2015 Apple TV: Improved, but can it beat Roku 4?

When the new Apple TV came out, our reviewer bashed it hard. Now that it's been shipping for a month, there have been improvements. Here's our revised verdict -- plus buying recommendations.

The life of a technology journalist can be grueling and demanding. In preparing this article, it's important you understand the sacrifices I had to make just so you could read these few words. I had to binge watch four hours of The Man in the High Castle. I did it for you. I had to load and play a series of video games. Yep. Did it for you. I had to watch hour after hour after hour of Gotham. Suffered. For you.

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In this column, I'll revisit my earlier, damning review of the 2015 Apple TV, but as you read it, please remember my sacrifice. This is a tough job, but someone's gotta do it.

In my review, written days after the 2015 Apple TV hit the streets, I had a long laundry list of complaints. I pointed out that this new app-running generation of the Apple TV was a diamond in the rough, but it was very rough. That said, I predicted it would get better over time.

Now that a month has gone by, let's see where we stand.

The new remote. I still dislike the new remote intensely, but I've come to have a grudging acceptance for the Siri feature "What did he just say?" I am still disappointed that only one remote works per system, and I can't stand the trackpad built into it. But... and this is a big one... my wife loves the remote. She absolutely loves it. Where I can't stand selecting text using the remote, my wife thinks it's a lot of fun.

  • Verdict: Not improved, but making my peace with it.

Siri on the Apple TV. Siri has also not improved. Search is far from universal. A search for "Madam Secretary" brings up Netflix and iTunes, but not CBS All Access. Also, sometimes hitting the Siri button causes the Apple TV to reboot. But, like I said, "What did he just say?" is a nice feature.

  • Verdict: Seems to have gotten a bit worse.
apple-tv-2015a.jpg

Bluetooth. Keyboards still don't seem to work, but I managed to get my Bluetooth headphones to work and adjust volume reasonably well. The first volume up or volume down press on the Apple TV remote control sends out IR signals to change the TV volume (even if the headphones are connected via Bluetooth), but pressing again adjusts system volume for the Bluetooth device, and stops sending IR signals.

More importantly, the use of the headphones now works, which makes the Apple TV a great spousal co-existence device.

  • Verdict: Still kludgy, but now works well enough to almost justify the Apple TV's purchase on its own.

App selection. When I first reviewed the device, the app selection was minimal. Boy, that's certainly changed. Sure, most of the apps are still garbage, but there are also some real winners. In addition, Apple added categories, so it's now easier to find the new apps, although some of them are still missing from the category browser and the only way you'll find them is to page through titles by first letter.

  • Verdict: Much improved, but still waiting on the killer apps.

Annoying screen saver. While the Apple TV's Aerial screen saver is still pretty much slow drone footage, the annoying display of just one bright sunset has been overcome. I don't know if it was available at launch, but I found a setting (General->Screensaver->Download New Videos) that downloads new screen savers daily (until they run out -- there aren't that many), and so we were no longer stuck watching that one annoying video.

Sadly, third-party screen savers, like the one from Flickr, are still reported as unavailable in the apps.

Gaming on the Apple TV

I didn't get to spend much time with videogames on the Apple TV for my original review. Now, I have to admit that while I have long been a gamer, I'm both terrible at it (I can't hit the side of a virtual barn) and very out of practice (it's been a year or two since I've had time to sit down and play). That said, the folks at SteelSeries were nice enough to send me one of their Nimbus wireless controllers for the Apple TV.

According to The Google, the word "nimbus" has two meanings, "a luminous cloud or a halo surrounding a supernatural being or a saint" or "a large gray rain cloud." When it comes to the controller, the first definition can generally apply. But when it comes to Apple TV games, we're talking gray rain cloud.

The Nimbus controller, at about fifty bucks, is quite nice. It was a little small for my hand, but reminded me of my trusty Xbox 360 controller. It is solid, charges on a micro-USB cable, connected almost immediately via Bluetooth (far faster than anything else I tried), and can control navigating the Apple TV even outside of games.

If you want to play games on the Apple TV, you really can't go wrong with this controller.

But do you really want to play games on the Apple TV? I tried a few fully 3D graphical games, and I found a number of consistent characteristics: slow load time, choppy game play, lag, audio glitches, and generally third tier game quality compared to even last generation console games.

I'm not sure if it's that the Apple TV isn't up to the load, or if iPhone game producers who ported to the Apple TV haven't yet figured out how to tweak their games to fit the hardware, but I found it generally unpleasant to play Apple TV games.

That said, if you're just buying a $150 device and you want to stream video and play some games, it's not a bad deal. But there's no doubt this won't give Xbox or PlayStation any heartache. Even the original Wii played better than this thing.

But what about a Roku instead?

The folks at Roku were kind enough to reach out to me and send me a Roku 4 to take a look at. I set it up and spent the last few nights binge-watching Amazon's awesome The Man in the High Castle. You see, the Roku supports Amazon streaming, and the Apple TV does not.

Here's the basic story on the Roku 4. It's the newest model of Roku and is really designed to support 4K video. The 2015 Apple TV does not support 4K video, so if you care about such things, the Roku is a clear win. I don't have a 4K TV, so that feature didn't mean a lot to me.

Roku is generally streaming provider agnostic. It supports pretty much everything (including Amazon and Google Play) -- with the exception of iTunes. I'm not a fan of the iTunes store, but there are some programs and movies that aren't available anywhere else. So, for that alone, the Apple TV might be a win.

The Roku 4 seems a bit snappier than our garage Roku 3 or the Roku stick we've used. I like that. The Roku 4 also has voice search, but it fails as much as the Apple TV -- it searches some "channels" (what Roku calls its apps), but only a few.

Speaking of apps, Roku is much more focused on streaming content providers as channels. It does offer some gameplay and some basic apps with non-video functionality, but it's clear that Roku is not focused on an app ecosystem. If you want apps, you want the new Apple TV.

Roku does have a slick new feature called My Feed, which will keep an eye out for new episodes of your favorite programs and streaming releases of movies you're interested in. Again, it's not complete, but it is kind of nice to be able to view the Roku and immediately (for those channels supported) see new available shows without digging around.

The Roku controller isn't nearly as fancy (or frustrating) as the Apple TV controller, and it does have a few slick features. First, it has four stream vendor buttons (Netflix, Amazon, Rdio, and Sling). While I'm guessing some marketing money changed hands for that, it makes getting to Netflix and Amazon ridiculously quick.

The Roku controller also has a headphone jack. This is pretty cool because you can listen to a program on the Roku through headphones (old-school wired headphones) and avoid disturbing your spouse. It's not quite as slick as the Bluetooth implementation on the Apple TV, but it also doesn't randomly send out IR signals, so there's that.

At $129, the Roku 4 is less expensive than the least expensive Apple TV and you can get a basic Roku for less than $50 and a Roku 3 (ideal for 1080p TVs) for $99. It should also be pointed out that the Roku 4 is substantially larger (three or four times larger) than either the older Roku 3 or the Apple TV. In fact, the Roku 4 is about the same size as the original Apple TV and roughly the same size (slightly smaller) than a Mac mini.

Buying recommendations

CNET's take

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Let's start with those of you who have third generation Apple TVs or Roku 3s. For those of you with the older Apple TV, unless you want apps, there's no burning reason to rush out and upgrade. And for those of you with Roku 3s, unless you want to drive a 4K TV with the limited 4K content out there, there's no real compelling reason to move up.

If you want apps or you want to be able to watch TV using Bluetooth headphones, the Apple TV has gotten more compelling over the past month. I still don't think it's worth $150 to $200 (depending on storage), but how can you put a price on not having to listen to your spouse's gritty cop shows while writing?

The Roku is a fine box, and I'm glad to have it. If you want to use just about any streaming service other than iTunes, then the Roku is a win. And hey, for the extra $30 bucks, go for the Roku 4 and you're future-proof for the newest TV generation.

Really, choosing between the Apple TV and Roku depends almost entirely on your loyalty to the Apple ecosystem and the promise of the app store.

As for the SteelSeries Nimbus controller, if you do decide to play games on the Apple TV, and the game you like can be controlled by an external controller (not all can), the Nimbus is an excellent choice. I understand (although I didn't try it) that the Nimbus will also work with your iPhone and iPad games.

The bottom line is this: you won't go wrong with any of these devices. The Apple TV is getting better and the Roku is still a solid, highly-compatible box. But I also can't encourage you to rush out and spend your cash, especially if you have the last generation of either device.

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

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