Autumn '17 update: Buy the 4K version instead
The Apple TV 4K is now available, and it costs only £30 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 optimised 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 us 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. 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. The original review follows below.
Fans of online streaming boxes -- the compact gadgets that funnel on-demand TV and movies into your telly over an Internet connection -- have long been holding out for a single device that offers access to every major service, every channel, and every programme and film you could ever want to watch.
Here in the UK, this means access to the BBC's iPlayer app, ITV's ITV Player, Channel 4's All 4, Channel 5's Demand 5, as well as Sky's subscription-based Now TV streaming service and the Sky Store app for buying movies and TV shows. Add to that list Netflix and Amazon Video, which are the most high-profile streaming services in the UK, and which each have own-brand programming that can't be found elsewhere.
At the moment, Apple's revamped, super-powered, fourth-generation Apple TV box is a quite a way from ticking all those boxes, currently bringing Brits only Netflix, iPlayer and Now TV from that lengthy list. If you're looking for a single set-top box to handle all your TV streaming, you'd be better off investigating the Roku 2 box. It can be yours for £60 -- significantly less than the Apple TV's £130 starting price -- and offers every app listed above.
Its app deficit aside, what the Apple TV does deliver is the slickest, most attractive and user-friendly set-top experience we've ever seen, with a remote that makes browsing through menus and even playing games a tactile pleasure. There's impressive voice control via Apple's personal assistant Siri, and hundreds of games and non-TV applications. It's also the only box that serves up access to the mammoth roster of movies and shows hoarded on Apple's own iTunes store -- a boon if you're fully committed to Apple's content universe.
The new Apple TV costs £129 for the 32GB and £169 for 64GB, while the 2012 model remains available for £59. For most people we recommend the 32GB version. See "A choice of sizes: 32GB vs. 64GB" below for details.
Same black brick, different feel altogether
It's been more than three and a half years since the first Apple TV went on sale, but Apple didn't break the physical mould. Glossy edges, rounded corners, a matte top with the requisite logo -- the two black boxes look basically identical. The new one is a centimetre taller, weighs 153 grams more and felt like a solid brick when I pulled it out of the box.
In every important way, the new Apple TV feels better than the old one to use. It starts with the new 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 the 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 realise I had to click it to select anything, rather than just tap, but immediately afterwards 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 look different too. A clean white canvas to fill with the app icons you know from your phone, the new Apple TV home page allows nearly full customisation, including the power to reorganise apps, moving the iTunes apps out of the way if you 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).
The old Apple TV came with numerous screen savers that 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 off your TV.
To fill the Apple TV's white canvas you'll head to the app store, which is at heart the biggest difference between the old and the new Apple TV. And again it feels a lot like the store on an iPhone or iPad, with fewer choices (for now) and bigger icons.
The Purchased tab lists all of the apps you've installed on other devices that are also compatible with the Apple TV. You download and install them individually, picking and choosing which ones you like (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 in earlier purchases or charge you again is left up to each app's publisher. You'll have to sign in individually to each app that requires it, of course, but once that happens your Apple TV will be fully armed and operational.
It also has most of the company's staples like Apple Music, Photos (which draws from your iCloud and shared photos from friends) and Computers (which can access Macs on your home network to share iTunes libraries).
TV-centric apps occupy the top rows of the app store, but other categories are appearing all the time. Some are devoted to games, apps for kids, sport, news and something called "Best New Apps", which gathers in the miscellany like Periscope, Gilt, Zillow, Airbnb, TripAdvisor, Sing Karaoke and more.
Apple has added numerous categories to the main page and hundreds of apps and games, and the flood shows no signs of abating. Already there are more than 100 that start with the letter "A". The downside, of course, is that the sheer number of apps already seems a bit overwhelming, and thick with stuff you might not care about. There are currently 15 different apps that fill your TV with a simulated fireplace, for example.
A few options exist to help stem the tide. The Top Charts tab lists the most popular Paid, Free and Grossing apps (the latter, sadly, refers to money made, not fart and burp apps). There's also a Categories tab, which filters by Games, Education, Entertainment, Health & Fitness, Lifestyle, News and Sports. Star ratings are disappointing; some apps have them, usually with an "Editors' Choice" indicator, but the majority do not, and there's no way to rate apps yourself yet.
The Search tab shows trending apps and allows you to type in keywords to find stuff, but you can't yet search for apps by voice. And since Apple's official Remote app for phones and tablets doesn't yet support the new Apple TV (only the old one), and you can't connect a Bluetooth keyboard, you'll have to use the on-screen keyboard to search.
I found it faster than most others thanks to the swipe-friendly horizontal layout and snappy remote, but it does take some getting used to. And like all on-screen keyboards it's much less convenient than using an external keyboard, especially for longer words or when entering passwords, your Apple ID and other chores.
It's still very early days, however. Apple has already expanded the categories in the App Store, and I expect the company to address many of the other issues soon. In the meantime the App Store is still perfectly useable for finding the best, most popular apps. I'm curious to see how it matures.
What can you watch on the Apple TV in the UK?
In the US version of CNET's review, David Katzmaier noted that the Apple TV was, with the exception of a missing Amazon app, able to stand alongside its rival set-top boxes in terms of video apps on offer. Sadly in the UK, the same does not apply -- at least for now.
For Brits, the Apple TV is primarily a vector for Apple's own TV and movie repository, which you access through the Movies and TV shows iTunes apps on the home screen. You'll either make one-off payments to buy programmes and films, or pay for temporary movie rentals that will expire 48 hours from when you press play.
As we mentioned in the intro to this review, non-Apple TV and movie apps are few and far between. The only app for terrestrial TV channels comes in the shape of the BBC's iPlayer app.
The iPlayer app itself is very easy to navigate, though it hasn't been as fully integrated into Apple TV as we'd have liked. There's no Siri integration, so saying, "Having I Got News for You" doesn't find the popular panel show in the iPlayer app. Apple TV also doesn't recognise programmes on iPlayer within its search function. So for instance, if you search for documentary series "The Hunt", which at the time of writing is available to view on iPlayer, you get the same series to buy on iTunes. Other apps, such as Netflix, will have their programming prioritised in Apple searches, to stop you needlessly spending cash on something you could be watching for free.
There's a very impressive Netflix app, which is slicker and easier to navigate than many Netflix apps we've seen on other smart TVs or set-top boxes. It also works well with Siri, so you can ask, for instance, "Films on Netflix with Ryan Reynolds" and Apple TV will show you a selection of the Canadian heartthrob's movies that are available to stream as part of your Netflix subscription.
One smart touch is that if you search for a movie that you've already paid for through your Netflix subscription, the Apple TV will list it first, before the iTunes version. With TV shows iTunes is always listed first, which Apple says has to do with different availability across seasons.
Sky's Now TV app does a workmanlike job of playing Sky's roster of streaming movies and TV shows, which are split into Entertainment, Movies and Sports categories, requiring separate monthly fees to access. Now TV's Apple TV app has far less polish than it does on some other platforms, however, and compared to the Now TV app you get on Roku boxes, it's less intuitive to navigate, which might explain why it has a two-star rating on Apple's App Store.
Now TV doesn't currently work very well with Siri either. While you can open the app using Siri, you can't search for Sky shows and movies using your voice. There's also no sign of the Sky Store app that you'll find on many other set-top boxes -- likely because Apple doesn't want any competition when it comes to buy-to-own digital films and TV shows.
Video quality on Netflix and Now TV apps when playing through the Apple TV isn't noticeably different to what you get on other platforms like Roku boxes or smart TV apps. Though as previously noted, Apple TV generally feels more refined when it comes to moving through menus.
If you have a decent Internet connection, apps and shows launch as quickly as I've seen on any device, and images populate in a snap. The touchpad remote lets you swing back and forth along a TV show's timeline with unprecedented speed and accuracy. Clicking one edge skips backward 10 seconds, the other forward. Swiping down from the top shows options such as subtitles and audio.
One example of a third-party developer going all-out is the new Plex app for the Apple TV, which isn't available on the old box at all. The free version allows access to TV shows, movies, videos, music and photos stored on computers or other networked devices in the home and remotely. Once you use Plex, you'll never go back to the Apple TV's Computers icon.
It worked well for the most part for me, serving up videos quickly and displaying all the in-depth information I'm used to in other Plex apps, from both in-house and remote servers. This version looks better in my opinion, however, and showed the same kind of timeline responsiveness I enjoyed elsewhere on the device. You'll need the latest version of the server software to work with the Apple TV. Plex's blog post has the details and plenty of other information and screenshots.
By the way, that top menu offers two welcome features: dynamic range control to reduce loud sounds (aka "midnight mode") and the option to send sound to other Bluetooth devices. I was able to pair a bunch of Bluetooth headphones, and turning one on automatically switched the Apple TV's audio from my speakers to the headset for private listening. It also worked with Bluetooth speakers.
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 could easily play Crossy Road without having to put down my beer, for example.
That addictive traffic-dodger, 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), exclusive to Apple TV for now. 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 only required one hand.
Not every game can be played with just one hand though. Two of the driving games, Asphalt 8 and Beach Buggy Racing, will require you to 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 the new Apple TV: First impressions and where it can go from here.
A choice of sizes: 32GB vs. 64GB
In true Apple fashion, the box comes in two otherwise identical flavours, one with 32GB and one with 64GB of onboard storage. Unlike the Amazon Fire TV, Nvidia Shield and Roku 4 with their SD card slots, there's no way to add storage yourself if you need it.
If you're really into gaming on the , then the more expensive version with twice the storage might be worthwhile. But people used to filling up their phones and tablets with photos, videos and games should realise that the Apple TV accesses photos and video via the cloud, so they don't need to be stored on the device itself.
That leaves games, and the Apple TV's operating system, TVOS, uses an aggressive storage management system. It mandates small initial downloads (just 200MB per app) augmented by "on-demand resources," little chunks of data that can be downloaded quickly and deleted at need if the device fills up. The end result is that only very heavy gamers should expect to need the 64GB version.
Siri on new Apple TV
If you don't know what you want, Siri on Apple TV is the best of the TV-based voice recognition systems available today -- though as noted previously, in the UK it works best when it comes to combing through the films and programmes available on Apple's own iTunes.
I asked her to show me something good to watch and up popped a bunch of new movies -- "Inside Out," "Mad Max: Fury Road," "The Martian," "Spy," "Boyhood," "Selma," "Birdman" and others -- under the heading "Critics say these are some of the best." They mostly made sense, although a couple were only available for preorder since they were quite new, and nearly all were only available via iTunes. Meaning I had to pay for them.
So I asked, "Show me movies I can watch for free." No dice. The 24 results, headed "I found some movies," were predominantly pay-to-play via iTunes as well. I asked Siri for free movies and the response was, "I'm sorry, I can't search by price for you." Indeed, when I asked Apple's reps whether "for free" has been built into the search interface yet, they told me it hadn't.
"Movies kids can watch" gave me relevant results too, but again I had to pay for them. So I said "Kids' movies on Netflix." Bingo! The two dozen, all pulled from Netflix, were a fine assortment, and as a Netflix subscriber, I wouldn't have to pay for any of them.
'What else can you do, Siri?'
Launching apps by saying "Netflix" or "Crossy Road" worked well. While playing a video, you can ask Siri to "turn on subtitles" and they'll appear on most apps. If you'd rather not use the touchpad to navigate a video, you can say "skip ahead 2 minutes" or whatever.
And you can ask, "What did he say?" if you miss a bit of dialogue, which sends the video back 15 seconds and, in some apps, activates subtitles that disappear after the 15 seconds. The subtitle function worked well for iTunes, but not with Netflix for example; Apple says support for this extra is rolling out to other apps soon.
You can also say, "Who stars in this?" and a list of the actors pops up while the video continues playing. Selecting one pauses playback and takes you to a full-screen page with filmography, a bio and other information; hitting Menu takes you back and resumes playback. In some apps and titles you'll get the response "Sorry, but this app hasn't told me the answer to that one." (Siri can be a bit passive-aggressive at times.)
As usual there are plenty of limits. I asked, "Show me other movies like this" while watching "Inside Out" on iTunes and the response was, "Hmmm, I couldn't find anything called 'This.'" When Jesse's touching song from "Toy Story 2" played I asked, "Who sings this?" and "What song is this?" but Siri didn't know. I asked it to "Mute" and Siri just told me to use the remote to control volume.
Siri can answer a few questions about UK sport -- but there are limits. It could tell me the date of upcoming Premier League fixtures, and who was playing for Manchester United, but not for Leeds United, for instance, because it isn't in the Premier League. When I asked who won the recent Davis Cup final, Siri gave me match results for a UC Davis vs. Utah Valley basketball game. Asking, "Who won the Rugby World Cup this year" brought up, "Sorry, I can't search the Web here."
Something for parents to note: As Siri is easy for kids to use, if young'uns or other people you'd rather not spend your money are going to operate the Apple TV, you should go into Settings and require a password for all purchases.
Apple TV's remote can control TVs and even some AV receivers. I tried plugging it directly into a couple of TVs and it controlled volume and on-off (I had to hold down the button with the TV shape) and even switched inputs to the correct one. It should work well with most models that support HDMI-CEC (a system that can pass commands over HDMI cables; it's called AnyNet by Samsung, BraviaLink by Sony, and so on).
Connected directly to an AV receiver, however, results were mixed. In one case it turned stuff off but couldn't turn it on again, and in another it turned the TV off but left the receiver turned on. To get volume control to work on a receiver I had to program it manually, although it did work well after that.
Other control options are available on the Apple TV, including learning commands, but they're pretty limited as yet. Apple is rumoured to be plotting a TV subscription service for the future, but until that lands, you'll probably continue to use your Sky box too, which Apple TV's remote doesn't do much to command. Long story short: don't chuck out your Harmony universal remote just yet.
And finally, unlike the 2015 Amazon Fire TV box, the new Apple TV does not support 4K video. Even as a pedantic tech reviewer I don't consider that a big deal, however. The range of 4K content available today is tiny, and more importantly, doesn't offer much improvement over standard streaming video. The best non-4K streams from Netflix and Amazon look pretty awesome, and in my comparisons I've found it difficult to tell the difference between them and actual 4K streams.
I'm sure the next generation of Apple TV will do 4K. And maybe TouchID on the remote.
Other apps: Pretty pictures, but better on your phone (for now)
The final thing that Apple TV can't do quite yet is replace your phone, tablet or computer for apps that aren't games, video or audio services. The initial selection of those apps includes familiar names like Zillow, Airbnb and QVC, as well as Madefire (comic books), Storehouse (a virtual photo booth) and Periscope (personal video broadcasts).
The best thing about these apps on Apple TV was seeing photos and videos blown up on the big screen -- Airbnb and Gilt, a shopping app, looked great, but the Zillow photos suffered at 65 inches. The worst thing was less functionality; a Zillow addict we spoke to said they'd much rather use the version on their computer because it had much more information. The Airbnb app seemed to only offer basic browsing and favourites, and of course I couldn't comment on a Periscope. And I wonder who wants to shop on their TV as opposed to a mobile device or computer. I guess we'll find out.
A potential niche is fitness. Video workouts make sense, and the Zova app works with Apple Watch to track heart rate, for example. But others like DailyBurn are available on other platforms, including the old Apple TV.
Of course the selection and capabilities of these "other" apps will expand over time, and there's plenty of possibilities for developers to innovate. Right now, however, they're not that compelling.
What are your other options?
Apple TV isn't the only streaming game in town. If what you want is to watch streaming TV, its most appealing rival is Roku, which offers a series of streaming boxes and an HDMI streaming stick, all of which are significantly cheaper than Apple TV. They offer a much broader range of apps too, including all the UK broadcasters, Netflix and Amazon Video. If you've switched from broadcast TV to an entirely on-demand life, Roku is the most elegant day-to-day viewing solution.
Amazon has some skin in the game too, with a recently revealed Fire TV box that can handle 4K video. It comes very close to ticking all the app boxes, but is sadly missing Channel 4's All 4, and Sky's Now TV and Sky Store apps.
Finally, if you're tempted to experiment with getting your TV delivered via an Internet connection, but find the high price of Apple TV (understandably) intimidating, consider the £15 Sky Now TV box, whose only missing apps of note are Netflix and Amazon Video.
Conclusion: Not the most comprehensive streaming box, but loads of potential
As ways of getting streaming video on your telly go, the Apple TV is easily the most luxurious you can buy today. Its speed and fluidity, its slick remote and its superb voice search and command are enough to make it a no-brainer to upgrade from the old Apple TV for plenty of people, especially those with large collections of TV shows, movies and music on iTunes, not to mention games.
For those who are less embedded in Apple's ecosystem and simply want a box that offers as many viewing options as possible however, you'd be better off checking out the Roku 2 or Roku 3, which are both much cheaper, and offer UK viewers a much more comprehensive app selection.
BBC iPlayer arrived on Apple TV soon after the box launched in the UK, and with Apple's high profile and clout, we could see apps from other terrestrial channels and streaming services popping up before long. If it had the apps, the Apple TV would easily be the best streaming box in the country, and a serious rival even to TV behemoths like Sky and Virgin Media. As it stands, it's a luxurious gateway to Apple's own apps and services, and a box with bags of potential that we hope to see unlocked in future.
Editor's note 15 December 2015: This review has been updated to reflect the availability of a BBC iPlayer app.