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Apple TV Review: Is the Third Time the Charm?

Apple TV
While the original Apple TV had a few admirers among die-hard Apple fanatics and tinkerers, the company always considered the device to be a "hobby," and it never found mainstream success. The newest iteration, however, reflects Apple's first serious attempt to nail the living room media experience, and it's making a serious attempt at becoming a must-have accessory, thanks primarily to its support for Netflix Instant Streaming. This comes at a time when streaming video devices are starting to crowd the living room; with the user-friendly Roku, the much-hyped Boxee Box and several Google TV devices launching this fall, Apple has some heavy competition. Let's see if the Apple TV is up to the task.

Apple TV


Apple TV Hardware
Apple has always been known for its gorgeous industrial design, and the Apple TV is no different. Tiny and silent, the machine is, in a word, beautiful. The solid black box fits in the palms of all but the smallest hands, and the aluminum-clad remote makes our old black plastic clickers seem positively antique. Regrettably, aesthetically pleasing design does not result in an enjoyable user experience. The itty-bitty controller feels cramped, and the buttons require more force than you'd expect.

Under the hood of the Apple TV, you'll find more or less the same hardware powering the iPad. The move to an A4 processor keeps the box both cool and quiet (compared to the original, Intel-powered Apple TV, which reportedly got quite warm). For A/V nuts, the new hardware is capable of pumping out 5.1 surround sound, but high-def video is limited to 720p. But the box's simplified design extends to the set-up process, which is as easy as connecting the Apple TV to your HD set via HDMI, and logging into your iTunes and Netflix accounts. (Stone-agers still using standard-def will need to upgrade.)


Apple TV Software
The Apple TV user interface is shiny, filled with cover art and slathered with 3-D effects. By comparison, the cartoon-like interface of the Roku looks like amateur hour. But the gloss hides some stability problems and questionable design choices. Entering data with an onscreen keyboard is never pleasant, but Apple's decision to lay out the letters in alphabetical order across the length of the screen (pictured above) -- with capitals up top, lower case underneath and numbers and symbols below -- is infuriating. This would be less of an issue if, A) you didn't have to log-in to your iTunes account before using the iPhone remote app (which has proper QWERTY text entry option), and B) the remote app actually worked. To connect to your Apple TV, the app relies on Home Sharing, which has never treated us very well. Even more frustrating, our Apple TV simply failed to recognize either of the iPhones or the PC connected to the network.

Another questionable UI choice is the placement of small arrows next to menu selections, implying that you could dig deeper by pressing right on the remote. But that logic results only in a rather loud, unpleasant noise. (If you were wondering, you have to click the center button to select menu choices.)

Netflix also seems to suffer from some stability issues on the Apple TV that we didn't encounter on our Roku. The app crashed several times, including twice during the mindless martial arts flick 'Ong Bak 2.' On the other hand, the Apple TV outpaces Roku when browsing the library, searching for films and loading content. If it weren't for the stability issues, it would easily spank the Roku for Netflix playback.


Apple TV Content
As you know, the Apple TV has access to the rather rich library of content available from the iTunes Store. That includes thousands of HD movie rentals starting at $3.99, and HD TV show rentals for $0.99. Oddly we couldn't find everything available in the iTunes store through the Apple TV interface; we could purchase episodes of 'The Daily Show' from our PC, but we could not find the Comedy Central hit on the Apple TV.

The big news is clearly Netflix, not iTunes. There's nothing particularly unique about the Apple TV's implementation of the streaming service -- though we did appreciate the suggested content at the bottom of each title screen. You get access to the same titles you'll find on your computer or a Roku. Also, in terms of content, you'll find the obligatory YouTube search, as well as the extensive podcast library available from iTunes -- which means easy access to TED talks in HD.

Though we had trouble getting it working, Home Sharing is key to the Apple TV's appeal, as it links your entire iTunes library to your TV. If you use iTunes for managing your music or videos, you can connect your Mac or PC to the Apple TV via your home network, and stream to your hi-def set. That means you can easily switch from streaming episodes of 'Battlestar Galactica' from Netflix to pumping out Lil' Wayne from your computer, and access those shows (like the aforementioned 'Daily Show') that you can't find from the Apple TV. (Buy them on your computer and add them to your library, and you'll be able to access them over your home network.)


If you already own a lot of content purchased through Apple, or use iTunes to manage your video library, then the Apple TV is a great option. The device is clearly aimed at consumers who want to integrate their TV with their various Apple products. We're a little disappointed that the box is limited to 720p, because the Roku XD and XDS, Logitech Revue and Boxee Box are all capable of pumping out 1080p. The stability issues were occasionally frustrating, but the real surprise is the lack of an intuitive interface. Apple is normally known for its flawless UI design, but the Apple TV is occasionally a head-scratcher. These problems, though, are hardly deal breakers.

At $99.99, it's a perfect accessory for the person who lives an Apple-centric life. Unlike a Google TV device, it's not meant to enhance the traditional TV-viewing experience with cable and DVR add-ons. And unlike the Boxee Box or Roku, Apple TV is part of a larger home media ecosystem. In other words, the best Apple TV experience involves using the Remote App on your iPad or iPhone for navigating streaming content and your iTunes library.

Though the Apple TV is a serious competitor in the new class of streaming media boxes, it's most attractive for its ability to act as an extension of your pre-existing iTunes library. As a stand-alone living room device, Apple TV's competitors offer more in the media streaming department. If you simply need a way to stream Netflix to your TV, there are certainly better options out there. But if you count yourself among the Apple faithful, then the Apple TV makes a compelling case for a spot in your living room.

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