In-depth review: Apple's third generation 1080p Apple TV and Software Update 5
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Apple TV H.264 hardware capabilities
Beyond the jump in top end resolution from 720p to 1080p, the new Apple TV can now handle additional H.264 profile/levels: High (HiP) or Main Profile (MP) video up to level 4.0, and Baseline Profile (BP) up to level 3.0.
In the MPEG4 H.264 specification, "profiles" relate to a class of video aimed at a specific type of device. BP was designed for mobile devices, MP targeted standard definition HDTV broadcasts and HiP includes features intended for higher quality HDTV and Blu-ray applications. Within each profile, "levels" define a maximum frame rate and picture resolution, defining the minimum decoding power a particular device has.
The original "big" Apple TV introduced in 2007, powered by a low end Intel Pentium M chip and running a scaled down version of OS X Tiger, could only handle 720p video at 24 fps using "Progressive Main Profile." To serve 30 fps video, it had to scale back the top resolution to 960x540, a bit better than DVD quality (720x480).
The second generation Apple TV introduced in late 2010, powered by Apple's A4 ARM Cortex-A8 Application Processor and running iOS, had the horsepower to decode 30fps 720p video in the H.264 MP up to level 3.1 (14Mbps), or alternatively, 720p Motion-JPEG video.
The new third generation Apple TV, with its more powerful A5 ARM Cortex-A9 chip and twice the RAM, can now handle full motion, 30fps 1080p (1920x1080) at a bit rate up to 25Mbps. It retains compatibility with MPEG4 H.263 and M-JPEG video content, although it only uses the more efficient H.264 codec for playing 1080p content.
iTunes' 1080p vs Blu-ray disc
This gives the latest Apple TV the same class of specifications as the Blu-ray format in terms of resolution and frame rate. However, Blu-ray disc isn't constrained by file sizes the way video downloads are. Blu-ray disc can store 25GB per layer (with some disks now offering 3-4 layers), and it offers a maximum bit rate of 40Mbps (compared to the new Apple TV's 25Mbps, or DVD's 9.8Mbps bit rate).
Apple's iTunes video uses a much lower bit rate both to make downloads manageable and to limit the size movies take up on mobile devices, where storage is much more constrained. Full length 720p HD movies from iTunes are closer to 3-4 GB (up from about 1GB file sizes of iTunes' SD video). New 1080p iTunes content is about 1.5 times larger (4-6GB), despite delivering 2.25 times the pixels, thanks to more sophisticated compression available in H.264 HiP.
Higher bit rates enable higher quality video. While iTunes can't compete with Blu-ray on the high end, in practice iTunes 1080p content is now at least more competitive in terms of picture quality, given the added convenience and efficiency of downloads and mobile playback without an optical disc mechanism.
An analysis of 1080p TV shows Apple recently added to iTunes demonstrated a significant jump in picture detail, particularly in brighter scenes, over previous 720p HD content.
Apple's disc-free strategy with iTunes relies heavily upon the increased sophistication of H.264 video compression and the newly available decoding power afforded by the latest generation of chips. In contrast, Blu-ray disc offers so much storage that many discs use the much less efficient MPEG2 codec employed by DVD, because there's plenty of disc storage space to waste.
Apple TV in 3D
Blu-ray disc's far higher storage capacity means the format can handily outpace Apple TV on the high end in terms of picture quality. It can also deliver features such as 3D (which essentially provides two streams of HD video, one for each eye), something Apple has completely ignored even as HDTV makers have scrambled to offer 3D as a feature. Note that while Apple TV can't play 3D content, its output can be given artificial 3D treatment by many new 3D-capable HDTV sets.
Using a Samsung 3D HDTV set to apply 3D processing to basic iTunes content worked very well, particularly with animated content. The 3D processing in modern HDTVs is often at least as good as the phony 3D that is typically applied to many new movies in post production.
So if you're a fan of 3D, you don't have to wait for Apple to support it to get added depth to the content you can watch on Apple TV. You just need a TV that can add 3D effects to your 2D video. At the same time, whenever I have friends over and force them to watch 3D TV, they usually opt out of wearing the glasses after the novelty wears off in 15 minutes.
Other Apple TV advantages
In other respects, Apple TV's advantage over creating a Blu-ray library is that it is smaller, doesn't require physical disc storage, and its movies can be shared between iTunes PCs and other iOS devices, something that Blu-ray can't do without the help of an additional digital copy format. Unlike discs, iTunes content can't be scratched or warped, and if you lose your copy you can download it again. iTunes content is generally much cheaper than Blu-ray disc, and sources such as Netflix and Podcasts provide even cheaper options.
Apple has also developed its own iTunes Extras format for delivering interactive content that works similar to the menus of DVD and BR. With a tenth of the file size of Blu-ray disc, Apple isn't really aiming to compete with the Blu-ray format directly. Instead, it's really offering a more convenient format to replace DVD as an alternative to Blu-ray, offering better quality picture than DVD with the advantages of digital distribution and its other Internet and iTunes library sharing features.
So far, Apple's digital downloads strategy seems to be gaining traction faster than HD disc formats, including the now dead Microsoft-led HD-DVD format and the Sony-led Blu-ray format (which Apple was involved with from the start, but which it has never supported for playback on the Mac or other devices). The boost in picture quality enabled by its A5 generation of iOS devices appears set to make iTunes' 1080p content an even more aggressive threat to Blu-ray adoption going forward.
While attempting to woo customers toward its digital downloads in iTunes rather than another disc format, Apple has also sweetened the appeal of Apple TV by adding support for the app-like features previous detailed above.
Over the past year, Apple's new AirPlay feature has also given Apple TV a new killer app. The second generation Apple TV can wirelessly stream 720p video from iTunes PCs and iOS devices, while the latest Apple TV can stream 1080p video from devices that support that resolution (including the new iPad and iPhone 4S). Those devices can also support AirPlay Mirroring at the new Apple TV's 1080p resolution. Modern 2011 or later Macs should also be able to support AirPlay Mirroring under OS X Mountain Lion.
Where are the other Apple TV apps?
The latest version of Apple TV software, described as 5.0, is based on iOS 5 but conspicuously lacks the ability to add new third party apps. It also offers fewer of the built in features of its iOS 5 peers, including support for things like FaceTime video conferencing, iMessages, Mail/Contacts/Calendar/Notes/Reminders, widgets like Weather and Stocks, and browsers for the web and Google Maps.
At the same time, Apple has been hinting in the direction of an Apple TV App Store, with feature additions ranging from Trailers (identified by the same icon as the iOS app) to third party app-like services such as Netflix, Vimeo, NHL/NBA/MLB, and a Wall Street Journal video feed. It seems likely that other networks and publishers would want to have their content featured on Apple TV as a front-tier app as well.
Apple seems to be heading cautiously toward an expansion of Apple TV apps, but also appears interested in keeping Apple TV services consistent, serving up YouTube, Vimeo, Netflix and other app-like services with an identical menu system that looks like Apple TV, not like disparate apps developed independently by third parties with different user interfaces. And while Apple has embraced competing services such as Netflix, it also appears hesitant to throw open the floodgates to invite Microsoft, Google and others to bring their video on demand services to its set top box.
Outside of competitive services, there are a wide variety of third party apps and games that could make sense on Apple TV. At the same time, an increasing number of Mac and iOS apps can (or soon will be able to) beam their content to Apple TV directly via AirPlay, making it less important to offer an App Store devoted entirely to Apple TV. Apple's not sharing its future strategy for Apple TV, so its anyone's guess how the hobby will develop.
The third generation Apple TV offers a low cost box that adds a variety of useful features to your HDTV. Existing second generation users will likely be content with what they have, as the new box only offers a relatively minor jump in picture detail and an additional option to connect to faster WiFi networks.
If you're really excited about 1080p content, replacing your existing model won't cost much, thanks to Apple's largely loss leader business model for its Apple TV hobby. Otherwise, the other new features come free via Software Update 5.
If you're on the fence wondering if Apple TV is for you, it may be good to keep in mind that the box costs less than many big box retailers are trying to charge for a fancy HDMI cable (note that Apple doesn't include an HDMI cable, but you can pick one up online for much less than some retailers are trying to charge). Once you have it plugged in, any iOS 5 devices you have automatically get AirPlay wireless distribution point to your big screen, a very handy feature.
The micro-USB port on Apple TV isn't activated for functional use. You can't plug in a USB drive and play content from it, for example. Apple describes the port as being there for diagnostic purposes, but its primary use is for jail breaking. The latest Software Update 5 hasn't been cracked yet, so you can't turn it into a hobby box of your own. Earlier versions of the software have been cracked to add additional features, but this obviously isn't supported by Apple.
Watching content on Apple TV continues to get better, with a wider selection of movies for purchase and rent at fairly reasonable prices. The $8 Netflix plan is also a great deal, and support on Apple TV means you can watch high quality content without an additional box, using the same interface you use to view iTunes movies, TV and free podcasts.
The added sports apps are a bonus, but don't offer the same breath of content and interactivity as their dedicated app counterparts on iPad. The Wall Street Journal Live app is interesting, but most of the content is proceeded by ads web-style, which introduces a bit of an annoying delay. It's probably less annoying than trying to watch TV however, as you can actually call up and watch exactly what you want to see.
There's little to really dislike about Apple TV; the new model doesn't get hot as the initial version once did, and it's easier to put to sleep when you don't want to leave it running. It's very small and takes little power (and incorporates its own power supply so there's no power brick or transformer plug to deal with). There's no fan (and no optical drive) so it doesn't make any distracting noise or radiate heat, as game consoles or Blu-ray players can.
The included remote is serviceable, but if you have access to an iOS device, Apple's Remote app will likely be a more attractive option, particularly when entering text for searches or logging into services.
There's a lot of additional functionality Apple could add to its TV box via software. Now that the hardware supports 1080p content, it's hard to see how Apple would need to significantly update the hardware in the near future. That suggests today's buyers will be happily supported through new, free software updates for some time, gaining new features and capabilities as Apple's TV strategy develops and grows.
One last note: unlike other iOS devices, Apple TV lacks any access to the web, so outside of the features Apple has purposely added, there's no way to access independent web apps to get around the limitations of its build in apps and services. The closest analog to web access is Apple's support for AirPlay, which lets you bypass the somewhat limited services on the device in wide open ways, showing audio and video of whatever's on your modern iPad on your HDTV.
This offers a lot of potential for Apple TV to become an increasingly strong player in the set top box market, leveraging the large library of iOS games and apps to bring new functionality to your living room TV set. If Apple doesn't eventually morph Apple TV into a more general purpose device with stronger gaming capabilities, iOS app developers may do so for it thanks to integration with AirPlay.
Rating 3 out of 5
Cheap, functional, small and quiet
Easy to navigate features, rent or buy content
Support for a variety of app-like services
Higher quality 1080p video
AirPlay wireless distribution works great
Free remote app makes up for basic included remote
No third party support for additional apps (outside of AirPlay)
No support for USB storage playback, limited video codec support
Where to Buy
For the lowest prices on Apple's entire Mac lineup, see AppleInsider's Mac Price Guide.