For Apple enthusiasts thinking about adding a streaming device to their living rooms, the question wasn't "Will the fourth-generation Apple TV be accessible?" but rather, "How accessible will it be?" This relative optimism, which was apparent even before early adopters got their hands on the device, is a hard-won victory for Apple, a company that continues to enjoy an unmatched reputation for building accessibility into its products. And a good thing, too, since accessible out-of-the-box experiences are hard to come by in the world of set-top boxes and streaming devices. Apple TV isn't the only game in town for eyes-free TV viewing, and it's far from perfect, but it is by far the best option for users with visual impairments who want to stream their entertainment.
The fourth-generation Apple TV is more than a streaming device. Controlled by a dedicated operating system called TVOS, the new box is a platform for apps you can use to play games, shop, grab information from the Internet, and stream video content. Like previous Apple TV models, you can use the fourth-gen box to access your library of Apple-purchased media, buy more, or play content stored on other Apple devices, using AirPlay. With the Siri voice remote, you can search for and control what you want to watch. For many users with visual impairments, Siri voice control will be the most important feature of the fourth-gen Apple TV.
The new Apple TV sports an overhauled interface with similarities to iOS, the software that runs the iPhone and iPad. The VoiceOver implementation, too, which depends on gestures you perform on the remote's touch surface, takes its cues from iOS, as do other accessibility features. In short, the device will probably be a comfortable fit for those who know and like the Apple ecosystem. Likewise, some of Apple TV's shortcomings mirror iOS limitations.
Out of the Box
The Apple TV unit is 3.9-inch square by 1.4-inch tall, with rear ports for power, HDMI, Ethernet, and USB-c. The unit is covered by smooth, black plastic, with an inset rounded base. It's about the same width and depth as the third-generation model, but slightly taller. You can connect it to your home network via Ethernet or Wi-Fi. The box contains a power cable (no brick transformer, thankfully), the diminutive Siri remote, and a USB-to-Lightning cable for charging the remote. There's also a tiny printed booklet, which basically describes where to plug in what. It isn't necessary, or particularly helpful, to read this material.
Once you've plugged the Apple TV into a power source, connect it to your television or compatible stereo equipment via HDMI (there isn't an optical port for connecting to an older stereo receiver). Then you'll need to switch the input selector on the TV or receiver to the port you've chosen for your new device. Once this is done, you can begin configuring the Apple TV for use with your network and Apple account. You can accomplish this with VoiceOver and the Siri remote. Like previous Apple TV remotes, the new Siri remote is a small rectangle (somewhat smaller than the previous model). The Siri remote is metal with a glass top. It can be held easily between two fingers. It sports five raised buttons in the middle, and is topped by a glass touch pad that's used for gesturing. Click the tip of the remote, the top of the touch pad, to activate an item selected onscreen. At the bottom of the remote is a Lightning port—the same connector on the iPhone and iPad—for charging the battery. You'll need a USB-based power source to charge the remote. The Apple TV doesn't have a lightning connector.
Learning to use the remote is central to setting up your Apple TV accessibly. First, you need to enable VoiceOver, which you can do as soon as the Apple TV is connected and selected as an input on your television or receiver. On the remote, triple-click the Menu button (the top button in the left column.) The Apple TV greets you in several languages. From here, you follow VoiceOver prompts to complete a setup process that is quite similar to setting up a new iPhone. Speaking of iOS, you are next offered the chance to use information from an iOS device to configure the Apple TV. VoiceOver instructs you to turn Bluetooth on, and place the device near (on top works best) the Apple TV. The new device acquires your Apple ID and credentials for your Wi-Fi network. It would be nice to be able to import more info from iOS, such as login information for services, like Netflix, you already use in iOS. Still, adding network and Apple credentials does save keystrokes, and a lot of frustration, as you learn to interact with your new device.
For the rest of the setup process, you gesture and click with the Siri remote touch surface. When first examining the remote by touch, it might not be immediately clear which end contains the touch pad (It's the one without the Lightning port), or that you need to click to make selections. Most users will get the hang of it quickly, though. Holding the remote so that it faces the Apple TV becomes important quickly, too, because though it is a Bluetooth device, it uses an infrared signal to communicate during setup.
If you begin setting up the Apple TV with an iOS device, your next task is to work through settings that choose a language, enable Siri, provide your location (or not), and send diagnostic information to Apple. To move through the Language menu, for example, flick up or down on the touch pad at the top of the remote. When you hear the language you want, click the touch surface to make your selection. Other setup screens present your choices as horizontal onscreen buttons, so you will flick left or right to highlight them, and click to activate them. Aside from the need to click the touch surface button, the process will probably be familiar, especially if you have used an iOS device before.
If you use different accounts for Apple iCloud, iTunes, and/or Game Center, you will be asked to enter passwords, providing your first chance to interact with the Apple TV keyboard. Rather than using a QWERTY keyboard, as iOS does, the Apple TV keyboard consists of long lines of letters; all lower-case letters are on the top row, followed by a row of numbers and punctuation marks. Flick down to select the upper-case letter button, then back to the top row to enter them one by one. The Space and Delete keys are at opposite ends of the letter row. This keyboard arrangement is the most frustrating part of setting up an Apple TV, though navigating the keyboard becomes considerably more intuitive once you have done it a few times. That's cold comfort on your first attempt, as is the knowledge that you can use the Remote app in iOS to enter text, once you have the Apple TV up and running. I'll have more to say about the Remote app, later.
At Home with Apple TV
The Apple TV Home screen layout features a five-column grid of large icons, with an area above that fills with featured content when a top-row icon is selected. Apple's pre-installed apps give you access to the iTunes Store, as well as any media you've purchased from Apple or have associated with your Apple accounts. You'll find apps for Movies, TV Shows, and Music, where you can browse for, or search for media to buy. You'll also find your previous iTunes purchases within these apps. Photos gives you access to images and videos you have stored with Apple's iCloud service. The Computers app allows you to connect to Home Sharing Macs on your network, so you can stream their media to your Apple TV. There's a Settings app, too, where you can tweak options, including support for accessibility features. If you're not sure where to find media content or apps, use the Search app.
The inclusion of apps is the biggest new thing on the Apple TV, and there's lots of incentive for you to try them. Thousands of free and paid apps are available in the App Store. At launch, Apple partnered with several streaming television providers, not only to ensure that their content was available on the Apple TV, but to include their content in search results within Apple's Movies and TV Shows app, and via Siri. These partner services in the US are: Netflix, HBO Now, Hulu, and Showtime, along with YouTube, and sports apps from Major League Baseball (MLB), and National Basketball Association (NBA). These apps are free, but you will need to create, or sign into your existing accounts to use them. When a search, either via Siri or one of Apple's entertainment apps, turns up a movie or show that's available from a partner service, the Apple app provides a link to the other service or services. For example, searching for Orange is the New Black, a Netflix show that is also available via iTunes, returns a page with links to buy or rent episodes and seasons via iTunes, as well as a link that takes you directly to Netflix. If you have a Netflix account, the show begins playing immediately. If not, the Apple TV asks if you want to install the Netflix app or to create an account if the app is installed.
Many TV providers offer Apple TV apps, including ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox. Each of these TV networks has separate apps for entertainment, news, and sports. The amount and scope of programming provided varies by network. Most give you access to some or all of their current over-the-air TV lineup, as well as past episodes, and older shows. Although shows on these US TV networks are broadcast free over-the-air, Apple TV apps require some sort of signup: you either pay a monthly subscription fee, as in the case of CBS All Access, or enter information that verifies you have an account with a supported cable TV provider (ABC and Fox.) It's true that Apple TV apps often give you access to more content than you'll see on your local TV station, including access to live programming in some markets, for example. But the requirement to login with a cable TV account means many "cord-cutters" won't get the kind of access to network programming from an Apple TV as cable subscribers do.
For VoiceOver users, service signups can also be tricky at first. Many subscription services require you to copy a URL into a Web browser, then enter the code displayed on the Apple TV. Since the Apple TV does not have a web browser, you'll need to type the URL into a browser on a computer or mobile device. VoiceOver generally speaks the URL and code information to you, but you'll need to use the rotor on the Apple TV remote to enable character mode, and then have VO repeat them. Finally, type what you hear into your computer or tablet.
Speaking of the rotor, iOS and VoiceOver users will find the Apple TV implementation of the control familiar. Make the two-finger rotor gesture on the touch pad, then choose reading mode, adjust speech rate, or return to exploration mode, where you move around the screen with a flick.
Control Apple TV with Siri
Controlling the Apple TV with your voice is as easy as holding the Siri button on the remote and issuing a command: don't let go of the button until you're done speaking. Ask for general information, like local weather or current time. Open apps, or turn accessibility features on or off. Search for movies, TV shows, or music by title, participant, and/or genre. Siri is context-sensitive: when you're in an Apple media app, or a supported partner app, use Siri to catch dialog you missed. Just say "What did he say?" and Siri rewinds by a few seconds. To use Siri, press and hold the Siri button on the remote, and issue your command or requests. The Apple TV displays a "listening" interface onscreen, but does not play the familiar Siri tone. Some users will appreciate that Siri doesn't make unwanted noise, while others will find the lack of feedback takes some getting used-to. Siri works reliably and, like iOS, seems to add capabilities often. Users would benefit greatly if more third-party TVOS apps could respond to Siri commands.
Described Video: Hit-and-Miss
Apple TV, like iOS, includes support for audio description of video programs that have a description track. You can enable description globally, in Accessibility settings, or on a program-by-program basis. The trouble with audio description on Apple TV is how few programs are described, especially within the iTunes Store. A few movies (denoted by the AD badge in their iTunes descriptions) are described, but there is no way to search for content based on its description status. Netflix, which added audio description to its own shows, and many others, in mid-2015, has had a shaky start on the Apple TV. As of this writing, a Netflix subscriber must call the company to activate description on his or her account; something you aren't required to do to watch described shows on a computer or mobile device. Once activated, audio description is enabled for all profiles within the account, so a family member who doesn't want description must disable it for their own profile. The company told AccessWorld that it was working on the problem in conjunction with Apple, and hoped to have a fix soon, which would allow any Apple TV user to access audio description without a call to Netflix.
Audio description is available on the Apple TV for ABC shows that already offer this option to TV viewers. Hopefully, the same will be true when and if other app providers offer described shows.
Access for Users with Low Vision
Though Apple has included several options intended to make the device easier to see, Apple TV will be challenging for many users with low vision. Let's first take a look at the Apple TV's visual layout. The Home screen's background is off-white; it's quite bright when viewed on a large HD TV screen. App icons are large squares, whose names are highlighted only when the app is selected. Above the first row of apps are large poster images for featured media. Within apps, developers can choose the color of backgrounds, and the size of text and buttons. Many developers have emulated Apple's Movies and TV Shows apps, using a blue or gray background, with white text, and light buttons with muted text or logos. Others, including ABC's entertainment app, provide a dark background, with labeled thumbnails representing shows and episodes. When you're playing a video, the information and settings tabs appear on a light background, with black lettering.
In Accessibility settings, you can enable bold, larger text, zoom, and increased contrast, and opt to reduce motion, which limits the amount of animation used when app icons are activated. With Zoom enabled, you can use the remote's touch pad to pan around the screen and change the zoom level. The text enhancement features will be helpful to some low-vision users who possess usable distance vision. Labels and settings text do "pop" somewhat when bold and increased contrast are applied. There are currently no tools for changing the appearance and background of the overall Apple TV screen. You can't choose an alternate theme, or invert the colors of the display. These would be welcome options for all users, especially those with sensitivity to light. If you have difficulty with light backgrounds, your best bet for working with Apple TV is to use VoiceOver.
Alternate Ways into the Apple TV
As with previous models, you can use Apple's free Remote app on an iOS device to control your Apple TV. The Remote interface, which appeared more than a month after Apple TV's initial release, is not a mirror image of the Siri remote, though you can gesture onscreen, as you do with the remote, and you can stop and start playback. Apple has indicated that a more robust Remote app will be available in 2016. For now, though, the best use for Remote is the keyboard, which allows you to type login and password information on the iOS device, which is usually easier than using the long-line Apple TV keyboard. Using Remote to enter text also solves the problem of passwords: when you use the Apple TV keyboard to enter a password with VoiceOver enabled, each character is spoken aloud. Anyone within earshot of your TV can thus acquire the secret code. Type the password into the Remote app, or paste it from a password manager on your iOS device to prevent broadcasting the password.
If you consume media on an iOS device or a Mac, an Apple TV is the easiest way to get that audio or video onto your living room television, even if what you're playing doesn't come from a TVOS app. That's because, like older models, as well as iOS and Mac OS, Apple TV supports AirPlay. Enable AirPlay on your Apple TV, start media playback on an iPhone, for example, and then use AirPlay to stream the media from the phone to the TV. Not only does this allow you to stream some web-based content, AirPlay provides a bit of a workaround to the lack of audio description support in the Netflix app for TVOS. Enable description in the Netflix app for iOS, and when you send the content to your Apple TV via AirPlay, description comes along for the ride.
Apps: The Future of TV?
In a pronouncement that quickly joined a long list of quotable quotes, Apple CEO Tim Cook famously said, when announcing the Apple TV, that the future of TV is apps. Using them, you can turn your Apple TV into a gaming platform, a shopping mall, a news ticker, or all of the above. As usual, accessibility mileage may vary. As it does for iOS, Apple provides guidelines to developers for building TVOS apps that support accessibility. Many app developers have adopted these guidelines, meaning that buttons, text fields, and other interface items are spoken in full when you use VoiceOver to interact with them. A number of others currently offer apps that only provide some VO support, or none at all. The Plex media server, for example, is mostly accessible. You can search for and play content, though some description fields are not spoken. The Hulu app (provided by an Apple TV partner) currently doesn't support VoiceOver. Many game apps are completely inaccessible, some due to the highly visual nature of their functions, and others because of a seeming lack of attention to access guidelines. The best advice for to finding accessible Apple TV apps is to seek recommendations from other Apple TV users, and follow the conversation on sites like AppleVis.
A few app-related omissions from the Apple TV have nothing to do with accessibility, but are baffling, nonetheless. As mentioned earlier, the device does not include a web browser, so any access to Internet-based information must be obtained through an app that has been designed to retrieve it, and present it to you. A podcast app is not present either, even though Apple offers this option in both iTunes for Mac OS, and via the Podcasts app on iOS. Because of disputes between Apple and Amazon, you'll need to use AirPlay if you want to view Amazon-only content.
The Bottom Line
The question of whether to buy a fourth-generation Apple TV will most likely turn on your desire to stream content from video services. The device clearly provides more accessibility for blind and low-vision users than do players from Roku and Amazon, or, most smart TVs. Even if you don't buy or rent content from iTunes, the Apple TV is the most accessible way to get streaming video, and where access limitations do exist, owners of iOS devices and Macs can still use AirPlay to send media to their Apple TV-connected television. If Amazon is your primary source of video content, Apple TV might not be your best option. At $149 and $199, the two Apple TV models are far from the cheapest way to stream video, and they aren't the only game in town when it comes to apps. But they are the only devices with a full-fledged spoken interface. Finally, it's worth pointing out that Apple has already updated TVOS several times since the release of the Apple TV in late October 2015. And app developers are doing the same. Given Apple's high hopes for the device, including rumors that the company will launch a streaming service of its own at some point, it is likely that at least some of the Apple TV's current limitations will be addressed via free updates, and the addition of new ways to entertain yourself accessibly.
Product: Apple TV
Price: $149 (32 GB) or $199 (64 GB)
Available from: Apple Inc., 800-692-7753