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.
Though the third-generation Apple TV’s hardware has changed only a little from the second-generation model, Apple’s focus for this product family has been on software iterations—a process we’ve documented extensively since the 2008 debut of Apple TV 2.0 software. Over the years, the company has experimented repeatedly with different main menus, shifting the first screen from a single-line list to a confusing two-pane list, then to a horizontal bar with vertical list options, and later a refined version with the same bar but fewer options.
Apple TV 1.0
Apple TV 2.0
Apple TV 3.0
Apple TV 4.0
Apple TV 5.0
With version 5.0 of the Apple TV software, Apple’s shifted the main screen once again, replacing the lists with wider but otherwise iOS-styled icon options, complete with smaller text beneath each icon. While our screenshot above shows you all of the icons at once, the actual 16:9 aspect ratio of the interface crops the display such that only the top row of up to five icons are fully visible at first, with the next line faded out to hint at additional content below. Scroll down from the top line of choices and the next three rows are revealed, as the large Apple TV logo at the top of the screen becomes invisible.
Apart from the maximum supported display resolution of 1080p, discussed in detail within the next section of this review, there are no changes between the second-generation and third-generation Apple TV menu options. American users get access to separate Movies, TV Shows, and Music icons that are now all linked to Apple’s iCloud and iTunes in the Cloud services, enabling most—but not all—previously purchased iTunes Store video and audio content to be streamed directly to the Apple TV for free over the Internet, without the need for a local computer to be turned on. Users in other countries lack either for the iCloud access or some of these icons, depending on the country, and must instead rely upon their computers’ local iTunes libraries and/or other Internet-streamed content to use the Apple TV. Apple has continued to expand the footprints of its store, iCloud, and its iTunes in the Cloud services, enabling more international users to stream purchased content to their devices, but the process has been slow—impeded as much by protracted negotiations with rights holders as anything else.
Secondary services offered on the Apple TV include paid subscription-based Netflix, Major League Baseball, National Hockey League, National Basketball League, and soon-to-be-discontinued MobileMe streaming options, as well as entirely free sections: movie trailers, Wall Street Journal Live, YouTube, Vimeo, podcasts, Internet Radio, Flickr, and iCloud Photo Stream. Together, these individual sections provide Apple TV users with a ton of access to video, photo, and audio content, and they’ve come a long way since the original Apple TV, which once was excited to just add YouTube support. Added in 2010, Netflix in particular as emerged as a major reason to purchase the Apple TV, very nearly enabling users to sever their cable TV subscriptions in favor of pure on-demand content. Still conspicuously missing are broader support for directly accessing paid or free TV channels—a feature Apple has reportedly wanted to add for at least a year—and any form of digital video recording functionality, which users have wanted Apple to offer since before the first model was released, but found unsupported by the hardware or software. The Apple TV has no coaxial connector, and cannot replace a cable box or DVR.
On the other hand, the Apple TV offers a significant feature that was added after the release of the second-generation model in 2010, even though it doesn’t appear anywhere on the aforementioned list of icons: AirPlay. AirPlay effectively replaces the Apple TV’s own interface with whatever content is streaming from an iOS device or a computer running iTunes, quickly fading the Apple TV UI to black before displaying videos, photographs, or album artwork, sometimes with on-screen scrubber controls that can be managed with the aluminum Apple TV remote control. While this feature is a little buggy with photos, sometimes lagging or hanging momentarily when an iOS device is feeding it individual images, it generally works extremely well—and quickly.
In the case of the second- and third-generation iPads, as well as the iPhone 4S, the Apple TV can do even more: in addition to streaming video, photo, and audio content, these devices can share their entire user interfaces with a TV using a feature called “Screen Mirroring,” displaying the content of virtually any app or game, and occasionally even better-looking or entirely different graphics on the HDTV than what’s on their own screens. Even without these advanced AirPlay features, the Apple TV’s ability to start performing videos, photo slideshows, or music directly from iOS devices with only two or three taps was a breakthrough feature, and the third-generation model performs just like the second-generation version in these regards—again, we’ll have more to say on that in the next section of this review.
Since almost all of the new Apple TV’s features arrived in a software update for the second-generation model, there’s little left to add to our prior coverage besides a few additional opinions, and they’re mixed but generally positive. While our editors have been wondering what the shift from text to icons means for the future of the Apple TV—Apple could be contemplating a Wii-like remote interface, as there are now larger menu targets to point at from afar—it suffices to say that we’re not entirely sold on the current user experience: as with every prior major software release, it doesn’t feel as finished or polished as even the original version of iOS, despite the fact that Apple has had more than five years and all but unlimited cash on hand to get it right. There are elements that are decidedly better on Apple TV than on some other devices, such as the Netflix interface, but there’s little consistency between the various screens, and the main menu continues to feel like an experiment in progress.
On a generally positive note, the latest changes have moved the device further towards a picture-heavy experience, rather than filling every screen with lines of white-lettered words. The Movies, TV Shows, and photo-related sections of the new interface now consist almost entirely of images, though many of the other sections still include now-classic mixes of moving graphics on one side of the screen with scrolling lists of choices on the other. It’s not that Apple needs to change everything, but rather that the changes never stop, and don’t yet feel as if they’re going to stabilize any time soon. Yes, Apple was once forced to rely upon Infrared technology for a less than ideal Apple Remote, but it hasn’t yet evolved the Wi-Fi-dependent iOS application Remote into something profoundly better. And it hasn’t ever tried to just mimic the Apple TV’s interface on an iPad or smaller iOS devices: why should anyone need to swipe or hit up and down buttons five times when everything could have become iOS screen touchable long ago?
As has been the case with every prior version of the Apple TV software, it’s unclear at this stage whether Apple’s found a user interface it likes enough to keep going forward, or whether it will choose something different a year or so from now. Moreover, the company has only rarely signaled specific changes it plans for future Apple TV software updates, and has made no public commitments to open the Apple TV to third-party applications or accessories, either of which could considerably expand the device’s capabilities and appeal. It’s of some comfort that past UI changes have generally—not always—been positive, and that bugs that caused crashes have generally been squashed with rapid updates, but since every Apple TV model has seen considerable software changes during its history, the new version has the potential to remain a moving target for the foreseeable future.