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.
The prior page of this review looked at the Movies, TV Shows, and Computers sections of the Apple TV 4.0 interface. Here, we look at the final two sections, Internet and Settings.
Internet. Freshly expanded to become the largest menu section of the second-generation Apple TV, Internet has come to include features that were previously found under the last model’s Internet, Podcasts, and Photos headings, as well as adding one new feature: Netflix. Unlike the other Apple TV features, Netflix does nothing unless you’re willing to pay a monthly subscription fee for a separate account, currently available in the United States and Canada. You have to sign up for the account on Netflix’s web site, where it offers a one-month free trial of service, as well as subscription packages that start at only $5 but turn out not to include Apple TV compatibility—$9 is the minimum U.S. monthly price for service that works with this device.
Once the correct plan is purchased, a Netflix account entitles the user to unlimited streaming of a decent but growing collection of commercial-free TV shows and older movies, which appears to have been freshly bulked up with interesting content just in advance of the new Apple TV’s launch.
Though a lot of the films in the Netflix streaming collection are B-caliber recent-ish releases and better-liked films from a decade or two ago, the TV collection is expanding nicely, and there are some theatrical gems in the bunch, too, including newly-added titles such as Star Trek and the original Iron Man. As noted in our recent Netflix review, the same subscription also works on other devices including computers, the iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch.
There’s mostly good news to report regarding the Netflix feature of the new Apple TV: it’s relatively fast at starting playback of videos you select from its list of available options, after a brief pause to judge the quality of your network connection. If your network is being heavily used, it falls back from what looked to us like roughly DVD-quality performance to a lower-resolution standard to keep the video flowing smoothly. Netflix on Apple TV doesn’t make any promises as to the resolution any specific video is supposed to be in, and though there were moments in videos such as Season 5 of Lost where the content looked as if it could have been HD, artifacting and smearing in the videos made them a little less impressive than similarly available iTunes Store content. Netflix videos don’t fully load on your device like iTunes Store rentals, and fall back to a smaller picture when you’re skipping around with the scrubber bar, too.
Apple’s interface for Netflix is fairly spartan, in keeping with the current theme of the Apple TV menu system. At first, you may start with only five text options, including separate lists of “Movie Genres” and “TV Genres,” a combined, cover graphic-heavy “New Arrivals” section that’s divided thereafter into movies and TV sections, an “Instant Queue” of previously found but not fully watched videos, a keyboard-based “Search” feature, and a “Logout” option. “Suggestions For You” and a list of “Recently Watched” videos are added as you use the Netflix service. An eighth option, “Instant Queue,” appears if you use a “+ Queue” button from the Apple TV to add videos to a list of content you’d like to watch. Each video is accompanied by brief descriptive text and a star rating, flashing those details briefly on the screen before playback begins.
Is Netflix a major selling point for the new Apple TV? Different people will reach their own conclusions, but ours is “maybe.” We spent two weeks testing the service and didn’t find a lot of TV or movie content there that interested us, but if you’re a fan of older films, documentaries, or TV shows—particularly shows with back catalogs you want to catch up on—you may find the monthly subscription to be worth the asking price. U.S. users also get access to one-disc-at-once DVD-by-mail rentals with the $9 subscription, a secondary service that many people have enjoyed in recent years to the chagrin (and bankruptcy) of chain stores like Blockbuster Video. As Netflix continues to expand its catalog, or drops the price to the current Canadian $8 base level without the option to rent DVDs by mail, its value as a selling point for Apple TV will likely grow.
Apple TV’s other “Internet” features are all extremely familiar. YouTube provides a browser for the free online video-sharing service, complete with optional account login and video-rating features. Videos we tested, including ones that were supposed to be high-definition, consistently appeared to be sub-DVD-quality, and many continue to be grainy and as low-resolution as might be expected from the inexpensive devices used to shoot and share recordings. it’s unclear whether Apple TV will offer support for the 720p streams that this free service is capable of outputting for some videos these days.
Podcasts enables you to access Apple’s catalog of free downloadable audio and video podcasts, ranging from professional- to amateur-caliber programming, now streamed to the Apple TV rather than saved on it. CNBC podcasts of Jim Cramer’s Mad Money displayed in a window rather than on the whole screen; quality of the audio and video will vary quite a bit from podcast to podcast. Audio podcasts use the same on-screen interface as music playback from streaming computers.
MobileMe and Flickr come from the Photos section of the prior Apple TV, offering you the chance to add accounts of your friends and family for instant checks of their shared photos and videos, streamed from the web, as well as a Flickr search feature with an on-screen keyboard. New to both of these services are additional slideshow modes called Reflections, which displays 1 or 4 pictures at once on a white background with reflective surfaces, the iPad-like folding photo mode Origami, a PlayStation 3-mimicking white framed photo stack mode called Snapshots, plus a simple pan and zoom Ken Burns mode, and 13 transition-flipping effects taken from the prior Apple TV.
While the idea of leaving an HDTV turned on as a continuous photo slideshow doesn’t really appeal to us, Apple TV continues to offer better visual effects to make the idea of doing so with streaming photo content more appealing.
Finally, Radio provides access to the Internet radio features debuted in Apple TV Software 3.0, drawing upon the same genre-sorted list of stations Apple offers through iTunes to enable you to listen to live streaming audio from all over the world. The interface is a modified version of the music playback display, with a large genre-specific piece of art on the left, and a title on the right, minus a scrubber bar—you can only pause and resume live streams rather than skipping around in them. As is always the case with Internet radio, quality varies a lot from station to station, but it’s extra content at no additional price. Apple could really improve this with a search feature rather than just a broad collection of genres.
Settings. As the last of the five main Apple TV options, Settings provides access to six different and individually minor menus of the device that are generally played with once or twice, then not touched again. They have been streamlined somewhat from the first-generation model’s menus, and two have been renamed, while one—Downloads—has been removed due to the streaming focus of the device.
General lets you choose and specify a password for a wireless network, set your iTunes Store account information, parental controls, pair Infrared and Wi-Fi remote controls, change the display language, and update the on-board software. You can also set the device to go into low-power hibernation mode after 15 minutes, a number of hours, or “never.” A Check For Rentals button under the iTunes Store submenu lets a second Apple TV find and stream rental content acquired by another unit on the same network.
Screen Saver enables you to choose between different TV-protecting screen savers, which have been updated from the first-generation Apple TV. Previously you could choose between floating images and a photo slideshow with 14 transition options, plus an optional Ken Burns effect while each photo displayed. Now you can choose from Reflections, Origami, and Snapshots modes mentioned in the earlier MobileMe and Flickr sections, the same pure Ken Burns mode, and a “Classic” mode with a dissolving transition. Apple also includes separate photo collections called Animals and Flowers full of new stock images if you want to use them rather than streaming from a computer or cloud-based photo account.
Audio & Video has been cut down a lot from the prior Apple TV. Previously, you could play with the device’s sound and video output settings, including a toggle to change its resolution, but now Audio & Video includes almost entirely simple audio toggles, with Subtitles and Closed Captioning as the only video options.
AirPlay is the renamed heading for AirTunes, and has been cut down, too—at least for now. At the moment, it only allows you to choose whether to use the Apple TV as an AirPlay Speaker, a receiver through which iTunes and iOS devices can play audio, with or without password protection. It does not appear to allow you to select alternate devices to stream the Apple TV’s own audio towards, a feature of the first-generation Apple TV.
When AirPlay is active for the second-generation model, it can be seen by iTunes and used as a slave to play music, displaying whatever it has received in a small pop-up box at the bottom left corner of the screen; the same should hold true for music played through iOS devices when iOS 4.2 appears in November. You can access the currently playing song using the album artwork at the top left of the Apple TV’s main screen, controlling the volume and tracks of the streaming playback only if you have activated an iTunes Preferences > Devices > Allow iTunes Control From Remote Speakers checkbox—a confusing place to hide this feature. Otherwise, Apple TV will stream the audio but won’t let you control it.
Computers previously let you establish links between multiple computers and the first-generation Apple TV for streaming of their audio, photo, and video libraries; now it merely directs you to turn Home Sharing on and off in order to find any computers shared with the same iTunes Store account with the Apple TV. Apple uses and requires the same Home Sharing system for pairing iPod touch, iPhone, and iPad remotes with the new Apple TV, as well. Finally, the option Sleep Now is renamed from Standby, putting the device in a lower power consumption mode automatically rather than waiting for a lack of activity or button input to do so.
Deleted Sections. Missing in action from the second-generation Apple TV are the headings Music, Podcasts, and Photos, which previously synchronized each of those specified types of content from a single iTunes-equipped computer to the first-generation Apple TV’s hard drive. As noted above, streaming of all three types of content remains available under the Computers header—not to be confused with the just-mentioned Computers sub-header, which is one of the only remaining overlaps in the Apple TV’s user interface language that could benefit from being simplified in a future update.