Review: Apple TV (Second-Generation)
Pros: A considerably cheaper, smaller, and lighter version of Apple’s living room video solution, refocused primarily on video streaming while retaining the music and photo streaming capabilities of its predecessor. Streamlined menu system takes most of the best features from 2009’s Apple TV software update, adding support for Netflix subscription video streaming, as well as AirPlay media streaming from iOS 4.2 devices. New video rental catalog includes not only previously released movies and TV shows, but also a small number of films currently in or about to be released in theaters. Capable of playing purchased and rented content from an iTunes library, and from other Apple TV devices. Runs cooler and quieter than prior model.
Cons: No space for long-term user storage/synchronization of media, resulting in removal of direct-to-device media purchasing in favor of pure rental and streaming. Now has exceptionally limited TV show rental catalog; major TV studios have signaled that they will not rent content on iTunes, and some movie studios have forced 30 day waits after DVD releases for iTunes Store rentals, as well. Support for movie and TV features is even more limited outside of the United States. Remote application is imprecise due to gesture controls and can be laggy. Future expandability remains uncertain due to limited storage space and lack of App Store commitment from Apple.
Apple TV’s current user interface is based on October 2009’s Apple TV 3.0 Software, and is generally referred to as “Software Version 4.0” by the device and iTunes. It is the first major update to preserve its predecessor’s main menu system, using a left- and right-navigational menu bar that runs across the center of the screen, offering options within each header that are selected with up, down, and Select buttons using the Infrared remote control. A collection of images at the top of the screen can also be paged through if you want to access content temporarily held on the device, or additional content you can stream to it. Unlike all three prior Apple TV software releases, it has no boot-up video or animation, moving you on the first time through a brief series of text-based setup screens, and subsequently displaying text when it’s hunting for the wireless network you set it up to use. While the lack of sizzle is somewhat unfortunate given the exciting original introduction video of the original Apple TV, we had to watch the video so many times due to reboots that we tired of it—the new model’s faster, simpler start is appreciated.
What used to be seven headers—Movies, TV Shows, Music, Podcasts, Photos, Internet and Settings—have been chopped down to a maximum of five: Movies, TV Shows, Internet, Computers, and Settings, each with more black space on the sides than before. Interestingly, “TV Shows” disappears on the Apple TV when it’s used with a Canadian iTunes Store account due to the lack of rental content, an issue that will likely impact users in other countries as well. At first glance, this seems like a radical elimination of the prior model’s Music, Podcasts, and Photos features, and there have been some cuts, but Apple has actually reorganized much of the old content to fit the new device’s more limited capabilities. Here’s a look at the first three sections of what’s here, and what was lost.
Movies. In the past, this section of the Apple TV interface served primarily as a catch-all place for videos that weren’t organized elsewhere within your iTunes library, and as a place to rent feature-length films from the iTunes Store. In the United States, the second-generation Apple TV slashes Movies down to four initial options: Top Movies, Genres, and Search all let you browse the iTunes Store’s movie rental selection, and In Theaters takes you to what used to be called “Trailers,” a collection of movie posters linked to high-definition video previews of current theatrical releases; “Wish List” is added after you find movies you want to consider renting in the future. iTunes Store content appears at the top of the screen, notably including the videos that were rented on the current Apple TV, as well as other Apple TVs on the same network. Again of note: in countries without iTunes Store movie rentals, such as Mexico, the Movies option features only the In Theaters option for trailers.
Choosing Top Movies or Genres takes you to a highly visual grid of cover artwork, displaying a text name only when you have highlighted a specific video, followed by a detailed information screen once you’ve selected the video. The only changes from the prior version of the Apple TV are hard to notice at first: Apple has obviously refocused the grid of covers to focus on “top rentals,” showing you what’s popular with other users. It has also added the “Tomatometer” rating from Rotten Tomatoes, as well as a “Wishlist” button—merely moving this feature from the secondary More screen—while eliminating the “Buy” and non-HD “Rent” buttons, both disclosed by Apple, but neither a modest change. On the More screen, it has added summaries of critics’ reviews from Rotten Tomatoes, and a very small number of iTunes Store customer reviews, summarized with a star rating.
Search calls up the better of two on-screen keyboards we’ve known and not particularly liked since the early days of the Apple TV—this one uses predictive text to help cut down on button presses, but entering in long terms is otherwise a mess to navigate using a remote control with directional buttons. You can save yourself the hassle if you’re able to supply an iPod touch, iPhone, or iPad with the Remote application; any of these devices’ on-screen keyboards works better than hunting and pecking with the Apple TV’s included remote control.
Movies generally occupy the full width of your HDTV’s screen, and sometimes the full height, otherwise using black letterboxing above and below. A simple white and blue navigational overlay appears when you want to skip around within the video, disappearing unless called up with a button on your remote control. This bar, known as a scrubber bar, lets you see how much of the video is currently cached in the device—indicated with white—and where you are within it, indicated with blue and a diamond-shaped marker. You can move forward or backward through any portion of the content that is currently cached in the device, shifting between a full-screen or partial-screen preview of what you’re skimming through depending on whether the video is cached or streaming. Holding the center action button on the remote down brings up a chapter selection menu akin to a DVD’s, with still images indicating the starting points for different skippable sections of a movie.
Though it’s worth noting that the new Apple TV officially supports a maximum resolution of 1280x720 pixels (720p) at a full 30 frames per second—TV show-ready—up from the 24 frame per second support of the prior version, high-definition and standard-definition movie quality is basically the same as it was before, which is to say solid but not spectacular. Apple again opted not to include support for 1080p “full HD” (1920x1080) videos, the higher level of quality that’s offered by Blu-Ray Discs and recorded by many if not most new consumer camcorders these days. Audio varies from film to film, sometimes offering only stereo channels, and other times supporting Dolby Digital 5.1-channel surround sound, assuming that either the optical audio or HDMI port is connected to a Dolby 5.1-capable receiver.
Apple chose 720p as a compromise standard years ago because the video quality it could offer at reasonable file sizes rivaled or exceeded the quality of competing on-demand HD video services offered by cable companies, even if it fell short of then-nascent Blu-Ray and HD-DVD formats. This was also more feasible as a “next step” for its iPod, iPhone, and iPad devices, which would not be receiving 1080p-capable displays in the near future; over time, it has added 720p recording and playback support to the iPhone 4 and iPod touch 4G, as well. So while the HD videos available from the iTunes Store aren’t up to snuff with the cleaner, sharper pixels you’ll see when buying or renting Blu-Ray films, they are a solid step above DVD quality, and you can start watching Apple’s videos faster than higher-resolution streaming content elsewhere, say nothing of the time consumed purchasing or renting Blu-Ray Discs from a store.
What you don’t get is a real cost savings—Apple charges the same or more for its videos as per-disc rentals elsewhere, and you’re limited to a 24-hour viewing period at any time within 30 days. Most new rental movies cost $4.99 for HD versions or $3.99 for standard-definition versions, though there’s a very small section of Apple’s store with discounted options—generally not very good ones—going for 99 cents in standard-definition, or $1.99 in HD. Apple’s relationship with some studios hasn’t yielded users any special timing favors, either. Unlike TV shows, which generally appear in the iTunes Store the day after they first air, movies may take 30 days longer to show up as rentals than they would through a video store. They might also not show up in the Store at all. Users in countries where DVD ripping is legal might well be better off skipping the iTunes Store entirely.
Except for one potentially big thing. Apple already has at least a couple of movies in the iTunes Store catalog that are either currently in theaters or not yet released in theaters—Joaquin Phoenix’s recently debuted I’m Still Here rents for $7.99, and the late October release Monsters is going for $10.99 as a rental before it appears in cinemas. Both are from Magnolia Pictures, and the idea of being able to watch current and future theatrical releases at home could be a completely killer selling point for Apple TV, if additional studios are willing to take the risk and come on board. That’s a huge “if,” though, and there’s no reason to believe that current blockbusters are going to show up en masse in living rooms any time soon.
Notably gone from the Movies section of the second-generation Apple TV are the sub-headings “My Movies,” which used to contain the videos you’d stored on the original model’s hard disk—obviously gone from this version of the device—and “All HD,” which Apple previously used to direct your attention towards high-definition content at a time when standard-definition content was more widely available. Apple showed off an HD section of the Top Movies subheader that was supposed to point users in the direction of pure HD content, but it has disappeared from the device for the time being.
TV Shows. As this header suggests, TV Shows is purely for one-off and episodic content that was originally broadcast on or designed for traditional television stations, network or cable. Though the menus are slightly different from the Movies menus, adding an extra level of per-show organization, playback is virtually identical.
The options presented by the second-generation Apple TV are Top TV Shows, Genres, TV Networks, and Search, again with “My TV Shows” and “All HD” eliminated as choices. Just as with Movies, TV Shows provides you with a picture-heavy grid of shows to search through, plus the text-formatted lists of genres and networks, which are much, much shorter than they were on the prior Apple TV.
Apple’s latest attempt to gain traction in the TV world doesn’t appear to have gone very well, at least as of today. Rather than selling shows through the Apple TV, Apple now rents shows for 99 cents each—less than the $2-$3 purchase prices offered in the iTunes Store—and gives you a 48-hour viewing window within a 30-day maximum retention period before they expire, up from 24 hours for movies. Unfortunately, only two U.S. broadcast networks and the BBC have signed on with Apple to offer certain of their shows for rent at these prices, and some others have signaled that they’re not interested, leaving all of Apple TV’s TV show menus relatively bare; the collection of affiliated ABC, BBC, and Fox “networks” looks like padding to disguise a lack of participation, and the opportunity to pay 99 cents an episode to watch Remington Steele isn’t exactly compelling. It’s interesting to note that Amazon.com is offering some of the same shows for sale for only 99 cents each, too.
As with movies, the advantage of renting TV shows through Apple TV is convenience—Apple is providing commercial-free, generally high-definition or DVD-quality versions of yesterday’s shows completely on demand. Unlike movies, which are routinely sold in 1080p format for other devices, many TV shows were initially broadcast at 720p or lower resolutions, so you’re less likely to be missing subtle details by watching these programs on the Apple TV. On the other hand, networks are continuing to offer many of their shows for free over the Internet, with limited commercial interruptions in place of price tags. Unless Apple adds support for Hulu, the aggregator of choice for newly-released network TV programming, the new Apple TV’s strongest appeal will be to users who value HDTV use and ad-free viewing so much that they’re willing to pay extra for it and live with a limited selection of content.
Computers. The third section of Apple TV stays empty unless you’ve installed iTunes 10 on a Mac or PC connected to the same wireless network, and turned Home Sharing on. If you’ve done this, you can browse your computer’s iTunes media library using an interface that’s almost identical to the one that shipped with the original Apple TV in 2007, an interesting and somewhat ironic change: whereas your own content used to be front and center on the first-generation Apple TV, several years of changes moved it into competition with iTunes Store content, and then off into a purely optional holding pen.
Once you’ve selected a computer on your network, a text-formatted list of headers for Music, Movies, TV Shows, Podcasts, iTunes U, and Photos appears on the right side of the screen, while cover art and other images gently move in a virtual stack on the left. Music playback continues to benefit from an elegant black Now Playing screen while being saddled with the least impressive navigation system of any screen-dependent Apple device—a text-formatted menu structure identical to Click Wheel iPods with multiple sorting options and long lists, minus the Click Wheel.
As a result, scrolling through lists of song, artist, or album titles takes a lot of button holding and offers little precision, a fact that Apple hasn’t remedied with the new Apple TV’s UI or remote control. It’s long past the time when a Click Wheel would have made sense on an Apple Remote, or even just in Apple’s Remote application, so you’re best off composing playlists on your computer or iOS device rather than hunting and pecking around here.
Music Videos are also found under music, with the same playback interface used for movies. Podcasts and iTunes U content use either the music playback interface or the TV show playback interface, depending on whether you’re listening only to audio or watching video content.
Streaming photos to the new Apple TV from a computer unusually requires you to go to a new iTunes menu called Advanced > Choose Photos to Share—a change wrought by iTunes 10’s decision to treat second-generation Apple TVs differently than first-generation models. Once you’ve selected photos, you can create slideshows from albums, as well as view your collection’s iPhoto-created Events and Faces collections, without any synchronization or photo optimization required in advance. Apple could have made this easier by allowing new Apple TVs to appear as “devices” within the iTunes library bar, and really should go back to the prior way of doing things in a future update.
Movies from your computer are sorted by genre, title, or unwatched status. As with the prior model, videos should be in H.264 or MPEG-4 format in order to play on the new Apple TV, though there have been a few little changes: Apple now also supports an additional format called Motion JPEG, which will enable some digital cameras—not camcorders, and not even all digital cameras—to perform movies directly on the Apple TV without the need for H.264 or MPEG-4 conversion. All iTunes Store movies, including rentals, are in H.264 format and play through the second-generation Apple TV without complaint.
While the H.264 and MPEG-4 formats Apple has chosen for Apple TV are supported by the company and an increasing number of other devices, they’re not the options of choice for many people sharing videos online for free download; Motion JPEG has for years been a weird format that few companies have authored content in. As we and many others have said in the past, opening up the Apple TV to support a much larger collection of native video formats would make the device infinitely more useful, removing the user’s need to spend time and effort transcoding home movies and other content—something time has shown conclusively that most people really do not want to bother with.
The next page of this review looks at the last two sections of the new Apple TV interface: Internet and Settings.