​New Apple TV (2015) review: So much potential, at present wasted

Price when reviewed

It’s now 16 months since Apple released the fourth iteration of its Apple TV, and in that time I’d love to say that it has come of age, with new applications making it a must-have presence underneath your television. I’d like to say that – but in truth, at this point, I just can’t. Despite the promise of the hardware and of an iOS platform for the big screen, at the moment there’s no compelling reason to buy the Apple TV unless you’re someone who lives in the Apple content eco-system. 

​New Apple TV (2015) review: So much potential, at present wasted

Apple TV hardware

Imagine two of the previous Apple TV models on top of each other. Slice a bit off the upper part of one of them. Now you’ve got the measure of the new Apple TV. It’s thicker the previous model, but fundamentally not much has changed externally.

It’s lost the optical-out audio port – which will be a disappointment for those using the Apple TV has part of a serious Hi-Fi setup – and it’s gained USB Type-C in place of the micro-USB diagnostic port. Not much has else has changed, though, and the output resolution has remained, resolutely, 1080p. Want 4K streaming? You’ll need to buy an Amazon Fire TV box instead.

Internally, there’s an Apple A8 processor – as used in the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus – and 2GB of RAM, which is a big leap over the previous model’s 512MB. You can choose either 32GB or 64GB of storage. The model we looked at was the 64GB version, but 32GB will probably be enough for all except the most hardcore app user.

The biggest change, though, is to the Apple Remote. Gone is the tiny, silver thing that you inevitably lost down the back of the sofa, and in its place comes a slightly larger, sleek, black glass and metal remote, which you’ll probably also lose down the back of the sofa.

Inside, there’s an accelerometer and a gyroscope, so you can use the remote as a game controller, tilting and waving it to control things on-screen. There are dual microphones so that you can interact with Siri, and at the top is a glass touchpad you use to scroll around with, as well as Home, Menu, Play and volume buttons.

Slightly disappointingly, though, it responds only to clicks and not taps, so if you’re the kind of Apple user who always has their trackpad set up to work with a tap, you’ll find it frustrating. It’s also afflicted by some annoying quirks that you only notice over an extended period of use. There’s no physical indication of which way round you’re holding it, which means you often pick it up, point towards the TV, and realise you’re holding it the wrong way round.

A tiny dimple would have given enough tactile clue to the user – but that, of course, would have “ruined” the remote’s smooth lines. The remote’s design is one of those funny occasions when Apple’s love of symmetry and design has triumphed over usability.

Siri on Apple TV

Much of the remote’s power comes from the button with a microphone printed on it. Press and hold this, and you’ll invoke Siri onscreen. The TV displays the colourful waveform that’s Siri’s current motif, fading down whatever’s being played at the time. However, don’t expect to hear Siri’s voice – this Siri, like that on the Apple Watch, is silent.

New Apple TV (2015) review - remote control

What can Siri do? Mostly, it’s there to help you find interesting things to watch. Ask it for “good science-fiction films from the 1980s”, and it will deliver you a list of films from that decade that have good ratings on Rotten Tomatoes and iTunes. This search isn’t just for iTunes, either: it will also give you the option to play those films on Netflix (and, in the future, other services). Yes, this search is universal, at least across some applications, and you can also now use it to search Apple Music.

Does it work? Yes, most of the time and that universal search is genuinely useful, but Siri on Apple TV is surprisingly characterless, a functionary rather than someone you want to interact with. There are no jokes, no fun to be had exploring responses – none of the character that makes Siri so much more engaging than Google’s bland Now voice search.

This may well be a design choice. The TV is never going to be as personal a device as the phone, so perhaps it doesn’t need to be as personable in its responses. On the Apple Watch, silent-Siri makes sense: not only would your watch talking back to you feel a little strange, but the watch always seems like a conduit to your phone. You’re speaking, indirectly to the iPhone rather than the watch itself.

But on the Apple TV, things feel different. The Apple TV isn’t an accessory to the phone, which means that to anyone who’s used to the quirkiness of phone Siri, TV Siri just doesn’t feel as friendly, and that means I don’t feel like using it as much. In some ways, it just doesn’t feel like Siri at all.

Disappointingly, it doesn’t look like Siri is getting more capabilities soon either. Apple has released a beta version of tvOS 11, due out in final form in Autumn, and the only significant changes from a user perspective are the ability to sync how your screen is layed out across Apple TV devices, and a new “dark mode”. It’s all a bit meh.

Apple TV setup and in-use

Setting up the Apple TV is easy… at least, at the start. If you have an iPhone, all you have to do to set it up is turn on Bluetooth on your phone, and bring it close to the Apple TV. It will then connect to your network and use your Apple ID.

New Apple TV (2015) review - ports

This is great, but, unfortunately, a lot of the other setup tasks are more frustrating. 

Download the Netflix app, and you have to plod through using the remote control to put in your username and password. Open up the App Store, and you have to plod through again to put your password in. Download pretty much any app that involves putting in a username and password, and you have to input it – all using swipes and clicks on the remote control or slow letter-by-letter input with voice. There’s no integration with Apple’s Keychain, which could save you some of the swiping and tapping. There is, at least, the option to use your iPhone or iPad, as the Remote app has been updated to work with the new Apple TV. 

For now, it’s still a bit clunky, which isn’t something you often say about Apple products. Annoyingly, it doesn’t even steal a trick from the Apple Watch, which automatically installs the watchOS versions of apps you have on your phone. It will show tvOS versions of apps you own if you go to the App Store and select the “Purchased” tab, but that just feels unwieldy. Why not show them by default? Why not offer to download them all when you first sign in?

In fact, at the moment, there’s virtually no integration between iPhone and Apple TV, which feels weird. You can’t, for example, use Siri on your phone to control the TV – you have to use the remote. Apple TV, unlike Apple Watch, feels like a product that was developed in a silo, which is a shame.

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