Since its reintroduction as a smaller set-top box running a modified version of iOS 4.1 on an Apple A4 chip in September of 2010, the Apple TV has been more of an accessory to Apple users than a primary device. Sure, it includes apps and could stream audio and video content from a handful of online content providers, but it always seemed to be tied too closely to iTunes to be taken seriously as a standalone set-top box.
This shortcoming however has not diminished the primary value of the Apple TV for those of us that own and use Apple products ever day. And that is AirPlay. AirPlay, and AirPlay Mirroring to be more precise, continues to make the Apple TV a must have accessory for any user of Apple products, iOS and OS X alike.
AirPlay Mirroring for all your Apple devices
With the 2nd generation Apple TV, Apple re-branded what was once AirTunes as AirPlay. AirTunes originally allowed Macs and then iOS devices to stream music and video stored on the device in your iTunes Library wirelessly to an Apple TV. In fact, this has historically been a great way to stream music to several different rooms simultaneously. If you happen to have multiple Apple TVs throughout your house, you can turn your house into one big speaker.
Shortly after AirPlay came out, at WWDC 2011 in fact, iOS 5 brought AirPlay mirroring to iPhones, iPods, and iPads. This allowed iOS devices to stream their screens content directly to an Apple TV, not just music and movies. When OS X Mountain Lion was released, certain Macs were also able to mirror their screens directly to an Apple TV. Today, all new Macs and iOS devices can share their screens to a large screen television using AirPlay through an Apple TV.
What makes this such a great feature is that every app in the App Store can be displayed directly onto a larger screen without the developer of the app having to support any proprietary API. This is true of OS X apps as well. No need to have a dedicated computer attached to your home theater. It all just works, with one minor set back, every device had to be on the same network.
iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite solved this limitation by adding peer-to-peer AirPlay playback. This now allows devices to find and connect to an Apple TV even if they are not on the same network. Keep in mind that while the original AirPlay Mirroring will work with a 2nd generation Apple TVs and most 2011 or newer Macs running OS X Yosemite, peer-to-peer AirPlay will only work between 2012 or newer Macs and the newer release of 3rd generation Apple TVs (rev A model number A1469).
iTunes can still be your Media Library
It does not matter if your iTunes Library is stored in the cloud as iTunes Match or if it resides on your Mac’s local hard drive; wherever it is the Apple TV can get to it. In fact, iTunes is the second best feature of an Apple TV after AirPlay. As is the case with AirPlay, the Apple TV is more of an accessory to your iTunes Library. It is likely not the primary media device you purchased from Apple prior to amassing any digital assets in your iTunes Library.
If you do still happen to manage your iTunes Library from a local hard drive on your Mac, then iTunes Home Sharing feature will allow you to share your music library to one or more Apple TVs throughout your house. With AirPlay alone, you are forced to control your media playback from your Mac. By enabling Home Sharing, each Apple TV can independently browse and access your music library stored on your Mac.
Storing all of your music in the cloud through iTunes Match works much the same way. Each Apple TV can independently browse your iTunes Music Library independently and play back any selection on its own. You do not need to stream your selection or even control it through a separate device. It also allows your Mac to sleep every once in a while.
Apple TV is not a good set-top box
Things begin to unravel a bit when evaluating the Apple TV as just another set-top box. If you do not own any other Apple devices, and you do not have any of your music or video library in iTunes, then the Apple TV is likely not the right streaming media device for you.
The primary reason for this is apps. While Apple does include a wide variety of apps with the Apple TV, the real app experience on the Apple TV comes through your iOS device. In more ways than one, your iOS device makes a better set-top cable box than your Apple TV does on its own. And if you are an Amazon Prime subscriber, then either Amazon’s own Fire TV or the latest Roku 3 is what you should consider instead. For instance, both the Roku 3 and the Fire TV can be used to play a variety of games directly on the device.
Another advantage that both the Roku 3 and the Fire TV have over the Apple TV is that they have apps that can play back your UltraVilot movie collection directly from the device. UltraViolet is similar to iTunes movies in the cloud, as it can be used to store digital versions of your movie collection. In fact, more and more movie studios are including UltraViolet versions of their movies with physical DVD and Blue-ray purchases. Using apps like Flixster on the Fire TV or VuDu on your Roku 3, you can access this video library in the cloud and play back your movies. The Apple TV can only do this using your iOS device as the source to access your UltraViolet movie library. And if Amazon follows through and joins UltraViolet, this will be an even more significant advantage for both players.
Finally there are apps like Plex for both the Fire TV and Roku 3. Plex is the sort of app that will access all of the music movies and photos you have stored on your own personal digital media server. In many ways, Plex is a better alternative to iTunes Home Sharing as it works with a wider variety of devices.