by Brian Beeler

Apple TV Review (2012)

The latest Apple TV goes well beyond an Apple side project, to something that even serious home theater enthusiasts could consider. The third generation Apple TV finally boasts 1080p high definition output, along with updates that include Apple's powerful A5 processor and an updated user interface. From the outside, Apple TV users won't notice anything new, but the more powerful processor and full HD output mean the 2012 Apple TV is serious about taking over the media streaming box crown.

When we look at reviewing media streamers, we do so as an extension of storage. Whether your content is stored locally on computers, a home NAS or you prefer cloud-based systems, much of our perspective is around usability. Historically, that's where media streamers have fallen apart. Sure, anyone can lump together a bunch of streaming services like Netflix, YouTube and the like, but how easy are they to use? The first few generations of media streamers came from a range of startups and traditional networking companies looking to extend their brands. It really took Roku and Boxee though to drive adoption into the mainstream. While many of the initial players have faded into obscurity, there is little doubt that consumers want to find an intuitive way to consume their content on TVs. This ranges anywhere from movies, radio and TV shows to family pictures.

The Apple TV is similar to other streaming devices that don't have local storage, like the Roku line and the WD TV Live. While many offer service that overlap like Netflix, each has their unique twist on their perception of what consumers want. Roku offers hundreds of channels that are varied in uniqueness and quality, where WD and Apple take a more conservative approach, delivering fewer channels but with the utmost quality. 

Usability

Like most Apple products, the TV is designed to be simple to use out of the box. Unwrap the puck, connect power, HDMI and off you go with wired or WiFi connection to your network. Like the prior version, Apple ships a slender remote that offers navigation buttons, along with menu and play/pause. The remote does its intended job well, with minimalist design, though a dedicated home button would be nice. For those who want a more fluid interface, the Apple Remote app for iPhone and iPad offers swipe support, easier character entry and so on. This is especially beneficial when entering account info for Netflix and other subscription services, where tapping out a lengthy email address is a pain. 

Once powered on and a few preference selections are made, users get a crisp clean interface from which to select their media. The black background makes the well-designed application logos pop off the screen, really setting up a cinematic feel. The design theme goes all the way through the apps, so when browsing Netflix for instance, users still get the black background for a consistent feel, which incidentally uses the same look and feel as the other movie and TV apps. With media streamers consistent feel can be a problem, especially as media partners sprawl and less attention gets paid to integration. 

Overall the flow is brilliant on the Apple TV and both the physical remote and application remote are quick and responsive. While Apple clearly promotes their own content first, for users who are already a part of the Apple media ecosystem, that's not really a problem. The UI makes sense and is scalable as Apple rolls out additional media partnerships. 

Content

From a content perspective, Apple's delivery is largely around iTunes, and select content providers. Most Apple TV users who are generally part of the Apple family, will enable Home Sharing, which lets the Apple TV have access to content stored on other Apple computers on the network. Apple also offers AirPlay, which lets iOS devices play on the big screen. AirPlay is especially fun when used in conjunction with an iPad, delivering even more immersive gaming experiences. AirPlay isn't just about gaming though, it works with all the media on your iOS devices making it easy to display photos, movies and the like. Additionally, within the Computers option, the Apple TV can browse shared content from authorized computers on the Network, again providing another easy way to get content from devices to the big screen TV.

Beyond these locally networked options, Apple also connects to your Photo Stream, which can also be set to be the screen saver. The screen saver is a nice touch, depending on the family friendliness of your photos. Photo Stream would also be a fun for parties, as it picks up new photos within a minute or so, meaning the host could be snapping away, with the new photos popping up on the TV slideshow for all to see. The only down side, is that like many Apple services, you can only connect with one account at a time, and there's no simple way to enable say both yours and your wife's to swap back and forth between easily. A minor nit for sure, but for families that use an Apple TV together, offering a way to swap easily between saved accounts would be nice. 

The other Apple services that integrate with iTunes include Movies, TV Shows, Music, MobileMe, Podcasts and to a lesser extent Trailers. The first four really are about accessing Apple's iCloud servers to pull down already purchased items and personal content, which is pretty convenient, especially as the number of Apple and iOS devices in the household grows. 

Of course Apple provides additional content from a select bunch of tightly integrated content providers including: Netflix, NBA, NHL, MLB.TV, Wall Street Journal Live, YouTube, Vimeo, Radio and Flickr. We worked through most of the services just fine, with an ease of use and good content flow as was expected. The glaring omission is of course Amazon, which Apple excludes for competitive reasons. Understandable, but still a bit of a drag considering many of us either have content in Amazon's cloud or enjoy the benefit of the free Amazon Prime streaming service. 

Conclusion

The 2012 Apple TV is finally a device that not only Apple enthusiasts can get around, but mainstream home theater types too. The big thing missing from the last Apple TV was 1080p support, which the new device offers thanks to the more powerful A5 processor inside. 

It's not just the processing power and output that's great though, the interface is slick and elegant throughout, which is a big deal. Most media streamers offer a user experience that's very different from service to service, Apple's done a great job of using consistent navigation and layout through every channel. 

From a content perspective, there's enough services to make the Apple TV compelling, though most of what the Apple TV offers is integration with iCloud, which gives easy access to iTunes purchases that are stored there. Buy a movie via iTunes and it's available to your Apple notebook, iOS devices and Apple TV, a simple solution to the lack of storage available on most of our mobile devices. We also love the Photo Stream integration, fun for families and parties.

For a street price of $99, there is very little to complain about. Well, there's no gaming remote and Angry Birds, and if you want Amazon access, then you'll need to add a Roku to your media streamer mix. But for those who are reliant on Apple's iCloud, the Apple TV may be perfect. 

Pros

  • 1080p HD support 
  • Super easy configuration 
  • Great UI
  • Photo Stream integration is fun

Cons

  • No easy multi-user access support

Bottom Line

If you're already part of the Apple experience and use iCloud for storing content and have iOS devices around the house, the new Apple TV is a superb addition and worthy upgrade over the older less HD one.

 

Apple TV at Amazon.com

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