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 we originally reviewed the second-generation Apple TV in October of 2010, it was very obviously an unfinished product: Apple shipped the device with software that it promised to update soon with additional functionality—support for wireless “AirPlay” streaming from iOS devices—but characteristically said nothing about future functionality. Consequently, the Apple TV has continued to experience unexpected changes over the last year, but unlike its predecessor, virtually all of those changes have been for the better, and as of late 2011 the Apple TV has taken enough small but meaningful evolutionary steps to merit our high recommendation, plus our award for 2011 iPod/iPhone/iPad Accessory of the Year.
As of today, the second-generation Apple TV is on version 4.4.3 of its system software, with the latter “.3” indicating the third “point point” release—another in an unfortunately numerous series of minor bugfix updates to the otherwise very impressive version 4.4 software. With 4.4, Apple introduced AirPlay Mirroring, which enables both the iPad 2 and iPhone 4S to wirelessly stream their entire screen contents to the Apple TV—user interface, apps, and content alike—a massive new feature that fundamentally improves the way relatively new iOS devices can interact with televisions. Thanks to AirPlay Mirroring alone, the Apple TV enables users to enjoy FaceTime video conferences, high-resolution video games, and all sorts of other apps through their televisions; it’s this feature more than any other that makes the Apple TV an almost must-have purchase for iPhone 4S and iPad 2 users. Other iOS devices received more limited AirPlay streaming support in version 4.2, released in March 2011, which enabled certain specific apps to share their content over AirPlay, as well as adding support for Major League Baseball (MLB) and NBA basketball video subscriptions and scores.
Other new additions to the software have also been welcome. iTunes Match support was added in November 2011, creating a new “Music” heading with cloud-based iTunes library access for U.S. users who subscribe to Apple’s $25/month service; direct streaming from local iTunes libraries and iOS devices is still supported, as well. Photo Stream now provides quick access to photos stored in iCloud, alongside prior access to photos and videos stored on services such as Flickr, MobileMe, YouTube, and Vimeo. Additionally, NHL games, Wall Street Journal videos, and an enhanced movie trailers section all debuted in version 4.4.
Also critical to the Apple TV’s improved viability was Apple’s quiet retreat from the device’s initial reliance on a rental model for TV shows. Released in August, 2011, Apple TV version 4.3 replaced TV rentals with the ability to purchase TV shows directly from the iTunes Store—and the ability to stream those shows from iTunes in the Cloud, one of Apple’s new iCloud-related Internet-based storage initiatives. The only knock on this feature, and several others that depend upon Apple’s cloud-based services and/or renegotiated contracts with rights holders, is that it remains inaccessible to users in many countries, limiting Apple TV’s appeal dramatically there. Even in the United States, movies cannot be purchased directly from the Apple TV due to rights issues; users still need to buy (or otherwise acquire) videos using computers or iOS devices, then stream them to the Apple TV.
Because of AirPlay Mirroring and increasingly impressive AirPlay application and game support, however, the Apple TV has changed so much that it’s not fair to judge it solely as a standalone video playback unit any more. Today, regardless of restrictions specific to the country in which it’s used, the Apple TV is a seriously worthwhile accessory for virtually any iOS device, and an all but mandatory addition for users of the iPad 2 and iPhone 4S. Should Apple broaden AirPlay support to include UI and/or QuickTime video streaming from its Mac computers, the Apple TV would become even more valuable than it already is today. Apart from the small but annoying bugs we have seen in recent software releases, it is an excellent product, and very much worthy of our high recommendation.