After years of rumors, a new Apple TV streaming video box is finally upon us.
CEO Tim Cook confirmed on October 19 that consumers can order the new video streamer starting October 26, and that it will begin shipping by the end of month.
The new box, still simply called "Apple TV," was unveiled at the company's September 9 event in San Francisco, sharing the stage with a new big-screen iPad and new iPhones. It's a complete overhaul of the current device, which has been around since 2012. "We believe the future of television is apps," said Cook when introducing the device.
The new Apple TV will be available in two versions: $149 for the 32GB model, and $199 for the 64GB model. The current Apple TV box, 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.
In addition to all of the apps and features on the current Apple TV, the new version adds some much-anticipated improvements, including a full-blown app store, integration with Apple's Siri voice-recognition system for search and device operation, and a new remote control with a touchpad.
Editors' note: This story was originally posted on September 9, 2015, and has been updated with additional details on availability and competitive products.
Apps and games come to Apple TV
Potentially the most important change is the introduction of a real app store, much like what Apple -- and Google, and Microsoft and others -- offer today on computers, phones and tablets.
The current Apple TV has numerous apps, but Apple adds them automatically. The new Apple TV has a dedicated app store where users can add and delete apps at will. The company also says "universal apps" are a possibility, so you could buy an app once and access it from an iPad, iPhone and the Apple TV.
The box will run a new operating system called TVOS, and Apple promises that developer tools will be similar to what already exist for Apple's mobile devices.
The company showed a few apps in its demo on stage, including Gilt, an online shopping site; a redesigned MLB.com app; Zillow; AirBNB and PlayKids. It also showed numerous games, including Guitar Hero, Disney Infinity, Crossy Road, ShadowMatic and more.
Gaming control is possible via the touchpad remote, which also offers motion control like a Nintendo Wii controller. The company didn't announce a dedicated controller, like those offered for the Amazon Fire TV and Google Nexus Player, but it does support third-party controllers. However, Apple's rules apparently require that games must work with the included remote, so it's unclear if games such as Grand Theft Auto III -- which are available on the iPad -- will be able to transition to the Apple TV.
Of course, the box also has the usual TV-centric apps like Netflix, HBO Go/Now, Showtime and Hulu, with redesigned interfaces. And of course the Apple TV devices are the only set-top units that can access movies, TV shows and music purchased through the iTunes store. Conspicuously absent from Apple's September 9 product announcement was mention of an Amazon Instant Video app. That, coupled with Amazon's subsequent pronouncement that it will no longer stock Apple or Chromecast streamers, makes it sound that Apple TV will remain an Amazon-free zone. (Current Apple TV models have a loophole: videos can be streamed from the Amazon app on iPhones and iPads to the Apple TV using the AirPlay function.)
TV talk: Voice search and control by Siri
Much like current streaming boxes including the Roku 3, Roku 4 and Amazon Fire TV, the new Apple TV will allow you to search via voice, by hitting a dedicated button and speaking into a mic on the remote control. Apple also showed expanded voice-recognition capabilities, including the ability to issue commands like "open Apple Music" or "skip forward three minutes."
More general and conversational search was featured in Apple's demo, for example the ability to respond to a phrase like "show me action movies" or "show that 'Modern Family' episode with Edward Norton." Apple also demonstrated the ability to ask "What did she say?" which causes the device to rewind briefly and turn on closed-captions.
Cross-app search is also on deck. Apple's search will plumb the libraries of iTunes, Netflix, Hulu, HBO and Showtime. It will be interesting to see if the results favor one content provider, such as iTunes, over others. Amazon's search and interface is guilty of this kind of favoritism, while Roku's is more agnostic.
Touch remote: An iPhone-like swipe at your TV
In demoing the device, Apple's Eddie Cue said: "With an iPhone you interact directly on the screen, and we wanted to bring the same connected experience to your television even though it's across the room."
To that end, the Apple TV ships with a redesigned remote that features a large, glass touchpad at the top. It's wider than the tiny silver sliver that ships with the current Apple TV but has a similarly sparse button allotment.
Apple says navigation of its interface is eased by touch, such as the ability to swipe quickly across a selection of movie thumbnails while browsing. No mention was made of Force Touch, a feedback feature found on other Apple devices, or multitouch gestures.
The new Apple TV also has a redesigned interface said to ease touch control, although at first glance its tiled arrangement seems very similar to that used by the current Apple TV (and iPhones and iPads).
The new remote works via Bluetooth so you don't have to aim it at the box. It also offers a volume control that can command TVs, an accelerometer and gyroscope and a battery that lasts three months on a single charge. (It's rechargeable via the same Lightning connector you find on other Apple gadgets.)
Compared to the clickers included with competing streaming boxes, Apple's is by far the most advanced. It's unclear whether it can replace a good universal remote, but it does have an infrared transmitter, which (in conjunction with a good app) could challenge the Logitech Harmonys of the world.
Thicker body houses more hard-core hardware
The device itself is just as unassuming as the original black "puck" and the same in every dimension except thickness. It's 0.4 inch taller and weighs 5.4 ounces more.
Around back, its connectivity is very similar. The box has an HDMI output that's capable of 1080p resolution. Unlike the Roku 4, 2015 Amazon Fire TV and Nvidia Shield, the new Apple TV does not support 4K video.
It also has a USB-C port, said to be for service only, as well as a wired Ethernet port. Unlike the current Apple TV, the new version lacks an optical digital audio output, which is a bummer for people with older audio systems that don't support HDMI.
The new Apple TV is powered by the company's dual-core A8 chip, which first appeared in the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, which is far more powerful than the current box's A5 processor, but a notch below the A9 and A9X chips in Apple's other 2015 mobile devices. That added horsepower, in addition to expanded storage (the old Apple TV had a mere 8GB of storage), should be important for the new box's shift in focus toward apps.
Hands-on with the new Apple TV
CNET's Scott Stein got to spend some time with the new Apple TV in the demo room shortly after the event in San Francisco. Here's what he found:
Apple's new Apple TV has a familiar feel, if you've used Amazon's Fire TV or Android TV. Siri's voice search reminded me of what Google and Amazon have already explored. Searching by genre or year ("show me romantic comedies from the 70s") worked great. And the new remote control is a big step up: added buttons, a comfortable top clickpad for navigation, and an accelerometer and gyro for simple motion controls in games. I played Asphalt 8 and steered reasonably well through a game, and scrolled and clicked through apps and menus.
Interface is everything. That new remote, and its functions, are the most important part of what makes this version different. I wasn't blown away, but it worked. And the new remote, while not shockingly designed, is intelligently laid out.
How good Apple TV's new apps are depends on how many are made. And gaming will depend on how controller support, and new controllers, work with Apple TV and TVOS. But the experience, and interface, feel like a welcome upgrade. Not a shocking upgrade, but a welcome one.
Five questions for the new Apple TV
There's no doubt that the new Apple TV is a formidable addition to the streaming device landscape, and at $149 it will no doubt prove immediately popular with dedicated Apple fans who have been waiting years for an upgrade.
For the rest of us, however, questions remain.
1. When will we get Apple's TV service? Apple's announcement didn't mention the company's TV service, which will supposedly deliver a handful of channels over the Internet and compete directly against cable TV. It has been rumored to arrive sometime in 2016. When it does get here, will the new Apple TV enable such features as cloud DVR or offline viewing?
2. How will games translate? Gaming on an Apple TV seems like a no-brainer, but on devices like the Amazon Fire TV and Google Nexus Player it's more like an afterthought. Whether anybody in a post-Nintendo Wii world cares about big-screen casual gaming is still an open question.
3. Will certain apps remain off-limits? The current Apple TV lacks numerous apps that are available on Apple's mobile devices, including major names like Amazon Instant Video, Sling TV, Vudu, Spotify and Pandora. Will they finally make it to the new Apple TV?
4. Will search results be transparent and customer-friendly? It's one thing to be able to ask Siri for a list of places to watch the latest Hollywood blockbuster, but if the iTunes result is prioritized over others, you could actually be wasting money by renting it. Roku's is the model we'd like to see Apple follow, presenting a list of all of the providers that carry a particular title, complete with pricing.
5. Is it worth the extra money for apps-centricity in the living room? Voice search and a swipe remote are nice, but the new Apple TV's biggest differentiator from the old version is apps. But are there any worthwhile, non-entertainment-related apps for the TV screen? Zillow, AirBNB and Gilt aren't the most inspiring beginning, but perhaps apps compatible with HomeKit or other in-home systems will make the app-happy new box more appealing.