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.
When Apple announced the second-generation Apple TV at the beginning of this month, it simultaneously conceded that the original version hadn’t been a big hit, and claimed that people who had bought into it had loved it—a suggestion that there was a small group of very loyal users, with many more waiting to join them if the price and features were right. Based on our extensive experiences with the first-generation Apple TV, the reality of the situation was actually much more complex: the original device’s limited feature set, ease of use, and price tag were all wrong in different ways, and three years of tweaks didn’t do much to win new people over. The hardest-core Apple TV fans have tried to blame scant marketing for the device’s failure, but there were many reasons, including sluggish performance of the original device, and the mix of new features and pricing that appealed to one group of people might not have won purchases from another. Some people would have paid the old price for an Apple TV with DVR functionality, while others would have been willing to get a lot less for a lower price.
Apple picked one of these groups and went after it. By recasting the second-generation Apple TV as a $99 rental and streaming box, Apple made a conscious choice to chase sheer numbers of new customers, and to be sure, some of the new device’s features—AirPlay, Netflix, and current theatrical release movie streaming, in particular—are potentially big draws, assuming that Apple takes the right steps to build upon them in the near future. Unfortunately, that’s a lot to assume given the troubled history of the prior Apple TV, which was initially presented as the future of living room entertainment, only to be neglected for much of its lifespan as the iPhone and iPad exploded in popularity. As small and cute as the new model is, and as versatile as the A4 chipset inside has proved to be with Apple’s other devices, there’s no getting around the fact that its current software, iTunes Store content, and expansion options are even more limited than before. Some people have speculated that it’s going to magically grow bunches of new features, but Apple has promised only iOS media streaming, and nothing more. So if you’re considering buying into this device, understand going in that you’re placing a $100 bet on a product that could become great or could sit around gathering dust, depending on what happens over the next year.
Our belief is that the new Apple TV will come into its prime only after the release of iOS 4.2, which will hopefully make AirPlay video, audio, and photo streaming from iOS devices both simple and impressive in fidelity, the latter a point of some ambiguity right now. Further improvements to the video rental catalog could make Apple TV a hit even apart from iOS streaming, particularly if more brand-new theatrical releases make it into the iTunes Store. Similarly, should Apple launch an App Store in the right way for this device, complete with a more substantially overhauled user interface, this device could easily experience a surge in interest similar to what happened to the iPhone and iPod touch in the App Store boom of 2008 and 2009. While the new Apple TV doesn’t appear to have the storage capacity or the interface to support the most impressive possible implementations of an App Store, and Apple has faced considerable opposition from studios in recent years, the foundations for a better tomorrow are at least in place, if not entirely firmed up yet. We’ll have to wait and see whether Apple starts taking its hobby more seriously in 2011, or continues to focus most of its attention on its other product lines, instead.
For now, the second-generation Apple TV is a nice sub-$100 gift for users who are interested in renting and/or streaming iTunes videos, as well as those who are willing to accept a mix of promised additional features and vague hints of future surprises as IOUs. If you’re not in one or both of those crowds, our advice would be to hold off for the time being on this particular Apple product. If Apple’s implementation of AirPlay streaming on iOS 4.2 devices lives up to its potential, that feature alone could easily be a compelling and mainstream enough feature to merit the $99 asking price. We’ll update this review in November when the iOS 4.2 update is released, modifying our provisional flat B rating if for whatever reason it fails to live up to the expectations Apple has raised for its performance.
Updated November 24, 2010: On November 22, 2010, Apple released iOS 4.2 and Apple TV Software Update 4.1, collectively enabling the second-generation Apple TV to play back videos, photos, and audio files from certain iOS devices with AirPlay streaming support. The feature works largely as expected, enabling an iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch to send the Apple TV most of the sound, photo, or video files stored in Apple’s iPod, Music, Videos, and Photos applications, though not—as of yet—video from third-party applications, videos recorded with an iPhone’s camera and not yet synchronized with a computer, or files that are in formats unsupported by the Apple TV hardware. Supported videos, photos, and audio files play with only a brief initial buffering delay, and look or sound as good as they did on the original device; only network bandwidth issues can occasionally impede the smooth streaming of content.
The value added by this feature is already considerable enough to merit a higher B+ rating for the second-generation Apple TV running 4.1 software, and we expect that it will only become better and more useful over time as third-party developers gain access to direct-to-Apple TV streaming tools. That said, the new Apple TV’s previously-mentioned cons, including the weakness of its TV rental library and the limitations on its movie rental library, have continued to persist months after the device’s release; only a paid subscription to Netflix has the ability to really make the device live up to its potential as an Internet-dependent video streaming device. It is quite possible that direct-from-iOS device sharing will prove to be the Apple TV’s single biggest draw going forward. We’ll revisit these conclusions again should Apple make a major improvement to the Apple TV software.