The new Apple TV (4th generation) was released last week and, having already sold my 3rd gen Apple TV, I finally caved in and ordered a new one on Wednesday night during MacBreak Weekly - the daily reviews, podcasts and general talk of it became too much.
I ordered the 32GB version from the Apple Online Store, costing a cool €179 (the 64GB is €229). I'd normally always advise to get a larger capacity than the base model of any device, but seeing as how the storage is utilised by apps is still an unknown, I thought I'd chance the smaller (and cheaper) option. I placed my order at about 10pm Wednesday night, got an expected delivery date of Friday, but actually received the item Thursday afternoon.
Appearance and packaging
The device itself is about the same width and depth as the previous gen, but almost twice as tall, looking as if someone has placed one 3rd gen device on top of another and taped them together. It's also significantly heavier. On the back is a port for the power cable, a USB-C port (where you can plug in the supplied lightning cable to charge your remote), a HDMI port for connection to your TV and an ethernet port for a hard-wired internet connection and for diagnostics.
The box and contents are well designed and packaged - as you'd expect from Apple - and contains the device, the Siri remote, a Lightning cable for charging the remote, and the usual booklets and Apple stickers.
It still surprises me that Apple don't include a HDMI cable with these devices. The whole unboxing process is always a great experience and something Apple prides themselves on. But I can't help but feel there will be a few surprised and annoyed people opening these devices this christmas. Opening an Apple TV and then realising you have to find or buy a separate cable will undoubtedly catch a few people out and sour the experience. Even a super cheap and basic cable would be better than none at all.
I'd heard mixed experiences and reviews of the set up process. I hoped for the best and, think, I got pretty much the worst.
Upon turning the Apple TV on, you're prompted to set up with another Apple device. This, in theory, pulls your information (wifi networks, passwords etc) through to the Apple TV. Amazing I thought/hoped. My devices paired, but I was then prompted to enter my password o the phone. I have a long, random password so don't know it off hand and didn't want to cancel the prompt in fear of having to set the ATV up manually. I got my iPad, logged in to LastPass and manually entered it on my iPhone. During the next hour I had to enter my password manually on the ATV countless other times, as well as when I logged in to each app where I have a subscription - such as Netflix. This was a nightmare. A tedious nightmare.
Text input has changed in this new ATV. Gone is the grid of letters where you would have to navigate up, down, left and right with the buttons on the remote. Now we have a horizontal string of characters which are accessed by swiping on the remote's new touchpad and then clicking. Different, maybe slightly easier, but still a pain in the backside - especially when you over-swipe and have to go back, or enter something incorrectly and have to swipe to the backspace button right at the very end of the line of characters.
Once I was in, I decided to get some apps. My iTunes Store account is Finnish (we'll come to changing this later), so I had a limited selection, made even more difficult by the fact that categories or top lists have yet to be introduced to Finland. Initially apps were super slow to download. I assume this is because of the data the ATV was also pulling from iCloud etc. As I write this (on Saturday), apps take a matter of seconds to download.
My experience with the apps hasn't been great so far. Apps seem to randomly freeze and crash on a regular basis. Upon installing Netflix, I opened it, entered my credentials and the the app just booted me out to the ATV home screen. After that, it took about 10 attempts until it finally loaded up. Even today I had the same issue with Netflix where it took 3 attempts to access the app before it actually loaded. Other apps have also been behaving in this manner, with crashes and not loading. Just opening and running an app can be an annoying and frustrating experience.
The expat set up
On the older ATVs you could easily set up a DNS (I use UnblockUs) and change your country to that of your choosing, so as to access all of their apps and content. It was a fairly easy and straight-forward process. Not on the new Apple TV.
I set my language and region as UK. I then added my UnblockUS DNS details and went to change the iTunes Store country (I need my Sky News app and the up-coming BBC iPlayer app). I changed it to UK and (again!) had to manually enter my password. I was prompted to turn on Siri (Yes, straight on, of course) and was taken back to the account info screen. "Success!" I thought. A couple of seconds later, the screen flashed, I was told Siri was not available in Finland and my account had been automatically set back to Suomi. Apple now seems to be doing server-side checks to see what store your account is linked to elsewhere.
The solution: Apple allows for multiple iTunes Store accounts to be added to the Apple TV. Each of these can be from a different country, if you so wish. I created a new Apple ID for the UK Store and have defaulted to this (while still retaining those apps I've purchased/downloaded from the Finnish store.
To do this:
- On an iOS device (it's easier than using iTunes), go to Settings >iTunes & App Store > select the Apple ID > select sign out.
- Go to the App Store app on your device.
- Find a free app and select Get.
- You'll be prompted to choose to use either an existing Apple ID or create a new one. Create a new one.
- Select your country of choice and agree to the terms and conditions.
- Use an email address (ideally a brand new one) that has no Apple account or iTunes Store association.
- Under the payment section you can select None. Note: If you use an email address which is in any way tied to another Apple ID, you won't get this None option and will have to enter a payment method from the country you are selecting the store to be.
- Fill in your details and create the account. Verify the account via the email you get sent.
- On your Apple TV, go to Settings > Accounts > iTunes & App Store and add in your new account. Job done.
Note: There is a trade-off with this option. My content, such as my Apple Music subscription, is under my Finnish account. As I have the account set to the UK iTunes account so that I can have all the great apps and Siri, I can't access my music easily. Not that I'm really going to be running music through my TV, but should I want it, I would have to go to the account settings, make the Finnish account default, lose Siri, and then go back to Music. This strikes me as a bit strange, seeing as my iCloud account is still signed in under my Finnish account details. Hey ho!
UI and other features
The UI of tvOS is generally nice. It's very iOS 7, 8, 9-esque. It's flatter, simpler and more refined. The opaque screens you get on iOS are present and give it a fresher look. Most TV set-top box and Smart TV UIs are dark, so it takes a tiny bit of getting used to, but I personally like it.
I like the small parallax effect app icons have. You can move your finger over the remote touchpad slightly and the on-screen app moves with it. It gives it an intuitiveness and sense of control. Also, if the device is not in use and just sitting on one of the system screens (home screen, settings etc) the screen will dim slightly after a few minutes of non-use. Picking up the remote brightens the screen again as the motions sensor in the remote triggers the ATV to come back to life.
The screensavers on the ATV are a thing of beauty. I've been running them on my retina MacBook Pro for a few weeks and they are simply gorgeous. Filmed with both helicopters and drones, they fly through city-scapes and scenery during different times of day (London, New York, San Francisco, China and Hawaii), in HD. Triple-clicking the Menu button on the remote manually activates the screensavers - I find myself doing this a lot just to watch them.
Universal Search is a great addition. You can now search across multiple apps insteat of having to go in to each app individually to find that one movie of thing you want. Search will also prioritise results that are free and not just it's own iTunes content. So if you search for a film and you have Netflix, it will prioritise that result instead of the paid ones from iTunes or other services.
Siri is still hit and miss. The ability to press the Siri button on the remote and talk to it is amazing, but result still vary. A couple of examples: I asked for "show me film with Robert De Niro". It heard and transcribed it correctly, but only showed me results for "show me films with Robert", so I got stuff from Downey Jr., Redford, etc. I also asked it "show me stuff with Ricky Gervais". The only thing it returned was The Ricky Gervais Show, when there are tons of films and tv shows featuring him, both on iTunes and within Netflix which I have installed and running.
The Siri remote is a huge improvement on the last remote, but still not without its faults. Buttons are minimal and simple - Menu, Home, Siri, play/pause and volume up/down. The volume buttons now also control the tv itself - a really handy feature inclusion. When you want to scrub through videos, the touchpad is responsive and the beefed-up internals make it quick (not like the previous generations where you'd wait forever for it to buffer and re-sync). This also causes a problem though. If you're watching a video, picking up the remote will, on most occasions with me, trigger the scrubbing as the touchpad feels a finger on it. Using the remote for games has been ok so far. I'm not much of a games player, but for basic things like Asphalt 8 and Flappy Bird it works. As I download and test more games, I'm fairly sure I'll be investing in a proper game controller though. Ergonomically the remote is still as bad as the las tone. Yes, it's small and sleek, but it doesn't fit too well in the hand, especially when swiping on the touchpad. Expect to get about 3 months usage out of the remote's rechargeable battery and then just plug it in to a USB enabled device with the provided Lightning cable and it'll be good to go for another 3 months within a matter of hours.
Improvements and final thoughts
The remote needs improving (see above) and integration with the iOS Remote app would be great and would make the whole password entering fiasco so much easier.
The set up process NEEDS to be much better. Bringing in support for more recent hardware and features such as TouchID would make this better. I would loved to have paired my iPhone with the ATV, authenticate using TouchID and then have it suck all my data, settings, passwords etc over, leaving me to do as little as possible when it comes to logging in to accounts and apps.
I think most people that follow Apple are of the assumption that this device, in its current state, has been sat around Cupertino for a couple of years now while Apple continued working on content and licensing deals (which are yet to come). It needed to be released and, ideally, before christmas. They stuck in the latest hardware to beef it up, but the tvOS and the processes within it (such as the set up process) seem like they're a couple of years old. Having teams within Apple work in silos also hasn't helped - the massive investment and rebuild of apps like Photos, Music and iCloud aren't reflected here. Nor are the advancements with technology such as TouchID and device pairing.
If you own a 3rd gen Apple TV, I'd say wait until tvOS 9.1 comes out (hopefully in the coming weeks). The potential for this device is huge and, as more apps come on board and get refined and updated (along with the OS itself and its key features like Siri and Universal Search), the ATV will become a more fully featured device and integral to the home.
If you live in the Apple ecosystem, or are buying a christmas present for somebody who does, this is a great purchase. Over the coming months we'll hopefully see updates and refinements that will help justify the Apple TV's price tag.
Update: So, after a weekend properly playing with new and old apps, I can really see the future appeal and potential. I downloaded the Plex app on Saturday night and it's a God-send - it almost justifies the cost of the Apple TV alone!