Apple TV is an interesting product. On one hand, it’s the “hobby” that so many called its predecessor. On the other hand, it’s a fantastic entertainment device that delivers on Apple’s promise of improving the consumer experience in the living room.
Simply put, the new Apple TV is a work in progress. And with a few improvements here and there, Apple could eventually have yet another home run on its hands.
The Apple TV is tiny. As Apple CEO Steve Jobs pointed out at the Sept. 1 event unveiling the new set-top box, it’s about one-quarter the size of the original Apple TV.
The device’s size makes it perfect for any entertainment center. And since its black, it’s easily concealed during the day or at night when folks are watching movies or television shows.
The Apple TV boasts few inputs on the back. It includes a power port, an HDMI port, optical audio, and an Ethernet jack. That’s it. For those with the latest home-entertainment set-up, that should be enough. Consumers hoping for component connections or more audio options are out of luck. They might not like it, but the Apple TV is designed to be cheap and simple to use. Having a slew of ports wouldn’t reflect that.
It’s also important to note that the Apple TV doesn’t include a hard drive, as did its predecessor. Although some thought that would be an issue, it turns out that it really isn’t. Streaming content to the Apple TV takes no time, thanks to the device’s Ethernet and Wireless-N support. In fact, a hard drive wasn’t missed during testing.
Getting the Apple TV up and running takes virtually no time. Users only need to connect an HDMI cable from the Apple TV to their television, plug the device in and it’s ready to go. Initial set-up takes about a minute. After that, the entire Apple TV feature-set is available for the taking.
The new Apple TV’s operating system mimics that of its predecessor. The software includes menus for movies, television shows, Internet services, and more. Owners can use the included Apple TV remote to move around the page, or use the free Remote application available in Apple’s App Store. In either case, maneuvering around the Apple TV is a cinch.
As with most other Apple products, the Apple TV’s user experience is what sets it apart from the competition. Those who have used the Roku set-top box know that it’s sometimes hard to navigate the clunky software. Apple’s software, on the other hand, is simple and intuitive. And it makes for a rewarding experience.
As with any set-top box, the value of the Apple TV needs to come from the content it offers. And unfortunately, that’s one place where the device falls short.
The Apple TV allows users to stream movies and television shows for $4.99 ($3.99 for older HD titles) and $0.99, respectively. It also provides access to Netflix’s Instant Streaming service. In addition, the Apple TV features YouTube, Flickr, and Internet Radio, but those aren’t the device’s main attractions.
Unfortunately, Apple has been unable to deliver a compelling entertainment-streaming service with the device. Its list of available films is somewhat lacking, and the company’s promise of making content available on the same day as the DVD release doesn’t always come true. However, some of the most desired films currently on the market are available on the Apple TV, including Avatar, Robin Hood, and others.
Netflix Instant Streaming Is Apple TVs Saving Grace
On the television side, it’s much, much worse. The Apple TV only includes content from ABC, Disney, and Fox. So, folks hoping for “The Office” or “CSI” won’t find it. The device also lacks support for HBO and just about every other major cable network. It’s a glaring omission that takes some major points of Apple TV’s scorecard.
But there is a saving grace: Netflix. The rental company’s Instant Streaming offering includes a plethora of content, ranging from old classics, such as The Godfather, to more current films. It also boasts every single episode of some recent television classics- Battlestar Galactica, Family Guy, and The Office.
Netflix’s Instant Streaming service costs $9 per month, which might turn some away. But consumers hoping to get their hands on an Apple TV will want to pay that price-Netflix is simply integral to the entertainment experience on the Apple TV.
Since the Apple TV lacks a hard drive, streaming all the aforementioned content is central to the set-top box’s operation.
Luckily for Apple, the streaming experience is outstanding. Netflix content loads quickly, and the time between renting content via iTunes and watching it is quite short. Throughout the viewing process, the Apple TV sputtered just a few times on more than a dozen hours of streamed content. That was especially surprising, since most of the shows and movies that can be rented through the Apple TV are in HD.
Speaking of HD, the quality of the content was impressive. It won’t come close to matching Blu-ray (unfortunately, the Apple TV only supports 720p HD content, compared with Blu-ray’s 1080p resolution), but it should be more than acceptable to most users.
All in all, the streaming experience on the Apple TV was generally outstanding.
Apple’s Remote Application
Aside from that, other content-such as music or videos installed elsewhere-must be streamed to the set-top box.
Streaming that content works extremely well. It takes just a few minutes to link a computer to the Apple TV, and streaming content is as simple as accessing the user’s library, picking content, and clicking “play” from the set-top box.
Apple’s Remote application is similarly useful by providing a full listing of the user’s iTunes content from within the app. As before, folks need only choose the item they want to play, and it instantly runs on the Apple TV.
It would have been nice to have been able to buy songs or albums from the Apple TV, but it wasn’t the end of the world. In fact, the experience of listening to music on the device was equally as appealing as it was on the original Apple TV, which stored one’s content on the device.
Apple is also keen on a new feature called AirPlay. In essence, consumers using an iOS-based device can start consuming content on their iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch, and then beam that to their Apple TV in real-time. Unfortunately, AirPlay is coming with the as-yet released iOS version 4.2, which means it’s not yet available to consumers. But it’s arguably one of the most anticipated features Apple is readying.
The Final Word
The Apple TV is, admittedly, hard to describe. The device is highly functional in some ways and not-so in others. The package is both appealing and disappointing. It’s a tale of give-and-take, yin and yang.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth buying. It might still feel like a hobby, but, at $99, it’s priced right. And it’s just a few deals between Apple and content providers away from becoming a full-fledged streaming powerhouse.
So, it’s probably worth betting on the Apple TV. It might be facing some stiff competition from the Boxee Box and the upcoming Logitech Revue, but it has real promise. And for $99, it’s hard to see how consumers could go wrong, even if it’s used as a backup device.