There are so many streaming boxes on the fourth floor of John Lewis these days that it’s hard to get excited about one more. However, when the one in question has an Apple logo embossed on its top edge, the tech media tends to sit up and take notice.
I don’t know where we got the idea that each launch from Steve Jobs’ old company is as significant as a pronouncement from the Vatican, but the latest Apple TV box is in a grand tradition of products deemed to be important purely because of their provenance.
However, the only feature of this new box that is truly noteworthy is its price. The 4K (ultra high definition) version of Apple’s latest streamer costs £180 or £200, depending on how much storage space you want. That’s at least £110 more than the equivalent Google Chromecast.
Does Apple’s reputation for quality of design and ease of use justify the extra money? Most certainly not.
The 4K Apple TV is indeed a credible device, especially if you have an iPhone and an iPad with which it can interact. But unlike those devices, this one sits under the TV, not in the palm of your hand. Once you’ve taken it out of the box, you’ll never notice how nice it looks.
Its on-screen interface, too, is impressive, but not materially more so than that of rival products – and once the programme or movie has started, it disappears.
The Apple TV offers a reasonably large choice of viewing. There are apps for Netflix, Amazon Prime, Sky’s Now TV, the ITV Hub and the BBC iPlayer – but Google Play is not supported. YouTube, a prime source for all manner of TV content, is also not fully compatible. It works, but not in 4K.
What you don’t get at all – and this is the foundation on which some of Apple’s rivals have built their offerings – is any original content. Apple does not yet commission programming for an online channel of its own, so you’re not going to be missing out on something you like if you choose a cheaper box.
Unlike the Chromecast, which has no storage and no remote control, Apple’s box comes with a simple, six-button clicker that looks like one of the early ultrasonic remotes from the 1970s. But unlike those, this one responds to your voice, using the same Siri digital assistant that has been a feature of the iPhone for some time. It can also be used to control other smart devices around your house – but it’s a gimmick. It’s less convenient to tell everyone in the room to pipe down while you ask the remote to switch to ITV, than it is to just press the channel button on a standard remote.
The ability to store content locally is also of questionable usefulness. Streaming video requires no storage at all; however the Apple TV, like the iPhone, can run apps that do. Whether you want to use them on your TV is another matter, and even Apple acknowledges that the smaller, 32GB capacity is “probably fine”.
An altogether better bet for streaming content to your 4K TV is the £80 Roku Streaming Stick+, which is independent of any content supplier and thus compatible with them all: Netflix, Now TV, Amazon, Google Play, YouTube and plenty more. There’s no box under your TV, just a stick that plugs in round the back, and a conventional remote control. It may not be an Apple, but given the price, it’s a lot more fruitful.