Apple TV review: Is the future apps?
The future of TV, if Tim Cook is to be believed, is apps.
We've never had so much control over what we watch; where and how we watch it as the popularity of online streaming services and 24/7 catchup has exploded and the digital switchover dragged us all into the digital 21st century.
The problem lies in creating a one-stop portal to all the films, programmes and games you could possibly ever want: vast swathes of content which is easily-searchable, navigatable and crucially, on a platform which supports the majority of apps and services you need.
As the set top box and smart television market currently stands, this is the hard nut to crack. But will the fourth generation of Apple TV be the closest we get to a comprehensive all-in-one?
Fourth generation box
If you're unfamiliar with Apple TV, this is its fourth iteration since its launch alongside the first iPhone in 2007. Apple has given it a zippier processor that its predecessor, the 64-bit A8 chip to support graphic-intensive games, but it doesn't support 4K. This is a bit odd given that the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus are now capable of shooting 4K footage, but on balance the range of 4K-shot films is fairly limited at present.
It is available in two versions, 32Gb and 64GB, and is controlled through a slim Bluetooth-enabled remote - which for the first time sports a capacitive touch surface for navigating menus. A slight question marks hangs over the need for two storage sizes, given how the majority of us stream over downloading these days, but the option is yours if you want it.
To get started, plug the box into your TV via the HDMI port (warning: an HDMI to HDMI cable is not included in the pack), plug it in and log in with your Apple ID - either over Bluetooth from an iOS device or manually.
The glass and aluminium remote feature four buttons for the actions you'll be inputting most frequently - Menu, which effectively works as a back button, Home which returns you to the home screen, Play/Pause and Siri for voice commands. Its top half is matte to indicate the capacitive touch trackpad surface you'll be using to navigate.
Skimming your thumb across the matt surface is a pretty intuitive method of hopping from app to app onscreen, and lessens the irritation of having to key in your Apple ID and password. It can also control the TV's volume, eliminating the need to juggle controllers, and lasts around three months on a single charge before you'll need to plug it in through its lightening connector on the bottom edge.
Another clever aspect of the touch surface is swiping right to fast forward or left to rewind, whilst pressing down on the respective sides skips forwards or back 10 seconds. This takes a bit of getting used to if you accidentally apply too much pressure whilst picking the remote up between thumb and forefinger, but your place in the content is marked, making it easy to slot back in.
It's worth noting the remote is incredibly light (47g), and its slight build means it's highly prone to getting lost among cushions. Keep it somewhere safe.
New operating system tvOS is very similar to iOS, and divides the home screen into iTunes films and tv shows, supported apps, including Netflix, Sky News, YouTube, Now TV and TED, and games. Depending on how deeply integreated into iTunes you are, this will either be a blessing or a curse - a lot of Apple TV's functionality is centred around acting as a portal to rent or purchase new content through the platform.
You can customise the appearance of your home screen by dragging your favourite apps into the top row and rearrange them to dictate what's displayed on the top shelf above. Like iOS, double-clicking the home button draws up a list of the apps you've recently opened, and swipe upwards to close it. The interface is clean, clear and uncluttered - everything you'd expect from Apple.
The good news is, for the very first time Apple TV users can browse the App Store to seek out new channels of entertainment. The bad news is, the truly useful third party apps are currently somewhat limited, and none of these are preinstalled when you first begin using it.
Although the BBC has already confirmed an iPlayer app is on its way, there's no Channel 4, Channel 5 or ITV apps either. It is possible to mirror these apps from an iOS device or Mac to the Apple TV through Airplay, but I found they tend to get a bit confused during advert breaks, playing the same advert on repeat for longer than the time specified, or freezing. This is a bug I imagine Apple will swiftly iron out, but it was irritating having playback regularly interrupted.
It's not just about watching films and programmes however, there are plenty of non TV-centric apps to pique your interest. Airbnb is one of the slightly odd choices, or you can perhaps indulge in some clothes shopping through Gilt. I'm not fully convinced by these yet, but a widening of choice in the next few months may well sway me.
Search with Siri
Digital assistant Siri's integration into Apple TV was one of the big talking points during its launch presentation in September, and one that makes perfect sense. Much like the Apple Watch, you don't want to key in long lines of text and voice search is a simple solution to this.
Activate Siri by pressing and holding the Siri button on the remote and simply speaking, there's no need to hold it to your mouth like the Amazon Fire remote. It's worth pointing out that while these searches can suggest you open the resulting content in Netflix or similar, providing you have an account, more often than not it will point you back towards coughing up and downloading it from iTunes.
Siri is capable of some excellent deep search within Apple-supported content through relatively complicated commands, such as "Show episode nine of season three of Game of Thrones", or Show me movies directed by the Coen brothers". More refined searches, like "Show me the episode of Friends with Brad Pitt", or "What are the worst films of the '80s" draw from data sets including the programme's description, or a title's rating on a platform like Rotten Tomatoes.
That said, if you prefer the old-fashioned method, there is also a search app on the home screen for manual input of titles, actors, apps etc.
Whilst you can use Siri to find films and programmes within Netflix, there's no current voice search support for Apple Music, and besides searching you can also ask Siri for weather forecasts, stocks information, should you feel so inclined, and sport results.
Gaming was another big focus of the launch keynote speech. The remote has been designed to also act as a game controller thanks to its inbuilt accelerometer and gyroscope. Like the Wii, if you're concerned about flinging your controller across the room mid-game, you can buy a Siri remote loop, which plugs into the lightening connector.
Perhaps due to the nature of the apps currenty available, Apple TV has more in common with the Wii than it does PlayStation or Xbox. I tested the immensely frustrating Crossy Road, Beat Sports and Shadowmatic, all of which would be excellent for keeping small children entertained. They're not the most sophisticated endeavours, but they are fun and that's all that matters.
For more intensive games you can buy a third party-produced wireless controller, which I haven't yet tested. Gaming is a category which deserves to be, and will be, great.
Apple Music and Photos
Should you have an Apple Music account, you can access it through the inbuilt app, whilst Photos draws from the images associated with the Apple ID you logged in with.
Apple appears very proud of its aerial screensavers, consisting of drone and helicopter footage shot at a variety of locations across the world including London, San Francisco, Hawaii, New York and the Great Wall of China, with more expected to follow soon. Like the timelapse watchfaces introduced with watchOS 2, the screensaver will display either day or night time depending on what time it is where you are in the world.
How well you get on with the Apple TV will depend very much on how engrossed in its ecosystem you are. If you own an iPhone, iPad, Mac et al, and you're not balking at the price, it's a logical purchase, and if you're an iTunes die-hard who has invested a lot in films, music and programmes on there, you'll love it. If you're not an Apple fan, converting you would be a challenge.
But once more entertainment apps are available, Apple TV will be truly brilliant, with plenty of shopping and fitness outlets if you're into that kind of thing. The big question lies around when Apple is going to produce its own smart TV and streaming service, as there will come a time when set top boxes are consigned to being a thing of the past. But until then, this fourth generation model is a significant improvement on its predecessor, the new remote is brilliant and it's probably the set top box with the most potential on the market today.
Prices start from €180.