When the updated Apple TV box was first introduced in October 2015, it immediately distinguished itself as the most luxurious streamer available. From its extraslick touchpad remote to its polished interface to, yes, its higher price, it made the Rokus and Amazon Fire TVs of the world seem a bit clunkier. These devices all do pretty much the same thing -- let you watch apps like Netflix, Hulu and WatchESPN -- but the Apple TV makes everything smoother.
Since then Apple has added a bunch more apps, rolled out some minor tweaks to ease pain points, and doubled down on voice commands and tricks, another feature that helps Apple stand out. The Apple TV has improved in small steps, but they add up to a more refined streaming experience overall.
The most obvious change is overnight explosion of Apple TV apps. In half a year the store has expanded to more than 5,000 apps and games, outpacing Roku and Amazon Fire TV despite their years-long head starts. Of course many of those apps were originally designed for iPhones and iPads, recast with more or less extensive changes onto the big screen.
Apple TV has most TV-centric streaming apps like Netflix and FXNow, although the selection on Roku and Amazon is better, especially if you're not heavily invested in Apple content. iTunes is still the only service on the box that allows you to buy first-run TV shows and movies -- competitors like Amazon Video (including Prime), Vudu and Google Play Movies and TV are shut out.
Siri's search has expanded to cover more services like PBS, and the list of tricks is growing. And performing text searches, sign-ins and other menial tasks are helped by voice, and made easier with no-brainer additions found on competing devices, like using your phone for text entry.
A bit past its half-year birthday, Apple TV is still one of our favorite streamers. We like the Roku Streaming Stick better overall, however, because it costs one-third as much, has better app access, and nails the basics. The Apple TV has yet to offer anything irresistible to convince those who aren't "Apple people" to pay up and make it their primary streamer.
Maybe that will change with announcements made at WWDC in June, when Apple promises to address tvOS, the box's operating system, with app developers. But the big killer feature, a rumored Apple TV service along the lines of Sling TV and PlayStation Vue, seems pretty far off.
In the meantime the Apple TV remains a great choice for devotees of Cupertino, while most everyday users of streaming services, especially Amazon Prime Video, will want to investigate alternatives.
Pricing information: The 2015 Apple TV comes in in two versions: $149 for the 32GB model, and $199 for the 64GB model. The, first released in 2012, remains on sale at $69, £59 and AU$109. In the UK, the new model costs £129 for the 32GB and £169 for 64GB, while in Australia they cost AU$269 and AU$349. For most people I recommend the 32GB version. See "A choice of sizes: 32GB vs. 64GB" below for details.
Editors' notes: This review has been updated to account for changes in the competitive landscape since it was first published in October 2015. Major changes include features added as part of tvOS version 9.2, new apps and comparisons to other products.
Also, please note that this review refers to the US version. Some details, in particular available video-streaming apps, will vary in different territories. Check out our separate review of the UK version for more details.
So what's new?
If you're familiar with Apple TV, you might want a simple list of the improvements and changes made since launch. Here ya go.
- More apps, "more than 5,000" as of May 2016 according to Apple
- Siri voice search enabled across more movie and TV apps, including PBS, Disney channels and Starz
- Siri voice support for Apple Music and App Store
- Live tune-in, to ask Siri to go directly to a live channel inside supported live TV apps like Watch ESPN and CBS All Access
- Dictation to use voice to enter text on screen
- Support for Bluetooth keyboards
- Folder support for apps
- Podcast app
- iCloud Photo Library and Live Photos
- Conference Room Display, to lock Apple TV in business and education environments
- Additional Siri language support: Siri now understands Spanish in the US and French in Canada. If English is the language that you use for Siri and you live in Australia, Canada, the UK or the US, you can choose Australian English, UK English or US English.
One of the biggest gripes at launch was the difficulty of entering information into text boxes like Search on the app store, the search app itself, and worst of all, the usernames and passwords required to authenticate accounts on apps like Netflix, Hulu, Watch ESPN and the rest.
At first, the only option was to use the on-screen keyboard. I actually find it faster than most others, thanks to the swipe-friendly horizontal layout and snappy remote, and it often only requires a couple of letters before surfacing relevant results, but it does take some getting used to.
With a March 2016 software update Apple has introduced some alternatives. My favorite for entering password info is to use the Remote app for iOS devices, which allows you to use your Apple phone or tablet's onscreen keyboard (Pro tip: copy and paste complex passwords from a locker like LastPass, or another source, to Remote). You can also connect a Bluetooth keyboard.
There's also the ability to dictate individual letters, numbers and even symbols into the mic. This feature sounds cool, but didn't really work well in my experience. No matter how clearly I spoke, the results always seemed to miss a letter or two, or it would otherwise misinterpret my dictation. I recommend sticking with the Remote app.
I go through and test many of the other improvements in the review below.
Same black brick, different feel altogether
Compared to the old device, Apple didn't break the physical mold. Glossy edges, rounded corners, a matte top with the requisite logo -- the two small black boxes look basically identical. The new one is 0.4 inch taller, weighs 5.4 ounces more, and felt like a solid brick when I pulled it out of the box.
In every important way however, the 2015 Apple TV feels better than the original to use. It starts with the remote. It has a touchpad, a few more buttons and a familiar mic icon to evoke Siri, the name for Apple's disembodied female voice assistant (DFVA). Unlike Siri on a phone (or Alexa, the DFVA on Amazon's Echo and ) Siri has no actual voice on Apple TV. Her replies are limited to words and visuals that appear on the screen, but she usually responds accurately and can perform some useful tricks.
The remote's touchpad is sensitive and fast, with just the right amount of friction, and the perfect size for one-thumb operation. It took a second to realize I had to click it to select anything, rather than just tap, but immediately afterward I was blowing through menus, zooming across thumbnails, and navigating quicker than with any plodding, click-based control. The menus let you choose a tracking speed. As someone who loves living dangerously, I chose "fast."
And those menus are great. A clean, white canvas to fill with the app icons you know from your phone, the Apple TV home page allows nearly full customization. One of the first things I did after installing everything I wanted was to move Netflix, Hulu and HBO to the top row, along with Disney Junior for the kids, and move iTunes down a few rows since I don't buy many TV shows and movies from Apple. The top-row app you select expands above to show content within (as chosen by the app itself).
You can also group different apps into folders and name them anything you want. The process is quick and painless, especially if you use voice to name them. Just tap the mic button and speak.
The old Apple TV came with numerous screen savers which appear after a period of inactivity. On the new one, for now, you just have a choice of your own photos or something called Aerial (above). Trust me, you should go with Aerial. It's a stunning collection of cityscapes, landscapes and landmarks shot in slow motion, and looks so good you might feel reluctant to ever turn your TV off.
Exploring the app store on a 65-inch screen
To fill Apple TV's white canvas you'll head to the app store, which feels a lot like the store on an iPhone or iPad, with bigger icons. One issue with Apple's app stores is wrestling with the sheer number of apps, and the problem rears its head on the Apple TV too.
Apple has improved organization of the store since launch, adding the ability to search by voice for example, and it's relatively well-organized given how many apps are available. At the top is where you'll find the main tabs for browsing new apps.
TV-centric apps predominate in the Featured tab, but other categories are appearing all the time. Some are devoted to games, apps for kids, sports and news, and some get Apple's further approval in categories like "New Apps We Love" and "Games with Intuitive Controls."
The Top Charts tab is next, with the most popular Paid, Free and Grossing apps (the latter, sadly, refers to money made, not fart and burp apps). The Categories tab, similar to "Explore" on the mobile app store, breaks apps down into "Games," "Education" and "Entertainment."
The Purchased tab lists all of the apps you've installed on other devices that are also compatible with Apple TV. You download and install them individually, picking and choosing which ones you like (although I did wish for a big "Install all" button). In most cases, if you've already paid for the app or game, it will be available for free on the Apple TV too -- but the decision to grandfather earlier purchases or charge you again is left up to each app's publisher.
Finally, the Search tab shows trending apps and allows you to find more via keyword, whether typed in or via voice.
The first thing to know about gaming on the Apple TV is that you can always use the included remote; you don't need to buy a separate controller. The second thing is that with many games, a controller simply works better.
Most of the titles I played worked fine with the included touchpad remote, and there's something to be said about gaming with one thumb. I easily could hold my infant son while I played Crossy Road, for example.
That addictive chicken-smasher, with its simple controls and graphics, played beautifully and looked great on the big screen. So did JetPack Joyride and Bandland, both of which mainly consist of timed jumping. Slightly more complex controls worked well at times, for example steering on Does Not Commute (tapping either side of the pad) or swinging a bat with Beat Sports (swiping to move a bit, and swinging the controller like a Nintendo Wii). Where the touchpad controller failed for me was with quick movements requiring precise directions, like flying the ship in Geometry Wars, or directing the character to move across the map or attack something in Oceanhorn and Transistor.
One of the titles with the most complex controls at launch is Galaxy on Fire: Manticore Rising (above). A space-based arcade shooter, it incorporates the remote's position as well as swipes and clicks on the touchpad. It played surprisingly well considering all that, and again, required just one hand.
Two of the driving games, Asphalt 8 and Beach Buggy Racing, required me to put down my kid and hold the controller horizontally, like a steering wheel. Both were pretty forgiving and fun, but I definitely missed the precision of the controller.
I tried most of those games with a, the Steel Series Stratus XL, and in most cases I found it more precise and responsive. But for casual games and quick one-off entertainment jaunts, it's pretty great to just pick up the remote and click.
Graphics, for what these games are, looked very impressive across the board. Even simple games like Crossy Road have been tuned up for the big screen, and higher-end titles like Galaxy on Fire and Transistor looked particularly good.