Monday, October 04, 2010, 09:00 am PT (12:00 pm ET)
Review: Apple's second-generation Apple TV (2010)
Software and setup
Setting up the Apple TV is a breeze, with a simple connection to an existing network over 802.11/a/b/g/n Wi-Fi or Ethernet. Users input the necessary data with the included infrared Apple Remote.
Sharing of content is enabled through the iTunes Home Sharing feature. Home Sharing login is based on a user's iTunes Store account information. This clever step ensures that users' iTunes information is stored in the device, allowing for easy and instant purchasing of content.
Once the Apple TV is set up and connected to an iTunes account, users can enable control of the hardware through their iOS device. Flicking through the menus on an iPhone or iPad with Apple's free Remote application is a pleasant experience. It also allows for users to sort through their iTunes library of content easily and more efficiently than with the packaged slim remote.
As was the case with the previous generation hardware, codec support is limited. The Apple TV can support H.264, MPEG-4 and M-JPEG, and has a maximum resolution output of 720P. Any 1080P content streamed from iTunes is automatically downscaled.
This means streaming video obtained from outside of the Apple and iTunes ecosystem will in many cases prove problematic, as many popular codecs are not supported by the Apple TV hardware. But any media enthusiast who owned the previous generation device, or has any other iOS device, already knows of these limitations.
Supported audio formats include AAC, MP3, Apple Lossless, AIFF and WAV. It also allows for Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound pass-through to a compatible receiver.
One of the best features Apple has created for media and entertainment enthusiasts is AirTunes, which has recently been rebranded AirPlay. In the near future it will allow instant streaming of video content from mobile iOS devices to the Apple TV.
Until iOS 4.2 is released, AirPlay is largely unchanged from AirTunes. Even still, AirPlay is every bit as incredible as it was before.
The Apple TV can be seamlessly and quickly integrated into an existing setup with AirTunes/AirPlay. Entering the Home Sharing information had the Apple TV show up in the speakers control option in the iTunes desktop client on both a Mac and PC.
For now, the system works well with a desktop running iTunes, an Apple TV, and a pair of wireless AirPort Express devices for music streaming. But in the future, new third-party hardware will also connect to AirTunes, allowing the streaming of music and album art in the same fashion, and giving users more options to integrate the wireless standard into their home.
The real potential of AirPlay will begin to take shape in November when iOS 4.2 is released. Until then, AirPlay is as good as AirTunes ever was — but we're longing for more.
If the Apple TV becomes a major success for Apple, expect the Trojan horse of AirPlay to be a determining factor.
The greatest asset of the Apple TV is also its achilles heel: the iTunes Store. In this respect, the device is only as good as the agreements Apple can reach with content providers.
The good news: iTunes still offers the largest and widest selection of digital movie and TV purchases and rentals. Many major new movies are available the day they are available on DVD.
Streaming shows for 99 cents is an even greater asset for an Apple TV owner, as the price is now more palatable than ever. But the content selection also has a number of major problems, namely that some major networks and content providers aren't participating.
Want to watch the most recent episode of NBC's "The Office?" Boot up iTunes on your computer, pay $2.99 to buy it in HD (renting is not available), and then play it on your Apple TV once it's been downloaded.
Renting of shows from NBC and CBS — two of the "big four" broadcast networks in the U.S. — is not possible, and so the content is not even available directly on the Apple TV. The only way to view it is to purchase it via iTunes first.
TV content rented directly from the Apple TV is only available from Fox, ABC, BBC and Disney. That's it.
Still, Apple must be commended for its efforts here. For the content providers that are willing to play ball, standard-definition and high-definition TV shows cost the same 99 cents to rent, eliminating the "premium" price that has been attached to HD video.
HD movies, however, still carry a $1 premium, with new releases running $4.99, and older titles at $3.99 to rent. Standard-definition new releases are $3.99 and older titles in lower video quality are just $2.99.
The selection of movies is strong, but again Apple is hampered by the content providers. While the company touts that major releases are on iTunes day-and-date with the DVD and Blu-ray releases, one of this year's top movies, "Iron Man 2," is not yet available for rental on iTunes.
Renting a TV show gives users 30 days to start the program. Once they press play, they have 48 hours to finish watching it. Strangely, TV shows rented from the Apple TV can only be played on the Apple TV, while content purchased in iTunes or on an iPhone or iPad has more flexibility. Here again, the issue is likely due to the terms required by the content providers.
After selecting a program to rent, the Apple TV goes back to the main menu and allows users to continue browsing. Once enough of the show has been buffered, the system presents users with a prompt, telling them to press play to start the show.
Shows start within a matter of seconds, and the HD quality is fantastic — much better than many other streaming services, and of higher quality than most cable TV services, which serve up highly compressed video that often becomes pixelated. It's not 1080P, but it is near-instant streaming.
The lack of support for 1080P for content hosted on a local network, where bandwidth issues for streaming are not a concern, remains disappointing. Blu-ray will have to remain the option for home theater enthusiasts looking to get the most out of their high-end HDTV.
Access to Netflix Instant Watch for streaming content is also a major addition, as the rental service's strong lineup of content is now available to Apple TV owners. Of course, Netflix has been pushing its way into the living room for years, so the millions of people who already own an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 will find nothing new here.
The Apple TV does have a leg up on the Netflix streaming functionality of the popular Nintendo Wii, however, as that system has a maximum output resolution of just 480P.
Netflix Instant Watch requires its own monthly subscription, but its inclusion in the new Apple TV adds a great deal of value for those who do not already have a device that's capable of streaming from the rental service.
Also offered are integration with YouTube, Flickr and MobileMe, and Podcasts and Internet radio stations can also be streamed to the device. All of these work as expected.
On page 3 of 3: The promise of what's to come; Conclusion; and Rating.
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