The Apple TV has always been a low attention item in Apple's portfolio. Phones, tablets or even laptops concentrate most of the marketing efforts but despite this silent approach Apple has managed to sell loads of these tiny boxes. For many users it was just a very convenient and effective media box that just started to become a bit outdated compared to other new Smart TV propositions. A refresh was needed and many people were waiting for this 4th generation to come to the market. Did Apple deliver on all consumer's expectations? Let's have a closer look and find out.
There is not much to say on the hardware presentation except that the box looks exactly the same as before with just a slightly increased height. This change was likely needed to host the new dual core A8 processor and the associated heat generated by this much more powerful equipment. In terms of specifications, another noticeable difference is the lack of digital audio output. The 3rd generation was equipped with an optical output which offered more connection flexibility. Apple bets that most users will use modern TVs and audio-video receivers so this should not be a problem using the HDMI output with combined audio and video signals. You may wonder if Apple updated the HDMI output to a 2.0 version but no, it's still 1.4. Not so surprising considering the box remains Full HD and not Ultra HD as one might expect. The audio has been boosted from Dolby Digital 5.1 to 7.1 to enable rear surround speakers in larger installations. No signs of HD audio support or 3D audio codec such as Dolby Atmos and DTS-X though. For audio purist the Apple TV is still lagging behind unfortunately.
To control your box, the 4 button ring has been replaced with a clicky touch pad which sits at the top of the remote. You basically use it exactly as a laptop touch pad by swiping left / right or up / down with your thumb. It's a bit surprising at first and needs a learning curve but it's pretty quick to get the hang of it. Personally, I feel that all the negative comments on the web are a bit exaggerated on this matter. When you scroll through a long list or on a timeline in a movie for instance the swipe gesture allows to speed up the effort vs the click or long press. There is an analog feel to it which lets you adjust the speed according to your movement. Overtime you surprise yourself mastering the gesture and it gets quite easy to navigate the interface.
The buttons are pretty clear and nicely positioned from an ergonomic perspective. The menu button brings up menus or acts as a back button. The screen button will always bring you to the home screen no matter where you are. Play/Pause and volume up/down are positioned at the bottom of the remote for playback control. Note that the volume can be set to control your TV or your AV receiver volume thanks to the built in IR transmitter.
The only oddity really is the new Siri button which basically triggers the voice command. How well does Siri works with the new Apple TV? Basically, it works.
By that I mean that you should not experience troubles using it as long as you use correct commands, speak clearly and stay within the perimeter where Siri is active. For instance, when I asked questions related to movies the support was quite comprehensive and accurate (movies with Christian Bale for instance gives you a complete list and options to stream the movies with this famous actor) but it did not work with Music on the other hand. Most 3rd party apps also won't implement Siri but you can launch them with the voice command. However, all these limitations are likely to be overcome with regular software updates. As I write this article, tvOS 9.1 has just been announced with Apple Music support along with other improvements.
Some will miss the voice feedback iPhones and iPads offer but it did not strike me as a key feature in the context of the Apple TV. Maybe this could be added later as an option for those who like the feel of a conversation.
One other complaint that has been reported is the lack of Bluetooth keyboard support at launch which made people go nuts to enter their details and password. Once again I found this a bit over exaggerated since you only need to do it once but good to know that this is also fixed with the new tvOS 9.1 firmware upgrade. If you own a Bluetooth keyboard you will soon be able to use it with your ATV!
Price and availability
The Apple TV is available in all Apple stores and premium resellers as well as most traditional online web shops and electronic retail stores.
The media box is available in 2 versions (32GB and 64 GB) with the following prices:
- Apple TV 4 32GB €179 EUR / $149 USD / £129 BP
- Apple TV 4 64 GB €229 EUR / $199 USD / £169 BP
I would suggest gamers to consider the 64 GB instead of the 32 GB version as games rapidly fill up memory.
With this new product comes a new operating system for Apple. After MacOS and iOS, Apple introduces his third operating system with tvOS and its dedicated app store. This change is by far the most important feature of this new release. Indeed, one of the limitations of the former ATV was the limited number of apps available. Some where fine with the selection but you could feel there was a missed opportunity for developers to upgrade the experience provided by this media center. Apple has clearly sent a message that TV is now part of the agenda and that they are willing to put resources to support a dedicated TV operating system. Unlike Google with the Android TV though, you will likely never see tvOS embedded in TVs so you will have to purchase the Apple TV in order to enjoy this platform. Let see how does it perform.
The presentation is really simple and intuitive. You don't need long to figure out how to navigate within the apps and the main screen. There is also never an over abondance of content. On a 42in screen at roughly 3 meters text is always displayed in a clear way and easily readable.
Many users of Smart TVs the past 3 years have complained about how unstable or sluggish the experience is, even with recent premium televisions like Sony for instance (Android TV). Here the ecosystem is fully controlled and calibrated by Apple and the experience is consequently very good with a mature and stable environment.
The app store already propose a large number of apps from various categories. The classic Netflix, Youtube, Hulu, HBO Now are there along with a bunch of news channels and a growing selection of games. The best has yet to come though as the app store is only live for few weeks.
Are apps the future of TV?
It's a good time to take a step back and reflect on the words of Tim Cook during the keynote "Apps are the future of TV".
Today most people access TV content with a subscription from a broadcast operator (cable, ADSL, Satellite). Some countries do offer free over the air Digital TV but obviously content is limited. To upgrade your selection of content you then have to subscribe to premium packages.
With the development of Smart TV platforms directly embedded in TVs or as stand alone boxes such as the Apple TV, content providers see the opportunity to cut the middle man and offer subscriptions directly to the end user. This way they avoid bleeding their margin away into the powerful broadcast companies such as Comcast and Liberty Global. Granted they have to use a platform being Android (Google) or osTV (Apple) but their margin and position are much stronger in this new environment.
It also gives them a tremendous flexibility. Let's take the case of Eurosport for instance which is not yet available on tvOS but will surely join soon. Users subscribing to the Eurosport player app can enjoy a lot of customised services depending on events covered. During a tennis grand slam for instance, you can basically choose which court you would like to follow instead of relying on the choice available on the traditional broadcasted channels. During a formula one Grand Prix, you have access to all the cameras as another example of this added flexibility.
TV producers are now well aware of those benefits and as the Smart TV solutions are maturing they shift their efforts towards these platforms including the Apple TV.
HBO was one of the last strong player to introduce an app service with HBO Now. More recently ESPN and Disney also announced that their business model will shift from cable to streaming and it would not be surprising if more TV content providers follow this path in the coming years.
What does this mean for the consumer?
Well, you can basically select free and paid apps to build your own media library. Each service will eventually be much richer than their equivalent broadcasted versions and additionally you won't need to pay for channels you never watch.
What's true for traditional TV content providers also applies to newcomers where they are basically offered a much easier access to the consumers. Netflix is a brilliant example as within few years they became one the biggest TV content provider in the world. More companies will surely come in and disrupt this market which should benefit the consumers eventually.
Yes, I believe in this future full of apps and streaming and as many consumers have already done, I seriously consider myself stopping my cable TV subscription and simply using a media box such as the Apple TV as my sole source of media.
You noticed that the app store also provides access to a number of Games which is also a new addition to the Apple TV feature set. Thanks to a more powerful hardware platform and the obvious simplicity of porting games from iOS to tvOS, you can expect a serious gaming platform from Apple going forward. The new Siri remote offers gaming control functionality thanks to the accelerometer and gyroscope but you can also purchase third party game pads on the app store to upgrade your gaming experience. Will this make the Apple TV a serious competitor to Playstation and Xbox? Hard to say but no one thought much of playing on phones and tablets few years back. Probably hard core gamers will still prefer more dedicated solutions such as gaming consoles or computers but for casual gamers and kids, this may be the perfect all-in-one solution.
What are the lows?
With a new operating system, it is very difficult to assess the full potential of a product such as the Apple TV. If developers and content providers embrace this new platform, which is a likely scenario, the ATV4 could be your perfect media box for the next years to come.
What we can judge however are a certain number of limitations which may steer you away from this solution.
- Lack of 4K resolution is hard to understand as most recent mid to high end TVs come with 4K as standard resolution and 4K is developing thanks to Netflix and Amazon
- Lack of digital audio output may be an issue for consumers owning older generation AVRs
- Although the sound output has been upgraded to 7.1, a lot of consumers would have welcome the possibility to bitstream HD audio formats to their receivers (Dolby True HD, DTS HD Master) or even the new Atmos and DTS-X 3D audio formats
- Similarly, Apple Music streaming service does not allow HD audio or even CD quality which may be a problem for those requiring audiophile grade lossless music playback
To fully enjoy the potential of the new Apple TV, you probably need to be using Apple services for music, photos and videos. However, the new app store promises a lot of additional possibilities that extends the audience beyond traditional Apple consumers. As explained in my previous post 8 Dandy gifts for Christmas, consumers looking for the newest technologies like 4K resolution and surround sound will probably find this new edition disappointing, however for mainstream consumers, the package offered with the ATV 4 is really appealing. It is easy to use with its sleek interface. The OS is stable and fluid and the app store will probably be soon populated with a rich offering of content, maybe the richest in the Smart TV world if Apple becomes as dominant as in the mobile industry. For all these reasons, I believe the Apple TV is a great buy and should suit most consumers. Even with the price increase I consider this product to be fairly affordable considering its potential. Not so long ago a good DVD player or computer were costing several times more after all.
How do you find this new Apple product? Do you think it fits your requirements or do you miss some features? Please post your comments below and let us know how you feel about this new solution from Apple.
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