Apple TV review: new set-top box's redesigned interface gets the details exactly right

4K is noticeably lacking, and the App Store isn't yet as full as it could be — but Apple's new TV unit puts it on the way to living room domination

David Phelan
Thursday 29 October 2015 02:14
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Apple TV - Explained

The latest version of Apple’s TV streaming box is out this week. The Independent was the first UK publication to test the new Apple TV. I’ve been using it for around a week now.

Visually, it’s just a taller version of the current box, that is, a foreshortened cube with four-inch sides apart from its height which is 1.4 inches. And being an Apple product, it has rounded corners. So it’s still tiny and easily squirrelled away so nobody will notice it. Though actually, it’s glossy and attractive, so you may want it on view.

Which brings us to the first operational improvement: the remote control doesn’t need line of sight to work it so you can hide it from view completely or at least not worry if the dog’s lying in front of it.

Setting it up

Set-up, at least on the relatively new TV I used, was swift and painless. Plugging the box into the mains and then by HDMI cable to the TV was the toughest part. This turned the TV on automatically and tuned to the correct HDMI channel. Pairing the remote took a few seconds and then I entered my Apple ID.

And that was it. Previously purchased movies and TV shows were there ready to be streamed again. In fact, if you have an iPhone to hand, for instance, you can input your Apple ID on that and it’ll save even more set-up time.

The remote has a rechargeable battery built in and a Lightning socket – the same as on the iPhone and iPad – with which to recharge it. Apple says it’ll last months between charges.

New remote with added Siri

The simple aluminium remote of the previous Apple TV has been replaced by a glass and aluminium model. There aren’t many buttons, and the volume rocker means you rarely need to pick up the TV remote at all.

Instead of the doughnut direction pad from the last version, there’s a matte glass touchscreen to whiz through screens. You click this touchscreen to select an option. It takes getting used to, especially when you are picking letters to enter your password where it’s easy to overshoot.

But there’s much less tapping to be done than before because searching for a film title, for instance, is now done by Siri, Apple’s voice-recognition system. Press and hold the microphone button and speak to give Siri commands. It’s different from the iPhone where you press and release the home button.

The remote has two microphones, one to pick up your voice and the other on the back to listen to, and nullify, other noises in the room so you don't have to hold the remote right up to your face. In practice it works beautifully. I have hardly ever had to repeat what I was saying and mostly Siri has understood accurately.

Siri can tell you the time in New York, the weather in London and some sports results, all without leaving the programme you’re watching. Siri understands commands like “Jump forward 20 minutes” as well, though you can also use the touch-surface to scroll ahead with a picture-in-picture view of where you’ll end up.

Searching for movies or shows is also well done and Siri looks across multiple platforms. So if you’re a Netflix subscriber and the movie is there as well as on iTunes, it’ll show both options, prioritising Netflix on the basis that’s the one included in your subscription while the iTunes one will be to pay for.

Siri’s knowledge is impressive, so you can choose the Friends episode with Brad Pitt guesting, for instance. Some searches defeated it, like my request for Spanish movies, but asking for Pedro Almodovar delivered a bunch of suitable choices.

Getting the interface details right

This Apple TV does much more than previous models thanks to the tvOS interface which is gorgeous and responsive. As you navigate to a particular movie, say, it flexes on the spot so you know where you are.

The interface is the slickest I’ve seen on a TV box, beating Amazon’s Fire TV and Android versions for looks and ease of use

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In fact, look closely and you’ll see that a movie image looks almost 3D – as it moves it appears layered, like one of those special edition DVDs with a moulded 3D cover, or the parallax view on the iPhone. It looks fantastic. This is only a detail, of course, but it’s a cute one.

Getting the details right is something Apple is known for and it’s certainly the case here. For instance, there are the screen savers. These are big, aerial shots of places such as London, San Farancisco or the Great Wall of China. They are sumptuous, gorgeous images which are actually slow-motion videos shot on drones. And if you’re watching in the evening, you’ll see a night-time version. You can, by the way, still opt for your own photos in the screen saver instead.

Double-clicking the Home button on the remote shows recent apps so you can choose one, or swipe up to force quit it.

Or, and this is my favourite detail of all, if you miss a line of dialogue in a movie, you can press the microphone button and ask “What did they say?”. In response, the box rewinds to play the last 10 seconds while temporarily showing the subtitles. Genius.

Overall, the interface is the slickest I’ve seen on a TV box, beating Amazon’s Fire TV and Android versions for looks and ease of use. It’s as immersive as LG’s webOS, found on the company’s latest TVs.

Apps

As well as movies and TV shows, there are apps here, which Apple CEO Tim Cook says are the future of TV. True, the last box had a few, so you could watch Netflix, Sky News and so on. But the plan this time is that you’ll be able to use Apple TV as a games machine, a way to view properties on Airbnb and lots more.

There are hundreds of apps already and you can expect a torrent to flood onto the app market. Unlike the last box, where channels were added automatically, here you choose which ones to download. These include big-screen versions of popular iOS games such as Crossy Road. This is the one where you navigate a chicken across roads, rail tracks and rivers (though the question of why it’s crossing is never fully answered). It’s great fun and here adds a two-player mode – maybe that’s the answer, to push your rival under an oncoming truck.

Or there’s the endless running game, Jetpack Joyride, which looks great on the big screen. Does Not Commute, the game where you must steer vehicles through increasingly complicated urban landscapes so they never crash into each other, works very well.

Expect wholly new games to arrive in numbers and in the future developers will doubtless build their game to run on iPhone, iPad and Apple TV so that you only have to buy it once.

Some games make use of the remote’s motion sensor, turning the Apple TV into a Nintendo Wii. If you’re worried the remote might fly out of your hand, there’s a separately-sold wrist loop which connects to the Lightning charger socket with special teeth to hold it tightly in place.

Non-gaming apps such as Airbnb exploit the extended viewing space to show rentable properties in great detail You need to book via an iOS device or Mac but choosing and saving favourites can be done on the big screen.

Shopping apps also work well: expect the already available Gilt to be joined by store-specific apps and product-searching apps. And unsurprisingly this box is Apple Music-compatible so you can play tracks through your TV (best if it’s plugged into better speakers than most flatscreens manage).

4K UHD

In terms of video playback, a central plank of the box’s capabilities, the new Apple TV has one disappointing omission: 4K. As you’ll know, 4K (or Ultra HD) is the highest-definition standard in current use. You can find it on Amazon’s latest Fire TV box and Netflix has it in its native apps on some 4K TVs.

To be fair to Apple, hardly anyone has a 4K TV yet and more importantly there is very little native 4K content. Even Amazon, which is making many of its new TV programmes in 4K, only has around a dozen shows available and not many more movies.

What’s more, many people don’t have a consistent 15Mbps internet speed available to their TV, needed for 4K playback, either because the regular connection is slower or because the TV is connected by wi-fi for the last stretch, which diminishes the available speed.

It’s not like Apple to include capabilities that can’t readily be used – an earlier Apple TV delivered HD content only because that was suddenly plentiful. Even so, I expect that in the next year or so 4K content will become widespread. Price drops in 4K TVs means they’re likely to become commonplace in the near future and the imminent arrival of UHD Blu-ray discs will promote 4K further. So while I understand why it’s not there, it’s still a shame.

After all, I can shoot 4K video on an iPhone 6s, so being able to AirPlay it from the phone to the TV via Apple TV would have been good. You can play it this way but the box transmit is in HD.

Mind you, the HD content looks pristine, not least thanks to the excellent upscaling capabilities of the TV I’m testing it on (the Samsung UE55JS8500). And most 4K TVs have upscaling engines which make it hard to tell a big difference between native 4K content and upscaled HD. But there is still a difference. And it means that an app like Netflix boasts extra features on Amazon’s 4K-capable box than it does here.

If course, if you’re not planning to upgrade your TV from HD to 4K in the next few years, this will simply not be a problem.

Price

Apple’s box comes in two storage sizes. The extra space is designed for holding apps on board, especially games which tend to be hefty. But Apple has developed a system that downloads the bits of the game you need now, storing the rest in the cloud. This means shorter download times and less space used on the machine.

For most people the smaller model with 32GB storage should be enough. This costs £129, while a 64GB model is priced at £169. Both are substantially more than Amazon’s 4K-capable Fire TV box which is £79.99, though to make the most of that you need the £79 Prime annual subscription.

Verdict

The obvious things first: this is the best TV box Apple has built and the arrival of the flexible tvOS platform is likely to see another gold rush of apps to make this box extremely capable for games, shopping and much more as well as video playback.

The Siri remote manages voice control skilfully and is effortlessly enjoyable to use. The interface looks classier and more attractive than rival systems and is exceptionally user-friendly. Searching for a movie or TV show, even across multiple platforms, is seamless. It’s also a fast, responsive system.

Really the only downside to this box is the absence of 4K support. Personally I’d rather have had the option of a higher-priced 4K-compatible version. It would future-proof the box for when 4K content is common. And would mean I can watch Netflix and my iPhone 6s home movies in 4K now.

Still, I absolutely get why it’s not here, after all, for most people this won’t be an issue, so why charge us for building in technology we won’t use?

Even without 4K this is a brilliantly effective TV streamer that already works superbly. As more apps arrive it looks likely to become the most versatile and easily usable TV box around.

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