Apple TV £99
22nd Jul 2013 | 15:15
Updated for 1080p video, the Apple TV is back with a new interface
At the same time as announcing the new (now not so new) iPad in March 2012, Apple also issued an update to its Apple TV.
It wasn't the full on Apple iTV, the rumoured Apple television that many had hopped for, rather it was a small revision to the existing media streamer of last year, retaining the same form factor but with an updated menu system and faster processor.
The biggest change though is its new ability to stream and play full 1080p HD movies - last year's model could only manage 720p, which was all the iTunes Store offered for movie rentals and purchasing anyway.
Of course, this means that Apple is going to have to update a lot of its iTunes Store catalogue to 1080p for you to get the most out of it, but most new movies were being offered in 1080p when we checked.
As well as enabling you to purchase and rent movies Apple TV does two other things of note - it acts as a browser for selected Internet content (YouTube, Vimeo, Netflix, iCloud, Podcasts, etc) and thanks to Apple's AirPlay system it can receive content streamed from a Mac, PC or iOS device and play it on your television.
And, just to be clear, here's what it can't do - most importantly you still can't use it to watch free-to-air TV channels, so it's not a proper Set-top Box solution, and you can't use it to browse the full web or do email, like you can with an iPad.
The full implications of this become clearer when you realise that some popular web sites, which would make total sense to be access via an Apple TV, are unavailable, like the BBC's iPlayer (though you can watch iPlayer on your iPhone, iPod touch or iPad then use AirPlay to send it to your your Apple TV).
And because you're in Apple's locked-down world there are no third-party apps available for the Apple TV which could add these features in - you have to wait for Apple to officially support them via a software update.
In fact, the Apple TV isn't designed to be customised at all - you have the feature set that Apple provides, and that's it.
In the box
In the box you get the Apple TV, which is a small black box measuring only 23mm x 98mm x 98mm that weighs just 0.27kg, a nice-looking aluminum remote with very few buttons, some setup instructions and a power lead.
The Apple TV has exactly the same ports and connectors on the back as before. There's an ethernet port, an Optical Audio port and a HDMI port for connection to your TV. You'll also notice a Micro-USB port, but this has no use for the home user - it's just for Apple's Geniuses to use when diagnosing problems.
The Apple TV processor has been upgraded to the A5 chip to cope with 1080p HD movie playback. iFixit has done a teardown on the Apple TV and found that the Broadcom 4330 Wi-Fi chip inside also supports Bluetooth 4.0+HS, although it currently makes no use of this technology - it's possible that the functionality could be added in a future update.
The current Apple Remote uses Infrared, this requires line of site to your Apple TV, which can be a pain - a Bluetooth remote would be far superior.
Connection to your TV is via a HDMI cable, but be aware that there isn't one in the box, so you have to purchase that separately.
The first surprise with the new Apple TV compared to the previous generation is that once you connect it up to your TV is that it talks to you! A voice asks you if you'd like to enable the Voice Over feature by clicking a button on the remote three times.
Voice Over reads out what the menu option you've currently got selected is, so it will be a very useful feature for visually impaired users who need extra help navigating the menu systems.
Proceeding on, you set up the usual things like language then select a WiFi network - if you've never done this before then it will be your first encounter with the Apple TV's tedious way of entering text and numbers - you have an alphabetically ordered block of letters that you have to have to slowly manoeuvre around using the remote's click wheel.
It's frustrating to use because the layout is so unfamiliar - having the letters arranged like a computer keyboard would have been more intuitive.
Going through the process of painfully entering your WiFi password one character at a time using this input method only to realise you got one of the characters wrong and have to do it all over again is heartbreaking, especially when at this stage you just want to get on with enjoying all the great content your Apple TV promises.
It's a shame Apple still use this input method because everything else about the Apple TV is so easy to use it stands in sharp contrast to other media streamers.
Once the setup is done you're into the main Apple TV interface, which has had a complete refresh for this outing.
In an effort to simplify, and at the same time allow for expansion, Apple has taken a more iOS-style approach to the Apple TV's interface. While it has received criticism from certain quarters, we like it.
Instead of text-based menus everything is now represented by an icon, just like on iOS. The icons are flatter and wider than their iOS counterparts, but you can clearly see where Apple has drawn its inspiration. As you move around the menus selecting each icon, text appears underneath it to tell you what it's for, which means you never feel confused or lost.
At the top of the interface you have a sideways scrolling carousel of the latest movie releases. Typical rent price of a new HD movie is £4.49 ($4.99) - this is expensive compared to, say, Sky Box Office, which was offering Twighlight Breaking Dawn and Moneyball for just £2 in the UK store when we checked, but obviously you need a paid-for Sky account to access this service.
iTunes was still over twice the price for the same movies though. Obviously you'll need a decent broadband connection to rent movies using Apple TV but there are some advantage to Apple's system. For example, it's more convenient.
You don't have to wait for a specific movie start time. Instead just choose your movie and it starts downloading whenever you want. Apple TV seemed to need about 5 minutes of buffering before you can start watching your streaming download, which isn't an unreasonable time to wait.
You also get a page of information about each movie, including a cast list, customer reviews, and links to similar movies in an Amazon-style 'Viewers also brought' before you decide to purchase. It's also possible to watch movie's trailer by clicking the Preview button, which is handy.
Once you've purchased an iTunes movie you have 30 days to start watching, and 48 hours to finish watching after you've started. The best feature is that you can view across multiple devices, so you could start watching on your Apple TV and finish watching on your computer. However, this is only available on Standard Definition films, which rules out all new film releases and seriously hobbles what would be an otherwise brilliant feature.
On the whole, the range of new titles is good, and easily comparable to Sky Box Office, and there's also an impressive back catalogue of films.
But Apple TV isn't just about film - moving down the interface our next stop after Movies is TV Shows. Here you'll find an impressive collection of shows buy. The promoted shows here have a UK-bias, which is good, but there are a lot of American shows also. Want to catch up on series 4 of Madmen? Not a problem. It's £2.49 ($2.99) an episode to buy (there are no rentals available for TV programmes.)
Next is an option called Music - this is only for subscribers to Apple's iTunes Match service (£24.99/$29.99 a year). If you're a Match subscriber then you'll be able to access your entire iTunes music collection from here, although you're likely to have your computer in the house as well and it's easy to connect to it from the Apple TV anyway, which brings us onto the next icon: Computers.
By tapping on Computers your Apple TV will automatically find any computer on your Wi-Fi network that has the same Apple ID login on iTunes. The fact that your computer just appears here without you having to interact with a single dialog box or window is to Apple's credit.
Here you can access your music, movies, TV shows, podcasts, iTunes U and photos from your local machine. The streaming over Wi-Fi is flawless, as you'd expect.
The next icon is Settings, which has all the technical options you'll need, but also your screen saver settings. It's worth mentioning these because some gorgeous new National Geographic pictures have been added as a screen saver option.
Our favourite setting though is Photo Stream, but more of that later. Whichever screen saver you go for you'll find a wide choice of different themes – all of which make the photos look gorgeous.
Netflix, which has been a feature of the US Apple TV for a while now, was launched in the UK recently and is now available in the interface. A subscription costs £5.99 a month in the UK, for which you get to watch an unlimited amount of its content. The amount and selection of new films on Netflix is disappointing, but parents will appreciate the endless amount of kids' cartoon programs at their fingers.
Also on the Apple TV interface are options for browsing YouTube, Vimeo, Wall Street Journal and MLB (that's Major League Baseball – subscription required) – none of these have changed in this update, so they're not worth mentioning in detail.
Photo Stream is new though – it's an iCloud-related feature that owners of iPhones will love. Once you've turned Photo Stream on any picture that you've taken on your iPhone (or iPad and iPod touch) will automatically get added to your Photo Stream once you are connected to a Wi-Fi connection.
So, you take a few pictures with your iPhone while out and about, then once you walk through the door of your house you can turn to your Apple TV and view them via the Photo Stream icon. The speed and convenience of Photo Stream can't be denied.
Another new option in the interface is Trailers – this isn't really anything new, just a quicker way of getting to movie trailers, which include trailers for theatrical releases, which are great to have.
We tested renting a 1080p HD movie using a standard Sky broadband connection at home and found it took about 5 minutes before it was ready to play, which is acceptable.
Apple TV tells you how many minutes are left before your movie can play, but its way of calculating time seemed highly flawed with estimates jumping from 1 minute left, to 2 hours 40 minutes, then back to two minutes!
It seemed better to ignore the messages and look at the download bar at the bottom of the screen instead. Once playing there was no buffering and the connection didn't ever drop. As you'd expect for 1080p, the picture quality was superb.
Netflix was equally smooth in playback, and most programmes started playing pretty much instantly. Obviously the performance will be effected by the quality of your Internet connection, but if there are problems we don't think it will be Apple TV's fault.
AirPlay over our Wi-Fi network to the Apple TV was rock solid - you simply tap the AirPlay icon on your iOS device, or click the button in iTunes, as a video is playing, select Apple TV and it starts playing on your TV a few seconds later.
The big disappointment for most people here will be how restrictive Apple's AirPlay is - it only officially works with content that you have inside your iTunes library on a Mac or PC, or content you have on one of your iOS devices. However that's not the end of the story - there are work arounds.
For example, if you want to play unsupported video formats like WMV, XVID or MKV on an iPad then you can thanks to third party apps, like AVPlayerHD. Attempting to send these videos from the app to Apple TV using your iPad however results in only the audio being played.
However, if you turn on AirPlay Mirroring on your iPad (which mirrors its entire screen on your Apple TV) then you can watch these videos on your Apple TV. It adds an extra step to the process, but it works well although you are limited to a pillar box sized screen with mirroring
For full 16:9 resolution you need the help of an app called Air Video which installs a server program on your Mac or PC that encodes the video, while an iOS app beams it to your Apple TV.
When it comes to watching paid-for content everything just works flawlessly, as you'd expect it to. Purchasing content is handled effortlessly with your Apple ID, which the Apple TV remembers, so you simply need to enter your password whenever you want to buy something and it's yours.
Perhaps the most outstanding feature of Apple TV though is just how easy it is to use. It's still better than all the other media streamers we've tried.
You're in Apple's world here and in Apple world everything just works. Even the potentially troublesome issues of software updates are like water off a duck's back to Apple TV - you just get a message saying there's a software update available and would you like to install it now.
Navigating the menu system is child's play - and the fact that the remote has so few buttons means that children can use it too, without accidentally resetting the time zone or something equally dire. The number of clicks required to get to your content is also refreshingly small, and the way the whole menu system responds quickly and intuitively to your clicks means you genuinely enjoy using it, rather than it feeling like the thing that stands between you and your content, which is so often the case in media streaming interfaces. Apple has put a lot of thought into the Apple TV interface, and it shows.
It's really when you own an iPhone, iPod touch or iPad that owning an Apple TV makes the most sense. All Apple's devices know how to play nicely with each other, so you can use an Apple TV to mirror the screen of your iOS device and have everything it displays appear on your HD television.
The most obvious use for this is for showing off photos you've taken on your iPhone, or a Keynote presentation you've created on your iPad, but some iOS games, like Counter Strike, take advantage of this feature in new and exciting ways, enabling you to use your iPhone as a game controller while watching the gameplay on your TV.
What's more with the new version of OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion due out this summer, Apple are bringing this ability to the Mac, so you'll be able to mirror your computer on your TV screen too.
If you already have all your video content in iTunes, then all the other features Apple TV offers start to make it stand out from the crowd. Renting and buying movies works flawlessly and there's a great selection of the latest releases and a large, growing back catalogue.
The YouTube, Vimeo, Podcast and Movie Trailers are all features you'll find genuinely useful, but it's Photos that we really liked the most. It makes your snaps look beautiful, with fantastic slideshow effects, and the iCloud integration via Photostream means that any photos you've taken using an iOS device automatically get beamed to your Apple TV a few seconds after you walk through the door at home. That's impressive. AirPlay is a rock solid streaming system and simply can't be beaten for reliability.
If you're simply looking for a way to stream media from your computer to your television then perhaps Apple TV shouldn't be your first choice. You'll find Apple's AirPlay system fantastically easy to use, but it's currently too restrictive, making you dance through hoops to get your content into iTunes.
In addition to the iOS app workarounds we mentioned there are lots of free video encoder programmes on the market that will convert video to the .m4a file format that iTunes demands, it's a real pain having to spend an hour encoding a video into a new format before iTunes will recognise it, so you'll be able to stream it from your computer to your Apple TV.
The Apple Remote requiring line of sight is a bit restrictive too, let's hope a Bluetooth options becomes available in the future.
With Netflix now available in the UK the selection of apps that Apple TV sports is starting to look a little less US-centric, but it still needs more UK-specific content, like iPlayer, 4OD and ITV Player.
If you've already got some Apple devices in your home then Apple TV is a natural fit and at this price you should really consider getting one because it integrates wonderfully with your current setup.
But for everyone else, even with the addition of 1080p HD, there's no compelling reason to buy an Apple TV over other media streamers right now.
If only Apple could sort out integrating iPlayer, 4OD and ITV Player into the menu system and make AirPlay a little less restrictive, because then Apple TV would be a must-have product for everybody.