The Good: Simple set up and operation, excellent user interface, great selection of movies, access to photos, video and music are a nice touch.
The Bad: Movies don’t start streaming instantly, photo access is limited to one sub-folder, Apple has failed to maximize the capabilities of their A4 chip.
Form & Design
It’s hard to critique Apple’s choices on the design of the Apple TV. Its tiny footprint, sleek black exterior, understated power/activity light and built-in power adapter make the device nearly invisible when placed in or around your home theatre gear. Our system is comprised of an ancient VHS player, a DVD-recorder, home theatre receiver, HD PVR and 5-disc CD player. They’re all black, all big and boxy and whether I place the Apple TV above or beside the rest of the components, it all but disappears. Kudos to Apple for realizing the living room is not the place to make your device stand out. That job should rest on the one device you’re supposed to look at: your HDTV. Everything else is merely playing a supporting role.
If there’s a weakness in the design of the Apple TV, it’s the minimal connectivity options. The back of the unit includes: HDMI, Optical Out, Ethernet, micro-USB and the power port. That’s it. So if your TV doesn’t have HDMI, or if your home theatre receiver doesn’t have a free optical input, you can’t use Apple TV. There’s a certain consistency here however with Apple design choice from the past. They were one of the first to eliminate the floppy disk drive when they debuted the original iMac, and they were also one of the first to make USB the only accessory port (except for FireWire) on their machines. So it makes sense that they have now declared non-digital video to be passé. I’ll address that micro-USB port a little later – Apple claims it is only intended for “service and support.”
This couldn’t be easier. Plug in the HDMI cable to your TV or home theatre receiver, plug in the optical cable if you need it, and plug in the power cable. You’re done.
Turn everything on and you’re immediately greeted by the Apple TV home screen which is a simple horizontal menu system that sits roughly in the middle of your screen. Apple owes a design debt to Sony here, whose Xross Media Bar (XMB) pioneered this use of horizontal options followed by vertical sub-menus. However in Apple TV’s case, the sub-menus are more like drop-downs, in that they are only visible as options below the main category. It’s pure Apple: dead-simple and very elegant. The layout and font choice emphasize readability and usability over flashy effects. Conspicuously absent here are icons of any kind. We’ve grown so used to having them in our UI’s – from our PC’s desktops to our smartphones – that having word-based options is both oddly retro and refreshing.
Navigating the menus with the included remote control is also a breeze. The main d-pad with centre selection button will be intuitive to everyone, while the menu button functions as a “back” key. The remote itself is beautiful; carved from a single chunk of aluminum, it feels smooth and light in your hand while giving the impression that it could withstand an enormous amount of abuse. It’s a little absurd in a world where we all need multi-function remotes to exert control over our myriad gadgets to spend so much time and presumably money on designing a single-device remote as Apple has done. Yet when you compare Apple TV to its competitors – media players from companies like Western Digital, Roku and others, it’s the remote that sets Apple TV apart. Its simplicity and elegance reminds you that this device was designed by people who value form as much – perhaps even more – than function.
Apple TV’s primary goal is to turn your HDTV into the digital media viewer that so many of us have been using our computers for. Movies and TV shows, videos, music and photos. These four experiences form the core of the Apple TV experience.
Your choices are: Rentals from iTunes, a subscription with Netflix, or any iTunes-compatible movie in your PC or Mac’s library.
Renting a movie from iTunes is supposed to be an “instant” option – something you would consider doing as an alternative to on-demand choices from your cable or satellite provider. It’s an attractive choice: not only are movie titles as current as those in your local video store but they can be had in 720p HD with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound – and at $5.99, they’re a buck cheaper than the cable/satellite options. And there’s no question, the movies look and sound great. But is it “instant”? Not really.
We have a 5mb DSL connection at home which, I grant you, isn’t blazingly fast – but it’s comparable to the average broadband speed across Canada at the moment and it’s much faster than the average speed in the U.S. which Ars Technica has pegged at 3.9Mbps. It’s more than sufficient for watching YouTube videos. But when my wife and I sat down on Friday to watch Iron Man 2, Apple TV informed us that we could start watching our rental in 184 minutes. 3 hours before I could watch my “instant” movie rental? Actually it wasn’t 184 minutes. That, as it turned out, was only the initial estimate. Within a few seconds, the time remaining had jumped to 360 minutes, before it finally settled on 234 minutes. How long did it actually take? I have no idea. We left Apple TV alone to complete that process and opted to watch a movie on the PVR instead.
Waiting to watch downloaded content is nothing new – in fact I’m used to it. So why am I put off by the heavy wait time? Because Apple has promised something quite different. Their Apple TV feature web page says:
“Once you find what you’re looking for, simply press Play, and in seconds, you’re watching the opening credits with theater-like Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound.”
There are any number of factors that could have affected our experience including: how many other processes were using our bandwidth (e.g. skype, BitTorrent, Windows Updates etc.), the time of day, the number of other Apple TV users trying to stream the same content, or even the strength of our Wi-Fi network. But I’d have to say our scenario was pretty typical. We wanted to watch a movie at 9:30 p.m. on a Friday night. Except that we couldn’t.
Once we finally got to the movie (the next evening), the results were amazing. Superb picture – certainly the equal to HD movies on Bell TV – and crystal-clear sound.
If it were not for the unfortunate delay of gratification, renting movies via Apple TV would be a joy. You can browse genres, search for specific titles, view trailers, read both professionally written critiques as well as those submitted by users and cross-reference actors and directors from one movie to any other iTunes rental that those people are associated with. There’s also an “In Theaters” section which lets you watch trailers for current theatrical releases. It’s a very well thought-out experience.
With Netflix, things should move along a bit better if only for two reasons: 1) most of their content is in standard definition which eats up much less bandwidth, and 2) their infrastructure might be more robust than Apple’s – after all Netflix has been in the on-demand streaming game for longer than Apple. But with Netflix your choices are limited to older titles and the Canadian catalog is still quite small compared to the U.S. offering.
Finally, the best option might just be streaming movies you’ve already downloaded to your PC over your home network. This has two advantages: Your streaming performance is limited only by the quality of your home network (and perhaps the PC that is running iTunes) and you can – in theory at least – source your movies from any service you like as long as you make sure they end up in the QuickTime video format that iTunes recognizes.
As a footnote, Apple TV in Canada doesn’t have any TV shows available for rent at the time of this review. Let’s hope this changes. TV shows can however be purchased on iTunes, saved to your PC and then streamed to the Apple TV.
You can sum-up Apple TV’s video capability in one word: YouTube.
Given the enormous success YouTube has had in becoming the world’s video repository, having an easy way to enjoy YouTube on your TV is great. I’ve lost track of the number of times we’ve had guests over for a drink only to have the conversation turn to “this hilarious video on YouTube.” Usually this is followed by someone trying to describe the clip in question and depending on how good a story-teller they are, that can be enough. But it’s way better to flip on the TV, punch in a search query and actually see the clip. You can easily spend an hour or more just jumping from one favourite to another and somehow you still feel like you’re socializing even though you’re just watching videos.
It sure beats gathering around a 15” laptop.
Naturally, being able to access your iTunes content via Apple TV means that your music library is now connected to the best speakers in your house – your home theatre speakers. For some people, this might be the first time they’ve listened to their MP3s on anything but their iPod. It’s a wonderful experience. Browsing your songs, loading up playlists and viewing album art are all reborn visually as well as sounding great. You also get the option to listen to Internet radio stations – they’re the same ones that you have access to via the Radio feature in iTunes.
Unfortunately Apple has decided to limit music activity on the Apple TV to just listening. There is no iTunes Store access for buying new music which I think is a huge wasted opportunity. I know the reason: Apple has designed the Apple TV to be a passive device – it doesn’t store anything locally except your account settings, preferences and the buffered portion of your rented movies. It has no place to store purchased content, be it video or audio. But this seems like a cop-out. If it’s smart enough to connect me to my iTunes account, and smart enough to connect to my PC, why can’t it act as the go-between for these two components and let me buy a song from iTunes and save it on my PC? Definitely an area for improvement.
If you haven’t viewed your digital photos on your HDTV, you are missing out. Your HDTV is bar-none the very best digital photo frame you could possibly buy. Even if you own an iMac or Apple Cinema Display – both of which are stunning to look at – a 50-inch plasma, even one running 720p, will put them to shame.
Which is why one of the best features of Apple TV is the ability to access the digital photos from your PC on your HDTV. It might even be worth the $119 price of admission on its own.
With the photos feature, Apple has applied many of the tricks from its iPhoto software to create a range of superb photo slideshow options including effects such as Origami and Ken Burns (that’s the slow zoom and pan technique used to such great effect on shows like Biography, named for its inventor Ken Burns). You can choose any song or playlist from your iTunes music library to accompany these slide shows, or let Apple TV choose them randomly.
But the photos feature is not without drawbacks. One in particular makes me crazy. Photo access on Apple TV is done via the Home Sharing function in iTunes. This feature lets you identify the location (note: singular, not plural) of your photos on your PC that you’d like Apple TV to access. So far, so good. The way I’ve chosen to organize our photos – at least at a file level – is to create year folders with month sub-folders. Typically this looks like: My Pictures > 2010 > August. So naturally I’ve told iTunes that all my photos are located in “My Pictures”. The trouble comes when you try to navigate this file structure on Apple TV. It lets you choose the year folder e.g. “2010” from your list, but that’s it – there is no option to navigate a second (or third or fourth) sub-folder like “August”. It simply groups every photo from every sub-folder at the year level.
This is enormously frustrating because I prefer to do my entire event-based photo grouping as “albums” inside Google’s free Picasa photo tool, not in my computer’s file system. I suspect that if you use Picasa or iPhoto, you do the same thing.
This arrangement forces you to create separate folders at the top level of your photos directory for each event that you want to browse as a discrete selection of photos. Not fun. And it gets worse…
The other problem that surfaces at this point is file size. When I dump photos from my camera to my PC, I keep them at the highest resolution possible – 5MP for our point-and-shoot and 10MP for our dSLR. Many newer cameras produce even larger files. But this resolution is only needed for making prints – it’s a waste of information for HDTV’s which currently max out at 1920×1080 (roughly 2MP) and Apple TV can only display 720p – 1366×768 (just over 1MP). And the larger your image file is, the longer Apple TV takes to process it, create viewable thumbnails and then prep them for slideshow viewing. Some of my “year” folders contain well over 2,000 photos. Apple TV almost comes to a standstill trying to work through all of those 5 and 10MP files!
So in order to have a truly optimized photo viewing experience on Apple TV, you need to follow this process:
– Open your favourite photo tool (Picasa, iPhoto etc.)
– Group your photos into events, people, years – whatever makes sense to you from a slideshow perspective
– Export these groups of photos at the lower resolution of 720p (in Picasa you can choose the export resolution) to a new sub-folder in the folder you have told iTunes contains your images
Now you should be able to view your photos quickly and easily on Apple TV.
But it shouldn’t have to be this hard and it’s unlike Apple to have made it so awkward. The good news is, I think most of this awkwardness can be fixed with a few tweaks to Apple TV’s firmware and enhancements to iTunes. Apple, if you’re listening, do what you do best: make this an effortless experience, not a tortuous one. I have faith you can do it ;-)
The other options for Photos is Flickr or MobileMe. I’m a big Flickr fan and have been a pro user for a few years now. Apple TV lets me access all of my uploaded photos, shows me easy ways to get to my friends’ photos and of course I can simply browse the millions of publicly accessible images from the rest of the Flickr community. Really great.
But recently it was pointed out that Flickr has lost its crown as the world’s favourite place to share photos to social network behemoth Facebook. So it’s a little surprising that Apple, with all of its Facebook-friendly features on devices like the iPhone, has given Apple TV users zero options to view photos from this platform. Flickr is great, but when it comes to seeing your friends’ shared photos, nothing comes even close to Facebook. Maybe this will be added with the next software update. Let’s hope so.
I’m not a MobileMe user, so I can’t really comment on this experience – readers, please chime in if you have some feedback for the group.
One of the benefits of being invested in Apple’s ecosystem is the compatibility of their devices. Case in point: remote control of Apple TV via your iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch.
This is also accomplished via the Home Sharing function in iTunes which allows the i-device in question (running Apple’s free app Remote) to discover each other. Once this is done, you can simulate all of the functions of Apple TV’s included remote with your touch screen. Swiping takes the place of clicking on the d-pad, while tapping replaces the centre Enter key. Dedicated button on the display give you the remaining Menu (back) and Play/Pause controls. The system works, but there can be some noticeable lag, because unlike using the aluminum remote which communicates with the Apple TV instantly via infra-red, the remote app uses Wi-Fi which can vary in its responsiveness depending on how good your home Wi-Fi network is.
Using the iPad or iPhone in this way is cool, but hardly a necessity. A much better reason to use these extra devices is that they give you a touch-screen keyboard. Text entry isn’t required a lot on Apple TV, but when it is needed, it’s a pain. That’s because you have to navigate an on-screen keyboard with the remote control, one character at a time. Got a long email address or password? Better be patient.
This brings up a minor flaw with the Apple TV. No Bluetooth. I know that with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth isn’t a necessity, but Apple’s own Wireless Keyboard (which uses Bluetooth, not Wi-Fi) would be an ideal companion for the Apple TV, but alas, never the twain shall pair, er, meet.
I realize that there’s only so much that can be packed into a $120 device and still have it remain profitable, and that Apple has very carefully chose which features should be a part of the Apple TV experience. Nevertheless I humbly submit to you that the following features should be a part of Apple TV either with a firmware update or on the next generation of hardware:
– Bluetooth. As mentioned above, being able to use a wireless keyboard or other accessories would be great.
– Web surfing. Apple TV is equipped with an A4 processor which we know from the iPad, iPod Touch and iPhone is more than able to handle the demands of a browser like the mobile version of Safari. On-board memory shouldn’t be an issue either – if it can buffer a hi-def movie, a few web pages should be easy. I know that pointing and clicking would be a little tricky using the included remote, but if they had included Bluetooth, they could easily sell an wireless keyboard/trackpad combo accessory that would handle the job handily
– External media support. Apple has had a long history of preferring not to support various media codecs, instead asking their users to stick with one or two “standards”. There are good reasons for this I’m sure. But the inability to plug a USB flash drive into Apple TV in order to playback photos/videos/music is frustrating given that this is table stakes for every other set-top-box and media streamer on the market – including a lot of the new DVD and Blu-ray players that have come out in recent months
– Apps. I’m not the first one to observe that with the A4 chip and decent memory, a device like the Apple TV is a prime candidate for its own apps. Especially at a time when companies like Vizio, LG, Samsung, Sony – just to name a few – are adding network connectivity and apps to their current batch of products, and when Google has just released their first Google TV appliance, it seems very odd that the driving force behind the app universe – Apple – has left their only dedicated TV device out of the game.
– FaceTime. Apple just announced that they are adding support for FaceTime to all Macs that have a FaceTime (iSight) camera. There is a micro-USB port on the Apple TV. Skype is being integrated into various TV-connected devices and in some cases into the TV’s themselves. These facts support an obvious conclusion: Apple TV should be the device that brings FaceTime to the TV.
– 1080p. Yes, my Apple TV unit was hard pressed to deliver even a 720p stream in the “seconds” that it is supposed to be capable of, so obviously 1080p is out of the question for now. And yes, 720p looks damn good as it is. But that doesn’t mean that the Apple TV unit shouldn’t be capable of a higher HD resolution for all of the other tasks. Nearly every HDTV sold today is 1080p capable. Apple TV should be too.
Apple TV represents a good value for the money, but you need to be okay with the limitations Apple has imposed on the device and recognize that a decent broadband connection and home network are mandatory to make use of it.
But the real question you need to ask yourself when it comes to a product like Apple TV is: What does it do for me that I either could not do before, or could not do as conveniently. The answer is different for each consumer depending on what gadgets you own and which services you have access to.
If for instance, you own a PS3 and you subscribe to cable or satellite, then you can already do 90% of what Apple TV offers.
If you don’t own a Blu-ray player, your computer or laptop aren’t near your TV or don’t have HDMI connections and you don’t subscribe to movie networks or have pay-per-view options, Apple TV is an enticing product.
On the other hand, if you’re looking to simplify your media options and perhaps save some money, you might be able to replace your cable box and avoid the purchase of a Blu-ray player by going with Apple TV instead. The combination of iTunes movie rentals and a Netflix subscription might be all you need.
Something to keep in mind if you are planning to increase the amount of streamed media you consume: Check your bandwidth cap from your ISP if applicable. Ours stands at 25GB/month. That one download of Iron Man 2 consumed nearly 3GB of data. If we watched only 1 movie a week, we’re at 12GB and that’s before any other web activity. It should still be fine – we aren’t heavy web users. But our kids are still young so that will certainly change.
One thing’s for sure: despite Apple’s light-hearted reference to Apple TV as “hobby”, they are now taking the living room seriously. You may not be ready for Apple TV today, but if you want to see the future of television, keep watching this space.