Apple introduced its set-top digital media player in 2007, and it’s currently on its third generation of hardware. Not a lot seem to have changed since the svelte streaming box was first introduced – so can we really recommend purchasing it in 2014?
The Apple TV costs $99 and goes head to head with the likes of similarly priced products like the Roku 3 ($99), the slightly more interactive Amazon Fire TV ($99) and in many ways Google’s far cheaper Chromecast ($35). In addition to delivering online and networked content from your PC or Mac, the Apple TV is the company’s flagship AirPlay receiver.
Wireless streaming, movies for rent and deep integration with the Apple ecosystem – what’s not to like about the Apple TV? We’ll tell you in this review, and then we’ll give it away to one lucky reader.
Introducing the Apple TV
This is the first revision of the third generation of Apple TV hardware running iOS 7.1.2, but not as you know it. It’s a hundred dollar media streamer that provides online access to Apple’s iTunes catalogue of movies, TV shows and music for rent and purchase, as well as plenty of free streaming content from the likes of YouTube, Vimeo and others.
There’s also an emphasis on streaming local media using iTunes’ HomeSharing function, as well as iCloud integration for the sharing of photos on the big screen. Another reason many are drawn to the Apple TV is for its AirPlay capabilities, which allow users to stream video and audio content from their iPhone, iPad or Mac OS X devices. Being an Apple device, you’ll need to sign up for an Apple ID in order to make purchases and even share your local media.
Despite not being a games console per sé, it’s worth noting that many developers build AirPlay functionality into their games and apps to enable dual-screen play or to facilitate pass and play multiplayer modes, as Team 17 did with Worms 3. In these instances, some might see the Apple TV as an extension of the iOS gaming ecosystem, though you don’t necessarily need an Apple TV in order to make use of AirPlay.
Initial Impressions and Setup
As is often the case with Apple products, the Apple TV is presented in striking cardboard cube-shaped packaging – the inside of which slides out to reveal a matte-black streaming unit, metallic silver remote control, black anti-tangle power cable and a quick-start guide. Apple has chosen to not include an HDMI cable, which – despite seeming a bit stingy at first – didn’t bother me once I realised how many HDMI cables I’ve started to amass.
The Apple TV unit itself is small, sitting just 23mm high and 98mm square. Apple’s logo sits adorning a matte black surface that’s fairly susceptible to finger grease. This is accented by the glossy edges that surround the unit, culminating in HDMI, Ethernet, power and optical audio ports to the rear. During operation, a single white LED appears on the front of the unit, a throwback to the days when every Mac shipped with a slowly blinking sleep indicator.
Setup is a cinch, and really speaks for the Apple way of doing things. Plug it in, choose your language then setup Wi-Fi access (or use Ethernet, your choice). Once you’ve done this, you can begin using the Apple TV to watch trailers and stream YouTube videos. In order to make full use of the services available, you’ll need to connect your Apple ID, log in to iCloud and HomeSharing and then set up any third-party accounts (like YouTube or Flickr) you wish to use.
The Apple of My Living Room
Movies, TV shows and other media is provided courtesy of iTunes, which means there’s a good range of media on offer at any given time. There’s even support for Netflix and Hulu Plus, provided you live in the right area (or you’re willing to circumvent the region-lock using DNS trickery or by connecting to a VPN).
Further content is provided by the likes of YouTube, Vimeo and other niche services like Crunchyroll for anime or the MLB app for baseball highlights, and everything that is available is enabled by default. There’s nowhere to download further “apps” to add more content, and overall I was a bit disappointed with the amount of free content available.
Similarly, local content can only be shared using the iTunes HomeSharing feature, which requires you log in using your Apple ID (and have all media in iTunes-friendly formats, in your library). The feature works seamlessly, but I don’t use iTunes so I found myself lamenting the fact that Apple hadn’t provided a way to browse simple DLNA/UPnP media streams like those provided by PS3 Media Server. With iOS on my iPad, I can hop on the App Store and download VLC for iOS and stream away – when it comes to the Apple TV, I’m stuck with HomeSharing.
Like most new iOS devices, the Apple TV is fast and reliable – and that’s what counts. Compared to wrestling with the interfaces many manufacturers consider adequate for so-called smart TVs, it’s a breath of fresh air. The UI is responsive to any input you provide, and takes a very simple approach to serving up online and networked media.
This version of iOS is like nothing you’ll find on an iPad or iPhone. It’s a customised front-end designed to be used with the Apple TV remote that still abides to Apple’s former skeuomorphic design sensibilities and, coming from iOS 7, feels rather old-hat from the get go. Unfortunately responsiveness isn’t everything either, as the UI suffers from some unfortunate problems.
These include a lack of pagination for the “latest releases” on the homescreen, which means you have to flick through movies one by one (something even the Xbox 360 gets right), the ability to only view two lines of any given movie review and the “everything enabled by default” nature of the included services. There was a lot of what I would technically refer to as “crap” enabled by default (commercial offerings like Red Bull TV) though fortunately it’s possible to disable much of this under the settings.
The decision to omit a Spotlight-like search-everything-engine on the home screen seems like an oversight, too.
Living With The Apple TV
Different people will buy the Apple TV for different reasons, and it’s probably a good idea to cross-reference your requirements with what Apple is actually offering before purchasing. You might find that your money is better spent elsewhere.
It must be said that buying an Apple TV feels a bit like spending money in order to spend more money. If you don’t own any movies or TV on iTunes, you won’t be able to stream without buying or renting. You’ll need some sort of subscription if you’re going to use it for streaming Netflix or Hulu Plus so if you don’t want to buy or rent movies, you might want to consider something other than the Apple TV.
AirPlay performance is very strong. It’s possible to manipulate videos playing on other devices using the Apple TV’s remote, and the service is always running even if your Apple TV happens to be asleep. To wake it up, simply choose it as an AirPlay location and wait a few seconds. Wireless playback starts in literally two taps, provided you’re tuned to the right HDMI input on your TV.
Occasionally I had some issues where the receiver wouldn’t show up, though restarting the iPad (not the Apple TV) seemed to solve this. Streaming to the Apple TV from my iPhone or iPad doesn’t sap very much battery, with an hour of streaming barely using 5% of my available juice. I increasingly found myself turning to my iPhone to find video content, which I’d instinctively AirPlay to my TV and control with the Apple TV remote.
The remote itself feels solid – it’s small, tough and quite easy to lose down the side of the sofa thanks to its thin design. The directional pad has a “select” button in the middle, and I found this a little too easy to hit this accidentally. Just like your old iPod, the Menu functions as “back” button and the device is put into sleep mode by pressing and holding the play button on the home screen.
There’s also the option of using your iPhone as a remote, which provides you with improved text input and a touchpad for manipulating the UI.
Should You Buy The Apple TV?
The Apple TV slips right into an existing Apple setup like a glove, with features like AirPlay, iTunes integration and HomeSharing to make it an enticing bit of set-top kit. It’s nice how your photos appear on your TV automatically if you have an iPhone. However, if your media lives outside of your iTunes library and you’re not really that crazy about spending more money to stream content, it’s probably a bad choice.
From a software standpoint, the Apple TV feels outdated, like a version of iOS stuck in time. Local media is restricted to delivery via iTunes and there’s no way of expanding the number of services included – but it’s probably a lot nicer to use than your smart TV. But what about a jailbreak? Well apparently that’s never going to happen, so you can kiss goodbye to any XBMC dreams you had.
How do I win the Apple TV?
You may enter by submitting your name and email address. You’ll receive one entry simply by doing so.
After that, you’ll also be offered various methods to earn additional entries. They range from sharing a link to this giveaway on social networks; to commenting or visiting a specific page. The more you participate, the higher your chances of winning! You will receive 5 additional entries into the giveaway for every successful referral via your shared links.
This giveaway begins now and ends Friday, August 22. The winner will be selected at random and informed via email. View the list of winners here.
Congratulations, Terri Todd! You would have received an email from firstname.lastname@example.org. Please respond before September 8 to claim your prize. Enquires beyond this date will not be entertained.
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