Review: The Apple TV has promise, but doesn’t fully deliver

While the streaming device is feature-rich, it feels more like a 1.0 product.

Apple TV has always been the best way for those in the Apple ecosystem to bring iTunes content to their TV. The small, hockey-puck-sized device can fit unobtrusively into most people's living rooms and stream content from a variety of sources, including iTunes libraries on computers with Home Sharing enabled; iPhones and iPads via wireless AirPlay; the iTunes music and movie/TV store portal; and various third-party partners lucky enough to land a spot on its exclusive and seemingly arbitrary Home screen.

The 2015 Apple TV, released late last month, is in almost every respect far superior to its predecessor. You can buy it with 32GB of storage for $149 or with 64GB of storage for $199.

The new Apple TV measures 3.9 x 3.9 x 1.4 in., taller than before. The hardware has been beefed up with a custom 64-bit Apple A8 chipset and 2GB of memory. Wireless communications include 802.11ac Wi-Fi with MIMO, IR and Bluetooth 4.0. The rear of the device has power, HDMI 1.4, USB-C and 10/100 Ethernet ports. The Apple TV also supports HDMI-CEC, which I'll get to later in the article.

Interestingly, the Apple TV also lacks some important features -- namely, optical audio and 4K video support. Although 1080p video is the high-def standard today, 4K technology is becoming more popular and the cost of entry is decreasing. (Apple's latest iPhones can shoot video in 4K, too.)

It ships with a new Apple Remote, which plays an instrumental part in how you use it. The remote is roughly the same size as previous models, but has been thoroughly revamped, with an internal battery that can be recharged via an included Lightning cable and two columns of buttons. The first column offers Menu, Siri and Play/Pause buttons, while the second has a Home button (with an icon of a TV) situated above a volume rocker. The area above those buttons -- where the thumb naturally sits -- is now a glass trackpad that doubles as a selection button.

The layout and function of the remote is very straightforward. The trackpad is used for navigation, and pressing on it activates the selection with a satisfying click. The Menu button performs a number of tasks, such as bringing you a step back from your selection and launching the screensaver, while the Home button (logically) brings you back to the Home screen. Holding down the Siri button allows you to speak commands via two mics on the top of the remote.

The remote also has several sensors, including an accelerometer and a gyroscope, so you can use it for games.

Apple TV also introduces tvOS, an operating system based on the underlying frameworks and processes that underpin iOS and OS X. tvOS brings the core media capabilities already found on iPhones, iPads and Macs to the Apple TV and, more importantly, gives iOS developers a new platform on which to write apps.

Getting started

Connecting the Apple TV is simple: It plugs into your TV via an HDMI connection. On first boot, it guides you in pairing the remote and connecting to your network. If you use Ethernet, Apple TV recognizes the network without any configuration; for wireless networks, just hold an iPhone or iPad that supports Bluetooth 4.0 close to the device when prompted and it "learns" your network's Wi-Fi network name and password. It's very slick. If you don't have an iOS device handy, the Apple TV will search for nearby Wi-Fi networks and you can input the needed password using the remote.

A setup assistant guides you through the process of entering an Apple ID and password for the main account holder; setting up your iTunes account info for purchases and rentals; turning location services and Siri on or off; deciding whether to automatically download the new Aerial screensaver (which takes up 600MB, but is gorgeous); and finally, the option to send diagnostics and usage data to Apple and developers.

Though the process is simple, if any text has to be entered -- such as when signing into iTunes or Netflix -- things bog down quickly. Previous Apple TVs could connect to an app called Remote on iPhones and iPads, allowing you to use a mobile device to type in usernames and passwords. Strangely, that option is missing from this version of Apple TV. You have to manually enter text via the remote control, tapping out user names and passwords one click at a time. Something that should be simple and quick becomes tedious and maddeningly redundant.

The onscreen interface

The tvOS interface has UI elements of both OS X and iOS 9, with bright colors against white backdrops. Just like iOS 9, the interface is designed with different planes or layers, and there are translucent flourishes like those in OS X throughout.

The interface is also full of motion (which can be turned off in Settings). Apps zoom in and out when they are being opened or closed, and there's a parallax effect -- as in iOS 9's Home Screen -- that's triggered by wiggling your finger on the remote's trackpad.

home page

On the Home screen, your Favorites are on the top row of apps; above them are images of frequently-accessed or recently-added content.

The Home screen view consists of a grid, five icons across, with each one representing an app. The Favorites are shown In the top row; selecting any of those apps displays large images of frequently-accessed or recently-added content above them. For instance, selecting the iTunes Movie app will display currently trending movies, while selecting the Computers app displays content from your iTunes Library.

Enter the App Store

Compared to earlier Apple TVs, the new Home screen looks comparatively bare, with many long-time staples missing. Those apps can be found on the App Store -- where you'll find thousands more.

Here, third-party developers can showcase their wares, just as they do on the iPhone, iPad and Mac. Apple has worked out deals with some of the largest content providers and app developers. Hulu, Netflix, Ubisoft, HBO, Showtime and Disney are all represented, though some major players -- think Amazon -- aren't.

app store

In the App Store, third-party developers can showcase their wares.

The inclusion of an App Store in tvOS offers a lot of potential in much the same way the App Store in iOS changed how early iPhones developed. As that store gained popularity, it allowed third-party developers to push the iPhone well beyond its original concept. Apple clearly thinks the same could happen with the App Store on Apple TV. Some popular iOS apps are already available, modified to accept input from the new remote and optimized for TV. You can check the Purchased tab in the App Store for compatible apps you may already own.

Beyond that, the App Store opens the door for non-traditional apps on a TV and new ways of using that TV.

The App Store will also be popular for gamers. Though smartphone owners might balk at spending five dollars for a smartphone game, spending the same amount for a game on your TV is nothing compared to the prices of games on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox.

Hello, Siri

The last major new addition to Apple TV is the inclusion of Siri, which is activated by holding the Siri button and talking into the remote. Siri can be used for all sorts of requests and commands, including finding content to watch; looking up facts and data including weather info, stock prices and sports trivia; and controlling playback in videos.

When Siri is asked for data like weather or sports scores, the information shows up on the bottom third of the screen, out of the way of the content (mostly). Swiping down on the remote's trackpad dismisses the data, while swiping up displays any additional information full screen. Video play pauses, then resumes when full-screen mode is exited.

Siri is smartly used here, and the technology has been programmed to respond to many commands. For instance, you can ask it to help you find a TV show or movie, and it will display search results from all of the supported apps; no more pecking through the various individual apps to find a specific show. You can also use Siri to control onscreen content by, say, rewinding or skipping ahead.

One of my favorite uses is the, "What did they just say?" command. Asking Siri this prompts the video to back up 15 seconds and displays subtitles up to the moment when the question was posed. After that, the subtitles are turned off automatically.

(Macworld has published a rundown of commands you can use.)

Putting it all together

However, while this is a fourth-generation Apple TV, it feels very much like a version 1.0 product. For ten days, I've used it to stream live NFL football games, watched five movies, caught up on my favorite shows on Hulu, started a new series on Netflix, and downloaded apps and games to try out. I've experienced five app crashes and two complete crashes. The ratio of crashes-to-productivity is pretty good, but every once in a while you're reminded that this is the first product of a new platform.

My biggest gripe? Text input. Pecking at an onscreen grid of characters with a remote control is annoying and slow. When you consider how many apps and services require logging in with a username and password, it becomes obvious that there should be better ways to accomplish this -- with an external Bluetooth keyboard, via text input on the iPhone or iPad, using Siri or even using the system-wide password software called Keychain, which is used on every other Apple device.

apple tv keyboard

Text input reverts to old-fashioned hunt-and-peck.

The aforementioned Wi-Fi password handoff between the iPhone and Apple TV during the initial setup is a great indicator of how integrated Apple products can be. It's baffling Apple didn't spend more time integrating technology across devices a little better.

My second gripe: Siri may help you find content, but as of this writing, it can't help you play your content. If you ask Siri to play something purchased from the iTunes store, you'll be brought to the item in the media store and you can play it from there. But you're out of luck if you're trying to use Siri to access content stored on an iTunes-enabled Mac or Windows PC and accessible via Home Sharing. That's a big oversight.

There is one area where the Apple TV shines: Controlling other HDMI devices. Before now, I had a routine of manually turning on my TV, then the receiver, then switching the receiver to the proper input. Because of the new Apple TV's support for HDMI-CEC, I can now just press the menu button on the remote and the TV turns on, the receiver turns on and switches to the appropriate input. I didn't have to program that behavior; the Apple TV configured itself without my input.

It's things like this that make the other lapses in Apple TV functionality so irritating.

Bottom line

In the end, the question is: Is the new Apple TV worth buying?

The hardware is small and unobtrusive, though it's slightly taller than previous models; the software is version 1.0, with an interesting mix of fun and frustrating moments; and the App Store already has a great variety of apps and games, with the promise of many more interesting options coming soon.

If you're already in the Apple ecosystem, then the new Apple TV will be right up your alley, as along as you don't mind being on the cutting edge of a rapidly evolving ecosystem.

For other would-be buyers, Apple TV isn't yet a "must-have" purchase. Sometime in the space between now and the next few years, Apple and its developers may do for your TV what they did for your smartphone eight years ago. But they're not quite there yet.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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