Which Apple TV Should You Buy?
Pre-orders for the new Apple TV begin Monday. Well, technically, the new Apple TVs; the latest model comes in two sizes. Oh, and the previous version remains available too. For the first time in Apple TV history, you’ve got options. Now it’s time to figure out which one’s right for you.
First, a word on what the new Apple TVs have in common: nearly everything. They’re both recognizable squared-off hockey pucks. Both have access to Apple TV apps, which includes familiar content providers like HBO Now and Netflix, but also unexpected software, like digital discount clothier Gilt Groupe. Most importantly, there are games, some of them pretty impressive-looking, and compatible with the included remote or a third-party controller.
About that remote! It’s new, too, and has fun new tricks like a touchpad and a dedicated Siri button. Tap it, and you can ask Siri to whisk you away to a specific app, or to recommend a funny show (keeping in mind that your idea of “funny” may not align with Siri’s, although she does use Rotten Tomatoes to determine what’s good), or to fish a specific piece of content out of one of your many streaming options.
That last trick is thanks to universal search, another new feature previously found on Roku and, to a lesser extent, Amazon’s Fire TV. You can access it by yelling at Siri or with good old typing. Want to watch Miller’s Crossing, but aren’t sure where to find it? The new Apple TV will tell you your options; it’s currently free on HBO Now, versus a $10 iTunes purchase. And with that, you just saved yourself 10 bucks (or, more likely, the frustrating of not getting to watch Miller’s Crossing).
Apple has stated publicly that its universal search won’t favor iTunes, unlike Fire TV, which appears to display Amazon content first, regardless of whether it’s the cheapest option. That’s good! Based on our brief hands-on time, it also seems to work quickly and effectively.
Again, all of this applies to both of the new Apple TVs. So how to decide between the two? And maybe the more important question is, do you even want one of them to begin with? Let’s break it down, from most to least expensive.
Apple TV 64GB ($200)
At first, even 64GB may not seem like quite enough space. A single high-definition movie, after all, weighs in at around 5GB. We don’t know the size of Apple TV games yet, but Grand Theft Auto: Vice City takes up 1.2GB of space on a Fire TV. Those are especially beefy examples, but the point stands: An Apple TV can hold only so many blockbusters.
Fortunately, it doesn’t have to actively hold them. At least, that’s the plan. Apple is encouraging developers to use on-demand resources, which essentially means that rather than ask users to download an entire app or game, they download only what’s necessary at any given time. In fact, Apple caps the size of an initial Apple TV app download at 200MB. From there, other elements of the app can be cycled in and out as needed, up to several GBs, which you’ll need a little wiggle room to accommodate.
As for movies, photos, and music, Apple TV will cache the content you access most frequently so you don’t have to wait forever for to start streaming. Otherwise, though, it leans heavily on the cloud to stash your media. Put it this way: The current Apple TV has 8 gigs of flash storage, and that’s been enough to handle the content burden just fine.
If you plan not just to download a lot of apps and games but also to play them for hours at a time and switch between them frequently, you should get a 64 gigabyte Apple TV just to be safe. In fact, if you plan on using the new Apple TV primarily as a gaming device, it’s probably better to spend $50 more now than be enraged a few months down the line.
Apple TV 32GB ($150)
Dropping to 32 gigs doesn’t seem like a perilous choice; it’s unlikely that you’ll have to ration space like you would on, say, a 16 gigabyte iPhone. Thanks to the on-demand resources discussed above, the most noticeable impact for most people will be that certain things might take a little longer to load sometimes, but even that would take a sizable investment in apps and games.
If you like the current Apple TV but wish you could talk to it, or want that genuinely universal search feature, or like the idea of doing more than just watching stuff on your TV (like… buying stuff?), go ahead and get the 32GB model. Download all the apps you want, and you should still have plenty of room left for casual gaming.
The Old Apple TV ($70)
While the two new Apple TVs go on sale Monday, the old Apple TV, last updated in January of 2013, will remain on shelves too. And hey, it’s not a bad option.
For less than half the cost of one the fancy new models, you get the same high-definition streaming, a respectable selection of streaming apps, including all the majors like Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now, Showtime, and more. It has the same AirPlay powers, meaning you can use it mirror your Apple devices to your TV screen, or to play music through your fancy TV speakers.
You won’t be able to download any of the new apps, but so far we don’t really know what those are anyway, or how useful they’ll be beyond streaming. You won’t be able to play games, which could be a deal-breaker but could just as likely be a shrug. You won’t get Siri or universal search, but Siri’s frankly not that great yet anyway, and even if it were, there’s the question of whether it’s worth $80.
There’s also the issue of Apple’s long, long, long-rumored over the top, subscription television service that would let you cut ties with your cable provider for good. Reliable rumors over the summer said that if and when it materializes, it would be available on both the new devices and this one. That would be a great bonus, but don’t bank on it; plans can change, and if a potential Apple TV cable alternative is a must-have, you’ll be making a gamble that this device will offer it.
None of the Above
The existing Apple TV is a terrific little gadget, and its successors seem to be as well. In a lot of ways, though, it’s still too early to tell. We don’t know what apps will be available, or the quality of the games, or how usable the remote will be with them. It’s new territory for developers; maybe give them some time to figure out how best to conquer it.
Besides which, there are plenty of reasons you might not want an Apple TV to begin with. There’s no Amazon Video here (though you can mirror it from your iPad or Mac), and may never be. There are (much) cheaper dongle alternatives out there from Roku, Amazon, and Google. That a subscription service may or may not happen could seriously impact your decision, and it’s a question that might take months to resolve, if it ever is.
There’s also the matter of future-proofing. The new Apple TV doesn’t offer 4K streaming, which may not mean much to you now, but it will in two or three years. The new Fire TV streams 4K, as does the latest Roku. A future Apple TV undoubtedly will as well. Think carefully if you’d rather just wait for that one.
The good news is, it’s hard to go wrong. If you’re heavily invested in Apple’s ecosystem, or want to be, any of its streaming options should do you right. It all comes down to how you plan to use it.
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