TECH

Apple TV Review: The Start Of Something Special

18/11/2015 14:06 GMT | Updated 21/12/2015 08:59 GMT

Apple TV is, on the face of it, one of Apple's toughest products to sell. It has one of the smallest markets and is taking on an even smaller set of competitors almost all of whom are going at it tooth and nail to argue the case that your TV just isn't smart enough.

apple tv

When Tim Cook hailed the new Apple TV as the 'Future of TV' it was hard not to scoff a little. Smart TVs have been offering an app-based experience for years and Google's Android system even runs on some of them. So to say that TV wasn't keeping up felt, rarely for Apple, to be something of a faux pas.

On reflection however it has become clear that Cook wasn't talking about Apple TV as a piece of hardware, but Apple TV as an ecosystem. As a product that will take over your watching experience, we stand corrected.

In light of this we'll steam through the hardware fairly quickly.

Apple hasn't changed the design, it's still that small black box with the tiny white light that gently glows in the distance. In a room with the lights down that little light is the only indication that it even exists, and that's exactly how it should be.

apple tv remote

It's slightly larger and there's a reason for that, Apple's given the processor a considerable boost. It's now running the A8 processor found in the iPhone 6, that might not sound like much but as a casual gaming platform that's more than enough. There's now more storage as well, offering either 32GB or 64GB variants.

Bluetooth 4.0 is worth a mention as well, letting you pair the Siri Remote without needing a line of sight. You can also add wireless headphones in case you're sharing the living room.

On the back there's an HDMI port, USB-C port, power port and Ethernet port. There's no optical audio with Apple assuming you'll take that straight from the TV to your sound system.

It's all very simple and honestly you can see why. The home entertainment segment is one that contains more cables and wires than most NASA installations. It almost gets to the point where we're certain companies are just inventing new cables to satisfy the carnal pleasure that some take in organising it all just so they can have what they think is 18.1 Surround Sound. (We know 18.1 isn't a thing, but just you wait.)

We don't know about you but the thought of spending 6 hours of our lives organising cables has us shuddering, not to mention the USB-based updates, drivers that need to be installed and 'speaker placement research' that apparently is crucial to the whole process.

apple tv remote

Finally there's Siri Remote, a gorgeous little remote that has a clickable touchpad up top and five buttons. It has motion sensors effectively turning it into a Wii-style gaming remote and there's two microphones so you can use Siri to search for content without having to hold it up like a walkie talkie.

Handily it doesn't use batteries, instead charging via the Lightning cable that powers the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch.

Apple TV runs a new operating system called tvOS. It's essentially based on the iOS you use on your phone and so not only is instantly familiar, but it's also deeply integrated into your other Apple devices.

apple tv main menu

The setting up process for example can be made extremely painless simply by placing your iPhone 6s on top of Apple TV. It then uses NFC to transfer your iTunes account details and even the WiFi information in your house saving you considerable hassle manually entering it all in.

It's gloriously simple and while it shamelessly needs you to be part of the 'Apple club' you can hardly blame the company for creating products that work better with each other.

This is where Apple TV has its first hiccup though, because while you're now online and signed in to Apple Music, Films, TV and Photos, if you want to start adding streaming apps like Netflix then you're going to have to manually input all those login details. One letter at a time.

At this point we found ourselves gawping at the iPhone, praying that at some point it would light up and offer up its keyboard to help. It didn't, so we had to use the remote, and in doing so lost a good 30 minutes inputting a password wrong because the remote's touch sensor is so sensitive.

Once we'd overcome this frankly mountainous first world problem we were able to truly appreciate what Apple has created with Apple TV. It's not one big thing that makes it so good, it's all the little things that when placed together make it a viable and attractive alternative for anyone that doesn't have a next-generation console.

For instance, Apple TV just works with your own TV, there's no silly remote setup or finding the right IR frequency. Turn Apple TV on and it turns your TV on, turn it off and the same happens.

Playing on the Wii and want to switch over to Apple TV? Just turn it on and it'll automatically switch over to Apple TV, turn it off and it'll automatically switch back. There's no fiddling with extra remotes. What makes the system even better is that we found our TV remote actually worked with Apple TV as well, so in the unlikely event you do lose the Siri Remote you can just pick up your TV one and you're still good to go.

apple tv screen saver

Leave it unused for a few minutes and Apple TV activates its screensaver, a series of utterly stunning aerial videos of San Francisco, London and remote islands. Apple TV automatically downloads new ones in the background and they'll just appear.

It serves literally no purpose other than to turn your TV into a High-Definition picture frame and yet the fact it exists had us actually turning it on just to see it. Have it on in the background and you've finally given purpose to what would have otherwise been a large black rectangle sitting in the corner of the room.

apple tv app store

All of this however is secondary to Apple's main objective: Apps.

By building an operating system that's heavily based on iOS app developers can easily port their apps over to tvOS. One of the biggest failings of the last Apple TV was that it simply ended up becoming an expensive way to send video from your iPhone to your TV.

Apple's keen not to repeat the mistakes of the past and so has done much to make it as easy as possible for Apple TV to be full of apps.

There's tonnes already, from high-end gaming like the new Guitar Hero Live game, to stunning indie titles like Transistor. Of course there's also a plethora of little titles as well including, of course, Crossy Road.

apple tv gaming

A neat new feature is that if you buy a compatible app or game on iOS and the developer has signed up to Cross Buy, then you won't have to pay for it again on Apple TV.

So is it the ultimate hub for all your viewing apps? Not yet, but it can be. Netflix, Now TV are already present and BBC iPlayer is promised, now all that remains is for Amazon Prime, 4OD and ITV to make an appearance and Apple will finally have a box that trumps the rest in terms of content.

And that's what it's all about, content. Apple knows that to have a hope of making you choose Apple TV over say, your own TV's software, or a Roku Box that it has to offer not only more than anyone else, but it has to do it in such a way that it just feels better.

apple tv movie

At the moment it does feel better, the software is an utter joy to use. Apple's own apps work beautifully with purchased films and TV playing in Full-HD instantaneously.

Siri's capability, while limited to Apple apps at the moment, is extremely powerful. Search for a film and it'll show a hub page giving you the option to either buy or rent via iTunes or play from Netflix (if it's available). Apple has said it'll be adding more services to these central film 'hubs' over time.

It must be frustrating for Apple in some ways. The hardware and software is near perfect, all that's missing is something that's actually out of its control. It can't force developers to make apps for it, it just has to hope that they have made it easy enough, and appealing enough.

Verdict:

Should you go out and buy Apple TV right now? If you're invested in Apple's ecosystem with photos, Apple Music and a library of film and TV content bought through iTunes then yes, absolutely.

If however you're only slightly invested, as in you have Apple Music but you prefer streaming video to buying it, then we'd hesitate. Apps and games are fun, but we're not sure that on their own they're worth the price.

Instead hold off a little while, wait until we know for sure that Amazon Prime, 4OD and the rest are on board and then go out and get one.

While the future isn't he just yet, every revolution has to have a starting place and Apple TV is a worthy home.