The iPhone 6S and iPad Pro are cool and all, but the Apple gadget that I was most looking forward to this fall was the new Apple TV. It is, quite notoriously, the device that Apple has most publicly neglected over the years. Its last big update was way back in 2012, when Apple finally added 1080p support. And even that third-gen Apple TV wasn't too exciting, since it looked exactly the same as the one released in 2010. So yah, it was about time Apple totally rethought its approach to TV. After finally getting to test one out over the weekend, I found that the new fourth-generation Apple TV was worth the wait -- though there are still plenty of issues to iron out.
Gallery: Apple TV (2015) hands-on | 10 Photos
Gallery: Apple TV (2015) hands-on | 10 Photos
Everything about the new Apple TV feels different: The device itself looks like two of its predecessors stacked together. On the rear, there are HDMI, Ethernet and USB-C ports (sorry, optical audio fans). Instead of the minimalist silver remote Apple has relied on for years, it sports a larger wireless remote that looks a strange combination of iPhone and MacBook design. There's a touchpad on top that feels about as smooth as a MacBook's touchpad, and the bottom half is covered in glass, reminiscent of the iPhone 4. It has buttons for voice search, "Menu" (which mostly serves as a back button), and "Home," as well as play/pause and volume buttons (which controls volume on your TV or receiver over HDMI).
The back of the remote is all metal, with rounded edges resembling the iPhone 6. Oh, and it charges over a Lightning cable now, which is particularly useful since the remote's motion controls might be a bit of a power drain. Overall, it simply feels great, whereas the last Apple TV remote feels outrageously dated by now.
Setting up the new Apple TV is a great example of the tight integration Apple can achieve with its devices. After pairing the remote wirelessly, you can just hold an iOS device near the Apple TV to transfer your wireless and Apple ID credentials. You'll have to enter your Apple ID password on your iOS device, but that's still a better onboarding experience than having to type with the onscreen keyboard.
The other big change is tvOS, the iOS offshoot powering the new Apple TV. instead of the dark and simple decor of the last Apple TV, the tvOS interface is all about bright colors that pop on its white background. Yes, you could call it a night and day difference. Surprisingly, there's very little installed on your Apple TV home screen when you first start using it. You'll have to hop over to the app store to add services like Netflix, Hulu, and HBO Now.
At this point the app store has most of the popular offerings from the last Apple TV, along with a plethora of games and a handful of apps that show off entirely new experiences. Strangely enough, the new QVC app is one of the best examples of what developers can do with tvOS: It shows off live TV feeds, along with options to buy products right from the Apple TV. Late-night shopping just got a bit more dangerous.
When it comes to maneuvering around tvOS, the new remote is a dream. Its trackpad offers a level of fluidity that never would have been possible with a traditional directional pad. There are downsides, though, when it comes to precise selections. Its easy to overshoot or undershoot with the trackpad when you're aiming for a particular piece of content, or something on the menu. And it's a shame that the new on-screen keyboard feels just as bad as hunting and pecking on the old Apple TV. It features a single line of characters that you have to swipe back and forth to select. Even worse, Apple hasn't updated its remote app to support the new Apple TV yet, which was always a great fallback for extended on-screen typing, and there's no Bluetooth keyboard support yet. Hopefully you won't have to do too much typing after setting up your favorite streaming services.
It's pretty clear that Apple spent much more time thinking about voice search this time around than it did text input. You just need to hold down the microphone button on the remote to activate Siri, and then ask it for specific titles, actors or directors. You can even ask it questions naturally, like "show me some new horror movies." Best of all, Siri doesn't just fetch you results on iTunes, it will also alert you if something is on Netflix, Hulu and HBO Now, in addition to other services. Unfortunately, Siri can't search your personal iTunes library or network shares yet, but I'm hoping that's added eventually.
On the gaming side, I was surprised just how good some games looked on my TV, though everything I tested like Rayman Adventures and Crossy Road are basically just mobile ports. Apple requires that all games support the remote, which is nice for compatibility purposes, but rough since the trackpad isn't very precise for some games. You can also wirelessly connect a PC gaming controller to it as well. but I wasn't able to test one of those out yet, unfortunately. There's certainly plenty of gaming potential here, but the Apple TV won't be replacing your gaming console anytime soon. At the very least, it's now on par with Amazon and Roku's set-top gaming efforts.
As nice as the interface and remote upgrades are, the new Apple TV doesn't support 4K video, which might be deal breaker for many people with shiny new TVs. That's a particular shame, since 4K is something both the new Roku 4 and Fire TV are touting as key features. I'm not rushing to jump into 4K yet either, but having it would have been a nice way to future-proof the new Apple TV. As it stands, you can bet that 4K is something next year's model will support.
I'm still in the midst of testing out the new Apple TV, so check back in for a full review later this week.