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.
Apple’s successes are now so numerous that its failures seem like aberrations, and despite its longevity, the first-generation Apple TV was unquestionably in the latter category. Released in March 2007 as a screenless iPod that could play videos, music, and photos from iTunes through any HDTV, the first-generation Apple TV was initially praised by some critics but soon thereafter shunned by mainstream consumers, leading Apple to quickly downplay the potentially powerful product as a “hobby.” Rather than embracing user hacks that improved the device’s capabilities, or responding to requests to expand the concept, the company instead kept the device locked down for its 41-month lifespan, making only occasional and generally half-hearted attempts to tweak its original, unpopular vision. Every year, the company said something like “we think we got it right this time,” but it never did: price drops, two user interface refreshes, and a trickle of new features merely kept Apple TV on life support before its discontinuation at the beginning of September, 2010.
This week, Apple released the “second-generation” Apple TV ($99), the first complete hardware redesign of the original model, and it has gone in a different direction from what fans have been requesting for the past three years. Rather than growing the device to include TV tuning and recording capabilities, an optical disc drive, the ability to run apps, or the power to play games, Apple has strategically shrunk and cut features from the prior model in order to aggressively reduce its price. Still capped at 720p resolution and wearing a streamlined version of the “version 3” interface Apple debuted in 2009 for the first Apple TV, the new model swaps prior Mac-caliber components for parts more akin to an iPod touch, losing the 160GB hard drive in favor of a different concept: pure streaming.
Apple’s latest philosophy is considerably more limited than before, as Apple TV is now being pitched first and foremost as a video rental box, asking users to pay for movie and TV show rentals from iTunes, or subscribe to Netflix’s $9 per month video streaming service as an alternative source of content. Secondarily—but from our perspective more importantly—the new Apple TV will also be capable of streaming additional content directly from iTunes-equipped computers and certain iOS 4.2 devices. Users can no longer store music, videos, or photos on the new model, but with Apple’s updated media streaming feature AirPlay, they will in November 2010 be able to play some content already stored on iPads, iPhones, and iPod touches directly through the new Apple TV to your HDTV; computers with iTunes can do this now. Finally, Apple has hinted that it may eventually offer an App Store for the Apple TV, though for the time being this remains just a pipe dream, much like all of the expectations first-generation Apple TV owners had for official apps that never came.
Rather than judging the Apple TV by its potential—a mistake that led many of the last version’s purchasers to feel disappointed—our comprehensive review of the second-generation Apple TV focuses on what this device actually offers today, while briefly considering the upcoming iOS 4.2 extension of AirPlay that Apple will offer in the near future. We first consider the new Apple TV’s redesigned hardware, then the interface, its performance with iTunes and iOS devices, and finally the opportunities Apple has to expand its functionality in the future. In short, this new $99 device is worth considering today if you’re a fan of movie rentals or have iTunes content that you’d like to enjoy frequently on a big-screen TV without buying AV cables and a dock, but it falls short of its predecessor in other regards, and will require both significant software and iTunes Store updates to become more than just a footnote in Apple’s history. Read on for all the details.
Redesigning the Apple TV: The Black Plastic Box and Pack-Ins
When Apple first previewed “iTV”—the original name for Apple TV—at an event in late 2006, it was presenting its vision for what came to be described as a “ten-foot experience” alternative to the then-dominant iPod, a device with many overlapping features but a very different screen. Apple didn’t want to provide a nice TV menu system for docked iPods, which would have been great; instead, it wanted iPod users to buy a separate product that could sit next to their televisions—high-end televisions, only—and hold its own library of content. So the company’s engineers stuffed a stripped-down Macintosh into a smaller but still attractive $299-$399 shell, taking aesthetic cues from the nearly two-year-old, $499 Mac mini rather than building a plain black box that looked like most generic home AV equipment.
Though Apple has rightfully been criticized for limiting both the hardware and software potential of the first Apple TV, it got a lot right in that device’s industrial design. The original model was a 7.75” rounded square aluminum frame with white and gray plastics on its 1.2” tall top and bottom—as small as such a device could be back then given the Mac-like components inside, and a seemingly prestigious addition to any home entertainment center. In actual use, the original component-stuffed Apple TV ran hot to the touch, and some users had problems running it in warm environments, but it didn’t show dust and looked nice with silver and clear-bezeled TVs that were somewhat popular at the time.
Due in part to the $99 price tag, and also to the replacement of Mac parts with iPod ones, the new Apple TV goes in a different direction: cheap and as invisible as possible. At roughly a quarter the size of its predecessor—3.9” square and 0.9” tall, a space reduction made possible by ditching the hard drive and Mac-like motherboard—you can fit four new Apple TVs side by side on top of the old unit, and they’re shorter, too. Apple now makes the Apple TV from a mix of matte and glossy black plastics, capable of blending into mostly black home AV centers. The flat top features only an Apple TV logo, and the rubber concave bottom has an Apple logo similarly centered; apart from the glossy logos, both surfaces are primarily matte, while the rest of the shell is entirely glossy. It’s 75% lighter, too, at 0.6 pounds versus the 2.4 pound original model. Though it shows dust in a way its predecessor didn’t, it doesn’t stand out as much due to its smaller footprint.
Inside the new Apple TV is Apple’s A4 processor, the same chip that powers the iPod touch 4G, iPhone 4, and iPad, along with an iPod touch- and iPad-like 256MB of work RAM—half what’s in the iPhone 4—plus a modest 8GB of flash storage capacity, reserved solely for caching multiple streamed files at once. Unlike most of Apple’s devices, the new Apple TV doesn’t offer users any ability to manage this space, and the company doesn’t even advertise it as being there, lest people expect that they’ll be able to stuff it with synchronized music, videos, or apps of their choosing. It’s now basically silent since there’s no hard disk running inside, and since there’s more than enough room for the new model’s pocket-friendly A4 processor to breathe, it doesn’t get hot. But it is ever so slightly warm to the touch, possibly because Apple has again placed the power supply inside the chassis. Once again, Apple provides the power cord; you still have to provide the audio and video cables on your own for approximately $15-$20.
As with almost everything else in this model, connectivity options have been cut down from the first-generation Apple TV. In 2007, high-definition televisions and particularly combined audio and video HDMI ports were still in a state of slow adoption, so Apple pitched the Apple TV as compatible with not just HDTVs but also less common “enhanced-definition” models, as well as many HD sets that only had component video ports. Today, big HDTVs are cheap and HDMI ports are common, so the second-generation Apple TV does away with the component audio/video ports, preserving only the HDMI combined AV output and optical audio output of the last model. This change alone enabled Apple to save a considerable amount of space on the unit’s back—the five component AV ports previously took up more space than all of the other connectors combined—but it means that you’re out of luck if your TV doesn’t have a spare or shared HDMI port, or just wanted analog stereo output to inexpensive speakers.
There’s still a port for the included wall power cable, which is now black, a purely optional Ethernet port for wired Internet access through a nearby router, and a Micro-USB port—smaller than last model’s full-sized USB port, though still designed by Apple solely to be used for service, and now capable of connecting to iTunes for software restores if necessary. As before, Apple TV is still primarily designed to be controlled and accessed wirelessly, with an Infrared sensor hidden on the front and an 802.11n wireless networking chip inside. The Wi-Fi hardware supports older 802.11a, b, and g computers and networks, but it may stutter with them when playing back video, particularly high-definition video, as well as taking longer to buffer enough content to perform without interruption.
Unlike the 2007 model, however, which always had “just sync it overnight” as an alternative for users with outdated home networks, streaming reliability may matter more to some users of the second-generation Apple TV. Previously, Apple used a hard drive to store any portion of your iTunes library that you wanted to access immediately from your television, with streaming and buffering as fall-back options for content that wasn’t synced. Syncing was unquestionably a hassle—time-consuming and confusing for average users despite Apple’s near-best efforts to automate and streamline the process—so its elimination is a mixed blessing. There’s no need to bother loading up the new Apple TV with content of your own, but no ability to do so if you want to, either, so if your home network isn’t up to the task of streaming, the new Apple TV isn’t for you.
One conspicuous improvement in the second-generation Apple TV package is the remote control. Apple now includes the aluminum Infrared Apple Remote that mysteriously debuted as a $19 accessory late last year, rather than the 2005-vintage white and black plastic version that was packed in with prior models. Measuring roughly 4.75” long by 1 1/8” wide by 0.2” thick, the aluminum remote is actually longer than the new Apple TV itself, requiring Apple to squeeze it diagonally into the otherwise device-hugging white cardboard package.
This time, the remote features 7 total buttons, up from 6 on the white and black plastic original remote, with dedicated buttons for up, down, left, right, Select, Menu, and Play/Pause. While it’s easy enough to figure out, feels good in the hand, and proves very responsive to button presses, the remote is a far less than ideal tool for navigating through long lists or entering text on the screen. Like virtually all Infrared remotes, this one requires you to point it in a direct line of sight from the Apple TV, and operates at a nominal distance of 30 feet. A compartment on the back can be opened with a large coin to replace the standard CR2032 battery inside, something that shouldn’t be necessary more than once every two or so years.
As with the prior model, a free App Store application called Remote is also available if you want to use the iPod touch, iPhone, or iPad as an alternate controller, freeing you from line-of-sight control except to the extent that you will need to look at the TV screen to navigate the Apple TV’s menus. Remote was just updated for the iPad and Retina Display iPhone 4/iPod touch 4G models this week, adding second-generation Apple TV support while preserving the useful on-screen keyboard, and the underintuitive gesture-based Apple TV menu navigation feature found in earlier versions of the software. When used with iOS 4.x devices, Remote benefits from fast app switching and multitasking support, so you can easily switch over to it and then back again as necessary, however, we found that it lagged behind when we tried to use it for gesture-based control of the Apple TV, sometimes overshooting our intended selections, and at other times seeming not to recognize them. Performance will depend a lot on the way your network is set up, however; ours uses a dual-band Apple router with iOS devices on one band and the Apple TVs on the other.
Other elements of the Apple TV experience remain largely unchanged, so connecting and using it is fairly simple; the box includes an unusually long Setup Guide that walks through the entire process from start to finish, but won’t be necessary for the types of users who are most likely to purchase this device right now. In short, the new Apple TV requires a 720p-capable HDTV as a display device for its content, an iTunes Store account if you want to rent videos or TV shows, and iTunes 10 if you want to stream content directly from your computer to the device. We discuss the Apple TV interface and interactions with iTunes 10 in the next sections of this review.
A Familiar But Streamlined Interface: Movies, TV Shows + Computers
Apple TV’s current user interface is based on October 2009’s Apple TV 3.0 Software, and is generally referred to as “Software Version 4.0” by the device and iTunes. It is the first major update to preserve its predecessor’s main menu system, using a left- and right-navigational menu bar that runs across the center of the screen, offering options within each header that are selected with up, down, and Select buttons using the Infrared remote control. A collection of images at the top of the screen can also be paged through if you want to access content temporarily held on the device, or additional content you can stream to it. Unlike all three prior Apple TV software releases, it has no boot-up video or animation, moving you on the first time through a brief series of text-based setup screens, and subsequently displaying text when it’s hunting for the wireless network you set it up to use. While the lack of sizzle is somewhat unfortunate given the exciting original introduction video of the original Apple TV, we had to watch the video so many times due to reboots that we tired of it—the new model’s faster, simpler start is appreciated.
What used to be seven headers—Movies, TV Shows, Music, Podcasts, Photos, Internet and Settings—have been chopped down to a maximum of five: Movies, TV Shows, Internet, Computers, and Settings, each with more black space on the sides than before. Interestingly, “TV Shows” disappears on the Apple TV when it’s used with a Canadian iTunes Store account due to the lack of rental content, an issue that will likely impact users in other countries as well. At first glance, this seems like a radical elimination of the prior model’s Music, Podcasts, and Photos features, and there have been some cuts, but Apple has actually reorganized much of the old content to fit the new device’s more limited capabilities. Here’s a look at the first three sections of what’s here, and what was lost.
Movies. In the past, this section of the Apple TV interface served primarily as a catch-all place for videos that weren’t organized elsewhere within your iTunes library, and as a place to rent feature-length films from the iTunes Store. In the United States, the second-generation Apple TV slashes Movies down to four initial options: Top Movies, Genres, and Search all let you browse the iTunes Store’s movie rental selection, and In Theaters takes you to what used to be called “Trailers,” a collection of movie posters linked to high-definition video previews of current theatrical releases; “Wish List” is added after you find movies you want to consider renting in the future. iTunes Store content appears at the top of the screen, notably including the videos that were rented on the current Apple TV, as well as other Apple TVs on the same network. Again of note: in countries without iTunes Store movie rentals, such as Mexico, the Movies option features only the In Theaters option for trailers.
Choosing Top Movies or Genres takes you to a highly visual grid of cover artwork, displaying a text name only when you have highlighted a specific video, followed by a detailed information screen once you’ve selected the video. The only changes from the prior version of the Apple TV are hard to notice at first: Apple has obviously refocused the grid of covers to focus on “top rentals,” showing you what’s popular with other users. It has also added the “Tomatometer” rating from Rotten Tomatoes, as well as a “Wishlist” button—merely moving this feature from the secondary More screen—while eliminating the “Buy” and non-HD “Rent” buttons, both disclosed by Apple, but neither a modest change. On the More screen, it has added summaries of critics’ reviews from Rotten Tomatoes, and a very small number of iTunes Store customer reviews, summarized with a star rating.
Search calls up the better of two on-screen keyboards we’ve known and not particularly liked since the early days of the Apple TV—this one uses predictive text to help cut down on button presses, but entering in long terms is otherwise a mess to navigate using a remote control with directional buttons. You can save yourself the hassle if you’re able to supply an iPod touch, iPhone, or iPad with the Remote application; any of these devices’ on-screen keyboards works better than hunting and pecking with the Apple TV’s included remote control.
Movies generally occupy the full width of your HDTV’s screen, and sometimes the full height, otherwise using black letterboxing above and below. A simple white and blue navigational overlay appears when you want to skip around within the video, disappearing unless called up with a button on your remote control. This bar, known as a scrubber bar, lets you see how much of the video is currently cached in the device—indicated with white—and where you are within it, indicated with blue and a diamond-shaped marker. You can move forward or backward through any portion of the content that is currently cached in the device, shifting between a full-screen or partial-screen preview of what you’re skimming through depending on whether the video is cached or streaming. Holding the center action button on the remote down brings up a chapter selection menu akin to a DVD’s, with still images indicating the starting points for different skippable sections of a movie.
Though it’s worth noting that the new Apple TV officially supports a maximum resolution of 1280×720 pixels (720p) at a full 30 frames per second—TV show-ready—up from the 24 frame per second support of the prior version, high-definition and standard-definition movie quality is basically the same as it was before, which is to say solid but not spectacular. Apple again opted not to include support for 1080p “full HD” (1920×1080) videos, the higher level of quality that’s offered by Blu-Ray Discs and recorded by many if not most new consumer camcorders these days. Audio varies from film to film, sometimes offering only stereo channels, and other times supporting Dolby Digital 5.1-channel surround sound, assuming that either the optical audio or HDMI port is connected to a Dolby 5.1-capable receiver.
Apple chose 720p as a compromise standard years ago because the video quality it could offer at reasonable file sizes rivaled or exceeded the quality of competing on-demand HD video services offered by cable companies, even if it fell short of then-nascent Blu-Ray and HD-DVD formats. This was also more feasible as a “next step” for its iPod, iPhone, and iPad devices, which would not be receiving 1080p-capable displays in the near future; over time, it has added 720p recording and playback support to the iPhone 4 and iPod touch 4G, as well. So while the HD videos available from the iTunes Store aren’t up to snuff with the cleaner, sharper pixels you’ll see when buying or renting Blu-Ray films, they are a solid step above DVD quality, and you can start watching Apple’s videos faster than higher-resolution streaming content elsewhere, say nothing of the time consumed purchasing or renting Blu-Ray Discs from a store.
What you don’t get is a real cost savings—Apple charges the same or more for its videos as per-disc rentals elsewhere, and you’re limited to a 24-hour viewing period at any time within 30 days. Most new rental movies cost $4.99 for HD versions or $3.99 for standard-definition versions, though there’s a very small section of Apple’s store with discounted options—generally not very good ones—going for 99 cents in standard-definition, or $1.99 in HD. Apple’s relationship with some studios hasn’t yielded users any special timing favors, either. Unlike TV shows, which generally appear in the iTunes Store the day after they first air, movies may take 30 days longer to show up as rentals than they would through a video store. They might also not show up in the Store at all. Users in countries where DVD ripping is legal might well be better off skipping the iTunes Store entirely.
Except for one potentially big thing. Apple already has at least a couple of movies in the iTunes Store catalog that are either currently in theaters or not yet released in theaters—Joaquin Phoenix’s recently debuted I’m Still Here rents for $7.99, and the late October release Monsters is going for $10.99 as a rental before it appears in cinemas. Both are from Magnolia Pictures, and the idea of being able to watch current and future theatrical releases at home could be a completely killer selling point for Apple TV, if additional studios are willing to take the risk and come on board. That’s a huge “if,” though, and there’s no reason to believe that current blockbusters are going to show up en masse in living rooms any time soon.
Notably gone from the Movies section of the second-generation Apple TV are the sub-headings “My Movies,” which used to contain the videos you’d stored on the original model’s hard disk—obviously gone from this version of the device—and “All HD,” which Apple previously used to direct your attention towards high-definition content at a time when standard-definition content was more widely available. Apple showed off an HD section of the Top Movies subheader that was supposed to point users in the direction of pure HD content, but it has disappeared from the device for the time being.
TV Shows. As this header suggests, TV Shows is purely for one-off and episodic content that was originally broadcast on or designed for traditional television stations, network or cable. Though the menus are slightly different from the Movies menus, adding an extra level of per-show organization, playback is virtually identical.
The options presented by the second-generation Apple TV are Top TV Shows, Genres, TV Networks, and Search, again with “My TV Shows” and “All HD” eliminated as choices. Just as with Movies, TV Shows provides you with a picture-heavy grid of shows to search through, plus the text-formatted lists of genres and networks, which are much, much shorter than they were on the prior Apple TV.
Apple’s latest attempt to gain traction in the TV world doesn’t appear to have gone very well, at least as of today. Rather than selling shows through the Apple TV, Apple now rents shows for 99 cents each—less than the $2-$3 purchase prices offered in the iTunes Store—and gives you a 48-hour viewing window within a 30-day maximum retention period before they expire, up from 24 hours for movies. Unfortunately, only two U.S. broadcast networks and the BBC have signed on with Apple to offer certain of their shows for rent at these prices, and some others have signaled that they’re not interested, leaving all of Apple TV’s TV show menus relatively bare; the collection of affiliated ABC, BBC, and Fox “networks” looks like padding to disguise a lack of participation, and the opportunity to pay 99 cents an episode to watch Remington Steele isn’t exactly compelling. It’s interesting to note that Amazon.com is offering some of the same shows for sale for only 99 cents each, too.
As with movies, the advantage of renting TV shows through Apple TV is convenience—Apple is providing commercial-free, generally high-definition or DVD-quality versions of yesterday’s shows completely on demand. Unlike movies, which are routinely sold in 1080p format for other devices, many TV shows were initially broadcast at 720p or lower resolutions, so you’re less likely to be missing subtle details by watching these programs on the Apple TV. On the other hand, networks are continuing to offer many of their shows for free over the Internet, with limited commercial interruptions in place of price tags. Unless Apple adds support for Hulu, the aggregator of choice for newly-released network TV programming, the new Apple TV’s strongest appeal will be to users who value HDTV use and ad-free viewing so much that they’re willing to pay extra for it and live with a limited selection of content.
Computers. The third section of Apple TV stays empty unless you’ve installed iTunes 10 on a Mac or PC connected to the same wireless network, and turned Home Sharing on. If you’ve done this, you can browse your computer’s iTunes media library using an interface that’s almost identical to the one that shipped with the original Apple TV in 2007, an interesting and somewhat ironic change: whereas your own content used to be front and center on the first-generation Apple TV, several years of changes moved it into competition with iTunes Store content, and then off into a purely optional holding pen.
Once you’ve selected a computer on your network, a text-formatted list of headers for Music, Movies, TV Shows, Podcasts, iTunes U, and Photos appears on the right side of the screen, while cover art and other images gently move in a virtual stack on the left. Music playback continues to benefit from an elegant black Now Playing screen while being saddled with the least impressive navigation system of any screen-dependent Apple device—a text-formatted menu structure identical to Click Wheel iPods with multiple sorting options and long lists, minus the Click Wheel.
As a result, scrolling through lists of song, artist, or album titles takes a lot of button holding and offers little precision, a fact that Apple hasn’t remedied with the new Apple TV’s UI or remote control. It’s long past the time when a Click Wheel would have made sense on an Apple Remote, or even just in Apple’s Remote application, so you’re best off composing playlists on your computer or iOS device rather than hunting and pecking around here.
Music Videos are also found under music, with the same playback interface used for movies. Podcasts and iTunes U content use either the music playback interface or the TV show playback interface, depending on whether you’re listening only to audio or watching video content.
Streaming photos to the new Apple TV from a computer unusually requires you to go to a new iTunes menu called Advanced > Choose Photos to Share—a change wrought by iTunes 10’s decision to treat second-generation Apple TVs differently than first-generation models. Once you’ve selected photos, you can create slideshows from albums, as well as view your collection’s iPhoto-created Events and Faces collections, without any synchronization or photo optimization required in advance. Apple could have made this easier by allowing new Apple TVs to appear as “devices” within the iTunes library bar, and really should go back to the prior way of doing things in a future update.
Movies from your computer are sorted by genre, title, or unwatched status. As with the prior model, videos should be in H.264 or MPEG-4 format in order to play on the new Apple TV, though there have been a few little changes: Apple now also supports an additional format called Motion JPEG, which will enable some digital cameras—not camcorders, and not even all digital cameras—to perform movies directly on the Apple TV without the need for H.264 or MPEG-4 conversion. All iTunes Store movies, including rentals, are in H.264 format and play through the second-generation Apple TV without complaint.
While the H.264 and MPEG-4 formats Apple has chosen for Apple TV are supported by the company and an increasing number of other devices, they’re not the options of choice for many people sharing videos online for free download; Motion JPEG has for years been a weird format that few companies have authored content in. As we and many others have said in the past, opening up the Apple TV to support a much larger collection of native video formats would make the device infinitely more useful, removing the user’s need to spend time and effort transcoding home movies and other content—something time has shown conclusively that most people really do not want to bother with.
The next page of this review looks at the last two sections of the new Apple TV interface: Internet and Settings.
Interface, Part 2: Internet, Netflix + Settings
The prior page of this review looked at the Movies, TV Shows, and Computers sections of the Apple TV 4.0 interface. Here, we look at the final two sections, Internet and Settings.
Internet. Freshly expanded to become the largest menu section of the second-generation Apple TV, Internet has come to include features that were previously found under the last model’s Internet, Podcasts, and Photos headings, as well as adding one new feature: Netflix. Unlike the other Apple TV features, Netflix does nothing unless you’re willing to pay a monthly subscription fee for a separate account, currently available in the United States and Canada. You have to sign up for the account on Netflix’s web site, where it offers a one-month free trial of service, as well as subscription packages that start at only $5 but turn out not to include Apple TV compatibility—$9 is the minimum U.S. monthly price for service that works with this device.
Once the correct plan is purchased, a Netflix account entitles the user to unlimited streaming of a decent but growing collection of commercial-free TV shows and older movies, which appears to have been freshly bulked up with interesting content just in advance of the new Apple TV’s launch.
Though a lot of the films in the Netflix streaming collection are B-caliber recent-ish releases and better-liked films from a decade or two ago, the TV collection is expanding nicely, and there are some theatrical gems in the bunch, too, including newly-added titles such as Star Trek and the original Iron Man. As noted in our recent Netflix review, the same subscription also works on other devices including computers, the iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch.
There’s mostly good news to report regarding the Netflix feature of the new Apple TV: it’s relatively fast at starting playback of videos you select from its list of available options, after a brief pause to judge the quality of your network connection. If your network is being heavily used, it falls back from what looked to us like roughly DVD-quality performance to a lower-resolution standard to keep the video flowing smoothly. Netflix on Apple TV doesn’t make any promises as to the resolution any specific video is supposed to be in, and though there were moments in videos such as Season 5 of Lost where the content looked as if it could have been HD, artifacting and smearing in the videos made them a little less impressive than similarly available iTunes Store content. Netflix videos don’t fully load on your device like iTunes Store rentals, and fall back to a smaller picture when you’re skipping around with the scrubber bar, too.
Apple’s interface for Netflix is fairly spartan, in keeping with the current theme of the Apple TV menu system. At first, you may start with only five text options, including separate lists of “Movie Genres” and “TV Genres,” a combined, cover graphic-heavy “New Arrivals” section that’s divided thereafter into movies and TV sections, an “Instant Queue” of previously found but not fully watched videos, a keyboard-based “Search” feature, and a “Logout” option. “Suggestions For You” and a list of “Recently Watched” videos are added as you use the Netflix service. An eighth option, “Instant Queue,” appears if you use a “+ Queue” button from the Apple TV to add videos to a list of content you’d like to watch. Each video is accompanied by brief descriptive text and a star rating, flashing those details briefly on the screen before playback begins.
Is Netflix a major selling point for the new Apple TV? Different people will reach their own conclusions, but ours is “maybe.” We spent two weeks testing the service and didn’t find a lot of TV or movie content there that interested us, but if you’re a fan of older films, documentaries, or TV shows—particularly shows with back catalogs you want to catch up on—you may find the monthly subscription to be worth the asking price. U.S. users also get access to one-disc-at-once DVD-by-mail rentals with the $9 subscription, a secondary service that many people have enjoyed in recent years to the chagrin (and bankruptcy) of chain stores like Blockbuster Video. As Netflix continues to expand its catalog, or drops the price to the current Canadian $8 base level without the option to rent DVDs by mail, its value as a selling point for Apple TV will likely grow.
Apple TV’s other “Internet” features are all extremely familiar. YouTube provides a browser for the free online video-sharing service, complete with optional account login and video-rating features. Videos we tested, including ones that were supposed to be high-definition, consistently appeared to be sub-DVD-quality, and many continue to be grainy and as low-resolution as might be expected from the inexpensive devices used to shoot and share recordings. it’s unclear whether Apple TV will offer support for the 720p streams that this free service is capable of outputting for some videos these days.
Podcasts enables you to access Apple’s catalog of free downloadable audio and video podcasts, ranging from professional- to amateur-caliber programming, now streamed to the Apple TV rather than saved on it. CNBC podcasts of Jim Cramer’s Mad Money displayed in a window rather than on the whole screen; quality of the audio and video will vary quite a bit from podcast to podcast. Audio podcasts use the same on-screen interface as music playback from streaming computers.
MobileMe and Flickr come from the Photos section of the prior Apple TV, offering you the chance to add accounts of your friends and family for instant checks of their shared photos and videos, streamed from the web, as well as a Flickr search feature with an on-screen keyboard. New to both of these services are additional slideshow modes called Reflections, which displays 1 or 4 pictures at once on a white background with reflective surfaces, the iPad-like folding photo mode Origami, a PlayStation 3-mimicking white framed photo stack mode called Snapshots, plus a simple pan and zoom Ken Burns mode, and 13 transition-flipping effects taken from the prior Apple TV.
While the idea of leaving an HDTV turned on as a continuous photo slideshow doesn’t really appeal to us, Apple TV continues to offer better visual effects to make the idea of doing so with streaming photo content more appealing.
Finally, Radio provides access to the Internet radio features debuted in Apple TV Software 3.0, drawing upon the same genre-sorted list of stations Apple offers through iTunes to enable you to listen to live streaming audio from all over the world. The interface is a modified version of the music playback display, with a large genre-specific piece of art on the left, and a title on the right, minus a scrubber bar—you can only pause and resume live streams rather than skipping around in them. As is always the case with Internet radio, quality varies a lot from station to station, but it’s extra content at no additional price. Apple could really improve this with a search feature rather than just a broad collection of genres.
Settings. As the last of the five main Apple TV options, Settings provides access to six different and individually minor menus of the device that are generally played with once or twice, then not touched again. They have been streamlined somewhat from the first-generation model’s menus, and two have been renamed, while one—Downloads—has been removed due to the streaming focus of the device.
General lets you choose and specify a password for a wireless network, set your iTunes Store account information, parental controls, pair Infrared and Wi-Fi remote controls, change the display language, and update the on-board software. You can also set the device to go into low-power hibernation mode after 15 minutes, a number of hours, or “never.” A Check For Rentals button under the iTunes Store submenu lets a second Apple TV find and stream rental content acquired by another unit on the same network.
Screen Saver enables you to choose between different TV-protecting screen savers, which have been updated from the first-generation Apple TV. Previously you could choose between floating images and a photo slideshow with 14 transition options, plus an optional Ken Burns effect while each photo displayed. Now you can choose from Reflections, Origami, and Snapshots modes mentioned in the earlier MobileMe and Flickr sections, the same pure Ken Burns mode, and a “Classic” mode with a dissolving transition. Apple also includes separate photo collections called Animals and Flowers full of new stock images if you want to use them rather than streaming from a computer or cloud-based photo account.
Audio & Video has been cut down a lot from the prior Apple TV. Previously, you could play with the device’s sound and video output settings, including a toggle to change its resolution, but now Audio & Video includes almost entirely simple audio toggles, with Subtitles and Closed Captioning as the only video options.
AirPlay is the renamed heading for AirTunes, and has been cut down, too—at least for now. At the moment, it only allows you to choose whether to use the Apple TV as an AirPlay Speaker, a receiver through which iTunes and iOS devices can play audio, with or without password protection. It does not appear to allow you to select alternate devices to stream the Apple TV’s own audio towards, a feature of the first-generation Apple TV.
When AirPlay is active for the second-generation model, it can be seen by iTunes and used as a slave to play music, displaying whatever it has received in a small pop-up box at the bottom left corner of the screen; the same should hold true for music played through iOS devices when iOS 4.2 appears in November. You can access the currently playing song using the album artwork at the top left of the Apple TV’s main screen, controlling the volume and tracks of the streaming playback only if you have activated an iTunes Preferences > Devices > Allow iTunes Control From Remote Speakers checkbox—a confusing place to hide this feature. Otherwise, Apple TV will stream the audio but won’t let you control it.
Computers previously let you establish links between multiple computers and the first-generation Apple TV for streaming of their audio, photo, and video libraries; now it merely directs you to turn Home Sharing on and off in order to find any computers shared with the same iTunes Store account with the Apple TV. Apple uses and requires the same Home Sharing system for pairing iPod touch, iPhone, and iPad remotes with the new Apple TV, as well. Finally, the option Sleep Now is renamed from Standby, putting the device in a lower power consumption mode automatically rather than waiting for a lack of activity or button input to do so.
Deleted Sections. Missing in action from the second-generation Apple TV are the headings Music, Podcasts, and Photos, which previously synchronized each of those specified types of content from a single iTunes-equipped computer to the first-generation Apple TV’s hard drive. As noted above, streaming of all three types of content remains available under the Computers header—not to be confused with the just-mentioned Computers sub-header, which is one of the only remaining overlaps in the Apple TV’s user interface language that could benefit from being simplified in a future update.
Streaming Performance With iTunes Store, iTunes, and iOS Content
Once a video is selected from the Apple TV for rental, you confirm the transaction by entering your iTunes Store password and credit card verification number, then watch the main Apple TV screen as cover artwork appears at the top of the screen for the download, accompanied by the word “Loading.” At this point, you can go off and do something else for at least a couple of minutes—maybe more, depending on the speed of your network connection—and the video will buffer in the background without further action from you. The full Apple TV interface remains available to play around in while the download is happening.
As with the prior model, you receive an on-screen notification from the Apple TV whenever enough of the video has loaded to be ready to watch, interrupting whatever you’re doing with a “Press Play to watch now or Press Menu to watch later” box. Hitting Menu lets you return to whatever you were doing at the time, and enables the Apple TV to keep buffering as much of the video as possible; thanks to the device’s underpublicized 8GB of storage space, it can hold several full HD videos at once during your rental period. We rented four HD videos at once and it never complained about a need for more space; Apple appears to be quietly managing the storage such that the device will store whatever it can, and stream everything else—during your rental period, multiple Apple TVs on the same account can access rentals initiated on different devices, using streaming.
Streaming time ranged from very quick—30 seconds or so from order to ready—to a slower two or three minute start time, depending on how strong the Apple TV’s wireless signal was reported to be in a given area of our testing environment. Two different Apple TVs operating on the same 802.11n 5GHz network reported different strengths and had different buffering times. But once a video started streaming, we didn’t have a problem with it stopping or stuttering part-way through.
Streaming Performance with iTunes 10
AirPlay is the technology that will enable iTunes and iOS devices to stream music, video, and photo content to the second-generation Apple TV, but it’s not fully functional as of today. For the time being, the only way to experience AirPlay is to use iTunes—in other words, to keep your computer turned on as a server for content when you want to access your media collection through the Apple TV. AirPlay appears as an dot and multiple waves icon at the bottom right corner of the iTunes window; clicking on it lets you choose to send the currently playing audio stream from iTunes to the Apple TV. If the Apple TV is in the midst of doing something else, such as playing its own video, iTunes will put up an error message and refuse to interrupt it, handy for the current viewer who doesn’t want to be bothered by screen takeover requests.
After the first successful connection attempt, there’s only a brief, split-second pause when iTunes changes tracks, and though we did hear the occasional inelegant stop of one song when starting another, streaming otherwise sounded good. The current version of iTunes 10 (10.0.1) does not support AirPlay video streaming to the Apple TV—at least in the way one might expect, using the iTunes window to click on a video and watch it on a separate TV instantly—so playing a music video or other video file through iTunes will result in only the audio stream passing through to the Apple TV. For at least the time being, videos on a Home Shared computer can be selected directly through the Apple TV’s own interface and played that way, just like streamed photos once the Advanced > Choose Photos to Share option has been selected. In both cases, there were slight pauses for initial library access and buffering, but generally very smooth photo and video viewing thereafter, even with high-definition 720p videos purchased from the Apple Store, and self-encoded 720p videos created for the original Apple TV.
Performance with iOS Devices
The second-generation Apple TV’s biggest selling point, in our view, is the feature it doesn’t ship with—the ability to use AirPlay to wirelessly stream videos, photos, and music from certain iPod touch, iPhone, and iPad models. As the feature has been demonstrated so far, an AirPlay button appears on the playback screens of the video and photo applications, making the Apple TV’s screen briefly go black when pressed, then filling it with content streamed directly from the portable device; a similar AirPlay icon appears on the Now Playing screen of the iPod audio playback application, streaming music in a similar fashion to iTunes, and conjuring up a bottom-left box indicating the current song.
Unfortunately, rather than including AirPlay streaming support within the currently available iOS 4.1 for iPod touch and iPhone models, Apple instead opted to add the feature to iOS 4.2, which is scheduled for release in November. Though pre-release versions of iOS 4.2 are currently circulating, and readers have contacted us with concerns as to diminished AirPlay audio quality relative to the prior Lossless music streamed through Apple’s AirTunes, we wouldn’t want to judge the Apple TV’s media streaming performance based on unfinished software. We’ll update this section of the review when the final version of iOS 4.2 has been released, and adjust the device’s provisional rating in the event that it underperforms expectations.
Future and Conclusions (Updated November 2010)
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.
Accessory of the Year 2011 (Updated November 2011)
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.
Apple TV (with 4.4 Software)
Apple TV (with 4.1 Software)
Apple TV (with 4.0 Software)
Company and Price
Company: Apple Inc.
Model: Apple TV