Apple’s infamous hobby, Apple TV, got a “Honey I Shrunk the Gadget!” style refresh late last year. Jon covered it back then, but I’d be remiss not to include it in my series on Connected TV. While it’s not the newest, most powerful, or most flexible connected TV solution out there, it’s hard to argue with the financial success of the iTunes store and Apple’s desire to expand their media empire by making it easier for you to get videos and music off your computer and into your living room. Which, in turn, will inspire you to buy and rent more content from iTunes.

I actually own a first-gen Apple TV. I bought it used from a guy on Craigslist and have happily been using it as a poor man’s Sonos, serving music up from its internal hard drive, beaming it around my house via WiFi, and controlling it all from my iPhone with the Remote app. There aren’t many folks happily using their first-gen Apple TVs like this apparently, since Apple dispensed with the hard drive in version two and was met with a much warmer critical response than the original ATV garnered.

But is version two a worthy upgrade to the original? And is it poised to finally shed that “hobby” moniker Steve Jobs unceremoniously bestowed upon the first version? Let’s take a look:

Apple TV Pros:

  • Easy to set up and use
  • Clean integration with iTunes Store and Apple ecosystem
  • Competitively Priced
  • Tiny, eye-catching industrial design
  • Good Netflix and YouTube apps, Newly Announced support for MLB and NBA subscriptions

Apple TV Cons:

  • Limited support for non-iTunes file formats; No 1080p video support (720p max)
  • No support for Hulu, Pandora, and other premium services/apps
  • No internal storage
  • Designed to drive sales/rentals of iTunes Store content
  • Official “Remote” app for iOS devices only
  • HDMI-out only for video, not compatible with older TV sets

Best For:
People who want an easy way to access iTunes, Netflix, and/or YouTube content. Especially if you already use Macs and/or iOS devices on the same network.

Web Site: Apple TV
Suggested Retail Price: $99

Apple TV Design

Apple TV

Second-Gen Apple TV: A Teeny, Tiny Hobby

The new Apple TV is tiny and black and looks like it was made to blend in, if not totally dissapear into, the rest of your home entertainment setup. Measuring just 3.9″ x 3.9″ x 0.6″ and weighing a scant 0.6 pounds, the all-black device is stunningly small and easy to conceal in an A/V rack or mounted on the back of your HDTV. A six-watt power supply is built into the unit, eliminating an bulky external “wall word” in favor of a simple power cord that plugs into the back panel of ATV. As with many Apple products, I was skeptical of the design until I got a unit in my hand – now I’m continually amused by how small the thing is.

Apple went HDMI-only for video out on the new Apple TV, stripping the box of the component video-out jacks found on the original device. This is classic Apple, jettisoning backwards compatibility in favor of a current (or even future) standard that offers simplicity and better design aesthetics. HDMI can carry video and audio simultaneously over one cable, though the device also has an optical audio port for audio-only use. I ran an HDMI cable from Apple TV to my A/V receiver and am able to use the device for video and audio-only applications with good results.

Apple TV Remote

Apple Remote

Apple Remote: Limited Functionality, Unlimited Sex Appeal

The included remote control is arguably the sexiest remote on the market. While it lacks the full QWERTY board of more functional remotes like the one included with Boxee TV, it’s made of aluminum, finished in a brushed silver accented by black buttons, and feels like an objet d’art in your hand. Waxing so poetic over a remote is arguably ridiculous, yes, so I’ll take pains to point out that buying an Apple TV solely for the remote would be silly. But as a “throw in accessory,” ATV’s remote ranks pretty high on the Unexpected Delight meter.

For enhanced functionality, Apple offers Remote apps in iPhone/iPod Touch and iOS versions, both of which control Apple TV over WiFi. The newly launched iPad app is great for controlling Apple TV-based music, as the iPad’s large touchscreen makes it easy to flip through large music libraries and offers high-res album art and other visuals. Me, I use the smaller version of Remote on my iPhone, which lets me browse music/video libraries onscreen or switch to “Control” mode that replicates the physical remote’s D-Pad/button navigation of the onscreen UI via my phone’s touchscreen. The app’s soft QWERTY board is a welcome upgrade from the physical remote’s buttons when keying in YouTube searches.

Apple TV Software

Apple TV is easy to use, has a clean UI designed for the bigscreen, and makes it easy to consume content from iTunes, your iTunes-based home network, and a small handful of third-party services including Netflix, YouTube, Flickr, and now MLB.tv and NBA League Pass (paid subscriptions required in some cases). You’ll need an iTunes account to download free or paid content from the iTunes Store, and you’ll need at least one computer running iTunes on the same network as your ATV to stream audio/video to the device – as I said before, Apple did away with the internal hard drive on the original Apple TV, so there’s no using the new version as a stand-alone media server.

Netflix on ATV? Yes. Hulu on ATV? Not so much.

Netflix on ATV? Yes. Hulu on ATV? Not so much.

The experience of using Apple TV isn’t all that similar to either of Apple’s other platforms – Mac OS X or iOS – but it’s still 100% Apple. User interfaces are clean and easy to read, menu choices are generally obvious and logical, and if you’re content with the content and functionality Apple’s willing to offer you, you’ll have a really nice, easy experience for the most part. Last weekend my wife and I spent five bucks to rent an HD movie. The choices available through Apple TV were more limited than the choices available on the desktop and iOS versions of the iTunes Store, which is kind of annoying, but we still found something to watch. Since we’d already signed into the device with my iTunes account – and saved a valid credit card to that account – purchasing the rental was easy, and the movie was ready to watch within three minutes (the device was hooked up via WiFi to our 15 Mbps cable modem home internet service).

Video resolution on Apple TV is limited to 720p HD – the device does not support 1080p content as-s, though jailbroken (hacked) ATVs can support some 1080p files. That’s a topic for a separate article, or for you to Google on your own if you’re so inclined; suffice it to say that like its iOS-running cousins, Apple TV’s raw hardware prowess (it’s got an Apple A4 chip inside) is arguably shackled by limitations imposed via its stock firmware. At any rate, once we started watching our movie, the experience was entirely fine: 720p video playback was smooth, colors were sharp, and motion was fluid, and the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack decoded and sounded just fine over our home theater setup. Will iTunes rentals satisfy videophiles and tech geeks used to 1080p video and 7.2 sound? No way. Will they suffice for Apple’s mainstream target audience who wants a device that’s easy to setup and use and capable of serving up YouTube, streaming Netflix, and iTunes content on demand? Yup. It’s good enough, at least.

Speaking of YouTube, Netflix and iTunes, they all work similarly well on ATV. Apple’s Netflix interface is amongst the best I’ve tried on a connected TV box, and includes browse/search functionality for Watch Instantly content. Apple also includes reviews from Rotten Tomatoes in some listings, and support for watching “home” photos and videos served up from Flickr and MobileMe accounts.

Apple has also kinda-sorta rolled out support for AirPlay, their DLNA-like system for wirelessly streaming video from an iOS device to an Apple TV. To be honest, I’ve been disappointed with AirPlay thus far, mainly because it doesn’t yet work in places I’d expect it to. For instance, you’d think that home videos shot on an iPhone would be the perfect fodder for casually sharing with the family via Apple TV, right? No dice – videos in your iPhone’s video library can’t be AirPlayed.

Or couldn’t, anyway – iOS 4.3 is rolling out as I type this. Lest I delay this review any longer, I’ll post as is and check back in with an AirPlay on 4.3 update in the coming days. That said, it still boggles my mind why other companies can’t come up with more consumer-friendly names for technology they roll out before Apple does. DLNA? What the heck is that? The average consumer has no idea. AirPlay? That makes a little more sense, no? Baffling.

Conclusion

Apple still calls Apple TV a hobby, so far as I know. Whether that’s how the company really feels about the product, or just PR spin designed to keep expectations low is open to debate. What’s more clear is how huge a business media sales and rentals have become for Apple. The majority of iTunes customers still purchase and consume their media on Macs, PCs, and iPhones/iPods/iPads, but some of them want a way to get their TV shows and movies on to a bigger screen. Various Apple- and third party-made cables and adapters make it possible to hook a MacBook or iPad up to an HDTV, and Apple’s own 27″ iMac is plenty large enough to double as a bedroom theater system. But Apple TV is by far the easiest way to permanently connect your TV/home theater to your iTunes-based media.

If you like going outside of the iTunes universe for your content, Apple TV still may be a good solution for you. But it all depends. Use Netflix, YouTube and Flickr? You’re good. Use Hulu, Pandora and Vudu? Not so good. Need 1080p HD support? Not good. Then again, if you’re keen on jailbreaking, some of those “not goods” can be turned into “You’re Good!” pretty easily. Just don’t expect Apple to support your tinkering or honor your warranty should things go wrong.

That said, if you can live with its limitations, or just don’t care about them, Apple TV is amongst the best-looking, easiest to install and use connected TV boxes on the market. The device’s appeal to iPhone/iPad owners will only increase once AirPlay gets up to speed, which may be happening right now with that iOS 4.3 update. What you give up in the way of 1080p support and format/services flexibility in Apple TV you get back in the way of stylish design, ease of use, and integration with the world’s largest online music and video store. Sounds kind of like I just described an iPhone or iPod Touch, no?