Apple TV Review (2nd gen, late 2010)
Apple’s first real update to its ‘iPod for TV’ since it was first announced four years ago (save for a minor hard-drive size bump) has just begun shipping around the world. The device wasannounced around a month ago, and has been hotly awaited since, in the hope that Apple has taken the Apple TV out of the ‘hobby’ box. It didn’t help that a good portion of the shipment headed to Australia was delayed last week.
But now that the new, radically redesigned Apple TV is finally here, we can take a look at how it’s different and what it offers Australian buyers. Why Australian buyers specifically? The Apple TV that we get is slightly different to the US version. I’m not talking about the power cable, or any other hardware for that matter. What’s different is primarily the content that we can access. But before we get onto that kettle of fish, let’s look at the setup process.
Plug it in, forget it’s there
The first thing you’ll notice about the Apple TV is just how tiny it is. It’s a mere fraction of the previous model – so small that they’re almost incomparable. It is the new iPod nano to the original first-gen iPod. In fact, it’s barely any bigger than the original iPod was. It’s easily the smallest device on my TV cabinet, and save for its LED indicator, it almost disappears.
Sizing it up: the new Apple TV is about a quarter of the size of its predecessor.
Getting it connected to your TV is simple: there’s a power cable included, but you’ll need your own HDMI cable (as well as optical audio and/or Ethernet cable if you so wish). Unlike the old model, the component connections are gone (they simply wouldn’t fit on the back), so HDMI is your only option. If you don’t have a spare HDMI input, you’d be better off sticking with the old model; this one uses HDCP, so converting it to an analogue component signal won’t work. Assuming you’re right to go with HDMI, just plug it in, select the right AV channel on your telly, and you’re half way there.
I ran into some major troubles at the next point, as I’ve just moved house and don’t currently have an internet connection. The Wi-Fi network is set up, so I thought I’d be able to at least stream media from my Mac, but alas, the new Apple TV uses iTunes’ Home Sharing for this feature – which needs to connect to the internet to verify your iTunes account details. So one thing’s for sure: the Apple TV ain’t much without an internet connection.
I worked around the problem by using a 3G Pocket Wi-Fi device that we luckily had in the AMWoffice. Once I connected to that, I was able to get full access to the Apple TV’s interface, and set up Home Sharing (which now also works on the Wi-Fi network without internet access, so I can stream movies).
Even with all that fuss, the most difficult part was inputting network and iTunes passwords (navigating the onscreen keyboard with up/down/left/right buttons on the remote), so ultimately the setup is a painless process.
Once you’re connected to the network (and also have Home Sharing set up on your Macs), the Apple TV will be able to access all the rental content on the iTunes Store as well as everything in your own iTunes libraries.
Inside the box: that coiled power cord is a perfect example of Apple’s attention to packaging detail.
Same interface, new operating system
At first glance, the Apple TV interface looks just like it used to: the menu options are displayed along a band at the middle of the screen, with sub-menus popping down below, and relevant movie or music covers appearing above. Despite the superficial similarity, we know that the Apple TV is running a variant of iOS (the previous version ran a variant of OS X), so Apple obviously thought the interface was worth sticking with. And I tend to agree.
There are only four menu options now: Movies, Internet, Computers, and Settings. (US users get TV Shows too, but we miss out on that one.) Unlike the previous Apple TV, your own movies don’t appear under the Movies menu – they’re now under Computers > Your Library, along with Music, TV Shows, Podcasts, iTunes U and Photos. I actually like that my own content is separated from the iTunes Store content: the old Apple TV seemed to always try to sell me movies when all I wanted was to stream something from my Mac. Now I can ignore the store altogether if I want.
Apple TV’s interface: US gets TV Shows.
Our view looks a bit sparse (note that I photoshopped this together, as my TV screen was too shiny for a photo).
If you’re looking to rent something from the iTunes Store, within the Movies menu, you’ve got similar options to the old model: Top Movies, Genres, Search, In Theaters (which features trailers for upcoming movies). The Internet menu offers YouTube, Podcasts, MobileMe and Flickr. (The latter two can also be used for Screen Savers alongside Apple’s own, updated, images –Flowers or Animals – and transitions.)
The Apple TV ships with the new aluminium remote (it’s been around for a while with certain Macs, but it’s the first time I’ve used one). It adds one extra button, which Daring Fireball points out is useful for when music is playing in the background. There was nothing wrong with the old remote, but the new one is a lot sleeker, and a bit easier to hold given its extra length. But in terms of navigating, it’s pretty much the same as before.
The new-for-some aluminium remote.
If you want to use an iPhone or iPad as a remote, that’s pretty simple to do too (it also uses Home Sharing to connect to the Apple TV), and instead of the directional buttons, you can swipe your way through the menus – just like iOS should be navigated. (If you haven’t checked out the new version of the Remote app, you really should. It’s had a significant revamp, and its interface for navigating connected iTunes libraries is brilliant.)
No matter how you’re controlling it, you’re bound to notice that the Apple TV feels a lot smoother now than it used to. With the previous version, the remote would sometimes not appear to achieve anything until you’d pressed the button four or five times. Then it would kick in all of a sudden, and take you somewhere completely different to what you were after. Now when you press a button on the remote, aside from instantly responding, the Apple TV now blinks its indicator light to let you know everything’s going to be okay. It’s very reassuring. Thanks Apple.
All streaming, all the time
As you’re likely aware, the new Apple TV is being billed as streaming-only. Rather than buying content from iTunes, you rent it, and it streams to your Apple TV. There’s no accessible storage to keep movies or music. But thanks to iFixit taking one apart, we know that there is actually 8GB of flash storage there.
Apple doesn’t want to concern you with the storage, and you probably don’t need to be concerned – unless you plan to do some hackery (given that the Apple TV is running iOS, it’s only a matter of time before it’s jailbroken and opened up to the world). What matters is ease of use, and so long as you’ve got a fast wireless network – preferably 802.11n, not 802.11g – or connect via Ethernet, your media will stream flawlessly from your Macs.
Streaming content from the iTunes Store works perfectly too – it just depends more on your internet connection. Thankfully, the Apple TV uses that 8GB buffer to download what it needs before beginning to play, so that your movie won’t stutter as your internet connection tries to keep up. It even worked for me via 3G, though downloading a HD trailer took a very long time. I got there in the end, and The Company Men looks like it could be worth watching.
Apple TV, minus the TV
But it’s time to talk about the elephant in the room: in Australia, the Apple TV contains no TV content. In the US, Apple struck a deal with some of the networks to provide TV show rentals for US$0.99 (compared to HD TV show purchases that are US$2.99). Even there, the available content is apparently lacking, but here it’s non-existent. Apple Australia is keeping quiet on whether we can expect TV rentals in the future, but hopefully if it’s successful in the US, it will flow out to the other iTunes Stores.
The rental-only focus of the Apple TV now means that TV shows don’t even show up for purchase (despite the fact that there’s a reasonable selection in the local iTunes Store). If you want to purchase these episodes, you’ll need to do so on your Mac and stream them to the Apple TV.
Likewise, movie purchases can’t be done on the Apple TV, but can be streamed from your Mac. Given the prices of many local films, I don’t see this as being a huge problem; I only ever rented movies on the old Apple TV, and ignored the rest. Now I won’t be constantly checking out previews only to realise that if I want to watch the film, it’ll actually cost me $25. All the movies shown on the Apple TV are available for rent and cost anywhere from $3.99 to $6.99 (with the weekly 99 cent rental thrown in), depending on how old they are and whether or not you select to rent HD movies (where available) in the Settings.
While we’re on the subject of Australians missing out, it’s worth noting that US users also get access to Netflix (if they subscribe to the service), so have extra options for accessing movies on the Apple TV. We’re stuck with iTunes, but it would be nice to see this expanded in the future. An option to watch ABC iView content on the Apple TV would make it even more useful.
Image is everything
Apple has stuck to its guns and released an Apple TV that boasts a maximum resolution of 720p in an increasingly 1080p world. There are likely two reasons for this: streaming 1080p content would be a struggle for many networks and chew through monthly download limits pretty quickly; plus Apple wants to keep the hardware cost low and performance high. I have a full HD television, but 720p looks pretty much the same for most movies.
In terms of image quality, the Apple TV isn’t lacking. I haven’t been able to rent a movie on the new model yet (the 3G connection isn’t really up to the task), but it streamed my videos over the network without a hiccup. All the lower resolution videos that the old model should have been fine with, but occasionally stumbled on, were perfect, and I doubt 720p performance would be anything less than great. My US colleague Jason Snell tested some 720p rentals, and found no stuttering, nor frame drops.
Apple TV of the future
If you already have an Apple TV, the new model essentially adds no functionality for you. In fact, you lose the ability to actually purchase any content for keeps. It is markedly snappier, but it’s still a hard sell.
Which would be a problem, except that I don’t think the Apple TV’s current features are all we can expect from the device. We already know that with iOS 4.2 coming to the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad, the Apple TV will become the receiver for AirPlay – meaning you’ll be able to start a movie on your iPad, and then send the video to your TV if you’d prefer to watch on the big screen. That alone will make the Apple TV a handy purchase for owners of other iOS devices.
AirPlay: With iOS 4.2, iPads, iPhones and iPod touches will be able to stream video to the Apple TV.
Beyond that, however, I think there are a few other things that will make this $129 little black box fly off the shelves. And I bet Apple knows it too. Aside from holding out hope that TV rentals, and maybe even local content providers will come to the Apple TV in the future, the fact that it’s running iOS suggests one big feature could eventually hit our TVs: apps.
An app store for the Apple TV would be a bit more of a niche market than the iPad/iPhone/iPod touch counterpart, but imagine the possibilities that apps on your telly could bring. You could playAngry Birds on the big screen, using an iPhone to fling birds at pigs in high definition glory, or you could go online, using the iPad’s onscreen keyboard to type in URLs into Safari. Imagine the integration with FaceTime, using an iPhone or iPod touch as a camera, and talking to a mate on the big screen! Developers would jump at the chance to create for a new market, and the Apple TV would go well beyond its current hobby status. I really think it’s just a matter of time – otherwise jailbreakers will surely beat Apple to the punch.