Apple TV Review: Is the Third Time the Charm?
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.)
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.
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.)
Wrap-UpIf 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.