While Apple dominated in the mobile market and is thriving with their line of laptops, they have never been able to grasp the home theater crowd with their video solutions, namely the first two revisions of the Apple TV (reviews here and here). Over three years from the release of the original Apple TV, Apple announced a new version of the Apple TV in combination with revisions of the iPod Touch and iPod Nano lines. This smaller, sleeker version of the Apple TV was priced considerably less than the MSRP of the original unit and the technology has changed dramatically. Along with the announcement of the Apple TV, Steve Jobs and company are taking a hard stance on standard pricing for content, very similar to their pricing decisions with music over iTunes. Television HD content is priced at 99 cents for a rental and new HD movies (available the same time DVD / Blu-ray hits stores) are priced at $4.99 for each rental. It’s an interesting move that some television / movie studios are resisting, mostly because they believe it devalues their shows / theatrical releases and will cannibalize sales on DVD and other mediums.
If you are familiar with the size of the previous Apple TV, you are going to be completely shocked when you see the packaging and start unboxing the new player. The player is no larger than a hockey puck and is easily the smallest media player on the market (even compared to the Roku player or the Western Digital HD player). The player is about 4 inches in length / width and stands less than an inch off your home theater entertainment rack. It’s a fourth of the size of the original Apple TV, thus placement of the new component is beyond simple. In fact, I placed the player on top of my Klipsch RC-64, matte black center speaker and had guests try to spot the Apple TV in the home theater setup. They were completely stumped! It blended in seamlessly with the home theater, something pretty fantastic for those lovers of minimalist home theater designs.
There’s very little in the box beyond the player, the aluminum remote and the power cord. The remote is a vast improvement from the original white plastic remote and feels more solid on your hand due to the increased length. It’s just as thin though; be careful losing it in the couch cushions. The remote has the familiar iPod dial design for navigation as well as a play / pause button and the menu button. On the back of the player, you will find the power jack, a mini-USB port, a Cat 5 network port for wired connections, a HDMI 1.4 port and an optical audio out for separate audio connections into your surround sound system. There’s no HDMI cable or optical cables included with the player, so those will need to be purchased separately (if you don’t already have them). The internal hardware uses the A4 1Ghz processor found in the speedy iPad, built-in 802.11N Wi-Fi , 8GB of internal flash memory for buffering / storing purchased content and 256MB of memory to handle menu operation / multitasking like playing audio in the background while navigating the menu. I’m guessing it also handles the nifty photo slide shows that pops up as a screen saver while it’s idle.
When you boot up the Apple TV for the first time, you are greeted with language selection as well as wireless network selection (if you aren’t hardwired in for Internet access) before launching into the menu. Similar to other Apple products, it’s a really simple process. One caveat to completely getting up and running is entering in your user name / password for both iTunes / Netflix. It’s a little time consuming to with the Apple TV remote, but thankfully you only have to do it once. If you own an iPhone or iPod Touch, you can use the Apple Remote application to control all the Apple TV functions and use the on screen keyboard for typing out the user name / password. It’s also extremely helpful for typing out search queries.
Thankfully, there’s no need for activating the Apple TV as an authorized device through the Netflix website, something that’s annoying on Blu-ray players and gaming consoles. The menu is deadly simple to navigate and definitely nicer to look at than the original Apple TV’s GUI due to the revolving box cover art loading at the top of the screen. It’s also extremely snappy bouncing in and out of the sub menus, even when loading all the box art (something that the previous Apple TV struggled with on occasion).
The menu has headings for Movies, Television, Internet (which includes services like Netlfix / YouTube), Computers and Settings. The Movie and Television categories highlight the most popular content, but you do have the ability to search. One nice inclusion from the last Apple TV is the ability to view new movie trailers for upcoming theatrical releases. You can also see previews of many movies / television episodes to get an idea if you would enjoy watching it. In the Computers setting, you can connect to your home network and stream content to the Apple TV (assuming it meets the limited format types) from both Macs and PCs. It’s unlikely that you will venture into the setting menu unless you are trouble shooting network problems, but there are plenty of audio / video tweaking options for those seeking a bit more control over quality.
As stated earlier, the Internet tab holds all the extras that Apple TV will roll out for connectivity to third party services. Currently, these include Netflix, YouTube, Flickr, iTunes Podcasts and Internet Radio. I’ve seen Netflix integration on about 10 devices at this point and this is easily the sleekest interface that I’ve come across. I was surprised that it blew away my previous favorite, the Xbox 360. You can pop into your Instant Queue or peruse content by arrival date / genre. Content box art flows across the screen and can be seen very easily from 15 feet away from the screen. You also have the ability to search Netflix’s content library, a great addition for those that don’t want to switch back to their laptop to setup new selections in their Instant Queue. Obviously, it’s highly likely that you already own a device that streams Netflix into your home theater at this point, but the interface is vastly superior to other formats.
I didn’t care for the Youtube application as much, mostly because the content on Youtube is hit or miss when it comes to HD quality. The Flickr application is great though and makes it easy to slide through photo presentations for friends. I also liked that the Internet radio app continued playing the music when I exited back out into the menu. I’m left wondering why there wasn’t any Pandora included though. I realize that Apple wants you to spend money on music in iTunes, but nearly all new CE set-top boxes are including a version of the popular streaming music player.
One of the biggest challenges that Apple is facing with the Apple TV is a lack of premium content, likely due to their hard line stance on community pricing. Their movie coverage is better than the television episode library with about 8,000 movies to rent (nearly half are in 720p high definition). They are also keeping to the promise of having the most recent releases available for download with Get Them to the Greek and Iron Man 2 ready to be downloaded when I hooked up my review unit. On the Television side of the content library, there are only 4 studios supporting the AppleTV (Fox, ABC, Disney and the BBC). You won’t find the latest episode of the Office on the Apple TV or the last season of the Big Bang Theory, although you can buy it on iTunes on your PC and stream it to the AppleTV for a higher cost. Apple’s doing a poor job of getting the latest episodes up on time as well, especially for many ABC / FOX headlining show
s like House and Modern Family. My guess is that the studios are trying out the Apple TV as a test more so than fully supporting it. It’s probably difficult to make a case for providing access to their programs for such a cheap price when other mediums like Hulu or their own proprietary players can deliver ads. Apple is also going to have a hard time competing against services like Amazon’s VOD when they are offering access to many cable stations with shows like Mad Men.
As mentioned earlier, the Apple TV plays a limited number of video formats. For those who rip their content to file formats like Divx or even just AVI, you won’t find compatibility in the Apple TV. It has to be in MP4, MOV or M4V format to be streamed onto your AppleTV. Streaming from a hardwired computer (or media server) to a wireless Apple TV works flawlessly, but streaming from a wireless laptop to a wireless Apple TV didn’t fare as well with our tests. You will likely be greeted with numerous buffering screens due to the stress on your wireless network. It makes me wonder how successful AirPlay will be when it rolls out for the Apple TV in November. AirPlay is designed to work in conjunction with iOS4 devices (iPad, iPhone 4, iPod Touch) and push the application to the Apple TV. Apple’s allowing third party developers to stream their application data to the Apple TV and it may not be just limited to music / video. The ability to control your apps while watching your television may just be the game changer that gets the Apple TV into iPhone / iPad owners home theater systems.
Audio / Video Quality
Interested in seeing how the Apple TV stacked up against the competition, I compared 720p streaming content on four other platforms: the Xbox 360, the Samsung BD-3600, the Roku XDS player and my Time Warner HD cable box. I was using Iron Man and some of my favorite episodes of Lost as a basis of comparison. There are difficult to see a clear difference in Iron Man, but the diverse locales (and various lighting changes) in season 4 of Lost really showed how much cleaner the Apple TV was able to handle image quality. There’s a definitely superiority to their encoding process for video and it was evident in the streaming quality of the video. There was less of that pesky blocky pixelation that you see so often on streaming content with low-bitrate encoding. Regarding audio, there was little difference in any of the players, with the exception of the terrible Time Warner audio clipping problems. The 5.1 surround sound tracks all sounded excellent for streaming quality. Of course, the Apple TV doesn’t hold a candle to 1080p video on Blu-ray discs or 7.1 DTS surround mixes, but it’s the best cloud-based streaming solution that I’ve seen so far in terms of A/V quality.
Apple has a definite problem with the Apple TV. Without more content or applications to support the platform, it’s going to have a hard time competing with other more complete offerings like the Roku XDS, Boxee’s upcoming hardware release or even existing set-top boxes. Apple needs to find a way to convince the other television studios to jump on board, but I would wager that wouldn’t be announced until next year.
That being said, the Apple TV is a fantastic piece of hardware. The streamlined interface, speedy responsiveness, excellent Netflix design, superior streaming A/V quality and relatively low price compared to other Apple products are more than enough to consider a purchase. If they add the ability to stream all applications (I’m looking at you, Hulu Plus) from other Apple devices with Airplay, expect to see legions of Apple fanatics integrating the Apple TV into their existing home theater setups before the end of the holiday season.