Let's get one thing out of the way right from start regarding Apple's latest Apple TV streaming media player. It does not support 4K video playback. For some inexplicable reason, while Roku and Amazon were embracing things like HEVC decoding, HDMI 2.0, and HDCP 2.2 in their newest boxes, Apple chose to introduce a new player that was outdated before it even hit store shelves, at least in terms of its video streaming capabilities. So, for all you 4K lovers out there looking for the best streaming media player to mate with your new 4K TV, this ain't it.
What does the new fourth-generation Apple TV bring to the table? Well, the new model is built on a new tvOS operating system (based on iOS) that has a redesigned interface and, for the first time, includes access to an Apps Store to add new content and services. Apple has opened up the API to encourage developers to create apps for Apple TV, as they do for the iPhone and iPad.
The new Apps store includes games, and Apple is putting a big emphasis on gaming in this new device. The player comes with a redesigned remote that features Siri-based voice search, while the more advanced gaming enthusiast can choose from a variety of compatible third-party gaming controllers.
The 4th-gen Apple TV is available in two versions: a 32GB model for $149 and a 64GB model for $199. I picked up the 32GB model and compared it with the newest players from Roku and Amazon, as well as my third-gen Apple TV. Let's find out how it measured up.
The 4th-gen player has the same footprint as its predecessor, a 3.9-inch square, but its 1.4-inch height is about a half-inch taller than the previous model. It sports the same black finish (matte on the top and bottom, glossy on the sides) with a glossy black Apple TV logo on top.
The connection panel features an HDMI 1.4 input (grrrr), a USB port for service only, and a 10/100 Ethernet port for a wired network connection. Built-in 802.11ac Wi-F with MIMO is also available. The player lacks a USB input that supports media playback, and gone is the optical digital audio output found on the previous Apple TV, so HDMI is your only audio output option. The internal storage is specifically for apps/games, not personal media files.
The new remote control is noticeably different from the previous design. It's about the same height but is a tad wider and thicker, and it comes in a black finish as opposed to the brushed silver of its predecessor. The directional wheel has been replaced with a glass-touch surface along the top of the remote, which allows you to navigate via slide-touch with a click in the center serving as the enter/select function (you can also click up/down/left/right for gameplay). There are dedicated buttons for home, menu, voice search, play/pause, and volume up/down.
The remote communicates with the player via Bluetooth 4.0, so it does not require line of sight. Apple has included an IR receiver on the player itself, so you can control it via a universal IR remote. (The Remote Settings menu can walk you through the processing of adding Apple TV commands to your other remote.) The addition of volume buttons allows you to control your TV's volume directly via the Apple TV remote, and it worked with my older Samsung LCD TV right out of the box. CEC controls can be enabled to turn on your TV using the remote, as well.
I connected the Apple TV via HDMI to a Samsung 1080p TV and powered it up. The setup process is straightforward and includes one very cool feature. After pairing the remote control and choosing your country/language, the Apple TV asks if you want to finish setup manually or by using your iOS device. If you select iOS device, all you have to do is enable Bluetooth on your iPhone/iPad and place it near the Apple TV for a few seconds. Your iOS device will transfer your Wi-Fi settings and your iTunes account info to the Apple TV. All you have to do is confirm your iTunes password, and the player is all set up to access your existing iTunes content and order new stuff. It's pretty slick. (Obviously, if you don't have an iTunes account yet, the setup process will require more steps.)
As with the previous player, you can control the new Apple TV using Apple's "Remote" app for iOS. The process of pairing the player and the Remote App is a little more cumbersome than it is with other player apps I've tested. You have to go into the "Remotes and Devices" Settings menu and pair the two using the "Remote App" option. In my case, there was no "Remote App" option until I did a software update on the player. (I had the system enabled to perform software updates automatically, so I'm not sure why there was an update waiting for me.)
Once set up, the Remote app includes a touchpad for navigation, a menu button, and a Now Playing screen. It also has a virtual keyboard that worked with every app I tried, which helps to speed up the sign-in and text-search processes. Oddly enough, you can't use your iPhone or iPad's microphone within the app to activate the Apple TV's Siri voice control.
In terms of AV settings, the Apple TV is set by default to the Auto output for resolution, so you should get a picture no matter what TV you mate with it. You can manually select a resolution from 480p up to 1080p at 50Hz or 60Hz. There's no option to enable 24p output as you get from the new Amazon Fire TV and NVIDIA Shield players. You can also choose between four HDMI color output options (Auto, YCbCr, RBG High, and RGB Low), and the Calibrate feature lets you adjust zoom/overscan and put up a color bars menu.
On the audio side, you can set audio output for Auto, Dolby Surround, or Stereo. The new player has added Dolby Digital Plus decoding; if you go with the default "Auto" setting for audio output, the player will decode Dolby Digital and DD+ soundtracks from services like iTunes and Netflix and pass multichannel PCM in 5.1 or 7.1 channels to a compatible AV receiver. If you manually select Dolby Surround as the output option, you'll only get basic Dolby Digital. The player does not support DTS.
If you're connecting the player directly to a TV and want better sound than your TV speakers can provide, you can output the audio to AirPlay- and Bluetooth-enabled speakers and headphones. I was successfully able to send audio to both AirPlay and Bluetooth speakers that I own. Unfortunately, you can only send audio to one AirPlay speaker at a time, and you can't set up the device to simultaneously output audio via HDMI and AirPlay.
Let's begin the performance evaluation by discussing the new interface, whose basic layout really isn't that different in form or function from the previous interface. The Home page still features content options running along the top. Below that is a row of categories: Movies, TV Shows, Apps (new), Photos, and Music. Finally, below that are all of the available apps, arranged in rows of five. The background is now white instead of black, and the content recommendations along the top of the screen are a little larger in size.
In previous Apple TV models, the Home page was locked with no ability to customize it. Apple dictated exactly which apps to offer and how they were organized down the page. In the new model, the Home page is mostly void of apps when you begin. It's your job to go into the new Apps Store and decide which apps you want. When you add/purchase new apps, they will appear on the Home page in the order you added them; however, you now have the ability to move apps around on the page to organize them as you see fit, and a recent firmware update added the ability to organize apps in folders just like you can in iOS.
Clicking into the Movies or TV Shows category takes you into the iTunes Store, where all content is per-per-use--meaning that you rent or purchase individual film titles or TV episodes. The Movies category page is divided into sub-categories similar to what you see in the iTunes Store via your computer: Top Movies, New and Noteworthy, 2016 Oscar Winners, Notable Indies, etc. The same is true for TV Shows.
The Photos category page will show you all of the photos that you've stored in iCloud, while the Music page (which, in previous Apple TV players, just took you to the iTunes music store) now shows you all of the music you've purchased directly through iTunes, as well as other music that you've chosen to store in iCloud. Plus, if you're an Apple Music subscriber, you can access all of those features here: radio channels, For You recommendations, and the ability to search the entire Apple Music catalog via text or Siri voice search. If you're not an Apple Music subscriber, you're given the option to sign up for a free trial the first time you launch the Music category page.
As with the previous players, you can also link the Apple TV to computers on your home network that are running iTunes in order to access your personal music, movie, TV, and photo collections over AirPlay. The Computers category page is where you'll find this content. Another category that comes preloaded on the Apple TV is Podcasts, where you can access your existing podcasts and easily browse/add new ones. You can also stream content from your iOS device via AirPlay.
Of course, the first major change to the new Apple TV is the addition of the Apps Store, so let's talk about what you'll find there. The Apps home page is divided into five categories: Featured, Top Charts, Categories, Purchased, and Search. Apple does offer a number of marquee apps, including Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now/Go, Showtime, YouTube, Pandora, and lots of TV Everywhere apps (Watch ABC, Watch ESPN, various Disney channels, CBS, NBC, Fox Now, Nick, MTV, Comedy Central, and many more). The major sports apps are also onboard, like NBA, NHL, NFL, MLS, and MLB.tv. YouTube disappeared from my third-generation Apple TV last year due to an API update, but it is available again on the new 4th-gen player.
However, there are also a lot of big names missing from the Apps page--such as VUDU, Amazon Video, M-GO, Google Play, Spotify, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and Sling TV (Apple has been trying to assemble its own competing TV service, after all).
To stream personal media content outside of the AirPlay ecosystem, the Apps store offers PLEX, VLC for Mobile, and a variety of DLNA apps, but there's no USB input to directly connect a USB flash drive or server. [Editor's note: The original version of this story said there was no PLEX app.]
Gaming apps are a new feature for Apple TV, and you'll find an assortment of games ranging from basic, free family-friendly games that work with the supplied remote to more advanced games that must be purchased and can be used with an optional third-party controller. We're not a gaming-oriented publication, so I'll leave the more in-depth gaming performance evaluation to other sites that cover such topics. As a novice who really only plays the simple family-friendly games, I can say that the Apps page does include some common options like Crossy Road, Pac-Man 256, Angry Birds Go!, and Minion Rush that I've also played on the Amazon Fire TV. Functionality and performance were pretty much the same. The remote's touchpad ability can be a little more intuitive than basic button pushes in certain games.
In terms of app performance, I found that most apps launched within about five seconds, and most apps stay open during a particular viewing session so that you can return to them instantly. Overall system performance was perhaps a tad bit slower than that of the new Roku 4 and Amazon Fire TV players, but it was faster than that of my third-gen Apple TV. Playback was reliable, and I did not encounter any issues with freezing, stuttering, or system crashes.
The new remote improves the user experience, as well. The touchpad slider allows for much faster menu navigation than the old button-only remote, and the addition of a dedicated Home button means you don't have to do the press-and-hold thing with the Menu button anymore. Menu still allows you to move through levels, while Home takes you back to the Home page. Double-clicking the Home button puts the screen in multi-task mode, where you can swipe through different apps and pages (just like with iOS).
A major addition to the remote, and to the platform in general, is Siri voice search. The older Apple TV model doesn't include any search function, text or otherwise. With Siri voice control, you can search for content by movie/show name, actor, or director. You can say "Show me popular movies" and get a list of the hottest new releases in the iTunes Store. You can search by film genre and then tailor the search even further by adding, "Only the good ones."
Apple's content search does have some cross-platform support. Apple has deals with Netflix, Hulu, HBO, and ABC/Disney; so, when you search for titles, those apps may appear alongside iTunes in your results. For instance, if I say, "Show me episodes of Black-ish," I get results for the ABC, iTunes, and Hulu apps. A search for "House of Cards" brings up results for Netflix and iTunes. Since Apple doesn't offer as many competing movie-streaming services, this cross-platform search works better with TV content--at least movies available in Netflix will show up in your results, though.
On the music side, Apple Music subscribers--I repeat, you must be an Apple Music subscriber--can use Siri to launch playback of a certain song, artist, album, or genre, either from your iCloud music collection or through Apple Music's catalog. You can ask Siri to create a radio station based on an artist. You can ask it to skip a song or to play the top songs in a certain genre like pop or rock.
Like Amazon and its new Alexa search, Siri search is designed give you more than just content results. You can ask for weather, stock, or sports updates, for instance. If I asked, "What's the NBA schedule?" I got a list of all games being played that day and what time they start. You can also use Siri to launch apps without having to navigate to the Home page. Here's a good link that shows you all the different types of questions you can ask Siri.
All in all, I found Siri voice search to work very well and to be a very helpful tool. It's a little more open than Amazon's voice search in terms of content results, and it was able to perform more advanced searches than Alexa. I like that the search results usually pop up unobtrusively at the bottom of the screen, with minimal interruption to the content you're playing--as opposed to Alexa, which pauses playback and puts up a full-screen search result.
From a technology standpoint, the fourth-gen Apple TV simply lags behind its competitors. As I've already said, it lacks 4K support and 24p output on the video side, and it also lacks DTS support on the audio side.
Apple only recently opened up the tvOS API for developers to create Apple TV apps, so it's no surprise that the Apple TV Apps store doesn't yet compete with the Roku, Amazon, and Android-based NVIDIA players in its content offerings, in either entertainment apps or games. The number of apps will surely grow and probably grow quickly. But the big question is, will we see apps from competitors like Spotify, iHeartRadio, Amazon Video, Google Play, M-GO, and VUDU? Is Apple discouraging these apps because they compete with the company's own services, or are the competitors shying away for the same reason? Amazon may not have an iTunes app, but at least it offers AirPlay apps in its store so that you can stream your Apple content.
You should avoid using the onscreen virtual keyboard whenever possible--it's just awful. The entire alphabet is in one long, straight line across the screen, and you can't even cut across the screen after "z" to jump back to "a" on the other side. You have to go back and forth, and it's a huge pain. Thankfully, a recent firmware update added the ability to use the Siri remote to speak text into the Search/Keyboard window, which makes it easier to sign in to apps and input other text. You can also input text via the Remote app's keyboard.
Like Amazon did with its new Fire TV, Apple has omitted the optical digital audio output, which prevents the device's compatibility with non-HDMI AV receivers, soundbars, and other audio playback devices (Roku, in contrast, added an optical digital audio output to its Roku 4). At least with this player, if your soundbar or powered speaker supports Bluetooth or AirPlay, you can output the audio signal that way.
Comparison & Competition
I pretty much named the primary competitors to the new Apple TV throughout the review. The Roku 4 carries an asking price of $129.99, while Amazon's second-gen Fire TV costs $99.99. Both are 4K-capable, include voice search, and offer gaming applications (Amazon's gaming controller is also an optional accessory), and both cost less than the new Apple TV. The NVIDIA Shield is another 4K-capable box, built on Android TV, with voice search and a strong gaming emphasis; it comes standard with a gaming controller, not an HT-style remote. The Shield's price is a higher $199.99 for the 16GB version and $299.99 for the 500GB version.
The fourth-generation Apple TV is unquestionably an improvement over its predecessors, thanks to new features like Siri voice search, an Apps store and customizable interface, a better remote, and Apple Music and gaming capabilities. The fourth-generation Apple TV is also unquestionably behind competitors like the Roku 4 and Amazon Fire TV in both 4K support and in its overall selection of apps. Obviously, as a home-theater-oriented website, we care more about 4K support than the average customer might, and my value rating for this product reflects that omission. You can find lower-priced streaming media players that have better all-around AV support. Period.
Not everyone cares about 4K, though. For them, the Apple TV has a number of worthwhile features. On the streaming video side, it's a stable, intuitive platform that does offer the big three apps--Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube--as well as plenty of per-pay-use content in the iTunes Store. And it's very strong on TV Everywhere apps, which would make it a good second-room replacement for a cable/satellite set-top box.
Just as the Amazon Fire TV is ideally suited to Amazon Prime customers, the Apple TV is best suited to people who have fully embraced the Apple ecosystem--people who've bought a lot of iTunes content, people who use iTunes, iPhoto, and iCloud to store their personal media collections, people with AirPlay speakers, and especially people who have subscribed to Apple Music. I came into this review focusing mostly on the product's limited video support; in the end, though, I actually spent more time using the Apple TV as a music streamer. It's a great way to access your own iTunes music library through your home theater system, and the combination of Apple Music and Siri voice search provides an intuitive way to enjoy an unlimited catalog of music.
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• Apple Music Streaming Service (iTunes Version) Reviewed at HomeTheaterReview.com.