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.
Once a video is selected from the Apple TV for rental, you confirm the transaction by entering your iTunes Store password and credit card verification number, then watch the main Apple TV screen as cover artwork appears at the top of the screen for the download, accompanied by the word “Loading.” At this point, you can go off and do something else for at least a couple of minutes—maybe more, depending on the speed of your network connection—and the video will buffer in the background without further action from you. The full Apple TV interface remains available to play around in while the download is happening.
As with the prior model, you receive an on-screen notification from the Apple TV whenever enough of the video has loaded to be ready to watch, interrupting whatever you’re doing with a “Press Play to watch now or Press Menu to watch later” box. Hitting Menu lets you return to whatever you were doing at the time, and enables the Apple TV to keep buffering as much of the video as possible; thanks to the device’s underpublicized 8GB of storage space, it can hold several full HD videos at once during your rental period. We rented four HD videos at once and it never complained about a need for more space; Apple appears to be quietly managing the storage such that the device will store whatever it can, and stream everything else—during your rental period, multiple Apple TVs on the same account can access rentals initiated on different devices, using streaming.
Streaming time ranged from very quick—30 seconds or so from order to ready—to a slower two or three minute start time, depending on how strong the Apple TV’s wireless signal was reported to be in a given area of our testing environment. Two different Apple TVs operating on the same 802.11n 5GHz network reported different strengths and had different buffering times. But once a video started streaming, we didn’t have a problem with it stopping or stuttering part-way through.
Streaming Performance with iTunes 10
AirPlay is the technology that will enable iTunes and iOS devices to stream music, video, and photo content to the second-generation Apple TV, but it’s not fully functional as of today. For the time being, the only way to experience AirPlay is to use iTunes—in other words, to keep your computer turned on as a server for content when you want to access your media collection through the Apple TV. AirPlay appears as an dot and multiple waves icon at the bottom right corner of the iTunes window; clicking on it lets you choose to send the currently playing audio stream from iTunes to the Apple TV. If the Apple TV is in the midst of doing something else, such as playing its own video, iTunes will put up an error message and refuse to interrupt it, handy for the current viewer who doesn’t want to be bothered by screen takeover requests.
After the first successful connection attempt, there’s only a brief, split-second pause when iTunes changes tracks, and though we did hear the occasional inelegant stop of one song when starting another, streaming otherwise sounded good. The current version of iTunes 10 (10.0.1) does not support AirPlay video streaming to the Apple TV—at least in the way one might expect, using the iTunes window to click on a video and watch it on a separate TV instantly—so playing a music video or other video file through iTunes will result in only the audio stream passing through to the Apple TV. For at least the time being, videos on a Home Shared computer can be selected directly through the Apple TV’s own interface and played that way, just like streamed photos once the Advanced > Choose Photos to Share option has been selected. In both cases, there were slight pauses for initial library access and buffering, but generally very smooth photo and video viewing thereafter, even with high-definition 720p videos purchased from the Apple Store, and self-encoded 720p videos created for the original Apple TV.
Performance with iOS Devices
The second-generation Apple TV’s biggest selling point, in our view, is the feature it doesn’t ship with—the ability to use AirPlay to wirelessly stream videos, photos, and music from certain iPod touch, iPhone, and iPad models. As the feature has been demonstrated so far, an AirPlay button appears on the playback screens of the video and photo applications, making the Apple TV’s screen briefly go black when pressed, then filling it with content streamed directly from the portable device; a similar AirPlay icon appears on the Now Playing screen of the iPod audio playback application, streaming music in a similar fashion to iTunes, and conjuring up a bottom-left box indicating the current song.
Unfortunately, rather than including AirPlay streaming support within the currently available iOS 4.1 for iPod touch and iPhone models, Apple instead opted to add the feature to iOS 4.2, which is scheduled for release in November. Though pre-release versions of iOS 4.2 are currently circulating, and readers have contacted us with concerns as to diminished AirPlay audio quality relative to the prior Lossless music streamed through Apple’s AirTunes, we wouldn’t want to judge the Apple TV’s media streaming performance based on unfinished software. We’ll update this section of the review when the final version of iOS 4.2 has been released, and adjust the device’s provisional rating in the event that it underperforms expectations.