Apple TV (2010) review
Apple TV (2010) is a bold-ish relaunch of Apple's Macworld 2007 co-headliner and since-then hobby, the Apple TV. Mac OS X has been ditched in favor of iOS, Intel in favor of Apple A4 (ARM), matt black in favor of aluminum, syncing in favor of streaming, buying in favor of renting, and Netflix has joined what was once an almost exclusively Apple, entirely iTunes affair. Oh, and they've ditched the triple-digit price tag in favor of $99.
A step rather than a leap towards the clouded future ahead, is the new Apple TV enough to hold us over until we get there? Is it competitive with other TV streaming hardware and services? Will I ever stop asking questions and start answering them? You bet, after the break.
Apple TV (2010) in 10 minutes -- quick start guide
The Apple TV is tiny. Ridiculously tiny. There's just no other way to say it and no way to really appreciate it until you've seen the small box and removed the even smaller Apple TV unit inside. It's 0.9 inches (23 mm) short, 3.9 inches (98 mm) narrow, and a square 3.9 inches (98 mm) shallow. And it weighs only 0.6 pounds (272 grams). Not that you'll need to carry it around much as this is the first member of the iOS family that's supposed to stay put in your living room, tethered to your TV. (Though at this tiny size, who'd blame you if you wanted to keep one in your backpack or technovest). And I'm sure most of what little size there is is taken up by the internal power brick. Crazy.
It's also black instead of the previous -- and Apple's traditional -- aluminum or recent stainless steel. That seems odd but I suppose the idea here is to blend away into the shadows and corners and let the content take the center stage. Well, except for the LED light on the front, bottom-right corner.
Ports are at a bare minimum as well. Gone are the component RGB cables of the original Apple TV and only HDMI remains (and here I'll point out how much Hollywood no doubt loves that lack of anything analog and its so-called "loophole"). Immediately below it is the micro-USB port, ostensibly for servicing the unit at Apple but likely to be used by hackers until Apple decides to open it up to 3rd party development, and then it will be used to tether to iTunes and Xcode (or maybe not, see later).
There's an ethernet jack if you rather have a hardline than a Wi-Fi connection and a power plug since this is also the first non-rechargable iOS device.
And that's it, aside from the bottom looking like the 2010 Mac Mini.
According to teardowns (Apple doesn't bother consumers with details like internal stats), inside there's an Apple A4 chipset like all other 2010 iOS devices, 256MB of RAM (same as iPod touch and iPad, half as much as iPhone 4), and 8GB of NAND Flash memory (same as the lowest end iPod touch).
Since this is a streaming-only device, and an H.264-only device, that's probably enough storage for even an HD video, and with hardware acceleration, enough muscle to drive it. If it ever does become an app platform, however, or even simply gets a browser, that limit is bound to annoy.
Cost cutting to hit $99, no doubt.
Apple TV comes with one of the recently redesigned aluminum remote controls. It's infrared, which in an age of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi is disappointing -- to everyone except universal remote control users who don't hide their components out of line of sight. Its got the same up, down, left, right, and enter 5-way its always had, and menu and play-pause buttons just beneath. And there's a battery door on the reverse side.
It matches Apple's aluminum computer line, the iPhone, and the iPad, and thanks to a touch of black on the buttons, it even manages to match the new Apple TV.
For more, see our complete Apple Aluminum Remote Control review from November, 2009.
However, since I suspect most of you here have an iPhone, iPod touch, and/or iPad, I'll just gently remind you that Apple has just released a new version of their free, fairly awesome Remote app that works over Wi-Fi and offers way more functionality. Use it whenever possible.
Less is more
While it seems counterintuitive that a tiny box running on an ARM chipset could be any type of upgrade to something that ran on Intel Celeron, it truly is. Sure, old and new alike were and are both whisper quiet but I could have grilled my cheese sandwiches on the old Apple TV and the new one is cool as an iPad. Likewise I stood my old, wide Apple TV on its edge to slot it into my AV setup while the new one just tucked into a corner.
I'm sure some people (and their capture cards) will miss the RGP cable option and HDCP is an insult and often annoyance to consumers everywhere, but in modern living rooms it just works. Simply.
And no, Apple still doesn't include an HDMI cable. It's disappointing but again its typically Apple -- they want to hit $99 so hard it knocks everything possible out of the box.
Apple TV (2010) no longer runs a special flavor Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger - it now runs a special flavor of iOS 4. Not that you could tell from just looking at it. The old BackRow interface that ran on the original Apple TV (after the most recent updates) is duplicated almost exactly for the new Lowtide UI that runs on the 2010 model.
[Note: I'm in Canada where Apple offers no TV rentals, so the image above and subsequent images of the top level UI are missing that menu item]
When you start up you get to choose your language from English, French, German, Japanese, Dutch, Italian, Spain, Portuguese (Portugal or Brazilian), Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Korean, simplified or traditional Chinese, Russian, or Polish.
You need a working internet connection from then on, so make sure you've plugged in or have your Wi-Fi settings ready to input.
You're then asked if you want to let Apple improve their products by collecting anonymous usage (and error) data. (You can change this later if you like).
The most noticeable change is that iTunes Store and your own content are now separate. When Apple TV debuted, Movies, TV Shows, and Podcast menus all listed iTunes Store content first, then My Movies, My TV Shows, and My Podcasts were listed under them. In a recent update Apple flipped that around and listed the "my" content first, before iTunes Store content, but you still had to switch horizontally between the tabs to go from one area of your content to another.
Now Movies and TV Shows are purely for iTunes Store content, Podcasts is tucked away under Internet, and a Computers tab holds all your "my" content, bereft of that label, in one place.
If you were a "type"-centric viewer -- someone who just wanted to watch movies or TV and didn't care if it was from iTunes Store or your existing iTunes library -- than this may be a change for the worse. If you were a "get iTunes Store out of my way!"-centric viewer than you'll be happy.
Movies and TV Shows
Movies is pretty much the same as it was before with two major exceptions. First, My Movies has moved to the Computers section as noted above, and second, the ability to buy movies is gone. It's rental only now.
You can still buy movies via iTunes on Windows or Mac and stream them over, so it's not a huge loss. What is a loss is that studios don't always make movies available to rent which means there's less movies available via iTunes on Apple TV now. That's entirely the studios fault -- they think it will force us to buy movies instead of renting -- but as usual we consumers suffer for it.
Rentals are $4.99 or $3.99 for HD depending on how recent the movie is (Apple lists $3.99 and $2.99 for SD on the Apple TV website but I haven't seen any SD titles listed on the device itself, besides the special promotions which I'll cover in a minute). Outside the US the price is typically higher (+$1 in Canada, for example).
Every week iTunes Store has $0.99 movie rental specials, or $1.99 for HD. There were about 50 choices this week, none of them recent or mainstream titles. But for cheapy movie night, they're yours to discover.
Because of an increase in iTunes fraud, the first time you rent content -- or if iTunes just thinks there's something weird about your IP, device, or the way the wind is blowing -- they might ask you to verify the CVV code on your credit card. This is a great addition to security.
You can start watching a rented movie any time within the 30 days following the rental, and then have 24 hours to watch it as few or as many times as you want and can fit in. Outside the US, you have 48 hours, so Americans can once again thank Hollywood for caring about them so.
Now then, the quality of the content remains terrific. Apple employs an iTunes transcoding quality czar, so what else would you expect? On my connection it took roughly 2 seconds for a movie to be "ready to watch" and it played through without pause or stammer. The 720p HD content looked excellent upscaled on a 1080p TV. Clean, crisp, and nothing in the way of artifacts or staircasing on the angular lines.
Hollywood probably thinks the price is too cheap. I think it's fair but towards the high side. They're not competing with the dwindling video rental stores and VOD services. They're competing with YouTube, video games, and a thousand other new forms of entertainment. Not to mention bootleg content priced a free + time and effort.
At $2 a rental I think they'd hit incredible volume, more than make up for any per-unit loses, and make bootlegging not worth the time it takes to do it.
The same goes for TV shows, in terms of how the Apple TV handles them in their little section tab, and in terms of content only it's even more extreme. The price for a rental is $0.99 but only ABC and FOX are offering their shows right now, and they're only offered in the US. Other networks have said $0.99 is too cheap for their content and they prefer the $1.99 purchase model. That leads me to believe most of those networks don't think anyone would bother watching their shows more than once and thus they'd be losing out on a buck. Still, their lack of forward thinking is disturbing. Lets hope it takes something significantly less than an extinction level event among network brass to get some agile minds into power over there.
Don't let the name fool you or get your hopes up -- this is just the new home for Apple.com movie trailers. Still, it's nice to be able to watch them on the TV.
Netflix is only available in the US and (just recently) Canada. It lets you stream unlimited catalog movies and TV shows for -- as of this writing -- $7.99 a month (Canada only has streaming plans, the US should be getting them soon if they haven't already). That means no very recent movies or shows, and unfortunately it also means content can be there one day and gone the next as studios make exclusive deals with cable channels for certain periods of time. Sometimes there's also only one or a few episodes of a show, however it does seem to be filling out. Bottom line, if you have Netflix available to you there's tons of great stuff to watch, especially on the TV side.
The interface is much better than anything I've seen for Netflix before, especially the terrible website-as-app they launched for iPad. It's much easier to browse and there's a search function that works well.
On the quality side, I wonder if Apple is using their HTTP Live Streaming technology to dynamically adjust for bandwidth because on my connection is looked great. There was very little in the way of artifacts, colors held together well (even reds), and while gradients did band in places, it was easily "HD" quality throughout.
YouTube is the same as it was on the original Apple TV. You can browse or search for content and YouTube will stream it for you in the best quality available. Sure, Steve Jobs said Apple TV customers didn't want "amateur hour", but even he knows better than to deny the masses their lolcats on pianos and footballs to the groin, right? (I kid, YouTube has lots of excellent and highly professional content these days).
Where Podcasts previously had their own tab they've now been somewhat buried under Internet. You also can't download them any more because everything is streaming-only. I've only ever streamed podcasts from Apple TV so that suits me just fine.
Apple doesn't seem to sort by quality here, so you can find tiny iPod versions next to huge HD versions of the same podcast, and Apple still hasn't found a good way to display long titles so sometimes it's not easy to tell which one is which.
Other than that, same great free content.
Internet: MobileMe and Flickr
If you have a MobileMe or Flickr account, just like before you can enter your credentials here and Apple TV will find and show off your photos on the big screen.
Same as before. I never use it but I know some people like having their music come from the Apple TV rather than the computer they're working on because they find it less distracting.
To start streaming content from iTunes on Windows or Mac, you need to enable Home Sharing, the system that shipped last year as part of iTunes 9. That means entering your iTunes account user name and password. Annoyingly you can't use to virtual keyboard from the iPhone or iPad Remote app because they won't recognize your Apple TV until Home Sharing is turned on so you have to use the tedious Aluminum Remote to enter your credentials. (!)
Once you've entered you credentials Apple TV will offer to remember them for iTunes Store purchases, if you want it to.
Then you can click (or tap, because the Remote app will now find the Apple TV) and you get a page with all your music, movies, TV Shows, Podcasts, iTunes U, and Photos content, all in one place.
Definitely easier than the old system of exchanging PIN numbers or syncing large files over ethernet or Wi-Fi.
Once you're done, all the available computers on your network show up under the Computers tab, and picking one gives you a media menu for that machine: Music, Movies, TV Shows, Podcasts, iTunes U, and Photos.
Here the quality will depend on the source material, Apple TV upscaling, and your TV chipset. Old DVD rips looked fine but I could see jaggies in the angles. 720p iTunes content looked fantastic.
Sharing Photos from your computer works a little differently. You have to start in iTunes, under the Advanced menu, and choose which photos you want to share (either a directory or an iPhone or Aperture library). If you're using a Mac, you can even select based on criteria like Faces.
Once you apply the settings the Apple TV will churn away for a moment and then make the photos available. You can browse them individually or start a slide show with optional settings for shuffle, repeat, music, and themes (including Origami, of course).
As usual, Settings is the boring section where all the fun can be found.
General lets you get About info, device Name, set Network credentials, iTunes Store account, Parental Controls, Remotes, Update Software, set a Sleep After timer, choose your Send Data to Apple preferences, set Language, read the obnoxiously long legal data, and...
Restore your Apple TV.
You can do the Reset All Settings but there's also a Restore button proper that lets you download and install a fresh copy of iOS 4.1. Over the network. Over a wireless network if that's how you're setup.
Let that sink in a moment. Over the air (OTA) software restore or update. Um... Can we have that for iPhone and iPad?
The other Settings let you customize the Screen Saver, set up Audio and Video, configure AirPlay (including a password), turn off Home Sharing, and Sleep Now.
Kudos once again to Apple for supporting subtitles and otherwise doing more than any other consumer electronics company on the planet when it comes to accessibility features in all their products. It's something they never get enough praise for and competitors would do well to emulate as much and as often as possible.
AirPlay is only working for audio at the moment, even if you're using an iPhone or iPad running iOS 4.2 beta. As such, functionality is the same as it was previously with AirTunes, though you can stream the audio from video content. I'll update this section when iOS 4.2 ships and AirPlay makes its official debut.
iOS is the Future
In making iOS 4.1 for Apple TV's Lowtide, almost indistinguishable from Mac OS X 4 for Apple TV's BackRow does it really matter to an end user what's powering their device?
No, but I think they'll absolutely notice how responsive it is, how well it throws pixels across the screen, and if Apple finally follows through with the platform, I think an iOS Apple TV has incredible potential.
AirPlay could be killer -- any H.264 video you're watching on your iPhone or iPad, any time, instantly transportable to your big screen via Apple TV.
Apps could be fantastic -- start me off with Safari web browser as soon as possible.
Right now it's as good as what came before, more limited and focused in some ways (rentals, streaming), more feature rich (Netflix) and fluid in others.
Apple TV (2010) is a step rather than a leap, but one that circles to the side and begins to flank traditional media, hopefully cutting an angle that positions Apple's hobby to finally break through into something more. A lot will depend on the next 12 months, how much Apple pushes it and how fast content fills out. A lot also depends on those myopic Hollywood studies who still haven't gotten on board with volume pricing (much less subscription services, which would be killer).
If you're a heavy iTunes Store user and iPhone and/or iPad are a big part of your digital life, Apple TV (2010) is a no brainer. It projects every thing you have into the living room with elegance and simplicity.
If you live for Netflix than Apple TV (2010) sets the bar for 10-foot interfaces and I daresay interfaces in general (mainly because Netflix themselves have set the bar so low).
If you don't use iTunes Store or iPhone/iPad, then there are probably other devices that better fit your file formats (i.e. xvid, mkv) and devices of choice. (Even an iPhone/iPad, an Apple AV cable, and the Air Video app...)
But I'll be getting everyone in my immediate family one for Christmas this year. Especially with Airplay, the idea I can go to my parents or siblings or best friends' place, pull out my iPhone, and show them the great new show or movie on my device, or this video I just found on the web, is near intoxicating. It's the future. It's Star Trek. And once again Apple is wrapping a compelling -- if tightly controlled -- vision of that future up and serving it to mainstream users on a (in this case tiny) platter.
At $99 it's not hard to justify, and that's probably what Apple had in mind.