Apple TV review

Apple TV is bleeding-edge streaming device that takes some getting used to

TODO alt text

After spending so much time with an Apple TV and an actual app store with third-party content, it's hard to imagine going back to a system without all that.

There was a time when many of us settled for a limited streaming solution that mirrored our Apple devices but lacked anything other than a few dozen pre-approved apps. That time has passed.

Now, that doesn't mean the App Store is bursting at the seams with content just yet (it definitely isn't), but there are plenty of indicators that show developers' interest in Apple's newly created OS.

New Apple TV

The fact it took Plex approximately five days to release a full app, for example, is one, and Beat Sports, an app from major traditional game developer Harmonix, is another.

But until more software does appear there are only really a handful of apps worth latching onto right now.

Content

Right off the bat, the majority of the content you'll be shown is from Apple itself.

For starters you'll be shown the latest hits on the iTunes Movie and TV show storefronts, as well as be directed towards Music for all your audio needs. It can be slightly overwhelming if you're not used to Apple's lush, content-rich financial minefield, but anyone who's used an iPhone or iTunes in the past few years will be able to navigate around without accidentally dropping dinero on one of the promotional deals.

Get past the opening deals and slew of Apple content and you'll find the epicenter of the new Apple TV, the App Store. On it you'll see the regular stable of streaming video apps (HBO Now, Showtime Anytime, Netflix and Hulu are all present and accounted for), and many of the top US sports apps including MLB.tv, NHL GameCenter Live, NBA.com League Pass and Watch ESPN.

If you're in the mood for good ol' cable, you can find streaming versions of ABC, FOX and PBS, though each one requires an individual subscription.

New Apple TV

The options are slightly more limited in the UK, unfortunately. Sky has released a new version of its Now TV app for the new Apple TV, and BBC recently announced that it plans on creating an iPlayer app for the device in the near future.

As far as content is concerned, there are still some big players missing from the list - CBS All Access and Sling TV spring to mind - but overall it's not half-bad for the Apple TV's second week on the market.

What the Apple TV isn't so strong in, though, is music and photo apps.

Sure, there's always Apple Music, but I couldn't find a Spotify app and even the ubiquitous Deezer was nowhere to be seen. For photos, there's either Flickr - the Yahoo!-owned photo sharing platform - or Apple's own Photos app that only pulls in content from your photo stream.

It's slim pickings at the moment.

The somewhat better news is that games are going to play a major role on Apple's new plastic with titles like Beat Sports, an Apple TV port of Transistor and Alto's Adventure leading the charge.

New Apple TV

Be sure to check out Beat Sports.

As a word of warning: apps are costlier here than are on other platforms, at least while the competition is sparse. My favorite game on the new system, Beat Sports, costs $9.99, for example, though the game's developers told me that's due in part because of the promise of more content coming later which they're hoping to give to customers for no extra cost.

You'll find many of the games and apps cost something upfront, which is vastly different than how the iOS App Store works, but that might be a phase while developers are working out the kinks of a new platform.

The alternative: Apple AirPlay

Can't find your favorite iOS app on the new Apple TV App Store? Don't worry. Open the app on your phone or tablet and look for the AirPlay button (it looks like a screen with a solid arrow pointing up).

Should the app have it - it should, as hundreds of apps support the platform - select your Apple TV from the list to send the content from your small screen to the living room TV.

AirPlay is the Apple TV's trick up its sleeve. While many of your favorite apps are still MIA on the new App Store, using AirPlay is the easiest - and really only - way to access that content on Apple TV.

Performance

For a 1080p device, the new Apple TV looks sharp. The upgraded processor enables a very smooth experience jumping between apps, and the improved antenna does a better job grabbing onto a Wi-Fi signal and holding on. There's still buffering, of course, but it feels less frequent than on previous iterations of the TV.

One of the biggest faults of the system is that it doesn't support 4K, a feature that both the new Roku 4 and Amazon Fire TV carried into the next generation of video boxes. This isn't something that Apple can fix via a software update and will stay as a limitation of the hardware for the lifetime of the system. This is an important point to consider if you intend on upgrading to a 4K TV sometime in the next two or three years.

Should you decide 4K isn't your style, you'll be treated to a surprisingly quiet box that rarely heated up or revved up to an audible level when I tested it. The only noise I heard outside of the volume of the TV was that of my own voice while using the new universal search function that comes baked into tvOS.

New Apple TV

Universal search is a term that describes the Apple TV's ability to scan multiple sources for video content. Say you want to watch the film Top Gun, for example. Just speak into the microphone on the remote and Siri will pull up a film page for Top Gun with every service the movie is currently on (the big three right now being iTunes, Netflix and HBO Now).

You'll need to subscribe to the service or pay for the movie outright still - there are no free lunches on an Apple product - but the fact Apple shows the other options is a dramatic step forward for the platform. All it needs now are more services to search; the market-leading Roku 4 searches over 20 streaming video apps.

Currently, the Apple TV searches through 12 apps here in the US ( iTunes, HBO GO, HBO NOW, Hulu, Netflix, PBS, PBS Kids, SHOWTIME, SHOWTIME Anytime, FOXNOW, FXNOW, Nat Geo TV) and only a sparse two - Netflix and iTunes - in Australia, Canada, France, Germany and the UK.

Unfortunately one of the Apple TV's best features can sometimes also be its worst.

New Apple TV

Using the Siri Remote is at times a truly compelling experience - it's a Wiimote meets a Roku remote meets an iPhone - but it can also be stubbornly imprecise when it wants to be.

At no time was this more clear than during a free game called Edge Ex that simply asks the player to guide a cube from one end of the map to the other without falling off. There was a point in a particularly easy section that only required me to move right over a narrow bridge, but the controller kept interpreting a swipe right as a swipe up, much to my chagrin.

This experience played out dozens of times on the new Apple TV, each one more painful than the last.

The hope is, I suppose, that developers can learn to make the most out of the Apple TV's wonky touch controls and instead of rehashing old iOS games, create new content that properly leverages the powerful handheld technology.

Finally, something I found inconsequential but still sort of cool, is that when you're done with the Apple TV and leave it idle, a high-def screen saver comes on that shows pre-recorded video of some of the world's most famous skylines. It's a minor detail, and not one that's necessarily worth writing home about, but it does give me pause before resuming whatever show or movie I'm watching.