In the battle to dominate the living room, the new Apple TV doesn't seem to have a lot of firepower. It doesn't boast as many content partners as Roku, nor is it as ambitious as the upcoming Logitech Revue with Google TV (which has a full web browser and an HD webcam connection) or the Boxee Box (which plays every file known to man and has social networking integration). No, Apple's $99 set-top just provides a simple way to rent movies and TV shows, and it's much smaller and runs cooler than the first version. Plus, Apple has added Netflix to the content mix, so you're not locked into the iTunes universe. So is the new Apple TV too simple, or is it just the right product for the masses?
When you put the Apple TV in your hand--yes, the whole thing fits in your palm--you can't help but be impressed with just how compact this device is. (You also realize just how easily Apple could build its technology into a big screen, should it decide to take that whole Apple TV name literally.) This 0.6-pound device is 80 percent smaller than the original model, which means it will take up very little room in your entertainment center. It's so compact, in fact, that we had no problem packing it on a recent trip and plugging it in to our hotel room's TV. Unlike the first Apple TV, the new version doesn't get disturbingly toasty either.
Part of the reason the new Apple TV is so svelte and cool is that Apple ditched a mechanical hard drive for flash memory. This ultra-minimalist black box sports a power connector on the back along with an HDMI port, Optical Audio connection, and Ethernet (though there's 802.11n inside). And that's it. A power-efficient A4 processor runs the show, and Apple claims that the box eats less power than a night light.
We have good news and bad news about the new aluminum remote control. On the plus side, it's longer and sturdier than the plastic remote on the first Apple TV. Unfortunately, we found the slightly recessed action button in the middle to be too easy to press, which resulted in some unwanted selections.
Software and Interface
The Apple TV interface continues to be super sleek and intuitive. There are five main categories going across the screen--Movies, TV Shows, Internet, Computers, and Settings--and you just scroll across and down to make the desired selection. Under Movies, for example, you'll see Top Movies, Genres, Search, and In Theaters (previews). TV Shows is similar. The Internet category includes Netflix, YouTube, Podcasts, MobileMe, Flickr, and Radio.
Under Computers, you can stream music, movies, TV shows, photos, and more from your PC or Mac to Apple TV. This worked seamlessly on our home network once we turned on the Home Sharing setting, but having to ensure your PC is turned on and iTunes is open is a bit of a pain. That was one of the benefits of the old Apple TV; its hard drive made it easy to fire up a slideshow or start playing music without needing another device. In addition, you'll need to have your PC on to stream photos using the cool screen saver feature, unless you have the Apple TV connected to a Flickr account. You can do this under settings.
Our biggest pet peeve with the Apple TV's included software is how tedious it is to enter text with the on-screen keyboard, whether you're entering passwords or conducting searches. Fortunately, the Remote app for iOS devices has a keyboard that will make your life a lot easier.
Content Selection and Pricing
You can rent fairly current HD movies for $4.99, and older titles run $3.99. SD titles cost $2.99. How current is the selection? As of the time of our review, Just Added rentals included Get Him to the Greek, Iron Man 2, and Robin Hood. That's pretty much in line with what was available from our cable provider's on-demand menu, and two out of the three titles had debuted the previous week on DVD. You can watch titles as many times as you want, so long as it's within the 24-hour viewing window.
You have 48 hours to finish watching 99-cent TV show rentals, but right now Apple TV is short on content. So far Apple only has deals with ABC/Disney, Fox, and BBC. And these partners don't refer to channels but studios. We looked in vain for House, which airs on Fox, only to realize that it's produced by Universal Studios (owned by NBC). NBC and CBS are not on board, though you can download and then stream these shows to Apple TV, which we did for an episode of House. While we understand that there are business reasons behind not everyone being on board, consumers will likely be frustrated by having to purchase different shows from ostensibly different iTunes stores.
The PC version of the iTunes store comes in handy with the ability to purchase full seasons of shows you've missed. We question the value of 99-cent TV rentals, especially for those who have a DVR. (On Roku you can purchase-to-own certain shows for 99 cents, while others cost $2.99). At least the episodes on Apple TV are commercial-free.
If you're a Netflix subscriber, you can tap into TV shows and movies right on the Apple TV. Apple designed the interface to closely resemble the rest of the experience, and it's fairly easy to navigate. Plus, unlike Roku, you don't need to complete the setup process on your PC by entering a pin. You just enter your account info and you're good to go. We decided to watch Dexter, but there were tons of other selections available. As with Netflix on Roku and other services, don't expect to watch current movies. The New Arrivals during our testing included Star Trek and GI Joe.
Although it's nice that Apple TV has branched out to include Netflix, Roku's boxes offer a lot more content and apps, such as Amazon Video on Demand, Pandora, Flickr, MLB.TV, UFC, and Facebook Photos.
This feature is the Apple TV's secret weapon. Once iOS 4.2 rolls out for the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch, you'll be able to stream music, photos, and video right from your mobile device to your big screen. All you have to do is start playing content and then touch the AirPlay icon to start beaming it to the Apple TV. With this technology, you'll be able to purchase content on your iOS device without having to buy it again on the Apple TV. However, you can't purchase a movie or TV show and then transfer it to your PC or mobile device.
AirPlay won't be limited to Apple's own apps, either. We suspect this protocol will extend to third-party apps as well. This could be an exciting back door for bringing more content to Apple TV. However, some may want to hold off on buying this box until the software rolls out and we can get a better feel for its capabilities and, more importantly, the quality of video when streaming.
After purchasing a movie or TV show on Apple TV, in most cases it was ready for viewing within a minute or two. And we appreciated the pop-up messages notifying us that content was ready to play, even if we were browsing YouTube. The HD version of Get Him to the Greek looked smooth and highly detailed on our TV, including the explosions during the mock music videos. When we streamed an episode of House from our PC, we could easily make out the good doctor's wrinkles--and fresh wound--from across the room. The Roku boxes offer 1080p video, but we have no complaints about the 720p playback of the Apple TV.
Initially, we encountered an error on our 34-inch Philips Ambilight TV, saying "This content requires HDCP for playback. HDCP isn't supported by your HDMI connection." However, when we plugged the Apple TV into a 32-inch Samsung TV, we didn't encounter the same issue. The error didn't pop up when we connected the box again to our Philips set. Overall though, using the Apple TV was a pleasure, especially when we used our iPhone 4 as a remote, which makes it easier to search for content.
The next year is going to be an interesting time for media boxes, with Apple TV, Google, Roku, Boxee, and others all vying for a spot next to your set. Because of its low price, the Apple TV's closest competitor is the Roku XDS, which, for $99, works with standard- and high-def TVs, does 1080p, and will enable playback from USB devices with a software update in November. All of these are distinct advantages over Apple's box, and Roku offers a wider range of content. On the other hand, Apple TV is easier to use and has a more elegant interface, and we like the idea of streaming content from a PC more than plugging in a USB drive. AirPlay will make Apple TV even more compelling, because you'll be able to beam video and photos straight to your HDTV from devices that turn on instantly. We'd like to see more content and apps added to the Apple TV menu, but overall it provides a fun and easy way to enjoy movies and other media.