It is no secret that Apple knows its way around a pitch. So accomplished is its rhetoric that every launch may as well promise the moon on a stick. That’s fair enough, because the folks at Cupertino are often close to the mark – as their recent What Hi-Fi? Award-winning iPhone 6S and iPads would attest.
That makes the Apple TV of 2015, officially in its fourth generation, something of an incongruity. Some new features suggest an ability – a willingness, even – to adapt to a shifting media streamer market. Sadly, it soon becomes apparent the company has once again refused to follow the trend. Rivals such as the Roku 2 (£70), Roku 3 (£100) and Amazon Fire TV (£80) are cheaper and better specified.
The latter has 4K Ultra HD capability which the Apple TV does not. And with the recent addition of Amazon Video, the Roku streamers now have all the major on-demand and subscription video services in one box.
What does that mean for you? It means an aesthetically superior yet technically inferior product, with a heavy emphasis on Apple devotees and a price tag only they will find reasonable.
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Design and build
By now it can hardly come as a surprise that Apple has made a pretty thing, but we’re not talking about the box itself, which retains its predecessor’s matte top and glossy sides while gaining 12mm in height.
Instead it’s all eyes on the new 'Siri' remote control. We are quite accustomed to tacky plastic but Apple is having none of that. This is a stunning Bluetooth-connected wand with an anodised aluminium body and a glass face. Just imagine fondling a small iPod and you won’t be far off.
Part of the glass face is frosted – that’s the touch pad, which lets you swipe your way through menus. Then there’s the new microphone button, used in conjunction with the microphone at the top of the remote. This is where Siri voice control comes in.
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Let’s plug in. You’ll need a power lead (included) and an HDMI cable (not included). An ethernet is optional as wi-fi is integrated. The new Apple TV has lost the digital optical output (slightly annoying if you wanted to feed audio into an external DAC) and gained a USB-C port that is only for ‘service and support’.
There are two paths for setup. The cool way is to activate Bluetooth on an iPhone, iPod or iPad running iOS 9.1 and plonk it next to the Apple TV. The two will have a chat and the Apple TV will copy your network and account details. You’ll be good to go in seconds.
The alternative is to key in all your numbers and passwords the old way, but this proves frustrating on the new touchpad, which is fine with broad strokes but doesn’t have the precision we'd like.
We should note that some people, ourselves included, have had problems getting set up with routers running 5GHz wi-fi with certain BT routers. We got round this by first setting up using a 2.4GHz router at a friend’s house, after which 5GHz routers work just fine.
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The new tvOS interface is not a huge departure from what we saw on the last Apple TV. Colourful tiles dominate the screen. A carousel of larger tiles permanently sits at the top of the page, dedicated to displaying iTunes content.
Some things never change, and Apple still steers you towards iTunes. Whether you’re looking for films, TV shows or music, you’re rarely more than a couple of clicks away from buying or renting something.
If you’ve majorly bought into the iTunes system, this will be great news for you. The same goes for AirPlay and Home Sharing, which let you stream from a phone or computer – as long as you’re using an iOS or Mac device, or a computer running iTunes.
It’s business as usual for Apple, apparently. So what’s new? The biggest addition is the app store, where you can browse and download apps. It is a huge departure from the old system, where Apple gave you a limited selection of its own choosing.
Does this put Apple on par with Roku and Amazon Fire devices? Not really, because the selection is currently limited. The 32GB base model should be plenty, the more expensive 64GB model, perhaps overkill.
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In the UK, the highlights are Netflix, Now TV and Vimeo. BBC iPlayer and All 4 are yet to appear (the BBC has confirmed it is working on an iPlayer app for Apple TV), and we won’t hold our breath for Amazon Video. Thankfully, there is also the Plex app, which lets you stream videos, music and photos stored on a networked computer or NAS drive.
The app store also has games, although nobody will see the Apple TV as a legitimate threat to the likes of PlayStation and Xbox. Most of these are simple affairs designed to work with the Siri Remote alone, using its touchpad and built-in motion sensors.
To avoid finger cramps you’ll want to invest in a third party Bluetooth gamepad. It is definitely needed for a few of the more complex titles such as racing game Asphalt 8.
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The voice control element is a very welcome addition. Apple has basically lifted Siri the voice assistant from iOS devices, only now it no longer talks – it only responds by on-screen text.
Voice recognition is highly accurate – even when we mumbled ‘Chiwetel Ejiofor’, Siri understood and brought up the actor’s films. Then we asked about the weather and Siri accurately warned us about going outside. Siri does draw the line at playing you music, however, which seems odd given all the hoopla over Apple Music.
Just video, then, and we next searched for ‘Fargo’, leading to results from Netflix as well as iTunes. It is rare to see a streaming box perform a search across different services – Amazon Fire TV may have voice search but it will only search its own catalogue.
We feel the need to highlight the function’s benefits, because otherwise searching on the Apple TV is a massive pain. We’ve already mentioned the touchpad’s lack of precision, and it doesn’t help that somebody thought it a good idea to put all the letters in a single long line, which means a lot of extra scrolling.
The app store is awkward to navigate, too – you can see your purchased apps and ‘top paid apps’ and ‘top free apps’, but there’s no way to browse by category. That means, for some reason, you’ll be looking at ‘Fantastic Fireplace’ in the same gaze as ‘Now TV’.
Apple does just fine when it comes to audio/visual performance, and the Apple TV is no different. Video goes up to 1080p at 60Hz, as long as your internet speed is half decent.
Netflix performance is on par with other streaming boxes we’ve tried at Full HD. There’s plenty of detail, colours are rich, and contrast is solid.
As is usual with streaming it’s not quite up to Blu-ray standards of subtlety, but it’s competitive. There is no 4K, however, which gives the Amazon Fire TV the edge.
See our Apple Music review
As for sound, the Apple TV supports Dolby Digital 7.1. Whether you actually get 7.1 depends on the content you’re watching, and the service you’re watching it on. We found the sound to be clear, solid and agile.
Make sure to keep the ‘Reduce Loud Sounds’ mode off – this flattens the dynamics in an attempt to avoid waking up the neighbours. If you’re really worried about making noise, grab a pair of Bluetooth headphones.
The Award-winning B&W P5 Wireless sounded a little more compressed than we’d like, but it’s more than serviceable if the alternative is an angry housemate.
Is that it? That’s what we keep asking the latest Apple TV. We find ourselves frustrated and disappointed. It adds very little to the core streaming box experience that we’ve seen elsewhere.
Taken in isolation, the new Apple TV is lovely. Had it arrived on the scene two or three years ago, we would have fawned all over it. But this is 2015, and streaming boxes already on the market are offering a lot more for a lot less.
The Apple TV is barely a challenge to its £60 predecessor, let alone rivals from Roku and Amazon.
The future of television? Sorry, no banana.
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