-up, it may be time to upgrade the Apple TV anyway.
Apple TV feels like the start of something important. With a real ease of use, speediness and elegant design, it feels like the kind of thing you can invest in and know its only going to get more fully-featured as time goes on. Getting in on day one and paying the day one price for once doesn’t feel like being a sheep – unless you plan on gaming a lot, the 64G unit is unnecessary – but like the next iteration of using the largest screen in the home. A quantum leap ahead of the first device, but maybe not the cord cutting solution so many are looking for right now.