Sunday, May 8, 2016

Apple TV 4 Review


I have been using the third gen ATV for several years now and have mixed feelings about it. The inbuilt apps work fine and do exactly want they say on the box however it is pretty inflexible and allows for very little customisation. . I mostly use it for iTunes vodcasts, music, YouTube, and Netflix. I also use it to Air Play from my iPhone 6+ for such apps as Spotify and ABC iPlayer. I rarely use much else but seldom does a day go by without using the ATV. The biggest thing for me is the limited facility of the inbuilt apps.

When the ATV 4 was announced and the Australian pricing I was determined to buy one despite the high price. Last week I bit the bullet and ordered one from Kogan which was about $50 cheaper than the Apple store price including freight.

The ATV 4 is capable of 1080P 60 FPS but not 4K or HDR. The next generation of hardware may support HDR but we will probably not know until it is announced. There are many theories as to why Apple chose not to support HDMI 2.0, 4K HDR. I suspect that it may have been because the standard was only fleshed out mid 2015 and there was insufficient time to design it into the hardware. Even so it was not until this year that the new standard was available in hardware. The other issue is the availability of content. There is still only a few 4K HDR titles and few displays capable of displaying the new standard. Just because a display is 4K does not mean that it will properly display the 4K HDR standard media.

On arrival and opening the box there was the ATV, a UK power cable (Kogan shipped the UK version), a lightening cable, the remote and some documentation. The localisation appears to consist only of the power cord and paperwork. Also in the packaging was a power adapter supplied by Kogan for the British plug so that it could be plugged into an Australian outlet.

I removed the old ATV and plugged in the HDMI, Network and power and turned it on. There was an option during setup to use a Blue Tooth to my iPhone to pull the setup from that to set up the Apple TV.  That did not work, which I suspect was due to a bug in the shipped OS 9.0. Otherwise the setup was pretty much straight forward.  I went into settings and manually added my credentials.

I tried to add a BT keyboard but it would not recognise it. 

I then went to the app store and downloaded my favorite apps including YouTube, Netflix and VLC but ABC iView would not install since it required TVOS 9.1 or later.

I performed a manual update to the latest OS and then went back and downloaded ABC iView.

After the update I was able to pair the BT keyboard so it appears that OS 9.0 has a issue with the BT stack.

In Use

The ATV is capable of HFR 60 Hz which means that it can properly deliver HFR video to the display. Playing a 60 FPS video media file appeared to be flawless. The video I streamed showed no artifacts but ... more later.

The app store is limited but have all of the usual suspects except for Spotify. I have contacted Spotify but they are tight lipped on the availability of an ATV app. I suspect that there is one in the works but no idea on the release date. In the mean time I am happy with Air Play which works perfectly fine. I downloaded Infuse media player which has a pro version but I have not yet taken the plunge to upgrade to Pro. I also investigated Kodi (XBMC) and there is a pre-alpha release for developers but it is pretty buggy according to the forums. I have to say that this has always been my favourite media player being completely open source and it has a lot of very good features. I have been using it off and on since it was available on the original XBOX and was the first media center I used.

The interface is fine if somewhat confusing. The home page and Apple apps insist on displaying a banner on the top third of the screen that scrolls through what they think you may want which steals from screen real estate and interferes with navigation. This is inherited from the old ATV and I find it distracting confusing and annoying. Would be nice to be able to turn it off.

The Sony TV I have has a bug in its HDMI negotiation whereby with 1080P 30 Hz the screen would initially appear blank and took some fiddling to fix each time the system turns on from cold. The new ATV also does this to my TV which is really annoying. To be fair it is the Sony TV, not the ATV.

I am really pleased with the ABC iPlayer app. It has the option to stream high def video (it appears to be 720p). You still see compression artifacts but not nearly as distracting as the lo-fi version we have been used to. It is almost as good as over-the-air quality. We have been watching iTunes Podcast versions of some ABC shows and they are utter rubbish with very low definition and obvious and distracting compression artifacts. So the new iPlayer is a huge winner for watching ABC shows.There are also apps for Seven, Ten and SBS streaming which vary in the quality of the streaming media but are fine if not Hi Def.

I used two streaming aps to stream video from my NAS. VLC and Infuse. Since my receiver includes the necessary decoders the player streamed the audio in  raw which appears to work up to and including DTS HD. Infuse did not seem to recognise a BD rip but played all of the other formats I tried including a 60FPS copy of The Hobbit TUJ. The one issue I have is that the necessary frame rate conversion for 24 FPS media leaves somewhat to be desired and resulted in distracting stutter. This is where the device (in this case the ATV) has to insert or remove frames in order to match the native frame rate of your display. So lets say for instance you have a 60Hz display and have a 24 frame source which is the most common combination. The frames are sent to the display multiple times to match the 60Hz of the display. Now a proper conversion will send an alternate stream of repeated 2 and 3 frames in order to match the frame rate. This will appear nice and smooth to the human eye. In the case of the ATV 4 they appear to send a bunch of frames 2 times and every few seconds it just skips a bunch of frames to catch up and hope that you do not notice. With static scenes this is fine but when you have on screen movement for instance moving characters or panning you suddenly see the scene jump. This has come up in forums and Apple are aware of it and don't appear to really care. My Popcorn Hour media device does this conversion seamlessly and without stutter but Apple have chosen the easy option it appears. This is independent of the media player. It seems only to happen to high definition media where there is a lot more processing required to perform the frame rate conversion.

I used VLC to try to watch a downloaded TV series. I selected Ep 7 and it started playing Ep 8 then about 5 minutes in skipped to Ep 9 for no apparent reason. This did not happen when I was playing movies. It seems to be a really strange bug. I went back to the PCH to watch that particular TV episode. Infuse appears to work flawlessly. We watched several transcoded videos and except for a reset in the middle of a video stream it worked without a hitch.

Referring specifically to the two streaming apps, VLC and Infuse I found them both relatively easy to use. One of the features I preferred with Infuse is the ability to create favourite shares. With VLC you had to start with navigating through the list of discovered network devices then navigate down through the media to your location which took many keystrokes. With Infuse though you create network favourites which enable you to choose from a list of locations with custom labels. This makes it much faster to locate the media file you want to stream. I created several shares to various locations on my NAS which made navigating pretty smooth. Infuse will also download artwork if available but it will not cache the artwork (which Kodi will do) so it downloads it every time you navigate to a location.
I am eagerly awaiting Kodi (XBMC) for ATV 4. I think that the Kodi interface has the best of every world and I may install the pre-release version. what is the worst that could happen :O.

As mentioned when the ATV 4 arrive it was on 9.0 TVOS which had a number of bugs including not being able to pair with BT devices other than the remote. It took about an hour to update. The update fixed the BT bug, added app groups as per the iPhone, improvements to Siri, and a number of other enhancements and fixes.

The new remote is interesting to say the least. It has a touch pad which is both a blessing and a curse. It means you can scroll easily using the touch pad  and it is designed to give you fine control over video playback. It also has the simplicity and de-clutter of the old remote. However the glass touch pad can be a bit sensitive and takes some getting used to. For those who lack dexterity I can see that it would be frustrating. It came with about a 75% charge but will change via lightening. You can see the amount of charge bu opening Settings and selecting Remotes. The battery will last weeks on a single charge so plugging it in over night about once a week should keep it charged.
The highest definition movie I tried was The Hobbit  at 60FPS 1080P. It was clear and smooth with no apparent artifacts. Short of a 4K movie it should be able to play anything you throw at it.

Overall I am really happy with the ATV 4. The minimal interface is easy to use and negotiate if you can ignore the top banner. With the latest OS the ability to create groups and customise the layout is very nice. The apps are a definite winner but some companies are somewhat behind the time in terms of app development. I am sure over time that we will get more apps and thus provide greater utility. Not being a gamer I cannot comment on games and there does not seem to be a lot of good games as yet.

The only big criticism for me is the stutter on high definition 24 FPS video. This is a huge mis-step on Apple's part IMHO. If they could fix that then It would be the perfect hi def set top box.

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