The Apple TV is here; one just arrived at my door this morning. I spent the day setting it up and putting it through its paces, and here’s what I think of Apple’s latest foray into the living room.
As with all Apple products, the unboxing of the Apple TV is a lesson in minimalism. It’s hard to imagine the tiny black square of plastic, hardly bigger than the gum-stick remote, bringing all your entertainment to your living room.
Installation and Setup
Compared to other set-top boxes, installing the new Apple TV exemplifies the “it just works” philosophy associated with Apple products, assuming you have an HDMI cable. Would it kill Apple to spend an extra 20 cents for an HDMI cable to ensure everyone can run it out of the box?
The Apple TV connects to the television (in my case a 60-inch 1080p plasma) using only an HDMI cable, so long as you have one. After that, just plug in the power cord. Here we see the first minor flaw in the new Apple TV. That power indicator light flashes, a lot. How that slipped past QA, I don’t know, but hopefully a firmware update will fix it. Until then, a spot of electrical tape will do.
Initially, you control the Apple TV with the included remote. However, if, like me, you have an Apple Remote kicking around that came with an old MacBook, and think the play/pause button in the center of the wheel was the pinnacle of design, you can use that, too. Owners of an iOS device will definitely want to upgrade to the Remote app, especially to ease the pain of text entry.
From the setup menu, you choose a language, and whether or not to send diagnostic and usage information to Apple. After that, you add the Apple TV to your Wi-Fi network, though Ethernet is also an option. Lastly, you turn on Home Sharing, both on the Apple TV and in iTunes 10 on every computer you want to access content from. It’s as simple as entering your iTunes ID and password.
It’s important to remember that if iTunes can’t import it, the Apple TV can’t share it. If you want .mkv video, you should be using VLC on a home theater PC. But if you’re looking for ease of use, well, I had the Apple TV up and running in about five minutes.
Not surprisingly, the UI has big text for readability and navigation, but the layout could be better. Simplified from the previous iteration, it’s a little too simple, dumping a lot of different content into non-intuitive “Internet” and “Computers” categories. As the prominent placement of two of the five main menu options indicates, the iTunes Store kiosk in your living room is still open for business.
Performance of iTunes was amazing, at least on my connection, which runs in excess of 20Mbps down/0.5 Mbps up. The top movies display as icons, and my screen was filled almost instantly. If you want the virtual equivalent of walking the aisles at Blockbuster, you can browse by genre, or do a search, which is predictive and offers movies and related categories like actors and directors.
A selected movie offers a trailer, the quality and price of rental, an “Add to Wish List’ and a “more” option. The last provides reviews from Rotten Tomatoes and customers, as well as links to other works by the principal actors and creators of a film.
The Television section works similarly, though the dearth of content becomes obvious when browsing by network. There are nine “networks” subdivided out of four: Fox, ABC, BBC, and Disney. Choosing a title provides information on quality and viewing license, and paying for the rental is easy, though delivery is a little annoying. There’s no indication when a download has begun, though you’re notified when enough of the content is available to watch, which took less than a minute in my experience.
The 720p video quality was, in my opinion, very good, and only the extreme videophile should have something to complain about. Overall, the experience at the iTunes Store is excellent, but then Apple makes coin on this, so why expect anything less?
The Netflix experience is likewise excellent. Unlike the iPad and iPhone app, which is little more than a wrapper for the web page, the Apple TV version of Netflix is tailored to the device. Just one example, the Netflix iPhone app doesn’t handle television well, allowing you only to play the next show in a season. The Apple TV, by contrast, provides a list of episodes for each season.
Netflix on the Apple TV provides a half-dozen ways to browse content, as well as search. It’s nicely laid out, and works well, though not as smoothly as the iTunes Store. Movie icons take longer to load, and there can be a slight pause when navigating some menu options as the Apple TV “Accesses Netflix.”
Playback, however, is good. It takes about ten seconds for a video to start, better for me than running Netflix on a Core Duo Mac mini. Video quality doesn’t seem quite as good as Apple TV rentals, but, again, nothing to complain about, which sadly, isn’t the case with local content.
Streaming Local Content
Curiously, Apple chose to sort local content for home sharing by the computer it resides on, rather than by content, as with the previous Apple TV interface. It’s annoying, and there’s no real reason for it, since a pool of all available content would be much more usable.
Once you select a computer, the familiar, if dated, Front Row/Apple TV interface is presented. On a good note, streaming performance has been excellent, despite my efforts to stress the local network. I’d planned on using Ethernet to connect the Mac mini to the Apple TV, rather than relying on the 802.11 b/g of the older computer, but there was no need. So far, access is quick and content streams without issue.
Unfortunately, some of the other aspects of the Apple TV could be better. While photos load quickly, home movies don’t show up at all, neither locally or from MobileMe. That’s seems odd, since the Gallery app for MobileMe does play movies on other iOS devices.
Like photos, music seems an afterthought on the new Apple TV. It works, and streaming sounds great, but the means of access seems quite basic. The rest of the content (YouTube, Radio, flickr, etc.) seems not to have changed much. It’s all quite functional, but nothing special.
While opening the Apple TV to the App Store might substantially change the purpose of the device, its focus now appears to be video. From presentation to delivery, you get the feeling that most of the work went into making the Apple TV a top-line, video streaming device. With AirPlay coming soon, it’ll be even better at video. In short, the Apple TV seems to have finally lived up to its name.
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