In case you haven't noticed, there's a revolution going on in how people watch movies and TV. Traditional services are losing ground, as more people are streaming content directly from the internet — at least in the States. Way out in Australia, we're still waiting for all the deals to be done that allow us to watch services such as Netflix, Amazon Video on Demand, Vudu and Hulu (not to mention Pandora for music).
Here, we're still sorting licensing out. This has lead to disparate services with either limited libraries, limited experiences or requiring specific hardware boxes to be bought. This gives us BigPond, iView, FetchTV, Bravia Internet Video and CASPA, with iView being the only one that's really making a go of becoming an all pervasive presence.
In Australia, Apple TV has none of these services. You're stuck with renting from iTunes, and in Australia that means movies only, not TV shows. Lack of TV shows aside, the rental model makes sense for a unit with extremely limited storage.
Like the iPad, Apple TV allows access to HD rentals. If you want to buy content, you'll need to use a Mac, and in this case the HD option disappears altogether. Since you can only buy TV shows ... well, you see where this is going.
At AU$129 it will no doubt appeal to some, especially for those who already own compatible Apple products and want an easy way to get content to their living rooms. We hope that Apple adds more TV content and third-party services to the device over time, although we hold little hope for expanded codec support. Given that the Apple TV's primary role is that of an iTunes streaming box, codec support is limited. It will play other movies not bought or rented from iTunes, but unless your existing video collection already happens to be in the right format, you may be spending a lot of time with HandBrake.
The new Apple TV is tiny, courtesy of holding no hard drive. (Credit: CNET)
We knew the Apple TV was small, but we didn't realise just how tiny it was until we pulled it out of the box. It's a quarter of the size of the first-gen Apple TV and more impressively, it's even smaller than Roku's line of video streamers. Apple products are generally known as the ultimate for status-seeking gadgeteers, but the Apple TV's style is decidedly low-key. It's a small charcoal grey box, with a glossy finish around the perimeter and a matte finish on top, where the Apple logo resides. The bottom has a slight bevel and rubberised surface so it doesn't slip. There is a small white light on the front panel on the right-hand side, which unfortunately can't be turned off in the settings menu. Overall, the understated look is a winner for a home theatre, where it's much better to fit in than to stand out.
The Apple TV's connectivity is basic, but completely sufficient. It has built-in 802.11n Wi-Fi, so you won't need an Ethernet cord in your living room. The main connection on the back panel is the HDMI output, which can handle both high-def video and surround-sound audio. There's no component video output for older TVs, but every modern HDTV supports HDMI. If you have an older AV receiver without HDMI, the Apple TV also has an optical digital audio output, which is capable of surround sound as well. There's also an Ethernet port if you prefer the stability of a wired network connection. Rounding things out is a micro-USB port, but that's not for general use with Apple claiming it's "for service and support". Should the Apple TV become a hotbed of hacking, then that's when it will come in mighty handy.
The included remote is as minimalist as the box itself. It's the same super-slim clicker included with iMacs, consisting just of an aluminium casing with a directional pad, a menu button and a play/pause button. The Apple TV's interface is simple enough that it's all you need, as long as you're familiar with standard Apple navigation; use the menu button to jump back.
Though the included remote is perfectly fine for simple Apple TV operation, the device really takes off when using an iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad as a controller, using the free Remote app. Using gesture-based controls, you can swipe and tap your way through menus, plus you have the ability to use the keyboard on your portable device to do text entry, which is much quicker than using the on-screen keyboard and standard remote. Even better is queuing up music from your iTunes library by browsing cover art. It's one of the best ways we've seen to browse your digital music library.
Set-up and user interface
It's no XBMC (Credit: CNET)
The initial set-up is as simple as it gets. Plug it in, connect an HDMI cable and fire up your HDTV to start the guided on-screen set-up. Then just pick a language, choose your router, enter your password and you can start to use the Apple TV. To access some of the more advanced functionality like Home Sharing you'll need to enter some additional info, but it's a cinch.
The user interface is largely unchanged from the original Apple TV, which isn't a bad thing. The main screen lists the basic content categories: Movies, Internet, Computers and Settings. If you select movies, a list of cover art for current top movie shows along the top, before you even jump into the main movies section.
For movies and TV shows, you can browse by top content, genres or directly through search. You also have the option to filter by networks with TV shows. Any non-Apple services are grouped together in the Internet category. Navigation feels very quick and the screens are laid out intuitively.
iTunes Store, and a few extras
The original Apple TV was centred on syncing with your iTunes account, but the new Apple TV is all about streaming off the web. We don't have Netflix in Australia, so for us, it's iTunes only.
As far as movies are concerned, iTunes is nothing to sneeze at, but at best estimate it only holds half the available US library. Rentals go from AU$3.99 to AU$5.99, with an extra dollar thrown on top if you want high definition (although iTunes currently runs a 99-cent rental of the week deal). While you have 30 days to start watching the movie, once you start playing you've only got 48 hours to finish it.
Making matters even more confusing is that much of the content that's missing from the Apple TV is available from the iTunes Store when accessed from a PC, although only to buy, not rent. That leads to the very un-Apple scenario of needing a PC to, say, buy the latest episode of The Office, wait for it to download (which can take more than a half hour, even on a fast connection), then stream it off your PC. That's far from the user experience promised by the Apple TV, where you choose shows from your couch and they start streaming immediately.
We're sure Apple will continue to negotiate with content providers to add more TV content that's directly accessible from Apple TV, but currently the streaming selection is very underwhelming.
In addition to videos purchased from the iTunes Store, you can stream any other PC- and Mac-based video, so long as you first convert it to an iTunes-friendly video format. There are plenty of freeware programs that do so, but it's a time-consuming transcoding process. In other words, don't expect Apple TV to offer instantaneous compatibility if you have a giant library of DivX, MKV, WMV files and the like. If that's a core concern for you, you'll have better luck with something like the WD TV Live or the Seagate FreeAgent GoFlex TV — if not a PS3 or Xbox 360.
Apple TV has a few additional sources of content, including YouTube, Flickr, MobileMe, podcasts and internet radio. Flickr is particularly impressive, especially when using an iPhone to swipe through your gallery of photos.
With AirPlay, you can "push" music directly from your iPhone to an Apple TV. (Credit: CNET)
While it doesn't support DLNA or folder shares, Apple TV's alternative is potentially less messy, due to it being a closed ecosystem. The idea behind AirPlay is "pushing" content from an iOS device to your Apple TV, so you can watch on the big screen. It's designed to work with music, photos and videos, although the video functionality is limited for now. Included with iOS 4.2, AirPlay has come as part of the iOS 4.2 update for iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad. We've had some time to play with it, and though it doesn't fully deliver on its promise yet, it's on its way to being one of the best features of the Apple TV.
"Pushing" content to an Apple TV couldn't get much easier. You'll need an Apple TV with the latest software update and an iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad running the new iOS 4.2 software, and they both need to be on the same home network.
Start playing back a media file, such as a song stored on your iPod, and next to the volume slider will be a "push" icon, which looks like a box and an arrow pointed up. You'll see another screen that let's you select your Apple TV and once you hit that, the content plays back on your TV.
That's it. There's a very slight lag before it starts playing on your Apple TV, but otherwise it works exactly how you'd expect.
Pretty much anything that plays back in the iPod app is AirPlay-compatible. That means any music or videos you have stored on your iOS device can be pushed to an Apple TV. Photos can also be pushed, although we were surprised that videos taken with our iPhone 4 couldn't be streamed to an Apple TV.
Although Rhapsody and Pandora work, these are sadly US-only services. Web-based video like Vimeo didn't work for us, and likewise there's no support for games or other kinds of non-media apps. YouTube worked fine, and despite the Apple TV having a built-in YouTube app already, it's definitely easier to use an iPhone to find YouTube videos than browsing on your TV.
For content streaming off the internet, we didn't run into any issues with the Apple TV. Movies and TV shows began playing after only a few seconds, using the speedy connection in our corporate testing location. As always, the speed of your home broadband connection will affect streaming speeds.
The first time we tried to stream a downloaded, HD episode of The Office from our laptop, we got about 35 seconds in before the Apple TV had to re-buffer. The same happened when we loaded the most recent episode of Mad Men. Both the Apple TV and the laptop were connected wirelessly, which perhaps is a lot to ask of our home network; but we were only forced to use that scenario because the iTunes Store requires the workaround.
To be fair, buffering is still an unfortunate reality with any streaming-video solution, whether it's streaming directly from the internet or over a home network. We did appreciate that the Apple TV will continue to cache your video if you pause, which cuts down on buffering slowdowns.
Apple TV's AU$129 price makes it an easy impulse buy if you're already part of the iTunes ecosystem. If the bulk of your media comes from elsewhere, however, another media streamer would make more sense. We can only hope more content comes to Australia to make Apple TV a serious player — but for now, in this country at least, it remains a hobby.