Apple’s fourth generation Apple TV has been on shelves for nearly two weeks now, and I’ve been testing one since it was first released. After a three year wait for new hardware (allowing the Google Chromecast and Amazon Fire TV to leapfrog past it in popularity), is Apple’s new black box worth the $149+ outlay? Here are my thoughts on that.
First, a disclaimer: I’ve been an Apple TV fan pretty much since day one. I bought three of the original boxes after their release in 2007 (two at 40GB and 160GB), and two of the much smaller third-generation versions. Four of those Apple TVs still see constant use (while one of the originals is currently shelved after suffering a hard drive failure).
That being said, I’ll try to keep this as neutral as possible.
Instead of Smaller and Cheaper, Apple TV Gets Bigger and More Expensive
Apple TV competitors–Roku and, more recently, Google and Amazon–blew past Apple TV in popularity largely because they offered hardware that was smaller and cheaper than Apple’s. In 2012, a $99 hockey puck-sized box was cutting edge, but, even after a price cut to $69, it’s nearly twice the price and gargantuan beside HDMI dongles.
The fourth generation Apple TV is bigger and considerably more expensive than the model it replaces, about 1.5 times taller and with prices ranging from $149 to $199. The size doesn’t bother me, but the price hike is unpleasant. That’s cheap compared to the 2007 original’s $399 MSRP, but this is the wrong direction and takes the new Apple TV out of contention as an impulse buy.
The new Apple TV also sticks firmly with 1080p HD video output instead of offering 4K. With Ultra HD TVs still not mainstream, 4K content relatively rare, and many households struggling with bandwidth caps, that’s not a killer decision, even though Roku and Amazon Fire TV offer it.
Siri Remote Works Reasonably Well, But…
One of the big features of the new Apple TV is the motion sensing, touchpad-equipped Siri remote. Siri voice search works well within the constraints of iTunes and supported video apps like Netflix and Hulu. There are a few hiccups (it is flummoxed by Will Ferrell, for some reason, recognizing the name but usually unable to find any of his movies). However, I stream much of our content from my own iTunes library and Siri doesn’t play there. And when required to search without Siri, you need to use the virtual keyboard, which has been transformed into a single, long line. Combined with a touch pad, which can be less precise than button clicking, and entering text is a painful chore.
As a game controller, the Siri remote works, but its small and light enough–not to mention the fact that its buttons are labelled as an A/V remote–that gaming isn’t always the best experience.
Games. And Apps!
This is the marquee feature of the new Apple TV. The CPU has been boosted to the A8 Apple used in the iPhone 6/iPhone 6 Plus, so it has the horsepower to play some pretty graphically impressive games.
The new Apple TV runs on tvOS, which in turn is based on iOS. It has a dedicated App Store, and that means everything from games to weather and shopping apps. You can already download a Plex app, if that’s your preferred media server. Developers have the option of making apps universal so they can be purchased once and used on both your iOS devices and the new Apple TV. My boys have made great use of this feature, with one hosting and playing a game on Apple TV while the other joins in over Wi-Fi, running the app on his iPod Touch.
There’s still a certain amount of novelty at play here, but the boys ignored their Xbox for the first week the new Apple TV was here and still fight over Apple TV game time–the loser gets the Xbox.
For an idea of the kind of graphics and gameplay the Apple TV is capable of, check out Oceanhorn. By the way, this game immediately showed up as a free download on the Apple TV because we’d previously purchased it for iOS. Nice…
With tvOS, everything on the new Apple TV is an app. You even download what were previously default icons on the Home screen, like Netflix or YouTube. App management is similar to iOS, so you need to keep an eye on storage (that’s where the 32GB versus 64GB decision comes into play), and you can re-arrange, delete and quit out of open apps in a manner similar to iOS.
Should You Buy the New Apple TV?
As an existing Apple TV owner, I was pretty impressed with the new box and I don’t regret buying it. However, I’m not going to replace any of my other Apple TV’s. They still do the job of streaming media perfectly and I have no burning desire to play iOS games on every TV in the house. That’s what an iPad is for…
There are still plenty of flaws with the device–the voice search glitches, that virtual keyboard, and an App Store that’s tough to browse among them. And speaking of the App Store, the selection of apps is still pretty sparse. However, all of these things can be fixed. Apple has already released the first tvOS upgrade to take care of some other bugs, and, as developers figure this thing out, I expect that App Store will start growing.
The so-so motion controller? You can already buy far superior Apple TV-compatible game controllers like the SteelSeries Nimbus.
For parents who want a media/home entertainment center, the new Apple TV may just fit the bill and, when you factor in the game-playing capability, the $149 entry price doesn’t seem so steep. Most of the games are kid-friendly titles and while Oceanhorn is $8.99, many are free to play. That alone can quickly add up to savings compared to a game console.
If you’re looking for 4K support, a smaller form factor, or the sub $50 price of HDMI sticks, the new Apple TV is not that device. If you use Amazon Prime video, you won’t get app-level support on the new Apple TV, either.
Based on Apple’s long-time presence in the living room and the extraordinary developer support it’s received for iOS devices, I would have no hesitation recommending the new Apple TV. It may not be perfect now, but it’s already getting better and I suspect that it won’t take long for tvOS updates and new App offerings to make you forget that $149 price tag.