Apple TV 2015 review: A gorgeous gateway to Apple's movies and TV

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 could easily play Crossy Road without having to put down my beer, for example.

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Screenshot by David Katzmaier/CNET

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.

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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), 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.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

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

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Sarah Tew/CNET

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 Apple TV , 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.

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Screenshot by David Katzmaier/CNET

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.

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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.

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Screenshot by David Katzmaier/CNET

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.

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Screenshot by David Katzmaier/CNET

"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.

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Screenshot by David Katzmaier/CNET

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.

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Screenshot by David Katzmaier/CNET

AV options

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).

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Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

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Sky's Now TV box is a very cheap way to experiment with streaming television.

Luke Westaway/CNET

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.