Review: Apple TV

Apple overhauls Apple TV with new content and no hard drive (October 1st, 2010)

Steve Jobs has modestly described the Apple TV project as just a "hobby," but it is a pastime the company has continued to enjoy in the four years since its "iTV" endeavors were first announced. The redesigned box marks a shift in overall strategy, as the integrated hard drive has been dropped. The system is now completely reliant on iTunes and iOS, streaming content from a computer or mobile device rather than playing it from an internal drive contained in the box. In our full review, we'll take a closer look at the new features and potential limitations of the new hardware.

Electronista Rating:

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Product Manufacturer: Apple

Price: $99

The Good

  • Smaller design
  • Black housing
  • Simple UI
  • Netflix streaming
  • iTunes rentals
  • YouTube, Flickr
  • AirPlay streaming from iOS devices
  • Streaming from computers

The Bad

  • No way to connect to NAS
  • Cannot attach external hard drive
  • Limited access to third-party content providers
  • Limited support for popular video formats

Design:

The hard drive omission and smaller components allow the overall size to be reduced by more than 75 percent. The 8x8-inch box has been shrunk to just four inches square, while the weight has also dropped from 2.4 pounds down to just over a half pound.

While the first Apple TV was built with an aluminum frame and grey finish on the top panel, the second generation adopts a polished black housing. The device now looks more like a typical A/V component than a Mac mini. We like the new color scheme and smaller housing, as the box now disappears amid a stack of larger A/V equipment.

The tiny dimensions also bring fewer connection options, eliminating component video and RCA audio. Aside from the power connector, the back of the device offers an HDMI output, optical audio, Ethernet and Micro USB. Some users may be frustrated with the lack of RCA audio, but we would have been more disappointed to see Toslink dropped. For users without an A/V receiver that supports optical audio, HDMI splitters can still separate an analog audio channel.







Setup and configuration

The setup process is still simple and straightforward, especially when using Apple's Remote app. Version 2.0 of the iOS utility adds support for the second-generation Apple TV, enabling users to enter text fields using a virtual keyboard, on an iPhone or iPod touch, instead of slowly navigating back and forth across the TV keyboard with the directional pad on the standalone remote.

The new device easily connects with Wi-Fi networks, including faster 802.11n routers, and 10/100 Ethernet for wired homes. We did not run into any problems connecting to different networks.

Most of the setup process involves signing into various accounts for iTunes, Netfix, Flickr, MobileMe, YouTube, Internet radio or other services. Enabling Home Sharing allows the Apple TV to connect with videos, music, and pictures from iTunes libraries. Users can easily access content from multiple computers on a home network. In our case, everything connected successfully without requiring any further troubleshooting.

One of the highlighted new features is AirPlay, Apple's wireless standard that will allow Apple TV users to access content stored on an iPhone, iPad or iPod touch. We were not able to test this functionality, as it will not arrive on the mobile devices until the public iOS 4.2 release. The feature should be a popular option for people who start to watch something on their iOS device and want to finish watching it upon arrival at home. Pushing an AirPlay button will automatically switch the presentation from the handheld to the TV.

User Interface

Apple has retained the simple UI layout of the previous Apple TV, but with a few cosmetic tweaks. Content is separated into separate areas for iTunes purchases, listed in the Movies and TV Shows columns. Internet-based content is placed in another column, which contains Netflix, radio stations and similar services. Anything streamed from a computer library is placed in yet another area. The general feel is very close to Front Row in Mac OS X.

We liked the simple, no-frills layout, which maintains the same presentation even when viewing content from different sources such as YouTube and Netfilx. Users do not have to become acquainted with separate UIs for each service. Apple is likely at the mercy of limitations inherent to third-party services, but we would have liked an option to resume YouTube videos where we left off -- particularly the longer Featured segments. The software does not save a position if the user stops playback to go back to the main menu.

The second-generation Apple TV ships with the Apple's latest hardware remote, built from aluminum rather than the plastic version that came with the first-generation model. The new control layout is similar to its predecessor, although a select button now falls at the center of the directional pad and the play/pause button has been moved to the side of the menu button. Mac owners may find that the remote unintentionally controls Front Row on a MacBook along with the Apple TV, but the remote can be easily unpaired in the Mac OS X security settings.







Content

Apple has worked to expand the range of content accessible through Apple TV. The company changed its business model regarding videos, which are now distributed as rentals rather than outright downloads. The shift is appropriate for the new Apple TV, as it eliminates the need to store anything on a local HDD.

Renting iTunes content allows users to rent HD or SD TV shows for $0.99 each, which provides 48 hours to finish an episode after playback has been started. For movies, the pricing jumps to $5 for HD new releases or $4 for library titles. A dollar is slashed from each price if the movie is streamed in SD quality, while all movies have a 24-hour limit to complete watching.

Although the selection of videos on iTunes has continued to grow, it still seems to be incomplete. Apple has failed to strike deals with all major networks, limiting users to TV shows from ABC, BBC, Fox and Disney. The company has yet to engage the TV networks in the same way that it exerts control over the music industry. Apple TV also lacks support for other third-party services focused on streaming television shows, such as Hulu or Amazon Video.

Netflix subscribers have access to a wider range of content, with TV shows and movies from NBC Universal, CBS, Paramount, MGM, 20th Century Fox, ABC, Disney, Warner Brothers, Lions Gate, and New Line Cinema. Using the Apple TV UI, users can access their queue or search for content. We were generally impressed with the Netflix integration, although it is not an uncommon feature among connected electronics.







Final thoughts

The second-generation Apple TV has succeeded in making a simple experience even simpler. It is a perfect device for the masses, especially those already renting content from Apple's own iTunes portals. Since the first generation was released, however, the market for connected set-top boxes has continued to expand with other options that connect to an even wider range of content from third-party providers.

We believe Apple made a solid decision by omitting an integrated hard drive, but it was surprising and disappointing to find that the device cannot connect to an external hard drive via USB, or network-attached storage via Wi-Fi or Ethernet. Apple TV is currently ill suited for accessing content other than iTunes-purchased video, Netflix, or free content such as YouTube. A workaround for the networking issue could be the Home Sharing feature, but Apple TV hardware lacks support for video formats other than M4V, MP4 and MOV. Anyone who downloads videos in other popular formats, such as AVI or MKV, needs to look elsewhere.

Despite the improvements brought with the second-generation Apple TV, we can see why Apple still labels the device a hobby. While the new device is an improvement over its predecessor, it does not offer a slew of range-topping features that many people expect of Apple's premier devices. When the company builds an Apple TV that clearly beats or matches its competition in most areas, the project might graduate beyond its hobby status. In the meantime, potential buyers should take a look at alternatives, such as the Roku XD|S and upcoming Boxee Box, before making a purchase decision. Interestingly enough, some of the most important Apple TV features may not come from Apple. It is only a matter of time before the Apple TV's iOS implementation is hacked to enable additional functionality, although it is still unclear what the 'other' hobbyists will be able to do with the device.



by Justin King


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