Say hello to tvOS, an iOS offshoot that finally brings apps and a dramatically redesigned interface to the Apple TV. Gone are the simplistic black background and app interfaces. Instead, tvOS is all about bright colors and visually rich apps. Frankly, it's about time. While Roku and Amazon have been building up robust media platforms with plenty of attractive apps, Apple TV users have been stuck with an arcane interface that hasn't changed much since the second-gen version debuted five years ago. Apple's definitely playing catch-up with tvOS, but there are also some aspects that put it ahead of the competition.
Simply setting up the new Apple TV shows off the seamless integration the company can achieve across its devices today. You just need to place an iOS device near it to shoot over your WiFi and Apple ID credentials. That took just a few seconds with my iPhone 6S. It's definitely the easiest set-top setup I've seen so far, mainly because you're not just stuck typing in login credentials letter-by-letter with a directional pad. If you don't have an iOS device, you'll be stuck doing just that with the Siri Remote, a somewhat frustrating process (more on that below).
Once you're all set up, there's a familiar looking home screen, with apps for iTunes movies, TV shows and music, as well as photos. This time around though, navigating the interface is far more fluid, thanks to the Siri Remote's touchpad. There are also visual flourishes sprinkled throughout; I particularly liked how app icons sort of bend in different directions with 3D effects as you hover over them. And it's nice to finally have a button that brings you right back to the home screen (previously, that involved holding down the menu button). There's also some rudimentary multitasking: Double-clicking the home button opens up all of your recent apps, and it's pretty easy to hop between them.
As much as voice search is a big part of the new Apple TV, you'll have to deal with the on-screen keyboard once in a while. And, unfortunately, it's even worse than before. Instead of heaving several rows of letters for you to hunt and peck, now they're all presented on a single line so that you can swipe back and forth on the trackpad to select them. The big problem? While the trackpad is great for big sweeping movements, it's pretty frustrating for fine selections, like choosing letters side by side. At this point, you also can't connect a Bluetooth keyboard like with the old Apple TV, and Apple's Remote app still doesn't support it either.
App store and apps
You'll notice something new on the home screen: an app store. Finally! The previous Apple TV slowly built up a decent collection of third-party apps, but they weren't easy to make, and there was no app store of any sort to visit. Instead new applications just got downloaded to your Apple TV home screen, and you'd be left with sorting out the mess by manually hiding the ones you didn't need (which turned out to be most of them).
Given that there aren't any third-party apps installed by default, you'll have to get familiar with the app store real quick. And if you've seen one app store from Apple, you've seen them all, really. This one features popular and upcoming apps on the main page, as well as top charts, just as you'd expect. Even at this early stage, there are plenty of noteworthy apps out there. On top of the essentials like Netflix and Hulu, there are newcomers like Plex, shopping apps from QVC and Gilt, and also lots and lots of games.
There are huge quality gaps between the available apps so far. Some, like Netflix and Hulu, are merely just attractive updates to their older apps. Others just seem weird when adapted to television, like the Periscope app which doesn't even let you log into your Periscope account. (And boy, seeing most of that amateur content on a big screen isn't very entertaining.) But there are also a handful of apps that show the potential for the Apple TV to be a new and exciting platform for your living room.
The QVC app combines live video with browsable content that you can buy right from the Apple TV. And Gilt's app is basically an attractive catalog for its online store. They might feel a tad superfluous right now, but don't forget how much the availability of apps on smartphones and tablets changed the way we shop. Being able to browse shopping sites on the biggest screen in your room could certainly be tempting to many consumers.
Apps generally downloaded and installed pretty quickly, and given that Apple is imposing a 200MB file size limit on apps, you shouldn't have to deal with many lengthy downloads. Once you start piling them on, they'll all show up on your home screen, and eventually you'll have something that resembles the previous Apple TV. It'd be nice to get folders or some way to organize them eventually, though.
Siri and voice search
Siri's also a big part of tvOS, though mainly it just serves as the conduit for voice search. Tapping the microphone button on the remote opens up the standard Siri interface, you just need to dictate a search command into the remote and let Siri do its magic. Given that you're searching on something called the Apple TV, the voice search is best suited for things like movie and tv show titles, actors and directors. The voice search results were generally pretty accurate, unless I searched for a particularly tricky name or movie title. Siri can also fetch basic information like the weather, but right now it's nowhere near as robust as on iOS proper.
The best part about the Apple TV's Siri search? It does a great job of finding content across multiple services. When I searched for The Good Wife, for example, I got results pointing to several seasons on Hulu, along with the obligatory link to buy it on iTunes as well. It's gotten to the point where I'm using voice search to find things even when I know where to find them on Netflix, because the Apple TV can actually link you straight into third-party apps. No more hopping around menus and typing in search queries like a chump! (Unless you're looking for foreign titles or things that are just hard to parse with your voice.
I was also surprised at how deep the voice feature could go. When I asked it to play the first episode of Homeland, it opened the Showtime app (which I subscribe to) and immediately started playing the pilot. And the same thing happened with HBO Now when I asked for the first episode of The Sopranos. You can also use voice search to launch specific apps, which could be handy as your home screen gets messy.
Stil, there's certainly room for Siri search to get better. It can't search your shared iTunes libraries, and so far it only works with a few apps (the biggies mentioned above). Once it opens up more widely, especially for things like YouTube and sports apps, it'll be a game changer. Compared to the Fire TV and Roku 4's voice search, Apple TV works a bit faster, and it also did a better job of finding content across multiple services.
As a media device
When it comes to streaming video, the new Apple TV isn't much different than the old one. Videos seem to start up a bit faster, and the Siri remote makes fast-forwarding an rewinding much easier than before. There's actually a small image preview of where you're navigating to on the video timeline, which helps you pinpoint specific spots easily. You can probably thank the extra disk space in the Apple TV for that, since it allows for much more video caching than before.
If you had a favorite media app on the old Apple TV, chances are it's already available on the new one. But the mere existence of an app store means more services could make their way over. I was surprised to see that Plex, which builds software for streaming your personal media, managed to make their app available already. It had no trouble recognizing my existing Plex shares. It sure was weird being able to play my own media files right off of the Apple TV. Apps like Plex were also one of the biggest advantages that Roku and the Fire TV had, which means both Roku and Amazon need to start looking at other ways to differentiate themselves.
Unfortunately, if you're eager for some 4K content, the Apple TV won't be of much use to you. Unlike its main competitors this year, Apple is sticking with tried-and-true 1080p video. That makes sense to a certain extent -- most people don't have 4K TVs yet, so why build for that? Apple is all about optimizing its product margins whenever possible, and it's no stranger to waiting a bit before adopting new technology (don't forget that Apple didn't deliver LTE until the iPhone 5). But if you've already got a 4K TV, I won't blame you for feeling bummed. (Although it's worth checking to see if any built-in apps on your TV also offer 4K content.) By next year, Apple definitely won't be able to ignore 4K anymore.
On another note, it's unclear if Apple managed to overhaul AirPlay for the Apple TV and iOS 9 (as 9to5Mac reported), but based on my tests streaming Spotify tracks, local music and video, it seemed to perform better than before. AirPlay has always been one of the biggest reasons for iOS and Mac users to go with the Apple TV, but it's also a standard that's notoriously unreliable. If Apple has managed to fix that, it'll make its shiny new set-top box all the more tempting to fans.
As a gaming device
Color me surprised: The Apple TV manages to be a pretty solid gaming machine! You'd never mistake it for a dedicated gaming console, to be sure, but it offers up some decent casual gaming experiences, as well as some slightly more robust offerings. Some of the games, like Rayman Adventures and Crossy Road, are basically just iPhone ports. But there are also some new titles like Beat Sports from Harmonix which were built specifically for the Siri Remote's motion control capabilities.
All of the games on Apple TV are required to work with the Siri Remote, but you can also pair a "Made for iPhone" (MFI) controller with it over Bluetooth for more advanced games. The normal remote is fine for casual games, especially something like Crossy Road, which just requires you to swipe in several directions. Transistor was a bit tough to play with the Siri Remote alone, but once I connected a SteelSeries Nimbus controller, it felt no different than playing it on my computer with an Xbox One controller. Additional controllers typically retail for around $50, so they won't be the sort of thing most consumers would jump to.
When it comes to games, Apple TV's real future depends on how well developers take advantage of the Siri Remote. Beat Sports is currently the prime example of what's possible. It features the quirk of Wii Sports, some infuriatingly catchy music and genuinely fun gameplay that kids can learn easily. For the most part, it has you swing the remote or swipe the trackpad to the tune of cartoonish characters playing sports. It's simple, yet quickly addictive.
It should be pretty clear who Apple is fighting against for dominance in your living room: It's mainly Roku and Amazon, which offer similarly powerful, app-enabled set-top boxes. But plenty of TVs these days also come with built-in apps, which for some people makes the whole idea of having a separate box on your TV pointless. If you want a streaming box for your older TV, though, and are mostly concerned with cross-platform support, you're probably better off with the Roku 4 ($130) or the slightly older Roku 3 ($100), which despite their humdrum interfaces, offer solid voice search and a wide variety of media apps.
If you're heavily invested in Amazon's ecosystem, the $100 4K Fire TV is worth a look too. It offers a slightly better interface than Roku, along with a bigger selection of games and a gamepad accessory for more complex titles. Still, it should be no surprise that Amazon's TV box ends up mainly serving as a great advertisement for Amazon's content library and Prime. (Yes, you could easily say the same for iTunes and the Apple TV.) Heck, Amazon is even reportedly testing out its storefront on the Fire TV, which makes sense since we're already seeing shopping apps pop up on the Apple TV as well.
And again, the lack of 4K on the new Apple TV will be an instant deal breaker for some, especially when you can easily get it from Amazon and Roku. Personally, though, I'd still rather watch TV on a solid 1080p plasma, rather than the plethora of cheap 4K LCDs out there. Picture quality generally looks better, and seriously, you likely won't be able to see much of a resolution bump from your couch with 4K. If you haven't invested in a 4K set yet, it's probably worth waiting until next year when the TVs get cheaper, look better and support other new technologies, like high dynamic range (HDR). That can actually make a noticeable change in how your content looks, compared to the fairly negligible resolution bump with 4K.
Typically I'd also recommend considering older, cheaper versions of the gear I'm reviewing if you don't need all of the new features — and you can indeed save a lot by picking up the older Apple TV for $69. But in this case, I'd suggest staying away from the old Apple TV hardware. It likely won't see any software updates, now that Apple has tvOS and a whole new device to focus on. And if you've gone this long without snapping up the last Apple TV, I assume you've got some other method for watching streaming video.
So was the wait for a new Apple TV worth it? After spending a week devouring content and making it the centerpiece of my living room, I'd say yes. Its refined interface and remote, along with the best voice search implementation I've seen, puts it a step above other set-top boxes. And even at this early stage, the app store clearly has plenty of potential. The Apple TV isn't just a media box; it's a conduit for bringing the apps we've grown to love on our mobile devices to our TVs.
The only problem with the Apple TV is that there's no 4K support just yet. This will be a non-issue for many consumers, but if you want to be on the bleeding edge of quality, where every single pixel matters more than the totality of your media experience, then you'll just have to look elsewhere.
Photography by Nathan Ingraham