Apple TV is a streaming media device that allows you to get digital media content from the internet or digital sources in your home (computer, network drive, etc.) and make it accessible on your TV.
The philosophy of AppleTV is very similar to that of most other Apple products. The user gets something that is very intuitive and easy to use, works well, seamlessly interacts with other Apple products and provides content that is controlled by Apple. Some of the technical specifications also not fully state of the art compared to the competition.
The Apple TV’s exterior design may be over a year old, but it’s still best-in-class. The compact all-black box has a glossy finish around the sides, and a matte finish on the top that does a good job of resisting fingerprints. It’s technically larger than the competing Roku 2, but both are so small that you’ll barely notice them in your TV cabinet.
The Apple TV’s 0.6-pound weight gives it a solid feeling, especially compared with the hollow-feeling Roku 2. That heft doesn’t just give it a perceived boost to build quality; it also helps keep the Apple TV planted in place despite the weight of an HDMI cable tugging at the back. (The textured nonskid surface on the bottom helps too.)
Around back are the Apple TV’s few ports: HDMI, optical audio output, and Ethernet. (There’s also a Micro-USB port, but it’s only used for service and support.) Note that HDMI is the only video connection available, so if you have an older TV, you’re out of luck.
Of course, Apple TV also has built-in 802.11n Wi-Fi–the fastest currently available. So as long as you’re using the Apple TV either in an area covered by your Wi-Fi network or with an Ethernet cable, you’re good to go.
The included remote is minimalist in a classic Apple way. It has just a navigation circle at the top, a Menu button (which doubles as a Back button), and a Play/Pause button. That may not seem like enough, but we never felt the need for additional controls. Skipping forward and backward is intuitively done with the navigation circle and although we thought we wanted a Mute button, Play/Pause worked just as well in every instance we ran into.
The Apple TV can also be controlled with an iPad or iPhone using Apple’s Remote application, and the experience is quite good. You can remotely control music from your iTunes collection, and use swipe gestures to navigate menus. We did prefer using the actual remote for navigation, but if you already have your iPhone out, it’s useful in a pinch. If you’re playing music from your iOS handheld and the Apple TV is hooked to a separate audio amplifier, you won’t need to have the TV on, either.
The Apple TV’s user interface is far better than that of any other streaming-video box we’ve yet seen.
The main interface has simple, straightforward menu choices. Jump into movies and the experience gets even better, with large cover art for browsing. The detail page for a movie has a plot summary, with cast and crew information, plus Rotten Tomatoes movie ratings. We also loved that you can also browse by actors and directors, so if you liked Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” you can browse his other films. The only competing streaming-movie service that looks nearly as good is Vudu, which somewhat surprisingly isn’t offered on the Roku 2.
TV offerings are similarly laid out, and if you subscribe to a season of a show, you’ll even get an iOS-style red number in the upper left corner letting you know there are new episodes.
The user interface isn’t quite as strong when it comes to third-party services like Netflix. The Apple TV forces Netflix to adopt an Apple TV-like look that forces you to pick categories like “Instant Queue” or “Recently Watched” right away. It’s fine, but it’s not as good as the more standard interface used on the PlayStation 3, which gives you large cover art from the first screen and lets you quickly browse between the different categories. It’s not surprising that Apple wants to control the look and feel of the menus, but in this case it hurts the user experience. The same criticism extends to many of the other third-party services.
Our other frustration is the lack of cross-platform browsing and search. For example, if you browse movies, you’ll notice that “The Trip” is available to rent for $5, but it’s also available to watch on Netflix at no extra charge if you’re a subscriber. That’s not necessarily a knock against the Apple TV, since no other device handles this well either, but it would be nice if there were a “Watch for free on Netflix” button when browsing movies.
The Apple TV definitely provides a vastly better browsing experience than the Roku 2, but as one CNET editor put it, the Roku 2’s interface “gets the job done.” It depends on how much you care about ease of use and eye candy.
Movies and TV shows
Last year, Apple’s Apple TV offerings were a mess, with a only a fraction of the content on iTunes being available to stream on the Apple TV. The rest of iTunes’ catalog required you to first download it on a PC using iTunes. The upside was 99-cent TV show rentals, the downside was limited selection and confusion.
Apple switched its approach over the summer and it’s made a huge difference. Now all TV shows available on iTunes are available to stream on the Apple TV. TV show rentals are gone. Instead, you can purchase an HD episode for $3 or a season at a discounted rate. The selection of TV shows is really quite comprehensive, with tons of shows offered both by major networks and cable stations. If you’re interested in what the selection is like, check out iTunes.
Apple also remembers your purchases now with iCloud. That means not only can you rewatch shows on your Apple TV, but you can also download them to a PC or other iOS device. That’s a great option, especially for long trips.
The main iTunes competitor here is Amazon Instant, which just happens to be featured on Roku’s line of competing boxes. For TV, the selection of shows seems to be nearly equal between the two services, and the pricing for HD shows is the same at $3. However, Amazon.com does offer the option to purchase SD versions of shows for $2. It’s a nice choice, especially for shows where you’re not as picky about image quality. On the other hand, Amazon currently doesn’t provide the option of downloading movies or TV shows, only streaming them.
Streaming services: Netflix, MLB.TV, and more
Aside from iTunes, the Apple TV also supports a few streaming-media services, including Netflix, MLB.TV, NHL, NBA, YouTube, Vimeo, and WSJ Live. It can also stream podcasts and Internet radio, plus it provides access to photos via either Flickr or Photo Stream. Apple doesn’t do a great job of pointing this out, but the podcast section includes video podcasts, so you can get content from sources like Revision 3, CNET, and TED Talks.
That’s not a bad collection of services, but the Roku 2 has many more and we’re not just talking about niche content providers–the Roku 2 supports Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant, HBO Go, Pandora, MOG, Rdio, and Epix. Of course, it all depends on how much streaming content you consume, but heavy streamers will be better off with the Roku 2.
The Apple TV’s lack of streaming-media apps is somewhat made up for by AirPlay. We’ve covered AirPlay plenty in the past, but it’s a killer feature if you own other iOS devices. The idea is you can stream photos, music, and videos straight from another iOS device to the Apple TV. That includes many third-party apps, so while the Apple TV doesn’t have a Pandora app, your iPhone does and you can listen via AirPlay. Notice we said many third-party apps, because not all of them support it, including Hulu Plus and HBO Go. So while AirPlay can substitute for some apps, it’s not a panacea.
The other awesome aspect of AirPlay is that you can stream your personal music collection. It works with any music you have stored on an iOS device and you can also stream your iTunes music collection from a computer. It’s one of the easiest ways to listen to your digital music in your living room and it’s only going to get easier with iTunes Match–more on that later.
AirPlay mirroring is the latest update to the Apple TV’s AirPlay functions, but despite the hype, we don’t think it’s a very useful feature yet. The mirroring displays exactly what’s on your iPad 2 or iPhone 4S on your TV screen, including games, the iPad’s menus–almost anything. The exception is apps that don’t allow “HDMI video out,” which includes HBO Go. Also, don’t count on AirPlay mirroring as a way to get streaming-video apps like Hulu Plus on your Apple TV. The video quality is much too choppy and the resolution of the iPad is too small to be enjoyable on a TV.
iPad mirroring is a cool trick and it’s definitely fun to show off, but right now it doesn’t have much of a practical purpose.
iTunes Match: Coming soon
The Apple TV home screen lists movies and TV shows, but there’s strangely no header for music–yet. Expect that to change when iTunes Match is released later in October. You can read the full details on Apple’s site, but the idea is that for $25 a year Apple will store your personal music collection in the cloud.
We haven’t had any chance to use iTunes Match yet, but it’s an intriguing option that we think could add a lot of value to the Apple TV. We’ll update this review when iTunes Match is released later this month and we gets some hands-on time with the service.
A lot of fuss is often made about the fact that the Apple TV isn’t 1080p, but we don’t think that’s a major shortcoming. Streaming content in general looked very good, both from iTunes and Netflix. We could nitpick about some of the minor false contouring we saw, but the most people won’t notice the difference. Wireless performance was also rock-solid over our testing period.
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