Around the time of Steve Job's death last year, there was a lot of talk about the last thing he was working on. Apparently he was going to revolutionise the television in exactly the same way that Apple had changed phones with the iPhone and laptops with the iPad. Since then Apple have gone a bit quiet as far as a 'game changing' television is concerned but amongst all the speculation it was easy to forget that they already produce a TV, albeit not in the traditional sense.
Apple TV is, in fact, a set-top box that streams media to your TV from other devices (Mac, PC, iOS) via AirPlay and allows you to watch content bought or rented on iTunes. It also acts as a browser, allowing you access to selected internet content such as YouTube, Vimeo and Netflix. The latest version of Apple TV was launched last month and at first glance it doesn't appear any different to the previous version. There is a new interface but this has also been rolled out to the previous versions, so the major difference is the ability to play content at 1080p. There's no doubt that Apple has ambitions in the TV market and whilst this device isn't an actual television, it might give us a glimpse of what Apple has planned in this area. So let's take a peek behind the curtain and see what the future holds.
Styling and Design
As soon as you see the packaging you know who the manufacturer is and as one would expect from Apple, there's design flair in spades. The Apple TV itself is just a small black box with rounded edges, gloss sides and a matte top. It measures only 23 x 98 x 98mm and weighs a dinky 0.27kb but it feels very solid and well made in the hand. In fact, it's a typical Apple product that oozes understated elegance and sophisticated design. Also in the box along with the Apple TV itself, is a remote control, a setup guide and a power lead. There is however no HDMI cable, so one will need to be purchased separately.
At the front there is only a single tiny light that lets you know the Apple TV is on (it powers down when not in use) and everything else is at the back. Not that there's much at the rear either, just the two pin connection for the power cable, a LAN port, an optical audio out and an HDMI output for connecting to your display. There is also a Micro-USB port but apparently this isn't intended for consumer use but is there for Apple technicians to diagnose problems.
The aluminium remote control is quite small and understated in the extreme, looking more like an old iPod Nano. The only buttons are Menu and Play/Pause, plus a click wheel around an enter button. It uses infrared so it needs line of sight and be careful if you have other Apple products in view because it can also control them (it kept increasing the volume on our MacBook Pro).
Menus and Setup
Of course since this is an Apple product, setup is incredibly quick and easy. You simply connect the Apple TV to your display via HDMI and then plug it in. Once on, the first difference between this new version of Apple TV and previous versions become apparent because a voice asks you if you would like to enable the Voice Over feature by clicking a button on the remote three times. This feature, much like the Voice Guidance on Panasonic's new TVs, is a very useful for those who are vision impaired but a bit annoying if you're not, so we turned it off. After that you select the language and set up the WiFi connection or plug in an ethernet cable if you prefer. Setting up the WiFi requires you to enter text and numbers using the remote control's click wheel and this can be rather slow and frustrating, certainly not as slick as one would expect from Apple.
However once completed you're free to start using your Apple TV and the whole setup process only took a few minutes. The Apple TV interface has had a face lift and now looks more like the interface found on an iOS device. Each of the menus is identified by an icon and the five menus are Movies, TV Shows, Music, Computers and Settings, with a scrolling banner across the top showing the latest movies.
When you select the Movies icon, there is a choice along the top of Top Movies, Genius, Genres, Search and Trailers. The Top Movies will show the most popular new releases as well as catalogue titles, whilst Genius will give recommendations. Genres will obviously group movies based upon their genre, whilst Search is search function for finding a specific movie. The Trailers is a new option in the interface and a welcome one, as it provides a quick and easy way to watch movie trailers.
With the TV Shows option, you get a similar approach to movies except this time the choices are Purchased (you can only buy TV shows on iTunes, rather than being able to rent them), Top TV Shows, Genius, Genres, Networks and Search. As with Movies, Top TV Shows will provide the most popular TV shows, whilst Genius will give recommendations. Genres will obviously group TV shows based upon their genre, whilst Search is search function for finding a specific movie. The Networks option will group TV shows based or the network (or channel) that produces the show.
The next option is called Music but this is only for subscribers to Apple's iTunes Match service which costs £24.99 a year. If you are a Match subscriber then you'll be able to access your entire iTunes music collection via iCloud. However, since you'll almost certainly have your computer in the house, you can just as easily access your music without using iTunes Match, so the service is more useful for those that want to access their content via iCloud whilst on the move rather than sat in front of the TV.
The penultimate option on your Apple TV is called Computers and by selecting this option you activate the Home Sharing feature, which will automatically find any computer on your Wi-Fi network that has the same Apple ID login on iTunes. The fact that your computer just appears here without you having to do anything is very impressive and once connected you can access your movies, TV shows, music and photos from your own computer. There are other devices that allow you to download movies and TV shows from the internet but this capability does set Apple TV apart from the competition.
The final option is Settings, which is where you can setup your Apple TV, including features like resolution, date and time, screen saver, AirPlay etc. and whilst most of the defaults are probably the best choices anyway, it is nice to have the option to fine tune your Apple TV.
In terms of features, we now have Netflix here in the UK and you can join for a monthly fee of £5.99. To be honest the choice on Netflix is fairly limited, especially when compared to iTunes but it is also limited when compared to the US version of Netflix, although that has obviously been going for much longer. However it is quite cheap and can be useful for catching up on older shows and presumably the choice will improve over time. There are also options for browsing YouTube, Vimeo, the Wall Street Journal and Major League Baseball. Although in the unlikely event that you do follow baseball, you still have to pay a subscription to actually watch the content. The absence of any of the popular UK catch-up services like ITV Player, 4OD and especially BBC iPlayer, is a major weakness of the Apple TV.
Of the new features for this latest version of Apple TV, the best by far is Photo Stream, which is an iCloud based feature that will prove very popular with owners of iOS devices. Once you turn Photo Stream on, any picture you take on your iPhone, iPad or iPod touch will automatically get added to your Photo Stream once you are connected to a Wi-Fi connection. What this basically means is that if you take some photos whilst out, they will be on your Apple TV to view once you get home. There's no denying that the iCloud based Photo Stream is a great Apple TV feature that makes sharing photos ridiculously easy, just remember you need to switch on this option on your iPhone or iPad first. You can also show off all your iPhoto pictures via Apple TV and there are all the usual Apple slideshow options to choose from.
So how did Apple TV perform in practice, well pretty much flawlessly, thanks in a large part to AirPlay which is genuinely effective and robust. You will need iTunes 10.5 or later but when it came to buying or renting movies our experiences were generally positive - if rather expensive. On iTunes, a typical rental price for a new movie in HD is about £4.49, which is about twice as much as competitors like Sky, although you have to pay for a Sky account and not everyone can put up a satellite dish. Where Apple TV really scores points is in its convenience and ability to provide immediate gratification, you don't have to wait for a specific movie start time. Instead you just choose your movie and it starts downloading whenever you want, although it did require about 5 minutes of buffering before you could start watching your streaming download. You also get a page of information about each movie and it's possible to watch movie's trailer by clicking the Preview button.
Once you've purchased a movie on iTunes, you have 30 days to start watching and 48 hours to finish watching after you've started. We found that the picture quality at 1080p was surprisingly good, with very little compression but clearly download speeds will be very dependent on your broadband connection and Apple recommends at least 8Mbs. A really useful feature is that you can view across multiple devices, so you could start watching on your Apple TV and finish watching on your iPhone or computer. Unfortunately, this feature is only available for Standard Definition films but it is still a great option to have available. Whilst not all content on iTunes is available in 1080p, the majority of new content is and, on the whole, the range of new titles is good, with an impressive back catalogue. On top of that there's an impressive selection of TV shows and here at least we get plenty of UK programmes as well as US shows to buy - there are no rentals available for TV programmes. When it comes to purchasing content, the process is handled effortlessly with the Apple TV remembering your Apple ID, so all you need to enter is your password whenever you want to buy something. However the best feature of Apple TV is how incredibly easy it is to use, everything just works, first time and every time. As anyone who has ever experienced an Apple product will know, the user interface is very intuitive, quick to navigate and very responsive.
In fact, the only real disappointment in terms of performance is how restrictive Apple's AirPlay is because it only officially works with content that you have inside your iTunes library stored on a Mac, PC or your iOS device. Unfortunately some video formats like WMV and MKV are not supported, so if you want to watch them on your Apple TV you need to use workarounds like AirPlay Mirroring on your iPad2 or iPad3, which mirrors its entire screen on your Apple TV so you can watch videos. It adds an unnecessary step to the process but it does work, as long as you don't mind looking at a pillar box sized screen when mirroring. If you want the full 16:9 resolution you will need the help of an app called Air Video which installs a server program on your Mac or PC that encodes the video, while another iOS app streams it to your Apple TV. Alternatively you can use Twonky Beam to stream videos, music and photos to your Apple TV.
- Attractive and well built
- Easy to setup
- Built-in WiFi
- Intuitive to use
- 1080p resolution
- AirPlay quite robust
- Limited content
- Remote is rather basic
- No TV tuner
- AirPlay rather restrictive
Apple TV Review
If you already own an iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch, then buying an Apple TV makes a lot of sense because Apple devices tend to work best together. You can also use the Apple TV to mirror the screen on your iPhone 4S, iPad2 or iPad3 so that it appears in high definition on your TV screen. This is a useful method for showing content on your iOS device, like photos, or for playing games, some of which take advantage of this feature. Apparently, with the release of OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion later in the year, you'll be able to mirror your Mac screen as well. Another useful feature is Photo Stream because any photos taken on your iOS device automatically get streamed to your Apple TV as soon as you get home, which is very cool.
If you already use iTunes for watching video and renting movies, then the purchase of an Apple TV will genuinely add value. Using iTunes to rent and buy movies and TV shows through the Apple TV works brilliantly and the image quality at 1080p is surprisingly good; although download speeds will, of course, be dependent on your broadband connection. Some of the apps on the Apple TV might also prove useful, such as YouTube, Vimeo and Netflix, especially now that the latter has finally launched in the UK (although there still isn't much on it at the moment). We were also impressed by AirPlay which seemed both reliable and robust, with no issues when streaming content.
So far so good but what isn't so good about Apple TV is the nature of the internet content available, which is still very much aimed at the US. We suspect that few people in the UK are interested in the Wall Street Journal or Major League Baseball and it has no built-in tuner either, so you can't watch any Freeview content. If the Apple TV wants to be taken seriously, it really needs to include popular catch-up services like 4OD, ITV Player and especially BBC iPlayer. Another problem is that whilst AirPlay is robust, it isn't as flexible as DLNA and thus the Apple TV isn't necessarily the best choice for streaming media from your computer to your TV. Finally, iTunes is rather limited in the types video files it accepts and renting movies on it is quite expensive when compared to other video on demand services.
All of these issues might explain why the rumoured Apple television has failed to materialise because building a real TV isn't as easy as it looks, especially when you're as proprietary as Apple. By its very nature, TV is an open platform and it is also very region specific, so if Apple want to play in the TV market they're going to have to learn to share their toys. A successful TV will need a tuner, an open internet platform, flexible content streaming and a wider choice of video on demand services. If Apple just launch a US-centric, iTunes based television on the rest of the world - which is essentially what Apple TV is - it will fail miserably. The TV market is incredibly competitive and if Apple want to succeed in it, they will need more than intuitive interfaces and slick marketing.
Having said all that, Apple TV does meet all the criteria you'd expect from an Apple product - cool, easy to setup and intuitive to use. If you're an existing Apple user there are some great features and the inclusion of 1080p resolution is a welcome addition, making it an easy recommendation. However the absence of certain apps and a lack of content puts it at a disadvantage to the cheaper Roku.
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