Review

Review: Apple TV

The Apple TV has always been a strange device for Apple. Steve Jobs has, on numerous occasions, referred to it as a hobby - most recently when he introduced the newest revision of the product.

However, being a hobby is not necessarily a bad thing in this case. One thing that the Apple TV has always been known for is its hackability. A common practice with the Apple TV in the past was to install Boxee, and before that even install a full, working version of Mac OS X onto it.

But for now, you can throw all of that out the window - the new Apple TV is a completely new product, with a new OS based on Apple's iOS (originally designed for phones, now looking to take control of the whole gadget side of Apple's operations). The hardware is also all new, featuring the Apple A4 processor, rather than an Intel one.

Indeed, the new Apple TV is nothing like it's predecessor in more ways than one. The real question is: can this device really stay relevant in a market that is becoming fiercely competitive, with devices like the Boxee Box, and new platforms like Google TV coming onto the scene?

A new device

The new Apple TV is a tiny box - it can fit in the palm of your hand quite easily, and is easily hideable in a home entertainment system - likely, the black styling will fit right in with any sound system, DVD player, and recent gaming system. But what's in the outside is truly irrelevant - it sits on a shelf, never to be interacted with. What is important is the hardware. It features that A4 processor that Apple seems to be including in everything lately, along with just enough ports to connect you to a wall, your TV, and your sound system. There is also a Micro USB port around the back, which is used to restore the software on the device, and also offers a potential in for jailbreakers.

There really isn't much to the device itself. Nor is there much to the remote that comes with it, providing only 7 buttons. It's all about the software here.

A new software experience

The software on the new Apple TV is in no way meant to be standalone. It requires either a solid connection to "the cloud" and it's services, or another Apple device that can push media to it via AirPlay.

This model isn't yet fully working; content is thus far seriously lacking, especially outside of the United States. Netflix only recently came to Canada, and only offers a subset of the content available in the US, while the iTunes Store doesn't have TV show rentals at all outside of the US - you can't find any evidence that TV shows are even on the store from the Apple TV software in Canada. Even the movie selection on iTunes is quite limited.

Not only that, but AirPlay isn't yet fully functioning - you can pump music through your TV speakers, and even play the sound for a video on your iPad through your sound system, but you can't push video to the Apple TV. I'm not really holding this against Apple too much - after all, iOS 4.2 is a beta, and AirPlay hasn't really been released yet - but AirPlay support is integral to the experience of the Apple TV. It does look to be a promising feature, and Apple should have held back the release of the Apple TV until AirPlay was widely available.

In short: the software is there, but the infrastructure is lacking. If you're going to make a device that relies on external equipment to push content, you should be able to use external equipment to push content. Likewise, if you're launching a product to use online services, those online services should have content on them. Studios - not Apple, necessarily - need to wake up and realize that people are willing to give them money.

The other real issue with the software is the lack of an app store. Multiple studios and TV networks have iPhone and iPad apps: Hulu Plus, ABC, and CityTV, just to name a few. These would be relatively easy to port over to the Apple TV if there was an app store to allow for it. Such a store would also open the device up to games; using the Bluetooth hardware that is entirely unused in the Apple TV at the moment, gaming controllers could be added, essentially making this a player against the PlayStation, Wii, and Xbox 360. But until Apple puts an app store out there, that's all just a dream.

That being said, the software is very nice. The animations are fluid, and the functionality that's really needed is there. In lieu of AirPlay, there is Home Sharing support, meaning if you've got a laptop or desktop running iTunes, you can stream any video or piece of music from that to your TV. However, I really think the compelling feature will be AirPlay - Home Sharing simply isn't something special. Pushing content to your TV, as you would with AirPlay, is simply more satisfying than using your TV to request a file from your computer; navigating an iPad or iPhone is just a bit easier to do than to navigate your whole iTunes library on your TV. I know this is coming off as very negative, but it isn't - these features will be here in November, and they offer something that isn't on any other device in a big way.

Remote for iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch

Apple has had a remote app available on the App Store for a few years now, but it was updated just for the new Apple TV to support the iPad's larger screen. Gesture support was available for the old Apple TV using an iPhone or iPod Touch, and is still present on the new Apple TV. To move around the Apple TV interface, just swipe around on the surface of your touchscreen Apple device. To select, just tap the screen. You can also use the menu button to go back to the last screen, or hit the play/pause button to, (you guessed it), play or pause playback. The remote will also pop up a keyboard when the Apple TV is looking for text input - a solution that is far superior to using the provided Apple Remote to navigate the list of letters presented to you.

The verdict?

I'm not completely sure what to tell you: the Apple TV could offer a lot of potential once there's a proper jailbreak out there - work has started, but getting apps running hasn't happened yet. It would definitely be a game changer if Apple went ahead and added a real App Store, as Steve Jobs has suggested could happen.

Realistically, the only people who should consider the Apple TV at this point are those who are within Apple's ecosystem already. That includes iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch users, as well as those who are willing to pay for TV shows and movies on iTunes, and those who subscribe to Netflix.

Pushing content onto your TV through the Apple TV couldn't be much simpler, really, (once AirPlay finally hits a final version), but you have to play by Apple's rules. And that's the real pitfall here: if you like your videos in MKV or DivX, or like your music in FLAC, or, (to mix things up a bit), you keep all your photos in Microsoft's HD Photo format, this device is simply not for you - not yet, anyway.

The only way to save this device from being such a niche product is through an App Store of some sort. Applications like VLC, which play numerous video formats, have proved to be a hit on the iPad, but are needed more desperately here. Also, the lack of not only flash, but even a web browser, severely limits your Internet video experience to that of YouTube. I'm the last person you'd expect to hear defending Flash, but on a TV, it would be a killer feature until HTML5 takes over - if it ever does. On the bright side, it does look like the Apple TV will support pushing HTML5 video to the Apple TV, as an icon is provided in the HTML5 video player on the iPad in iOS 4.2 beta 2 - unfortunately, right now it will only play audio through your TV speakers, just like the full video app.

In the end, it's still a niche product; until Apple releases an App Store on it, or the jailbreaking community breaks through Apple's wall and gets apps running themselves, it's just not going to do that well. 

At some point, Apple will need to decide whether they want to actually focus on this product, or whether they want to kill it off entirely. It simply can't go on as a "hobby" forever.

Report a problem with article
Previous Story

Review: Windows Live Essentials 2011 - Messenger

Next Story

Happy Tenth Birthday Neowin! - Interview Part 2

37 Comments

Commenting is disabled on this article.

Well amongst all the things it lacks, it looks like a great update compared to its predecessor.

More movies are supposed to enter the game soon, AirPlay can be out in under 30 days, and the App Store ? Well, it features an 8GB piece of memory, while the software occupies max 512 MB. There's a whole 7.5GB free, which could easily be used to install apps. Apple just needs to roll out this App Store and you guys who own this device are ready to go with this.

That being said, I can understand why Steve mentions it as a hobby - it's just not an impressive Apple product. That new version is far from bad though, the first one was a joke IMO. *Maybe* I'd buy it for just $100, but my TV only has 2 HDMI ports, and they're both occupied >_<

I'd pay for it if it were a little more feature rich (1080p output, DIVX/XVID support), even if that meant it were a little more expensive.... For $99, I don't think it is too terrible for what you get...I mean...what other $99 devices out there will stream videos and music from my computer (given a particular format), and I can watch streaming movie content on?

But still...seems like there are more full featured devices (like XBox 360), that can be had for little more than the cost of this.

What makes this more desirable is the slickness of the Remote App interface with i-Devices. But a lot of people don't have these and probably couldn't care less...

Why didn't Apple just use DLNA instead of making up AirPlay? They like to pretend they're all about standards, but in reality they always go against them...

JonathanMarston said,
Why didn't Apple just use DLNA instead of making up AirPlay? They like to pretend they're all about standards, but in reality they always go against them...

They name it something else so that they can invent it after the fact.

Bazenga said,
Nice paraphrasing. You should have copy/pasted AnandTech article.
Sorry? I've never even been to that site, but I spent the better part of yesterday writing a 1500 word review, filming a video to go with it, and taking my own pictures. This is 100% original Neowin content. Just because other sites had their own reviews up first doesn't make ours any less original.

AnandTech also doesn't have a review up yet. So I'm assuming they're planning on copying this?

Edited by Simon, Oct 2 2010, 8:55pm :

So it's a hardware device, that relies HEAVILY on software built by a hardware company (despite Jobs saying they are a software company, they very much aren't) that has a long history of sucking at delivering bug free software and a history of failing to support their old products (iphone aside). I like Simon's optimism in thinking this device will eventually be useful - especially to people outside the US. However, the reality is it likely won't.

Nice review though Simon. It's refreshing to see honest reviews.

The potential of this product would have been amazing but they have failed so bad, i'd of been happy with apple TV if it had internal storage. I don't want a device where i have to keep my laptop running if i want to watch a movie.

I can play my movies on my TV through USB, Nintendo Wii and PS3.. so why would i buy this? it offers no extra functionality to my media centre experience.

This solution, like the review says, is probably only good for just big-time Apple users at the moment.

I'd like to see some real good easy to set-up Windows Media Center extender boxes out there besides the Xbox 360. Like the Acer Revo 2. http://www.engadget.com/2010/0...dows-media-center-embedded/

Though WMC could use a needed upgrade to further enhance more access to digital online services as well, and it wouldn't hurt to have great integration with WP7 and Zune content as well, and maybe an internet browser, and so on.

bogas04 said,
why isn't it called iTV?

The name was mooted but I guess because there is a TV network here in the UK called ITV Apple opted to not try and use it and stick with Apple TV.

StevenNT said,

The name was mooted but I guess because there is a TV network here in the UK called ITV Apple opted to not try and use it and stick with Apple TV.

so i presume it will be a PHAIL

WHY

Reviewers fail to mention no 1080p? How much is Apple paying to you all? There are already $99 alternatives with 1080p with much better features, I call this bs

FoxieFoxie said,
WHY

Reviewers fail to mention no 1080p? How much is Apple paying to you all? There are already $99 alternatives with 1080p with much better features, I call this bs

It is mentioned in the video, I guess I forgot to add it in to the writeup.

Basically, 1080p is more of a gimmick right now. It's great if you've got 1080p content to play, but there is very little 1080p content online right now, not to mention the limitations of most people's bandwidth speeds. The only place 1080p has really, truly caught on is in gaming and on blu-ray. I imagine the studios want to keep it that way, too.

We also don't know if, maybe, this hardware can actually be pushed to play 1080p. What it really comes down to, though, is that 1080p isn't a killer feature for most people. What's a killer feature is simplicity.

Simon said,
It is mentioned in the video, I guess I forgot to add it in to the writeup.

Basically, 1080p is more of a gimmick right now. It's great if you've got 1080p content to play, but there is very little 1080p content online right now, not to mention the limitations of most people's bandwidth speeds. The only place 1080p has really, truly caught on is in gaming and on blu-ray. I imagine the studios want to keep it that way, too.

We also don't know if, maybe, this hardware can actually be pushed to play 1080p. What it really comes down to, though, is that 1080p isn't a killer feature for most people. What's a killer feature is simplicity.

Zune Marketplace on the 360 offers instant-on 1080p with 5.1 surround. But I am sure everyone will have enough bandwidth and it will no longer be a gimmick when Stevie announces the "Magical" invention of 1080p, which will also require people to buy new hardware.

nohone said,

Zune Marketplace on the 360 offers instant-on 1080p with 5.1 surround. But I am sure everyone will have enough bandwidth and it will no longer be a gimmick when Stevie announces the "Magical" invention of 1080p, which will also require people to buy new hardware.

It can play 1080p but it rescales it to 720p

Simon said,
It is mentioned in the video, I guess I forgot to add it in to the writeup.

Basically, 1080p is more of a gimmick right now. It's great if you've got 1080p content to play, but there is very little 1080p content online right now, not to mention the limitations of most people's bandwidth speeds. The only place 1080p has really, truly caught on is in gaming and on blu-ray. I imagine the studios want to keep it that way, too.

We also don't know if, maybe, this hardware can actually be pushed to play 1080p. What it really comes down to, though, is that 1080p isn't a killer feature for most people. What's a killer feature is simplicity.

Well, I buy device to use it for more than 6 months so yes, it matters.

DomZ said,

It can play 1080p but it rescales it to 720p

I read that somewhere, but it makes this device even more useless (and Simon's comment even more laughable). If I have 1080 content, why not display 1080 content? It takes processing power to downscale 1080 to 720, so it cannot be that the device does not have the power to display 1080 content. Processing power of displaying 720 content + processing power of downscaling (with all the antialiasing and other work to make it look good) > processing power of displaying 1080 content. The can do the processing in silicon, but still, it takes a lot to downscale. You do not need to do work to upscale SD content, since the TV can do that, but it takes extra work to downscale.

But thinking about it a bit, thet "1080p is a gimmick" comment is just trying to cover for Apple. Here is why - I, and many others, have a portable HD video camera (I have the Kodak Zi8) which records to 1080p. So why unnecessarily downscale content? It does not require Internet bandwidth (home network bandwidth to stream off a noter computer, yes, but home networks have ample bandwidth). But I guess that point is moot, as this, according to the review, does not yet stream video content - "you can't push video to the Apple TV. I'm not really holding this against Apple too much - after all, iOS 4.2 is a beta, and AirPlay hasn't really been released yet". In other words, Apple released a half-baked product.

Sorry to spew my Google fanboy jargon, but Google TV offers full integrated web browsing with the promise of Android apps. It will be preloaded on TVs as well. Interoperable Android tablets are about to hit the market (Samsung, Dell). Apple's borrowed media is crap too. Once again choice wins. Apple major FAIL!

Jmaxku said,
Sorry to spew my Google fanboy jargon, but Google TV offers full integrated web browsing with the promise of Android apps. It will be preloaded on TVs as well. Interoperable Android tablets are about to hit the market (Samsung, Dell). Apple's borrowed media is crap too. Once again choice wins. Apple major FAIL!

Yes, but is also cost $299 for a Logitech Revue ($179 for lucky Dish subscribers) which is a steep price in this segment. There are other alternatives that cost less and perform similar functionality.

Ive played with the old version and i carnt see any benifit vs say an xbox/ps3, with all the new content Xbox is pushing with netflix and zune i carnt see this even being profitable for apple. No doubt i love apple stuff (macbooks and mac pro) but i will count myself out on this one

SickDave said,
Ive played with the old version and i carnt see any benifit vs say an xbox/ps3,

For one the lack of noise ...

Meconio said,
This is the most crippled of apple gadgets yet, the potential is huge.

I think they're slowly getting the gist of how apple tv should be. I'm sure with a software update in the future, we'll be able to download apps and other neat things for it!

Meconio said,
This is the most crippled of apple gadgets yet, the potential is huge.

I'm just praying we can get XBMC running on this. Then I'll get rid of my HTPC which is power hungry and massive and replace it with this, and get all my media on a NAS

DomZ said,

I'm just praying we can get XBMC running on this. Then I'll get rid of my HTPC which is power hungry and massive and replace it with this, and get all my media on a NAS

Just get a product that supports XBMC and DLNA for streaming media from your local network. As a bonus you'll also get local storage to actually buy and store some of the TV shows. $99 doesn't sound like much, but month after month you'll end up throwing $ after $ on this thing just to watch some shows which can quickly add up to some substantial amount.

Gungel said,

Just get a product that supports XBMC and DLNA for streaming media from your local network. As a bonus you'll also get local storage to actually buy and store some of the TV shows. $99 doesn't sound like much, but month after month you'll end up throwing $ after $ on this thing just to watch some shows which can quickly add up to some substantial amount.

Is there something as cheap and small as this that can run XBMC? If so link me up. I've already got a media center PC which is fairly small. What appeals to me about the Apple tv is I could literally tape it to the back of the tv it's so small and light

Quick Shot said,

I think they're slowly getting the gist of how apple tv should be. I'm sure with a software update in the future, we'll be able to download apps and other neat things for it!


That has been my hope since the beginning but I now seriously doubt it, imagine to play games using your iPhone or iPod as a wifi control, or just run your apps in a full screen mode, and all that without forgetting that you can watch HD movies and TV Shows, I'll just wait till a suitable version comes out.

thenonhacker said,

I'd rather get an XBox 360 Slim or PS3 for TV Media Centers.


I have to agree. These two guys, although they lack media support, they are better regarding media upscale and playback, which seems to have more compatibility than the Apple TV.