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Apple TV (2015) review: Luxurious streaming TV at your voice's beck and call

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The Good Apple TV delivers the most polished video experience today, with speedy reactions and a familiar yet attractive interface. It has the best remote on the market. Siri voice search is excellent, and useful voice commands add unique capabilities. The selection of apps is excellent, and AirPlay can be used for unsupported apps.

The Bad Apple TV costs more than similar devices like the Roku, Amazon Fire TV and Chromecast for basically the same core functions. There's no dedicated app for Amazon or any other a la carte video service beyond iTunes.

The Bottom Line Apple TV's awesome remote and voice control make it one of the best entertainment devices, especially for anyone who already owns plenty of Apple gadgets.

8.4 Overall
  • Design 10
  • Ecosystem 9
  • Features 9
  • Performance 10
  • Value 7

Fall '17 update: Buy the 4K version instead

The Apple TV 4K is now available, and it costs only $30 or AU$40 more than the standard Apple TV, reviewed here. For just about everyone, my advice is to skip this box and pay the extra $30 for the Apple TV 4K. 

That's because $30 is a relative pittance at this price, and easily worth paying to get the new version. The Apple TV 4K will deliver better image quality to compatible TVs when streaming 4K, HDR and/or Dolby Vision TV shows and movies, all of which are becoming increasingly common on Netflix, Amazon, iTunes and elsewhere. 

Buy what if you don't own a 4K HDR TV, and don't plan on buying one anytime soon? First off, the Apple TV 4K will work fine with your current TV. It won't provide any advantages in image quality, operating speed or anything else as far as we've seen, although its better processor and graphics might provide some improvements in gaming on non-4K TVs once games are optimized to take advantage.

Second, just about every decent new TV has 4K resolution, and many of them have HDR. Next year and the year after, those technologies will become as common on TVs as 1080p HD is today, and maybe you will buy one. The Apple TV 4K will be ready for it, but the old non-4K box won't.

Unless you absolutely know you'll never own a 4K HDR TV, and you want an Apple TV, just get the 4K one. You'll thank me later.

Editors' note, Sept. 22, 2017: Aside from this section and the image below, the entirety of this review remains unchanged since its last update in October 2016. We kept it intact because it contains plenty of relevant details and other information not included in the Apple TV 4K review, but the buying advice above supersedes anything else you might read elsewhere in this review. We also removed the standard Apple TV from our list of Best Media Streamers and replaced it with the Apple TV 4K.

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Both the Apple TV 4K and the standard Apple TV will now ship with the new remote (left), which adds a white ring around the menu key.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Apple TV review continues below. 

In October 2016, Apple discontinued the inaugural version of the Apple TV, narrowing the product line to two versions of the updated Apple TV, released in 2015 (and reviewed below) -- the $149 32GB model and the $199 64GB model. (That's £129 and £169 in the UK, and AU$269 and AU$349 in Australia, respectively.) Both feature integration of Apple's app store, support for Siri voice-recognition for search and device operation, and a new remote control with a touchpad.

If you've already invested in the iTunes ecosystem of TV shows, movies, music, or games, or own an iPhone or iPad, the updated Apple TV is a very good choice as a home media streamer. Apple TV has most TV-centric streaming apps like Netflix and FXNow and 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.

Beyonsdgames and the app store, one big differentiator for Apple TV is voice functions courtesy of the Siri remote. It supports keyword and genre searches when you speak into the mic, and can get very specific. The company also has an all-new TV app that coming soon allows you to go straight to individual shows without loading the app itself (although it's missing Netflix support for now), and will soon launch single-sign on.

If you're interested in 4K and HDR video, or if you want more programming choices or access to Amazon and Vudu, however, you should check out alternatives such as Roku and Amazon Fire TV, which start as low as $30. And though Apple TV remains one of our favorite streamers, we prefer the Roku Streaming Stick overall. It costs less, has more apps (including Amazon), and nails the basics.

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.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

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 Fire TV ) 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.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

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."

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Screenshot by David Katzmaier/CNET

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.

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Screenshot by David Katzmaier/CNET

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.

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Screenshot by David Katzmaier/CNET

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."

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Screenshot by David Katzmaier/CNET

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.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

One-thumb gaming

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.

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Screenshot by David Katzmaier/CNET

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.

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Screenshot by David Katzmaier/CNET

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.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

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 compatible controller, 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.

For more observations and play testing, check out Gaming on Apple TV: First impressions and where it can go from here.

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