Apple TV (2nd Gen) Review
This is our review of the recently launched Apple TV device (2nd generation), which was announced at the Apple Keynote speech on 1st September 2010. We liked what we saw and placed an order on the same day. The shipping date quoted by Apple was simply 'September' and ours finally arrived on 4th October 2010.
This new device is tiny, at 2.29cm (0.9") high × 9.91cm (3.9") wide × 9.91cm (3.9") deep. Compared to the 2nd generation device it has a footprint about ¼ the size! It also weighs a diminutive 270g. This is good, as it makes it possible to hide it behind the TV or between other home entertainments system components. In fact, it is small enough to Velcro to the back of your TV set, completely out of sight! The only thing stopping you doing this is the IR receiver on the front.
In his Keynote speech, Steve Jobs pointed out that this new Apple TV device is silent (no fans) and it also runs cool (our tests confirm this). This device doesn't have a hard disk inside it, just some memory for caching video (analysis of the internals shows this to be 8Gb). It has been designed purely for media rental and streaming, and not for purchasing and storage. This is why we believe it is complimentary to the other devices and services we have in our home entertainment setup.
The lack of storage has other benefits, as pointed out by Steve Jobs. No synching of content, no storage management and it doesn't fill up! You can still buy movies outright through iTunes on your computer or your iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch. With the new AirPlay feature, you should be able to stream those purchases across to the Apple TV.
This Apple TV box supports the latest Apple A4 processor. This is very good news and implies a variant of the iOS is driving the device. Future updates and even the possibility of apps might follow. We are not sure how they would work on a TV screen though, with no touch screen input. This is also good news for those that like to jailbreak their iOS devices.
To use the Apple TV product, you need:
- AirPort Extreme, Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n wireless network (wireless video streaming requires 802.11g or 802.11n) or 10/100BASE-T Ethernet network. We don't recommend streaming video over wireless networks as a rule, so we are using a 100BASE-T Ethernet connection on our FTTP Internet connection.
- iTunes Store account for renting films. The device is tied to one single account which is not so good for a shared, family device in your lounge.
For streaming media from a Mac or PC you will need iTunes 10 (released 2nd September 2010) or later and an iTunes Store account for Home Sharing.
Ports & Interfaces
- HDMI for video out to TVs or video switching amplifiers. Nothing in the specs on the particular version supported though. Stereo audio is passed over this link.
- Optical audio, to feed my home cinema amp with a nice Dolby Digital signal. This is S/PDIF presented via a Toslink connector.
- 10/100BASE-T Ethernet, my preferred method of shipping video around the home.
- Built-in IR receiver.
- The micro-USB port is for service and support only apparently. This implies future software updates too.
A noticeable exception in the above list is a standard analogue audio output. Whilst this might sound like a silly request, the Apple TV is essentially the new AirPort Express device and if you just wanted to connect it to a basic amplifier for pushing music only, you can't easily do this now.
Interestingly, the official specification does not list BlueTooth as an interface but FCC documentation shows that it is a capability of the box. This is a fine inclusion for gaming controllers and wireless keyboards :-)
The unit is supplied with a figure-8 mains power lead and contains an in-built power supply rated at a nice and low 6W. We measured the power consumption and it seems to hover around 3W when in use and 2W in 'standby'. There is no on/off switch. Because the device is never really off, it 'powers up' quite quickly from 'sleep mode' and in the same menu options.
The unit supports 802.11n Wi-Fi (a/b/g compatible) at 2.4GHz and 5GHz. From a wireless perspective this is good and should result in decent wireless streaming speeds.
Supported Video Formats
This initial release supports the following quoted video formats. These are the usual Apple suspects and a poor sub-set of what you might find in most homes. The list may be extended in future software updates but, we are not banking on it. This doesn't worry us too much as it still meets our needs, as described below.
- H.264 video up to 720p, 30 frames per second, Main Profile level 3.1 with AAC-LC audio up to 160Kbps per channel, 48kHz, stereo audio in .m4v, .mp4 and .mov file formats
- MPEG-4 video, up to 2.5Mbps, 640x480 pixels, 30 frames per second, Simple Profile with AAC-LC audio up to 160Kbps, 48kHz, stereo audio in .m4v, .mp4 and .mov file formats
- Motion JPEG (M-JPEG) up to 35Mbps, 1280x720 pixels, 30 frames per second, audio in ulaw, PCM stereo audio in .avi file format
What does this all translate to in reality? Well, 720p video only and no support for 1080p will upset quite a few people. Apple claim this is to reduce the required bandwidth for streaming and they have a point. We would like the option to stream 1080p over our SFBB Internet connection. We can live without with this for now though. We would like to think this might come later as a software upgrade but we are not sure the hardware can support it. In reality, the video quality displayed on our 37" plasma TV is very good.
Supported Audio Formats
HE-AAC (V1), AAC (16 to 320Kbps), protected AAC (from iTunes Store), MP3 (16 to 320Kbps), MP3 VBR, Audible (formats 2, 3 and 4), Apple Lossless, AIFF and WAV; Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound pass-through
The Apple TV box supports photo formats of JPEG, GIF & TIFF.
Why We Want One
We have already got BT Vision, a PS3, LoveFilm subscription, etc. but, the Apple TV fills some gaps for us:
- We want to get iTunes content onto the TV easily, including user generated content, free video podcasts and other paid for content.
- We want the ability to easily get iPhone and iPod content onto the TV. iOS4.2 is released soon and supports AirPlay, which enables content to be pushed from iPods and iPhones. This is particularly useful given the amount of 720p video we are now capturing on our iPhones. Our tests so far show that you can only send audio to the Apple TV device using iOS4.1.
- We want to be able to easily and spontaneously rent content for the family to watch at short notice, at a reasonable price and with no adverts. DVD post-based rental services can be very good (and cheap) but, they lack the immediate gratification of downloaded or streamed content. BT Vision and the Sony Playstation Store don't do this yet. They also don't have latest content, it's expensive and you generally have to buy it, not rent it.
- We want iPod / iPhone control of the box (Apple Remote app works really well) and allows browsing and social networking via an 'off TV' screen.
- Apple does user interfaces well. We are sure this will be no exception and the family will find it easy to use and will enjoy using it. This cannot be said of most of the other home entertainment devices in our lounge.
What Are The Alternatives?
These are covered in our TV & Film Services section.
It's small! And the box includes the power supply.
There is not much in the box. Just the device, the remote and a power cord. The quick set-up guide doesn't tell you much.
The Apple TV unit comes with none of the leads required to connect it to a TV. The only other things in the box are the mains power lead, user documentation and the remote control.
Set up is really quite simple. We plugged in an HDMI lead to out TV, a network cable to our FTTP router and the power lead. One handy thing we noticed straight away, is that the box outputs audio over the HDMI connection too. This means the optical audio lead isn't essential.
Setting up Home Sharing is where you need to enter your Apple ID and password. Typically, this kind of text entry is clunky on TV interfaces and Apple TV is no exception. If anything, the supplied remote is faster and better than our Harmony One but the remote buttons are not very intuitive.
The unit comes with the basic Apple remote control but this one is aluminium. To use this the front of the Apple TV box will need to be in line of sight as this uses infra-red technology. Our Harmony One universal remote worked straight away. There is an option to pair a remote but I can't see why you would want to do this. Basically it means that the box will only work with the one remote that it has been paired with.
iPhone/iPod Remote App
The Apple 'Remote App' is a little bit confusing. It discovers your iTunes library when your computer is on and basically acts as a remote control for iTunes, showing you what's playing with cover art and all your playlists.
The remote app can also be used to control Apple TV directly. It does this by providing a touch pad and the required buttons. One major advantage of using it in this way is that when keyboard entry is required, a keyboard pops up on screen on the iPhone / iPod, making text entry so much easier.
The Key Features
The user interface looked very simple and fast in the Keynote presentation. This is good because these kind of devices are traditionally very slow and clunky to drive via a remote control. We have not found a really good one yet! The UI is split into five main sections in the USA but only four on our UK version :-( Our experiences to date have shown the UI control and navigation is indeed very quick. It is easily the best TV based service we have used in this respect.
Along the top of the screen are 'top films'. These seem quite varied and also include some cheaper films. Clicking on these takes you to detail and a trailer. The 'more' option takes you to reviews, 'rotten tomatoes' and detail about actors, director, etc.
Film rentals via iTunes are subject to a two-tier pricing model. The prices are still a little bit too high for our liking but, not completely unreasonable. We would rent a lot more films via this device if all the prices were about £1 lower. We also don't really consider 720p to be true 'high definition'. Apple are also a little bit wooly on the resolution and formats, quoting best cases:
- HD Film 1280x720 (maximum), Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound (not all titles) - New releases are £4.49 and library titles are £3.49.
- SD Film 720x480 anamorphic (maximum), Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound (not all titles) - New releases are £3.49 and library titles are £2.49.
UPDATE 23/11/2010 - We have used this a few times now. The experience is very good, the catalogue the most extensive I've found for the UK yet and audio and video quality is very high. It might be down to our 95Mbps (down) / 15Mbps (up) FTTP connection but, the download and play is instant and totally reliable.
UPDATE 02/2011 - We have been testing Apple TV on slow ADSL connection in another set-up and to be honest, it is a little bit frustrating. Even short YouTube clips take a long time buffering before the video starts to play. Movie trailers can take minutes before they start to play. Bear this in mind before you buy one!
It's not clear to us exactly what constitutes a 'Top Movie'. This section also features 'New Releases' though. You can scroll down through a very long list here though. Trailers in standard definition look a bit soft. Those in 'HD' (720p) do look quite good. Not a full-on 1080p experience but a lot sharper than Freeview and many other sources.
This is basically a view of films you have added to your wish list. You can prioritise them by moving them around. Press and hold on a title causes it to wobble (just like on the iPod / iPhone). You can then move it relative to others. Still not exactly sure what the wish list is for though.
As you would expect, this lists films available by genre. The following genres are available: Action & Adventure, Classics, Comedy, Documentaries, Drama, Horror, Kids & Family, Music Films (we guess this means musicals), Romance, Sci-Fi & Fantasy, Short Films, Sports, Thriller, Western and World Cinema. As you should expect with Apple, the list has been censored and there is no adult category.
This provides a rather clunky keyboard and search interface.
These are HD trailers of films currently on in the cinema. You can't rent them!
In the USA, this content comes from networks that we don't get here in the UK. Basically, in the UK the TV Shows menu item is missing! There is NO TV on the Apple TV service.
The US version was listed as having Netflix but they don't currently service the UK and have stated several times that they don't plan to. In the USA, those who pay $9 a month to Netflix get access to tens of thousands of older movies. In the UK we get nothing!
YouTube falls under this main menu item and has some good content but it isn't much different than the YouTube XL experience found on many other large screen devices. The box renders 1080p music videos from YouTube that even our PS3 struggles to render though. The previous version of Apple TV simply played back the best quality stream available for each piece of content, with an enforced ceiling at 720p.
You can log into YouTube with an account but since this is a shared family device, I'm not sure that this is such a good thing to do.
UPDATE 23/11/2010 - So far it hasn't been an issue. I particularly like the way you can add videos to your favourites on your iPhone and then share them easily on your Apple TV later.
The YouTube experience on Apple TV is simply of the best you can get when you combine it with a fast network connection (see summary) and the Apple Remote app on an iPod or iPhone. It's basically like a new personalised TV channel. The quality of video now available on YouTube is getting much better and the Apple TV does an excellent job of rendering it. It would be even better if there was a way of following your subscriptions more easily.
Apple TV streams podcasts located in the iTunes store, which stream directly from the source server. These streams are dependent on the host providing the data at a high enough bit rate to stream without caching interruptions. There does not seem to be any linkage to the iTunes library account and any podcasts synchronised to your iPhone or iPod though.
I signed up for Mobile Me and I love it. Basically, Apple TV can play you photo and video galleries on the TV but, this is a tiny part of the functionality offered by Mobile Me. It's primarily a cloud storage service but it has some fantastic features and is by far the easiest way I've found to share and collaborate on photo albums. There is also a very good iDisk and Gallery app for the iPhone in support of this. You can also push photos and video to mobile me from the Photos app on the iPhone.
The Flickr sub-menu item basically allows you to add public photos from one or more Flickr accounts. You can also add these streams as the screen saver which is a very nice feature. This also kicks in when you are listening or pushing music to the Apple TV device.
Internet radio is the final item on the list under this category. When this came out we thought we would never use it but we have been proved wrong. It is great for listing to sport, off-beat music channels and other stuff that you won't find easily on FM or DAB in the UK. We are not sure that you would want to do this via the main, family TV though.
In the Keynote presentation Steve Jobs showed the familiar auto-discovery of computers on your network and the ability to browse and view music, video and photos stored on them. This is restricted to devices running iTunes and not something based around open standards like DLNA.
For a computer to appear in this list it must be running iTunes and must have 'Home Sharing' enabled (on both iTunes and Apple TV) using the same iTunes account.
Once the library appears in this list, you can navigate through the content (music, video, TV shows, etc.) and play it straight on the TV.
You can also do this the other way round, by selecting 'Apple TV' as a set of 'speakers' in iTunes and could push music and video through the device.
In our view, Apple TV isn't really about being a new TV and film rental service (though Apple will do quite nicely out of this). With PVRs and the various catch up TV services available here in the UK, we already have many ways to get hold missed TV content. The soon to be launched YouView service is only going to make it easier to catch up with missed TV programmes. Apple TV is also not really trying to compete with the likes of Google TV and Boxee.
Google TV is about bringing the Internet to your TV and Google is focussed on adding online content to your existing cable or satellite service. This is going to add complexity and not a simple, family orientated user experience. Not many parents want to provide open access to the Internet to their children via their TV.
As well as being a service, Boxee is an open ecosystem for building apps to deliver content, meaning that a large number of developers will be able to create applications, mashups and remixes for presentation on your TV. It's what the Android Market Place is to the Apple Apps Store. Whilst there will be some good services available, the quality and consistency of the user experience is not going to be be as good. It's essentially aimed at technically minded people (like me), who want to dabble and experiment. This doesn't necessarily work well in a family environment though. Most parents fight to reduce the quantity of TV consumed by their children and increase the quality.
The Apple TV hardware is basically an Apple AirPort Express with video capability. The real 'service' (or Trojan Horse) that Apple is trying to get users to buy into is AirPlay. AirPlay makes it easy to move and push content between Apple devices (iPod, iPhone, PC, iPad, etc.), iTunes and your TVs and this is where Apple is its strongest. Apple have also signed licensing deals so the AirPlay capability will start to appear in 3rd party hardware. When you view the Apple TV as an AirPort+ (video & photos), it makes perfect sense to have several distributed around your home. In fact one could argue why anyone would buy an AirPort Express device now, when the Apple TV box is only a little bit more and adds video and photos capability.
The problem with this approach right now though, is that pushed photos and video don't seem to be fully supported! This is coming in the iOS 4.3 update.
Network Connection Speed
We have been using Apple TV on a number of broadband Internet connections over the last few months and the speed of you network connection basically defines how usable Apple TV is:
What Is Missing?
The most obvious piece of functionality missing is TV/Freeview reception and PVR capability but this was never in scope for this piece of hardware. Being able to link to other devices in the home that can do this would be very nice though. Very few Freeview decoders and PVRs support open file formats and content sharing over your local network though.
Lack of 1080p video output is a little surprising but, it might be a limitation of the current iOS 4 or the A4 processor. Apple claim it is specifically to reduce the required bandwidth to stream the video.
There is no mention of DLNA support. The Apple TV can connect to 'computers' but, this basically means iTunes libraries shared using Home Sharing. It would be fantastic if it could connect to DLNA enabled Network Attached Storage (NAS) devices.
It isn't clear to us how the iTunes accounts (which are personal) will work on a shared device. We can't see how a shared device will support personalisation either. This was one of the biggest complaints we had with the iPad, which simply has to be a personal device and can't really be shared by a family.
And finally, the biggest thing likely to be missing is UK content. There is an interesting article on US content but, the position on TV episodes and series for UK content is less clear.
As we thought, jailbreak information is starting to surface.
iOS 4.1 is released in September 2010 and is worth a few words here (but reviewed in its own right) because of the new connectivity options it enables on the iPod and iPhone. What used to be called AirTunes has become AirPlay. This is because AirPlay on the iPod and iPhone enables you to push music and now video and photos to the Apple TV device.
PingApple Ping was released at the same Keynote presentation and is also worth a few words here (also reviewed in its own right). Apple TV will likely have linkages into Ping through the purchased content (just like music currently does), though Steve Jobs described Ping as "a social network for music".
23rd November 2010
Apple released a new software update for the Apple TV device (V4.1), along with iOS 4.2 for the iPhone and iPad. Combined with iTunes 10, this made some significant new functionality available based around Apple's AirPlay technology.
We've been doing a lot of testing with various apps and AirPlay. Many 3rd party apps can already use it but all are limited to audio only. Some apps can use it after it has been enabled by other apps. We have managed to get Spotify working with it. Using apps like Plug Player we have also managed to bridge DLNA to Apple TV and pull content off a NAS for playback on Apple TV.