Apple TV review: it’s all about the potential

By , Nov 9, 2015

Apple TV App Switcher

Potential. That’s a word that you’re going to hear tossed around a lot when it comes to the newly released Apple TV. It has the potential to be a great streaming device. It has the potential to be a wonderful music playing machine. It has the potential to be an awesome gaming console. It has the potential to really become your living room’s nucleus for entertainment.

Is it doing any one of those things in a mind-blowing fashion currently? Not exactly. Fortunately, the Apple TV has plenty of room for growth, because it’s powered by a more significant operating system called tvOS, and Apple has opened the platform up so that developers can create apps. Just like an iPhone 4s at its beginning, which shipped with iOS 5, looks nothing like an iPhone 4s running iOS 9, the Apple TV experience is bound to evolve, grow, and improve.

If you purchase an Apple TV now, you’re buying into that potential. Already, the Apple TV can do more than the 3rd-generation version that it supplants. The older hardware couldn’t download apps, and wasn’t capable of playing games natively on device.  With the new Apple TV, you have all of that, along with much-improved hardware, a better remote that doesn’t require line of sight, and limited Siri access.

At this early stage in the game, you shouldn’t expect a perfect experience, but even out of the gate, it’s obvious that the new Apple TV is a much better device than prior versions. Right now, it’s just good, but with the proper direction, it has the potential to be the best set top box that we’ve seen thus far.

Hardware

Out of the box, the first thing that you’ll notice is that the new Apple TV is taller than the device it replaces. Outside of the height and weight differences, it looks very similar to its predecessor from a design standpoint. There is one big difference that you’ll notice on the rear of the device where all of the connectors are housed: the USB mini connection has been replaced by a USB Type-C connection, and the optical audio output, to the chagrin of some, has been nixed altogether.

Internal changes include 802.11ac for improved Wi-Fi performance, and Dolby Digital 7.1, which is an upgrade from the prior model’s 5.1 surround sound. You’ll also receive a dual core A8 system on a chip, which is a significant upgrade over the single core A5 chip from the prior generation. Another important improvement, which unsurprisingly goes unmentioned on Apple’s website, is the inclusion of 2GB of RAM. That’s a major boost over the prior edition’s 512MB of RAM, and will lead to overall better performance.

Siri Remote

The Siri Remote that comes with the Apple TV is completely new, and features many more sensors and buttons than its predecessor. It is arguably the biggest differentiator between the old Apple TV and the new model. Whereas the old remote control required line of sight to the set top box, the new Siri Remote uses Bluetooth, meaning you can control the Apple TV even if it’s located inside of an entertainment center, for instance.

The remote axes digital directional control, and instead opts for a MacBook trackpad-inspired clickable glass Touch surface. There are dedicated buttons on the remote for Menu, Home, Siri, volume up and down, and play/pause. There’s also dual microphones for voice input, an IR sensor for controlling IR devices, and a Lightning port for charging. That’s right, no more dealing with difficult-to-find watch batteries!

Siri Remote

Sensors include a gyroscope and accelerometer. This makes it possible to use the controller with Wii-inspired motion controlled games and apps.

Siri integration is the headline feature for the Siri Remote, and it works really well where it can. For example, you can use Siri to search for movies, and be extremely specific with your requests: i.e. “Find movies from the 80’s starring Tom Cruise” or “Find highly-rated movies from the 90’s that are rated PG.” Siri can even work in context, so after the initial search results are displayed, you can say something like “only the action movies,” and Siri will tighten up the results.

Siri is also capable of performing searches on sports scores, weather, and stocks. You can even launch apps with Siri. Outside of those things, however, Siri functionality is curiously limited. You can’t play or control music with Siri, you can’t adjust settings with Siri, you can’t search the App Store with Siri, and you can’t use Siri for text dictation. Considering that Siri can be used for all of that and more on iOS, it’s odd and a bit frustrating that it’s so limited on the Apple TV.

Interface

The tvOS interface is similar to the old Apple TV interface. This time, however, Apple has aimed for a brighter white background, which is nice for the day time, but not as well suited for using the device at night time or in dark conditions. It would be nice if Apple made the background automatically change based on time of day.

Navigating with the Touch surface on the Siri Remote definitely takes some time to get used to. The control isn’t as precise as having digital hardware buttons, but it’ll likely become second nature after some extended time using it. It helps if you get used to tapping on the remote, instead of always relying on swipe gestures, by the way.

APple TV Interface

Apps are represented as rounded rectangular icons on the interface, and they can be launched by clicking on the Siri Remote’s Touch surface. The Menu button on the Siri Remote is used as a back button to navigate back to the previous screen. The Home button can be used to go directly to the Home screen, and works very much the same as the Home button on an iOS device. You can even double click Home to invoke an App Switcher for switching between apps and force quitting apps.

Even though the new Apple TV contains beefy hardware when compared to the diminutive hardware of the outgoing model, I still sense some lag and overall sluggishness when it comes to running apps and perusing certain portions of the interface. The most obvious demonstration of this is when invoking the App Switcher with a double click of the Home button. There is noticeable lag when opening the App Switcher, and it just doesn’t feel snappy enough for my tastes.

Outside of the occasional sluggishness, everything works fairly well with the interface and with navigation until you have to enter text with the on screen software keyboard. There’s no skirting around the fact that the software keyboard is bad, and arguably one of the worst tvOS design decisions. Not only does the Apple TV’s software keyboard lack the traditional QWERTY layout that most of us are used to, but all of the letters are displayed as a single line, which makes navigating and inserting each character a tedious exercise of patience.

Typing on Apple TV

What’s worse is that you cannot pair a wireless Bluetooth keyboard with the Apple TV for faster text input. Adding insult to injury is the lack of compatibility between the Apple Remote app on the iPhone and Apple Watch and the new Apple TV. Fortunately, it is possible to bypass having to type your Apple ID password in most cases.

Areas for improvement

No Keyboard/iOS Remote support: The biggest missing feature, the lack of keyboard and iOS Remote app support, was already mentioned, but there are several others that I can think off right off the bat…

Picture in Picture: If this box is going to do more than just stream videos like the Apple TV of old, then it needs to let me watch videos and do other things at the same time. Having the iOS 9 Picture in Picture mode from the iPad would feel right at home on the Apple TV.

Siri search for the App Store and Music: the lack of a fleshed out Siri is such an obvious omission that Apple already stated that it’s working on it and a limited version of Siri search for Apple Music is already in the tvOS 9.1 beta release.

No Control Center: How am I supposed to go about changing music or other options while within apps?

Music app improvements: The stock Music app is poorly designed, and hard to navigate. Siri controls for music will go a long way towards improving music control, but the stock Music app needs some major TLC to make it more user friendly. It’s too fiddly, and requires too many button presses to navigate throughout the interface.

Awesome Features

Just because the Apple TV 4 has a few opportunities for improvement, doesn’t mean that it’s lacking in every area. Actually, the new Apple TV is superb in quite a few areas…

AirPlay: AirPlay, in my experience, works much more reliably on the new Apple TV, and video and audio plays almost instantly. AirPlay mirroring is also super-fast and reliable.

Native Apps: Real apps are so much better than the “channels” that littered the last-generation Apple TV. Now we can have full fledged games and apps that run briskly on the hardware.

Bluetooth audio support: While it’s strange that you can’t yet connect a Bluetooth keyboard to the Apple TV, it’s a breath of fresh air to be able to pair your favorite Bluetooth headphones with the device. This makes watching movies and playing games possible while maintaining a quiet environment.

Game controller support: The Apple TV supports select Bluetooth game controllers, such as the SteelSeries Nimbus. There’s only so much that the Siri Remote can handle when it comes to games, even if it does include a gyroscope and accelerometer for Wii-like performance. Having the ability to use a real game controller means that more than just casual games might flourish on the Apple TV.

Sideloading apps: Xcode 7 opens up the ability for more experienced Apple TV owners to be able to sideload apps. This means that you can install apps that won’t ever appear on the App Store, such as a classic game emulator, or even a web browser.

Asphalt 8 Apple TV

Future Growth

The bottom line is that the Apple TV has tons of room for growth, and early adopters are essentially buying into the potential of the device. The fact that the Apple TV runs tvOS means that it can be fleshed out, updated, and even completely redesigned as Apple sees fit.

Apps can be updated, new games will be released on a regular basis, and support will grow for extra peripherals. Apps are, without a doubt, the future of television. With the release of the Apple TV, the groundwork has been laid, but there’s still quite a ways to go before this device can fully live up to its potential.

The Apple TV is by no means a must buy in its current form, but after a few software iterations, its value and usefulness will grow. If you’ve already jumped into the game, enjoy this period of watching a new platform evolve and ultimately flourish. If you decide to wait, just know that you aren’t missing anything particularly groundbreaking at the moment, but it’s only a matter of time before you’ll feel compelled to join in on the fun.

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  • Merman123

    Apple was never about releasing products with potential. They would see potential in the industry and come in sweeping the competition.

    This product has been a huge meh for me.

    • Bendy

      Hey better than the 3!

    • Rowan09

      Why what is it missing that you want?

    • the hood

      Potential is only applied to the quality of some/most of the reviews on this site.

    • Damian

      i feel like nexus player and many others, already had most of those features 1, 2 years ago. Apple TV is about catching up with competition.

  • ready1take1

    what’s their reasoning behind no remote app on the iphone?

    • George

      They want to control your experience. They think the scrolling one line input is the best experience.

    • They’re working on something bigger than just a remote app. That doesn’t excuse the fact that there is no way to control your Apple TV from your iPhone, but it does explain it a bit.

  • good reviewbut when xan we install kodi?

    • Rowan09

      Not yet, but they are working on a TVOS version.

    • Damian

      just get nexus player if you want strictly kodi. You just can’t go wrong with nexus player.

      • Thats an aplication or a hardware?

      • Damian

        Appletv competitor, so hardware

      • Oh no I got an android hardware but I want the Apple TV u know the products from Apple are better

  • nonchalont

    Well written. Hopefully an Apple employee checks out this site and implements the ideas you mentioned. Maybe they already have plans to do what was said, however they just need to know the layout of it all.

  • That_Fruitarian

    Love mine. We bought one for the bedroom and another for the living area… Best appletv to date. I admit, I’m used to remote app for input though.

  • Yeah; there is the “potential” that a dev will make it work with an Apple Keyboard. The “potential” that Siri will be able to do a Youtube Search…. As for the lack of snappiness; try turning on reduce motion?

  • Unknow Unknow

    Please so Jeff is looking to connect keyboards Magic Mouse magic pad…… Run internet browser play pirate games for 30 years ago connect the ps4 and Xbox control open cans take care of the dog vacuum the carpet play stupid public tv with cmxprfg what even name is for the shitte I have mac pro as main computer iPhone iPad iPod and everything it has a different use also I have Apple TV 4 and I use it for watching movies Netflix play my music play a quick game and even check the wather I don’t need make my home work from my Apple TV I don’t need replace my ps3ps4 and wii u with my Apple TV,be real please

    • That_Fruitarian

      Lol, you raise a good point.

    • George

      Remember how they hyped the apple watch? When you over hype something you will end up being dissapointed later.

      • Tommy Gumbs

        All these Apple Tv articles did give me flashbacks to the barrage of Watch Articles they wrote. Def not as bad…..but I do agree with you.

  • Unknow Unknow

    All the idea of use Apple stuff is making everything easy and simple for us as users we can ask for more but we have to be realistic do we really need to much shitte to make it more hard to use why do I need to browse in my tv something in Internet when I have a new iPad Air 2 next to me and iPhone

  • Dom Sad

    As much as I prefer iPhone over any android phone I do think that Nvidia Shield is a way better device than Apple TV.
    It has powerful GeForce gpu and can stream 4K@60fps and comes with game controller.
    Micro SD slot and USB 3.0 ports.
    All that for a similar price.

    • the hood

      Stop just stop it. You can’t come on this website and offer honest intelligent opinions that are contrary to those provided by these blogs. In doing so you run the risk of being labelled a troll or scorned and disregarded; an example is mrelectrifyer who is possibly one of the brightest commenters on idb (next to me of course). Or you get blocked as what happened to me who then has to assume a new identity and at the same time hope that International Rescue don’t find me here
      So leave all the criticisms to mrelectrifyer and myself, however we could use some more intelligent observations to balance things up. But please just mind your manners as the sensitivity of some bloggers is too high on the richter scale. Go in peace.

      • TechnoBuff

        Funny but true LOL

    • Toukale

      The biggest problem I have with people making comments like this is their narrow minded view that if a device/product does not do what they themselves want, than it’s not viable product for anyone else. While some of the things you pointed out are all valid, that is not the market the AppleTV is trying to reach with this device. For some reasons folks always failed to make that connection whenever their evaluate a product, which is why they are usually wrong.

      For all you describe the Nvidia Shield can do, you need to ask yourself why is it still a niche product. The answer is simple, because 70-80% of the population do not care about those things. While geeks are looking at spec sheets, the majority of folks are looking at ease of use and simple interactions, with ton of 3rd party supports. We still have not learn a damn thing about the Wii and why it was so successful at first.

      When people keep pointing at the AppleTV potential is because up to this point none of the players have been able to put it all together. I have a Roku and 2 AFTV, while all of those devices are great in their own wrights, they are all missing great 3rd party supports. I have not turned on my Roku for about 6 months, while I do use the AFTV everyday, I only use it for KODI (it’s the best KODI box out right now). Amazon only seems concern about pushing their Prime crap on you and nothing more. 3rd party support is lacking big time which is disappointing to say the least.

      • That_Fruitarian

        Finally, a smart comment on the subject.

  • @sexyhamthing

    You guys are getting better, though your articles still read like they were written by a thirteen year old.

  • @dongiuj

    Want!!

  • John Smith

    The new AppleTV is one of the worst Apple products I ever purchased, and one of my biggest mistakes. It is WORTHLESS!! I got it thinking the JailBreak would be out soon, and it never came. Apple has defeated the JailBreak and destroyed their own product. I now have a totally worthless paperweight. Apple has always been really stupid when it comes to digital media. They cannot play most of the standard media formats out there, so if you have thousands of files of random types, are you really going to want to convert them all? It can’t even connect to most NAS devices or network shares, but if it did, again, it wouldn’t be able to play the files anyway. I just want to be able to play whatever file I have as-is! You would have to be insane to want to convert them all. At least kodi/xbmc and VLC can play ANY format there is! So, why has Apple removed the ability to do this? I would trade my AppleTV for an Android device in a second!