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.
Apple’s third-generation Apple TV ($99) is the least hyped member of an increasingly important family of products—one that was damaged by a large but inauspicious launch in 2007, later benefitting from iterative improvements scattered across numerous software updates. Though the first-generation Apple TV remained on store shelves for roughly three years, longer than any iPod or iPhone save the ignored iPod classic, its longevity was less a statement of its popularity than its “hobby” status within a surging company. While Apple focused on improving the iPhone and creating the iPad, it left the Apple TV hardware virtually untouched, debuting its fourth major design of Apple TV software alongside an entirely redesigned $99 second-generation Apple TV in late 2010. A year and a half later, Apple updated the second-generation model’s software to 5.0, and released a barely updated third-generation device—one that’s nearly indistinguishable from its predecessor.
The new Apple TV retains the same price, runs the same build of the same version 5.0 software, and for the time being offers literally nothing in the way of surprises: even by Apple’s iterative standards, the third-generation Apple TV looks and feels like a very modest upgrade. From the outside, the new model is nearly identical to its predecessor, made from the same combination of black plastic and rubber, tethered to a wall power outlet with the same included black cable, and bearing the same aluminum six-button remote control Apple released in late 2009. Inside, the third-generation model has received deliberately limited tweaks: a different processor, partial support for 1080p video streaming, and… well, that’s it. If you already have a second-generation Apple TV, everything else is the same.
Since we’ve already covered the Apple TV’s 5.0 software extensively, and so little has changed with the third-generation model’s hardware, this review is effectively an update to our comprehensive review of the second-generation model. But that’s not to say that the third-generation model is a complete snooze. As we said when selecting our Best Accessory of 2011 Award, the software-updated Apple TV was last year’s single most important iPod, iPhone, and iPad accessory, so while this year’s updates seem comparatively trivial right now, post-release tweaks could make a big difference in its future appeal. The only people who will be dissatisfied with the new model are those who expected Apple to do more with the hardware, and even then, there’s plenty of room for optimism: hiccups aside, Apple TVs do tend to get better over time.
Apple’s Third-Generation Apple TV: The Device and Packaging
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.
The Third-Generation Apple TV: User Interface and Features
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.
The Third-Generation Apple TV: What Does “1080p” Mean, Deliver + Omit?
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—1920×1080, or roughly 2 million dots per frame—Apple capped the second-generation Apple TV at 1280×720, 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.
In the final analysis, your perspective on the third-generation Apple TV will depend largely upon whether you’re a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty sort of person: on one hand, this new model is unquestionably better than the second-generation version it replaces, still sells for an attractive $99 price, and includes the latest and greatest software Apple has come up with. There is absolutely no reason to prefer the old model to the new one unless you can find it at a substantial discount, as the third-generation Apple TV includes a faster processor, support for 1080p output, and the potential for software evolutions past its predecessor—all reasons that we’d recommend it today to most of our readers without much of a question. As an AirPlay receiver, a Netflix performer, and a standalone conduit for displaying iTunes Store or Mac/PC iTunes content on an HDTV, it is every bit as capable as the prior version, and therefore just as worthy of our high recommendation.
On the other hand, Apple’s addition of 1080p support for the new Apple TV is the device’s single distinguishing feature, and regardless of whatever changes have been made to the hardware—including the Apple A5 chip—the company’s current approach to 1080p content and fully utilizing the device’s 1080p capabilities need some serious work. Between the iTunes Store’s soft “HD” labels, the current 720p limitations of AirPlay Mirroring, and a variety of other small tweaks yet to be negotiated with Apple’s content partners, the third-generation Apple TV has a lot more potential than users will be able to enjoy.
While these 1080p-related issues are non-trivial, they’re also not fatal to a continued high recommendation and A- rating for the new Apple TV. If you’re an iPad, iPhone, or iPod owner and don’t yet have an Apple TV, it’s difficult to explain just how much fun you’re missing out on. Given the $99 asking price, it offers far greater value for the dollar than any other accessory Apple has created for its devices, and works so well as a standalone video, photo, and audio streaming device that we consider it an all but essential purchase for users of Apple’s iOS devices and iTunes software. Our hope is that Apple continues its pattern of improving this new model through software, as it has with both of the prior-generation Apple TVs; given the direction the interface is now taking, and the power the hardware now packs, it’s quite possible that Apple will finally hit the home run with this model that it’s missed before. It gets closer every time, and we can’t wait to see what’s next.
Company and Price
Company: Apple Inc.
Model: Apple TV