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Apple TV (4th generation) review: This streamer gets better and better, especially with Amazon Video

Nathan Spendelow Jonathan Bray Thomas McMullan
7 Dec 2017
Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
129

Slick, powerful and with a brilliant voice-activated remote, the new Apple TV is a top media streamer that's improving all the time

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Specifications

Video outputs: HDMI 1.4, Networking: Bluetooth 4.0, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, 10/100Mbit/s Ethernet, Dimensions: 98x98x35mm, Streaming formats: AirPlay, others via apps, Internet streaming services: iTunes, Apple Music, Netflix, Now TV. Via AirPlay: BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, All 4 and BT Sport

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News update: 4th gen Apple TV gets Amazon Video app

With the fresh-faced Apple TV 4K, you thought the 4th-gen media streamer had been left in the dirt, right? Well, you're wrong – Amazon has recently launched its own Prime Video player across all Apple TV devices.

Yes, not just the 4K Apple TV, but all older models can now stream The Grand Tour and Man in the High Castle. It's taken a while, but we've finally made it.

In the wake of Google pulling its YouTube app from all Amazon Echo devices, all you have to do is install the Prime Video app on your Apple TV, and sign-in with your Amazon account details to get started. Simple, eh? You can also browse Amazon's content library with the use of the Siri remote, too. Neat.

You can find my original Apple TV (4th Generation) review, below.

Apple TV (4th Generation) review

Apple's previous media streamer, the Apple TV (3rd generation), was one of those products that got better and better, thanks to some fairly hefty software updates. With the 4th generation Apple TV, it's clear that Apple plans follow exactly the same process. In fact, since the product was first launched, Apple has released a series of updates that have fixed some of the most annoying things about the original release, including making the remote control less sensitive and letting you use voice instead of the slow onscreen keyboard to search. We've updated this review to reflect those changes.

Released in September last year, the tvOS 10 update adds a number of useful features for both users and developers. First up: you can now use your phone as a remote control, which is handy for when you've got more than one person watching or you can’t find the regular remote (hint: check down the back of the sofa).

The update also brings more sophisticated Siri support, with the ability to carry out topic-based searches and switch to live content in supporting apps. It's now possible to quickly hunt down movies that are “from the 1960s” or “about football”, where before you had to know the title you were looking for to use voice.

There’s also now a Dark Mode for the menus, so your eyes don’t go into ocular shock when you finish watching a dim-lit movie. But the promised single sign-in feature, which aims to make life easier for users who use their Apple TV to access subscription-based content, hasn’t yet arrived in the UK.

The final changes are more difficult to spot but will make their presence felt in time. Games developers can now require a third-party game controller for the first time, opening the way for the Apple TV to act more like a traditional games console than ever before. And there’s a collection of new APIs in tvOS 10, allowing developers to record and broadcast gameplay, access users' iCloud photo libraries, and tap into HomeKit, so you’ll potentially be able to control your smart lights and home heating via the Apple TV, too.

Even ignoring the Apple TV’s ever-improving capabilities, though, there remains plenty to like about the Apple TV. It’s the first Apple media streamer to come with its own App Store, so you can expand what it can do without having to wait for updates. On top of that, it maintains its advantage over the Chromecast (and the reason that I like it so much): you don't need to use your smartphone, so you can control things more easily and jump straight into apps.

Build quality, hardware and size

I really liked the small square old Apple TV and so, evidently, did Apple, with the company keeping the same rough design as before. The new model has the same footprint (98mm square), but the new hardware inside means that the box is now a little taller at 35mm vs 23mm. It’s not so much bigger that you’ll struggle to put it anywhere and I’ve found that the box will sit neatly underneath a TV without getting in the way. It’s brilliantly made, with a reassuringly heavy feel to it that gives the Apple TV a feeling of ruggedness.

Twiddle the box round and, at the back, you’ll find all of the ports that you could need including power, HDMI, 10/100Mbit/s Ethernet and a USB-C service port. Gone is the Optical Audio output, which might irk the owners of some older soundbars. The HDMI port is only a 1.4 model, so there's no support for Ultra HD 4K. For some people, that's going to be a real problem, but Apple decided that 1080p is the right compromise between quality and the internet bandwidth required to stream video. I have to agree and, given the dearth of Ultra HD content, you're currently not missing out on much. That's not to say that I wouldn't like to see a 4K Apple TV in the future, but I can understand why Apple didn't feel the need to make this its first Ultra HD streamer.

Inside there’s 802.11ac Wi-Fi, which will prove more than fast enough to stream any videos over your home network or the internet, particularly if you’ve got a matching 802.11ac Wi-Fi router running on the 5GHz band. If you don't have a 5GHz router, check out the Expert Reviews guide to the best wireless routers.

An A8 processor, which powers the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, has been used, providing a lot more power for games and apps than the previous generation device, plus there's a choice of 32GB or 64GB of storage for your apps. I’d say that 32GB will do the job unless you're keen on playing a lot of games on the device.

Setup

The new Apple TV runs tvOS. It shares some code with iOS, but this operating system has been written from the ground-up to support a big-screen interface, controlled via a remote. One of its best new features is the easy set-up: once you’ve plugged in the power cable and hooked up the Apple TV to your TV via HDMI (buy any cheap cable, as expensive HDMI cables make no difference), just hold your iOS 9 iPhone near to the Apple TV when prompted and your iCloud account and wireless network settings are automatically transferred to the Apple TV. You’ll be prompted to confirm everything from your phone, for security, but you otherwise don’t have to do anything. If you don’t have an iPhone, you can manually step through a wizard and enter all of your details manually.

Interface and remote control

The new Apple TV has an interface that will be familiar to anyone that’s used a previous generation Apple TV. Apps are still laid out in a grid on the screen, but there are some noticeable differences to both the way that you use the system and how apps work. First, you’ll notice that your home screen looks a little bare, as Apple no longer prepopulates it with pre-installed apps. Instead, you get the basic range of Apple apps (iTunes movies, iTunes TV shows, Music, App Store and Photos), with the rest of the home page yours to fill from the app store (more on that later). This time around, you can move your apps where you want; with the old Apple TV, the top row of apps was locked to hold the default Apple ones.

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You can also create folders if your homescreen is getting a bit cluttered. This works in a similar way to iOS: you drag and drop icons onto each other and Apple creates appropriately named folders for you. It's a handy way to keep your icons organised, but I recommend that you don't use folders on the top row, as it stops the preview bar from working.

Apple TV Folders

In line with Apple's design updates across its other operating systems, tvOS has a cleaner, flatter look than before. It’s the little things that really make it stand out. First, as you move between icons, they slowly tilt and turn, giving you that little bit of visual feedback that you’re doing something. Next, app developers can choose to populate the top of the screen with information from their app, such as newly-added shows on Netflix. Previously, the top of the screen was reserved for Apple to use for showing you films, TV shows and music from its apps.

Interacting with the Apple TV is entirely through the new Siri remotes. The old Apple TV remote was one of my favourites, as it was so simple; this time around, Apple has improved it, adding a trackpad, a couple of extra buttons and Siri voice control. It’s also added an integrated battery, charged via the Lightning port underneath; a charge will last months, so it’s not a device that you have to plug in regularly.

First, the trackpad makes zooming around the interface a lot easier and quicker than having to click the cursor buttons from before. Velocity is taken into account, too, so a quick swipe will move you faster through a list than a slow swipe. Once you’ve seen something you like, a quick click on the touchpad selects the item. Next, the touchpad makes it easier to fast-forward or rewind through content: with most sources you get a scrub bar at the bottom of the screen and you use the trackpad to skip to the point in time that you want. When the Apple TV was first launched, the slightest brush against the touchpad would be enough to skip through your content: with the update, a touch brings up the scrub bar and you need another more forceful slide to skip through your content. It's a much-needed update and stops the Apple TV from being slightly frustrating at times.

My one complaint about the new remote and OS is that entering anything using the on-screen keyboard is a real chore: all of the characters are spread out over a single line, making it a pain to type anything quickly. The old style keyboard, arranged in a grid was much easier to use. Apple has improved things as of tVOS 9.2, as you can use the remote's camera to speak letters, numbers and special characters to enter passwords. This is my second major annoyance with the original release fixed. Alternatively, you can connect Bluetooth keyboards to the Apple TV and use this for input. I'd still like to the see the Remote iOS app for phones, which worked with the previous model, so you could remote control and use your phone's on-screen keyboard to control the Apple TV.

Extra buttons on the remote might sound like things have become more complicated, but they all serve a useful purpose. Volume buttons mean you can adjust the sound without reaching for your TV’s remote; the Menu button skips back a step and takes you to the top of lists, such as back to the top of the Netflix interface; the Home button takes you back to the home screen instantly and, with a double-tap opens up the task switcher. This latter function is one of the best things about the new Apple TV, letting you switch between apps quickly without having to find their icons on the home screen.

Buy the Apple TV now from John Lewis

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