Simple, attractive tvOS interface. New app store greatly expands functionality. Excellent iOS device integration. Handy new remote with microphone for voice control.
Pricey. No 4K support. Disappointing non-Apple music options.
Apple brings a new OS, app support, and Siri voice control to its popular media streamer, but with a price that's on the high side and a lack of 4k support, the competition prevails.
It's been more than three years, but we finally have a new Apple TV ($149; 32GB). The last time Apple updated its popular media streamer was back in 2012, and it has really started to show its age. Especially when you consider the broad app ecosystems and 4K streaming support offered by competing devices like the Amazon Fire TV£64.99 at Amazon and the Roku 4$119.88 at Amazon. Thanks to the new iOS-based tvOS 9, Apple has solved one of those problems; the new media streamer now offers plenty of apps. And a new Siri-powered remote makes navigation via voice a breeze. Still, it lacks 4K support, and with a price tag higher than any of our top picks (including the $99 Editors' Choice Amazon Fire TV), it feels like too little, too late.
The new Apple TV$149.00 at Abt Electronics has the same matte black plastic design and squarish shape of the previous model. It measures the same 3.9 inches across, but is nearly twice as thick at 1.4 inches. It's still a very tiny box you can stick almost anywhere underneath or behind your HDTV.
This version sees the return of local storage in the form of 32GB of solid state memory (or 64GB for the $199 model), to be used for apps and games. Unless you intend to download a lot of games, the 32GB model should suit you just fine. The reintroduction of local storage doesn't explain the thicker profile of the device. It's likely a combination of storage and increased processing power.
While the box is bigger, its back panel actually holds fewer ports than before. The HDMI video output, micro USB port, and Ethernet port are still there, along with the two-prong laptop-style power connector, but the optical audio output of the last model has been removed. This is relatively minor, since your HDTV likely has its own optical audio output if you want to run audio through a soundbar or speaker system. Still, it's an odd omission considering the larger frame.
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The remote has been completely redesigned, and now looks and feels more like an iOS device than ever. It's a flat, slender bar, with curved edges and a Lightning connector on the bottom for topping up its rechargeable batteries. You could easily mistake it for a new iPod touch$199.00 at Apple Store. The back is sturdy aluminum, and the front is approximately halved width-wise into glossy and matte black sections. The matte black portion holds the built-in touchpad for navigating on-screen menus, along with the Menu/Back and Home buttons. The touchpad is responsive and comfortable, and physically clicks rather than relying on surface taps, so you won't accidentally trigger it.
Microphone/Siri and Play/Pause buttons occupy the glossy section of the remote, along with a volume rocker. Two small microphone holes near the top, one each on the front and back sides, are for voice control. A small black rectangle on the front holds an infrared emitter as a backup control if the Bluetooth connection to the Apple TV doesn't work.
Oddly, while the Apple TV comes with a USB-to-Lightning cable for charging the remote, it doesn't come with an accompanying USB wall adapter. You'll have to supply your own, or see if your HDTV's USB ports deliver enough power to charge the remote.
TvOS and the App Store
The new Apple TV uses tvOS 9, an iOS-based interface that greatly improves the media streamer's capabilities. The interface looks largely the same as before, with a rotating selection of featured content on the top two-thirds of the home screen and big, colorful icons for apps and services below. The biggest addition sits squarely in the middle of the icon bar: the familiar App Store 'A' icon.
Unlike previous Apple TVs, you no longer have to settle for a small handful of Apple-endorsed apps and some of the bigger names in streaming services. The Apple TV now has a full app ecosystem, with dozens of free and premium titles available. The major video services are present, like Hulu, Netflix, and YouTube, along with network-specific services like CBS, FOX, HBO Now, NBC, PBS, Showtime, and more. There are also weather apps, sports apps, and a slew of games ported from iOS like Asphalt 8, Geometry Wars 3, and Transistor. Most apps don't require a lot of space, but you can expect to see the Apple TV's storage fill up if you download a lot of games. As mentioned earlier, 32GB should be more than enough storage for most users.
Apple doesn't currently offer a gamepad for the Apple TV, but you can connect a third-party gamepad via Bluetooth, and some games can work with the remote's touchpad and built-in motion sensors. Asphalt 8 looks pretty good, and is playable using the remote as a steering wheel, but the framerate regularly stutters on tight turns with several cars around. Like most other media streamers, I can't recommend the Apple TV as a gaming platform because of its limited power and selection of games.
Outside of gaming, tvOS adds some welcome multitasking support. Tapping the Home button twice brings up your open apps, with full-screen previews of what you'll be jumping into. Like in iOS, you can just swipe upward to close different apps from this screen if performance starts to feel sluggish.
TvOS also adds Siri voice control to the Apple TV. By pressing and holding the Microphone/Siri button on the remote, you can speak into the mic at the top and voice any commands or questions. Siri can open apps; search for movies and TV shows based on title, genre, and actor; answer basic sports, weather, and trivia questions; and even enable or disable features like closed captioning. Voice search reaches beyond Apple's media libraries, and a search for Breaking Bad brought up options to watch the show on both Netflix and iTunes. The functionality is very similar to the Amazon Fire TV's voice control, which now uses Alexa, Amazon's version of Siri.
Music and Local Streaming
If you want to listen to music on the Apple TV, you'll want an Apple Music membership. iTunes-based radio stations are available to listen for free, but individual artists and albums need Apple Music for any on-demand search and playback capability.
This wouldn't be a big issue if the tvOS App Store were home to some major music services. But I was unable to find Pandora, Rdio, Songza, Spotify, or even TuneIn for the Apple TV. The best I found is an app called myTuner Radio, which is similar to TuneIn, and Vevo for watching music videos. This is a pretty big omission for users of streaming music services, or anyone who doesn't want to rely on Apple's music store. Considering Apple has sat atop the app store heirarchy with iOS for years, additional music apps could very well be added to the Apple TV in the future. For now, though, it feels like the company is not-so-subtly nudging users to embrace Apple Music instead of another service.
The beloved local streaming and sharing features of previous Apple TVs are still present on the new model. Apple HomeSharing lets you share media on your computer over iTunes with the Apple TV. While native music support outside of iTunes and Apple Music is disappointing, you can still stream any music you want from an iOS device to your HDTV over AirPlay. AirPlay support also includes screen mirroring, and I was able to mirror my iPad's screen on my HDTV with very little noticeable lag.
4K and Conclusions
Apple omits a big feature here that has become standard for other flagship media streamers: 4K video support. iTunes doesn't currently offer 4K content, but Netflix and YouTube do, and the lack of support on a device that costs more than the Amazon Fire TV or the Roku 4 is difficult to overlook. Considering Apple's long pauses between hardware updates, future-proofing this model with 4K should have been a no-brainer. Perhaps the device has enough power that 4K support can be added with a firmware update, but for now it's a major hole in the feature set.
The Apple TV is an attractive, streamlined, feature-filled media streamer that Apple fans will appreciate for its extensive iOS support and iTunes integration. The addition of app support and voice control with Siri make it a signifcant improvement over the 2012 model, but it costs $150 in an era when most media streamers can be found for closer to $100. The Amazon Fire TV is two-thirds the price of the Apple TV, packs all of the relevant features short of iTunes and iOS-specific functionality (and those functions have their own Android-friendly analogs, like Miracast screen mirroring), and supports 4K video, which is why it remains our Editors' Choice.