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.
The box says “1080p.” Apple’s marketing mentions 1080p. And there are new menu options, all mentioning 1080p. In fact, 1080p is the only new feature that Apple is promising the third-generation Apple TV has added to the second-generation model. So what does 1080p really mean?
Before Apple released the second-generation Apple TV, it took the unusual step of publicly leaking a supposed internal debate over the one feature it felt was missing from its upcoming product: support for 1080p, the maximum video resolution supported by the very best high-definition television sets then available. Instead of including 1080p—1920x1080, or roughly 2 million dots per frame—Apple capped the second-generation Apple TV at 1280x720, also known as “720p,” with just under 1 million dots per frame.
As Apple’s leaker framed the issue, the A4 chip inside the new Apple TV would have struggled a little with the higher resolution mode, an issue that had already become apparent when the first-generation Apple TV attempted to reach higher than 720p resolutions; now the company preferred to offer a rock solid experience rather than something dicey. Moreover, although the first-generation Apple TV had included buggy 1080i and 1080p modes, no videos sold in Apple’s iTunes Store supported these formats, the bandwidth demands were said to be tremendous, and no iTunes-dependent Apple device then sold was capable of displaying such high-resolution content. Apple made a measured decision: for $99, and given the state of the market, virtually no one would care if the Apple TV lacked 1080p support.
The bet paid off, and though rivals quickly released 1080p-compatible Apple TV alternatives, Apple didn’t appear to lose any customers as a result of the decision. And, though this may sound harsh, it’s similarly unlikely to win any customers for the third-generation Apple TV solely on the basis of how it ultimately added 1080p support to the device and the iTunes Store. If the company had done even a little more to promote the device, the new feature, or the technology behind it, the rollout of 1080p content would have been branded an embarrassment or debacle—the sort of half-baked, poorly-executed launch that Steve Jobs might well have fired people for. But by slipping the new Apple TV and 1080p announcements into the beginning of an iPad-focused event, something else happened: an improvement took place that virtually no one will notice, entirely by design, and only few people will complain about, despite some serious issues.
Load up the third-generation Apple TV and you’ll find that virtually nothing screams “1080p” or “look, twice the prior model’s resolution!” at you. But there are a total of three 1080p-related changes that third-generation Apple TV users will notice, either immediately or after comparison to the second-generation model. They range from truly trivial to potentially important, depending on your preferences and tastes.
First is the updated “version 5” user interface. While it’s 99% identical to what was released last week for the second-generation Apple TV in design, menu options, and responsiveness, the third-generation Apple TV’s 1080p support enables fonts and graphics to look crisper and more detailed. Use the second-generation Apple TV, then flip on the third-generation model, and you’ll call the differences completely trivial. Then flip back to the second-generation model and you’ll almost certainly recognize—up close, at least—that everything’s a little softer. Look even more closely and you’ll notice that the text has become a hair smaller in some places and that spacing in lists has changed ever so slightly, so that the last and partially faded-out line is more obscured in 1080p than in 720p. Screenshots don’t do the differences justice, and from a sofa, you’ll be hard-pressed to point most of them out, but the new model’s generally better.
Second is the third-generation model’s superior performance of photographic content. Whether it’s streaming photos from the Internet or displaying the National Geographic screensaver images that were added in the version 5 software update, the Apple TV now makes the best use possible of any HDTV’s screen, again adding twice the level of detail that its predecessor could display. Once again, the differences aren’t profound enough to sell the device on, but they’re improvements nonetheless.
Third and last is the new model’s improved video performance, a feature we list last because of how poorly it has been demonstrated thus far by Apple. While there is absolutely no doubt that the third-generation Apple TV can run its entire interface and video playback engine in 1080p, Apple has so obscured the 720p/1080p video distinction that only the most detail-focused consumers will even know for sure that they’re buying, renting, or watching 1080p content with the device. As of yet, the iTunes Store does not feature large “1080p” buttons to distinguish full HD videos from the lower-resolution ones it’s been selling for some time, nor banners to set 1080p videos apart from the rest. The old HD buttons remain HD buttons, regardless of whether you’re on a second-generation or third-generation Apple TV, running in 720p or 1080p.
As a result, you literally have to hunt for small text on each “HD” video’s description page to see whether it’s 1080p or not. Even then, the “1080p” branding will only appear if you’re using the third-generation Apple TV in 1080p mode, and have the iTunes Store setting for 1080p enabled. Otherwise, the device pretends that nothing has changed; if you’re using a 720p TV or second-generation Apple TV, you won’t even know whether you’re able to buy 1080p content. Worse yet, the quantity of 1080p content in the iTunes Store is extremely restricted at this time, and roughly half of the 1080p movies we managed to hunt down were solely available for rent in that format—many can only be purchased in “standard definition,” or DVD-quality resolution, still sometimes for as much as $15 per SD video. By contrast, quite a few TV shows are now available in 1080p HD, but the iTunes Store is not advertising them effectively, so users won’t know to discover them. Apple now has a set of new format and pricing problems to manage, but it hasn’t really finished tackling them yet.
In many cases, the new Apple TV will merely perform last year’s 720p videos, though in other cases, it may quietly stream 1080p content, delivering additional detail that comes closer than ever to matching the quality of Blu-Ray Discs. While this is certainly a net positive relative to the prior guarantee of nothing better than 720p content, it just doesn’t feel pass the sniff test: something new’s been added, and used as the only distinction for marketing and packaging, but Apple’s really not promising specific content for it. As bad as this is in the United States, it’s even worse outside, as 1080p content deals don’t appear to have been worked out with companies beyond these borders.
It turns out that there’s another problem with the 1080p content, and that’s how slowly it sometimes streams to the new Apple TV. Though Apple has introduced a new H.264 profile that effectively reduces the file sizes of 1080p videos while making less obvious compromises in their display quality, the full HD videos require more buffering time—sometimes significantly more, turning what would be several seconds of waiting for standard-definition video into minutes. Third-generation Apple TV users can switch the iTunes Store preferences to download 720p movies instead, improving their performance at the cost of resolution. It’s sad but true that many users, perhaps even including some of us, will have to seriously consider this despite having hardware that can support better video.
Fourth and finally, there’s another 1080p-related difference that should be in the new Apple TV, but isn’t, and that’s support for full HD AirPlay streaming. With the upcoming release of OS X Mountain Lion, Mac computers will have the ability to share their screens over AirPlay, and since all desktop Macs and most laptop Macs offer higher than 720p output resolutions—say nothing of the current third-generation iPad’s better-than-HD capabilities—it would be reasonable for AirPlay to match the new Apple TV’s peak output, as well. Unfortunately, Apple has specifically capped AirPlay Mirroring for Macs and iOS devices alike at 720p, possibly to avoid overwhelming third-party developers or its own in-house teams with even more standard changes. Hopefully, higher-resolution AirPlay streaming will be added in a future Apple TV software update, but there are no promises.
If it wasn’t for the fact that Apple has dramatically underplayed the addition of 1080p, this would all be more objectionable—inconspicuous content offerings, format questions when making purchases, and slower streaming all add up to a sub-optimal user experience for the third-generation Apple TV’s signature feature. But the average consumer will likely focus more on what’s improved than what’s missing here, and there’s no doubt that the new Apple TV does more than its predecessor, even if it has once again left plenty of room for future improvement.