Compared with the runaway successes of the iPod, iPhone, and iPad, the Apple TV living room media player hasn’t had a stellar track record. Despite considerable hype leading up to its early 2007 release, Apple declared the first Apple TV “a hobby” shortly after it hit stores, then began a seemingly endless campaign to figure out what people actually wanted it to do. Three years later, a second-gen version refocused on video rentals and added one major feature — AirPlay — to stream and mirror content from iOS devices and Macs. A tweaked third-gen model added 1080p support after less than two years. The modest changes led Apple TV sales to resemble a bunny hill; even Apple’s atypically aggressive price points couldn’t help the devices match the popularity of Roku, Amazon, and Google rivals.
Next week, pre-orders will start for the fourth-generation Apple TV, and it would be easy to say “pass:” none of the prior versions has been fantastic, and once again, Apple deliberately left out an arguably major feature — 4K Ultra HD support — that competitors jumped on, and will probably topline the inevitable fifth-generation Apple TV. But I’d personally suggest that you consider ordering the new $149 Apple TV anyway. Even though its potential won’t really be tapped until (at least) next year, early adopters are about to have a fun ride as it develops into an amazing new living room entertainment platform…
If you’ve already used the prior-generation Apple TV, you know the basics of what the new version will do: play videos, music, and photos on your TV, including content streamed from the Internet, as well as AirPlay-streamed content directly from a nearby iPad, iPhone, iPod touch, or Mac. These features alone justified earlier Apple TVs for millions of people, but they were tightly controlled by Apple, and only intermittently augmented with new streaming “channels.” That’s changing.
Based upon tvOS, a TV-optimized version of iOS, the new Apple TV adds several major new features. First, it can download third-party apps and games. Second, it can integrate app-like data content with multiple audio and video streams for a next-generation interactive TV experience. Third, it will be able to serve as a hub for HomeKit accessories, possibly also controlling your TV and home theater setup. In short, the Apple TV is no longer just an audio, photo, and video player… it’s more like an iOS-based game console and (mini-)computer for your TV.
What To Expect: The Hardware
Made entirely from glossy and matte black plastics, the new Apple TV looks just like its two predecessors, only around 50% taller and with two rear port changes. The optical audio output is gone, forcing all audio to go through HDMI, and the (service-only) micro-USB port has given way to a (still service-only) USB-C connector. As iFixit notes, a giant heat sink inside makes it noticeably heavier than before.
The U.S. version of the new Apple TV and some international versions will ship with the new Siri Remote, which is black on top, silver on the bottom. It’s larger in every dimension than the second-generation Apple Remote that shipped with the last two Apple TVs. To make scrolling quicker, Apple has replaced the prior four-direction navigation circle with a small matte glass surface that can be used for navigational swipe gestures and gentler positioning. The glass can be pushed downwards for menu selections, and unlike Apple’s Magic Trackpad 2, it actually clicks. Gyroscope/accelerometer sensors are hidden inside the remote for future games, and not used within the main Apple TV interface.
Four new buttons have been added to enable the Siri Remote to turn your TV’s volume up or down, activate twin built-in microphones for Siri voice input, and quickly return to the Apple TV’s main menu. Using a feature called Home Theater Control, certain TVs (including AnyNet-compatible models) can also be turned on and off using the Siri Remote, which now has both Bluetooth and Infrared transmitters built in for wireless communications. Apple includes a multi-month rechargeable battery this time, and lets you refuel it with an included Lightning to USB cable. Extra Siri Remotes will sell for $79, and Remote Loop wrist straps for under $20.
Third-party Bluetooth game controllers are supported, as are Bluetooth speakers and headphones — all brand-new to this version of the Apple TV. But unlike prior Apple TVs, Bluetooth keyboards are a question mark, and don’t appear to work; for instance, Apple’s just-released Magic Keyboard doesn’t pair wirelessly or when connected via a USB-C adapter.
What To Expect: The Software
As shown in my colleague Dom Esposito’s video below, Apple has substantially redesigned the Apple TV’s user interface with an ambitious, visually appealing set of improvements. Everything’s been whitewashed (or light-graywashed) with a brighter color palette, text has been flipped to Apple’s new San Francisco font, and drop shadows have been added. Translucent panes introduced in iOS 7 have made their way to tvOS, with even better results.
One big change that isn’t obvious from screenshots is speed: the new Apple TV lets you zip rather than plodding through menus, thanks in equal parts to a considerably beefier A8 processor and the more responsive Siri Remote. Additionally, app icons and cover art images now wiggle in 3D thanks to an Apple mandate that developers include 2-5 parallax layers to create depth.
Much of the new UI — notably including some Apple-developed widgets such as Weather and Stocks that aren’t represented with app icons — can be navigated using Siri voice commands. You have to hold down the Siri Remote’s microphone button while you speak to get Siri to “hear” and process whatever you say, releasing the button when you’re done; this takes a little adjustment, but is better than killing the Siri Remote’s battery by having it endlessly listen for (and, like the iPhone 6s, too often ignore) the words “hey, Siri.”
By holding down the mic button, Siri can be activated in the middle of pretty much anything, including videos. You can use Siri for voice-controlled for navigation, “what did they just say?” inquiries, and lookups of information related to whatever’s currently playing. The remote’s touch surface can be swiped to expand or hide panes of information, which serve as partial translucent overlays or fill the entire screen with additional content if you prefer.
An App Store, soon to be opened, will let you add free and paid apps to the new Apple TV. It is highly likely that the device will arrive with only a handful of Apple-developed apps pre-installed, leaving you to choose most of the way you’ll fill your scrolling Home screen with apps.
Other frills in the UI are sparing but occasionally eye-catching. Aerial screensavers stream gorgeous 1080p flyover videos of San Francisco, New York City, Hawaii, London, and the Great Wall of China, displaying different videos based on the time of day and downloading a new bundle of 3-4 videos on your preferred (daily/weekly/monthly) schedule. Each bundle of videos is around 600MB, and there are at least 10 bundles currently on Apple’s servers. New accessibility features make the UI easier to see or hear for users with vision or hearing deficiencies. And integrated calibration screens let you optimize the output for your personal television set or overscan preferences.
What To Expect: Apps and Games
The A8 processor inside the new Apple TV is one year and three generations old, which is to say that it’s already been surpassed in power by the iPad Air 2’s A8X, iPhone 6s/6s Plus’s A9, and iPad Pro’s A9X. But with at least as much horsepower as the iPad Air, iPad mini 2 and 3, iPhone 6, and iPhone 6 Plus, the Apple TV will be well-equipped to play new games, as well as thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of games previously released for iOS devices, assuming they’re updated to support the tvOS operating system. Expect the graphics in 3D games to be roughly on par with consoles such as the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and original Wii, and no shortage of ability to handle 2D games of any type.
One note of caution about tvOS games: for all of the Apple TV’s incredible potential as a gaming platform, Apple has continued to ignore (entirely reasonable) requests from serious gamers regarding basic controller issues, such as allowing developers to offer games without support for the restrictive Siri Remote. Multi-player gaming may also be restricted due to simultaneous connection limitations of the new Apple TV’s Bluetooth chip. It remains to be seen whether software and hardware decisions like this, which have upset many within the gaming community, kills the Apple TV’s ability to win over major game developers and their customers.
While apps are a lot easier to code than games, the Apple TV’s living room-focused interface (and potential lack of Bluetooth keyboard support) hint that Apple’s not looking to see it turn into a cut-rate Mac. Basic widgets to extend the functionality of traditional TV features — watching sports, learning about the weather — will appear quickly, as will tvOS versions of Netflix, HBO Now, Hulu Plus, Showtime, and other channels, but don’t expect Apple to endorse creation apps, web browsers, or other Mac mainstays for the platform. At least, yet. Similarly, it will be interesting to see whether compromised apps for walkie talkie-like audio and/or one-way video calling take off in the absence of integrated FaceTime-caliber hardware.
Buy In, Cautiously: Unless Your Broadband Package Is Data-Capped, Go 32GB For Now
The new Apple TV comes in 32GB ($149) and 64GB ($199) versions, each representing a huge jump in storage over the 8GB second- and third-generation Apple TVs. Apple has mandated that app developers implement extreme space-saving measures, limiting the initial footprint of any app to 200MB with the ability to grab up to 2GB of additional content on an as-needed basis. (It’s believed that the new Apple TV will treat in-app content like old models handled video streams, using caches to load and purge extra files as needed — great for reducing storage, bad for broadband packages with data caps.)
If you do the math, and assume the Apple TV will allocate around 8GB of space for Apple’s various apps, you’ll be able to hold around 120 basic apps on the 32GB model, or 280 on the 64GB model, each number shrinking considerably if you have apps (primarily games) with additional 2GB caches. You can choose the best size for your own anticipated needs, but if you only plan to keep this Apple TV around for a year or two, consider going with the smaller one and saving the extra $50 to put towards a future sequel. At that point, your “old” Apple TV might stay with your “old” 2K TV, while the new Apple TV could be paired with a new 4K Ultra HD TV.
What I’m Going To Do
Even though the prior versions of the Apple TV haven’t been mega-hits, the second- and third-generation models have been amongst my family’s most-used Apple devices — handy for everything from watching videos to occasionally putting FaceTime calls up on a large TV. I’m personally very excited about the fourth-generation Apple TV’s potential, and think the next year will be a wild ride for early adopters, though I do think the first two or three months may be somewhat chaotic as developers rush to get their hastily-completed apps and games into the Apple TV App Store. I’ll be buying a new Apple TV the moment they go on sale, and can’t wait to see what developers bring to the new platform.
More From This Author
Check out more of my editorials, How-To guides, and reviews for 9to5Mac here! I’ve covered a lot of different topics of interest to Mac, iPad, iPhone, iPod, Apple TV, and Apple Watch users. I’ve recently discussed how to safely prepare and wipe your iPhone for resale or trade-in, and how to get the best iPhone trade-in price to help buy an iPhone 6s, amongst many other topics.