We’ve learned to expect big, wonderful things from Apple’s tiny little boxes. But unlike a Mac mini or iPod nano--which both do a lot in a relatively small space--the Apple TV doesn’t do much more than its 3.9x3.9x0.9-inch form factor and $99 price would suggest. That’s because it’s primarily a cloud-focused streaming device…but it only connects to a small, wispy tendril of the cloud, rather than the thunderstorm of awesome streaming content that can easily be accessed on other devices.
So tiny compared to that big TV! But honestly, we'd prefer to a bigger box that did more.
The heart of the problem is the Apple TV’s narrow focus on overpriced rentals. At a steep $4.99 for a new HD movie and $0.99 for a TV episode, anyone who’s even slightly savvy about better ways to get that same content for cheaper or just plain free will snort in outrage and return to watching Hulu streams or Netflix DVDs on other devices. The Apple TV’s rental lineup is also pretty pathetic—at launch, it only provided TV shows from ABC, Disney, Fox, and BBC. Then there’s the whole deadline thing. Once you start watching, you have to finish a movie within 24 hours or a TV episode within 48. Who put this Blockbuster Video in my Apple TV? Time pressure and late fees are so 2001, and this all snowballs into a lame, un-Apple experience.
There’s little opportunity to improve it. The Apple TV doesn’t let you buy content from the device, and it streams from only four internet sources (Netflix, YouTube, MobileMe, and Flickr; competing devices like the Roku or WDTV offer more). The only way to broaden its horizons is by connecting it (via Wi-Fi or ethernet cable) to a Mac or PC that’s constantly running iTunes. That lets you tap into your iTunes library of movies, music, and TV, as well as your iPhoto or Aperture libraries. Connected like this, the Apple TV shines, providing a terrific way to use your iTunes content on your TV. Unexpectedly, our favorite moment came when streaming a slide show from an Aperture 3 library while also playing music from iTunes--it worked so seamlessly that it pretty much eliminates the need to make canned slide shows in iMovie.
But overall, the Apple TV delivers less functionality than we expected. We don’t mind that it doesn’t have a hard drive--the cloud is our future!--but why no support for apps? A tear-down by iFixit.com discovered 8GB of onboard memory that’s likely used for caching content as it streams (bizarrely, Apple won’t discuss the memory specs), so it’s not impossible--it’s just a big missed opportunity.
At least the Apple TV mostly kicks butt at what it can do. Setup is as painless as setup ever gets, and the simple, effective menus are easy to use. The streaming performance--whether a rental, YouTube video, or something from your iTunes library--is clean and fast, and the 720p video and 5.1 audio deliver a gorgeous experience (though we’re greedy enough to be bummed by the absence of 1080p). Controlling it all with the svelte aluminum remote is a pleasure, and the remote’s so unusual that everyone who enters your living room will want to play with it. The Apple TV’s biggest performance problem comes when rewinding or fast-forwarding--the picture lags pretty far behind the playhead in the timeline, so you can only guess whether you’ve skimmed forward or backward enough. That’s weak--and distinctly un-DVD-like.
This little black box works great as a content-streamer connected to an always-running Mac, but it’s very weak as a standalone set-top box. Still, for $99, it’s priced fairly and provides a painless way to enjoy your iTunes content on your TV.
REQUIREMENTS: Display with HDMI input (HDCP compatibility required for protected content). 802.11a/g/n Wi-Fi or 10/100Base-T Ethernet. iTunes Store account for renting movies and TV shows and for Home Sharing. For streaming media from a Mac or PC, iTunes 10.0.1 or later. Netflix account for streaming Netflix content
Affordable and very easy to use. Responsive streaming from internet sources or your iTunes library. Beautiful 720p picture and 5.1 sound for HD content. Terrific for photo slide shows on your TV. Cool little remote.
Overpriced, understocked rentals. No way to buy content directly from Apple TV. No support for apps. Must leave iTunes running on a Mac or PC to access iTunes content. Limited streaming sources. Erratic rewinding behavior. No 1080p support. Only works with m4v, mp4, and mov video. Some very minor interface glitches.