Ready for Primetime? Apple TV (2015) Review

4th Gen. Apple TV
image credit Apple Inc.

When Apple unveiled the 4th Generation Apple TV, it touted the device as a glimpse into the future of television. From voice-activated controls to advanced ways to search and sift movies and TV, from new apps and games to delivering information about sports and the weather, the Apple TV is both familiar and revolutionary, the first step towards a new kind of home entertainment experience.

The question is: How much of the device's promise has been delivered? The answer is some. The 2015 Apple TV is a great step forward and a lot of fun to use, but it's got the roughness of a first-generation product.

A Major Evolution

The 4th gen. Apple TV may seem similar to its predecessors: it streams Netflix and Hulu and provides access to iTunes and your iCloud music library. But the similarities are superficial. These are true apps that the user can choose to install from an App Store; Apple controlled the apps on previous models. The new remote is more capable and intuitive and opens up many more possibilities for apps and games. Siri is a powerful addition. The 2nd and 3rd generation models were useful but limited. The major limitations of the 4th gen. model are software, which can be updated.   

Fantastic Features

The features that Apple touted during its introductory demo work well and make using the Apple TV a lot of fun. The standout features include:

  • Voice Commands: Controlling your TV by voice is much more useful than using a remote. When watching a TV show, moving past the credits requires just saying "skip forward 90 seconds." The features available while watching movies—asking "who stars in this?" or reviewing a scene by asking "what did she say?"—are useful and polished. Launching apps by voice and getting information about the weather forecast or sports scores is really cool.
  • Universal Search: The Universal Search feature, which lets you search for a movie or TV show by voice and see every app that has it, is powerful and intuitive. The Apple TV isn't the first device with this feature, but it's an extremely welcome addition.  
  • Apps & Games: The iPhone and iPad are the world's most popular mobile gaming platform thanks to their huge library of games. Expect the Apple TV to eat into the living room dominance of the Xbox and PlayStation as it gets more games. 
  • Apple MusicBeing able to access virtually the entire iTunes Store music catalog (around 40 million songs) is great. If your TV is hooked up to a high-quality home entertainment system, all of that music sounds terrific.

    Minor Annoyances Add Up

    Despite all the great features of the Apple TV, there are annoyances, too. None are major, but when taken together, they're frustrating. Some of the key annoyances include:

    • Onscreen Keyboard: The onscreen keyboard used to enter usernames and passwords is cumbersome, slow, and annoying. Using the remote to select one letter a time feels surprisingly outmoded on a device whose interface is otherwise so polished.
    • No Remote App or Bluetooth Keyboards: The onscreen keyboard wouldn't be such a pain if the Apple TV supported Bluetooth keyboards or Apple's iOS Remote app. Support for both is likely coming, but controlling the device is limited without them. (These issues have been addressed since this review was originally published. To learn more, read How to Use Apple TV with iOS 11 Control Center.)
    • Third Party Apps: One reason the iPhone is so great is that hundreds, maybe thousands, of new apps are released each week. That's hundreds or thousands of chances to transform what your device can do. Apps are regularly released for the TV, too, but not nearly in the same volume, so the capabilities of the device are expanding more slowly. 

    Siri's Limitations

    Siri is central to how you use the Apple TV. The remote can access almost any of the TV's features, but Siri is almost always easier. If only it were a little more refined. As of this writing, its limitations include:

    • Siri Only Works In Some Apps: Apps have to be written to work with Siri and you won't know ahead of time which use Siri and which can't. That's to be expected, but Siri's usefulness is somewhat limited until more apps support it.
    • Siri's Search Capabilities Are Limited: Just like apps have to be written to work with Siri, the same is true of Universal Search. So, you might have a video app on your TV, but unless it's specifically designed to use Universal Search, you have to launch the app to see what it offers. Siri is also unable to search or control Apple Music, but that's expected to change in the future.
    • Background Noise Bothers Siri: The voice control feature of the device is inconsistent in my testing. When I use it in a sparsely populated living room, there are no problems. But when I tried to use Siri in a roomful of friends, the background noise of their conversation caused Siri to mishear a number of commands.

    The Bottom Line: No Reason Not To Buy

    Despite cataloging the Apple TV's faults over the last couple of sections, my advice to anyone considering buying the device is: buy it. There's no reason not to. At US$149 for the 32 GB model and $199 for the 64 GB model, the device is affordable. Setting aside its imperfections, it's a powerful, useful tool for streaming Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, HBO, Showtime, and many more video services. That alone justifies the purchase.

    But what about the flaws? They're certainly present, but there's good news about them: they're almost all software problems, not hardware. Apple will release software updates to fix those problems. This means that you can enjoy all the good features of the device now and get the improvements as they come in the future (for free, of course).

    The 4th Generation Apple TV is far from perfect, but it's also exciting, fun to use, powerful, and a promising direction for the future of the Internet-connected living room.