Review: Apple TV (Third-Generation)
Pros: A modestly updated version of the award-winning second-generation Apple TV, now featuring 1080p video support and a new Apple A5 processor inside the 2010 model’s black plastic enclosure. Runs the latest, improved 5.0 version of Apple TV software, offering excellent video streaming and AirPlay mirroring options. Continues to include Apple’s aluminum Remote control, and support for iOS Wi-Fi Remote software. Previous versions received considerable post-release software updates to improve features.
Cons: The new model’s signature feature—1080p support—is not properly implemented on the iTunes Store side, obscuring 1080p options from customers, and offering relatively few movies to even U.S. customers; international 1080p options are considerably more limited. No communicated upcoming support for 1080p screen mirroring from iOS devices, though 1080p streaming is otherwise supported. Despite software-side improvements, remote control options and menus remain in need of additional fine-tuning and design enhancements.
As originally envisioned, the Apple TV was Apple’s bridge between computer-based iTunes and televisions scattered throughout a home: rather than connecting an iPod or iPhone to your TV with a dock and cable, Apple hoped that people would buy $299 Apple TV accessories with their own hard drives, power supplies, and wireless networking capabilities, letting then-emerging HDTVs have access to whatever video, photo, and audio content users wanted to enjoy. The first-generation Apple TV was a cut-down Mac mini inside a flattened aluminum, gray plastic and gray rubber shell, paired with a white plastic Infrared remote controller. Though it looked nice, the Apple TV suffered from speed, heat, and software issues, none of which Apple completely solved during its lifespan.
Instead, Apple released a completely rethought second-generation model, focusing on a purely streaming content model. To achieve a considerably lower $99 price, it tossed out the metal casing, reduced the footprint by 75%, and dropped all of the Mac-style components in favor of parts akin to a screenless iPod touch. The second-generation Apple TV measured only 3.9” by 3.9”, with a height of 0.9” and weight of 0.6 pounds. Using a design knife that cut deep but remarkably spared virtually all of the prior model’s muscle, Apple excised everything from the hard drive to component video and conventional RCA stereo audio connectors, reducing the Apple TV to 8 Gigabytes (GB) of flash-based storage capacity, while leaving only HDMI and optical audio ports for output. A full-sized USB port on the original’s back shrunk to a micro-USB connector, and a previously conspicuous Infrared sensor on the front all but disappeared, fading into the newer design’s glossy black front. Even the Apple TV logo, which was prominently visible on the earlier model’s top, was reduced to a glossy texture on the otherwise matte-finished top, becoming noticeable only from off-angles.
While all of these changes were noteworthy for various reasons, and a couple were very modestly controversial back in 2010, only one seems relevant today: the reduced storage capacity. Unlike the original Apple TV, which was designed to serve as both a storage and streaming video device, the sequel lacked any user-manageable space, instead automatically managing its unpublicized 8GB of memory to smoothly stream content from computers and the Internet. As a result of this change, everything the Apple TV plays back now requires at least a little buffering time, indicated by a progress meter on the bottom of the screen. Following buffering, streaming video performance is generally silky smooth if your wireless network or wired Ethernet connection is fast, so long as your broadband Internet service and/or streaming computer are up to the challenge of streaming data without hiccups. These days, most are.
Apple further mitigates streaming delays by enabling you to start playing content as soon as the device determines that it can do so without stopping, which may take as little as seconds or as long as several minutes, depending on your network connection and content. Another plus is Apple’s smart automated management of that 8GB, which tends to fully cache the most recent iTunes-based movie or TV show you started watching, as well as the prior video or two depending on space, so that you can come back to them—until something newer is selected, pushing them out. Other than its network dependence, the only issue some users have noted is their lack of direct control over what’s stored on the Apple TV. Consequently, some video streams will begin buffering anew with each connection, creating small and all but unavoidable delays that are now basically accepted as a part of life with the Apple TV.
The third-generation Apple TV doesn’t change any of the details above from the second-generation model. It looks so nearly identical to its predecessor that only a new model number on the bottom—A1427 versus A1378—distinguishes them. Port markings, branding, cabling, and the remote are all the same. If there wasn’t a badge on the new model’s box with “1080p” inside, and smaller 1080p references on the back and bottom of the box, you’d hardly be able to tell the two versions apart at a store. You still get a plain black and white instruction manual with blue interior accents, a warranty booklet, and two Apple stickers; you have to supply the mandatory HDMI and optional optical audio cables yourself.
From an internal perspective, the Apple TV’s changes are almost entirely opaque to users. The second-generation model’s Apple A4 processor has been replaced by a hitherto unknown, stripped-down version of its iPhone 4S- and iPad 2-powering A5 chip, here with only a single processing core rather than two. Some may view this modest boost in chip performance as a statement to third-party developers that Apple continues to view the third-generation Apple TV as a dependent device rather than as a standalone platform akin to the iPod, iPhone, and iPad, but as was the case with the 2010 model, this Apple TV runs iOS—the same software that powers Apple’s other “post-PC devices.” Moreover, though Apple advertises only the same 802.11a/b/g/n wireless and Infrared capabilities it included before, the new Apple TV continues to include a micro-USB port and Bluetooth chip that have remained unused. It remains to be seen whether Apple will unlock the app and accessory potential of the third-generation Apple TV, but the hardware’s there and just waiting to be used.