I’ve been using the newest version of the Apple TV for a bit over a week and am very happy with it. There are longer, more in-depth reviews around the Web, which I’ll link to at the end of this piece, so instead of going back over that ground I’ll share my own impressions about the device.
I’ll start with the short version: it’s a great upgrade over the original Apple TV. Whether it’s right for you depends on a bunch of things. Do you need a handy way to watch Netflix or baseball, basketball, or hockey games that your XBOX or cable coverage doesn’t handle? It’s probably a little snappier than using an XBOX for those things but maybe not worth $99 for that alone. Do you want to phase out owning DVDs and don’t want to invest in Blu-Rays? Do you rent new releases much or get them pay-per-view?
Long term I think the idea of owning movies and TV shows is looking to become less popular. Streaming services may well take all that over and we’ll do everything a la cart. But even beyond favorite movies we watch over and over throughout our lives (the Star Wars and such), there’s a huge category of films that get watched dozens of times: things your kids like. I think if you have kids, getting an Apple TV is a great idea for you. My daughter is just getting old enough to enjoy watching movies and we’re just lazy enough to enjoy letting her. We’ve watched the 2011 Winnie-the-Pooh 15 times now, according to iTunes. There’s no DVD to constantly have to fetch, nothing for her to break or scratch. When she’s old enough to trust to hold one for long enough, we’ll be able to load it onto an iPad and let her watch it on road trips. We can pick videos from YouTube and put those on and if there are short films she particularly likes we can buy those and have them always at the ready. Netflix gives you the wide selection, but for the things you want all the time, even if there’s no internet connection to be had, to want to own them, and having them in a format you can play on your TV or on the go just makes sense.
I’ll admit that the one major feature I haven’t tested is the one that might be the number one feature for many: Netflix streaming. My understanding is that Apple’s interface for browsing Netflix movies is very slick. (It can’t be worse than the one on my TiVo.) Right now we don’t have a Netflix streaming plan as we struggle to find time for new TV shows and new release movies that are only available on DVD from Netflix. I know I’ll re-up my streaming plan when Arrested Development debuts on Netflix, and but not probably before then unless our free time comes back. In the meantime I’ve got enough other stuff to watch while I’m waiting for DVDs in the mail, but I know I’m atypical there.
What I have watched on the new Apple TV is the season premier of Mad Men, Winnie-the-Pooh (several times), and The Fifth Element. The Fifth Element can now be streamed in 1080p from iTunes and it looks wonderful. There’s an effect early on with the shadow planet that I’d never noticed before until I watched it last weekend. Maybe the DVD didn’t handle all the dark colors well enough to see it. I also saw a spot where Leeloo punches through the glass of her regeneration chamber where you can see the break-away portion of the set. Maybe you can see that on the DVD a well and I just never noticed it. Point being, I love that movie. Winnie-the-Pooh isn’t available in 1080p. Some of the Disney movies are and some aren’t. Same with Pixar. I imagine that will change in time, or maybe just for releases going forward. I’ve also noticed that more of iTunes videos seem to have closed captioning now, which is good. It should be 100%, and probably required by law, but I’m glad to see that CC logo in more places.
The first generation Apple TV was not able to display 720p HD video at 30 frames per second. Mad Men is perhaps not the best show to judge this by (as compared to something with more action and faster camera movement), but I think I did notice that everything looked a bit smoother and more correct watching it in 1080p at the proper framerate. I’m not sure what was happening with the original Apple TV for video. Was it just chucking frames out to get down to 24fps? Maybe I’ll rewatch some of The Walking Dead and see if I notice anything looking better.
So that’s video quality. Summary: it’s good. Not as good as Blu-Ray, I’m told, but I like the flexibility and ease of not having to use a disc. Not only do you not have to get up to put the disc in the player, but there’s no loading time, no animated menus to fight through, and no unskippable previews.
Speaking of loading, there are two ways to watch videos. Anything you’ve purchased from Apple lives in the Purchased section of the Movies or TV Shows sections. On my home Comcast connection movies start playing very quickly. Within maybe15 seconds or so. Slower connections will probably have to buffer a bit. The other way you can play video is by the Computers menu, which picks up any computer on your local network that’s awake and has iTunes running. (I haven’t tested whether it’ll wake up a sleeping Mac that has Wake for Network Access enabled.) (Update: Apple TV will awaken a sleeping Mac if Wake for Network Access is enabled in System Preferences and you have an Apple-brand Airport station.) In theory you want to stream movies from your local computer rather than the Web because they load faster and don’t waste your ISP’s resources. In practice if your connection to the outside world is fast enough it doesn’t matter much. Loading from your local library does let iTunes keep stats on play counts, but the video stops if you put your computer to sleep or log out. I already have had a few times where my wife wanted to log into her account on our computer while a video was playing from mine.
If you are watching video from computer, iTunes will now let you download 1080p videos where available. The catch is that these files won’t play on older iOS devices and the files are big enough you probably wouldn’t want to, anyway. So if you want to watch 720p or SD videos on your iPhone or iPad, you need to either download a second copy to your computer or download them directly to iOS using the Purchased section of the iTunes Store on that device. Not a big deal but you could wind up loading the same movie several times depending on how many devices you have. And if you do it that way, you can’t use iTunes’s automatic syncing options which let you, say, have the three newest unwatched episodes of a show always synced to your iPad. In practice I’ve set that up in the past and rarely ended up watching things on my phone because most shows I watch I watch with my wife, so there’s no point to watching them by myself. And without that all you have to do is manually delete shows once you watch them.
Early criticism of the Apple TV was that it’s just a vending machine for iTunes. I think that criticism is valid, but it’s entirely possible to load movies into iTunes that you’ve ripped from your own DVDs or downloaded elsewhere. The Little App Factory’s RipIt software ($25.95) makes it very easy to import your own DVDs. You can even set it up to start compressing a file when you insert a disc and then add the file to iTunes and eject the disc when it’s done. I recommend the Apple TV 2 preset which will play on all iPads and iPhone 4 and 4S and newer iPods. If you want to go one step further, download iDentify from the Mac App Store and drag the movie RipIt makes into it. It’ll look up all the info about the movie (title, year, actors, etc.) and tag the movie file for you and then send that file to iTunes. Apple doesn’t sell Finding Nemo in HD, so I have a copy of that I ripped from DVD and it looks great. (Both of these apps can be replaced with the free Handbrake and Subler, but I think the GUI polish is worth it. Handbrake will also let you transcode movies that you’ve downloaded into a format iTunes will accept. Use the Apple TV 2 preset if you have other iOS devices to support older than iPhone 4S/iPad 2, High Profile if it’s just newer devices and/or the Apple TV.)
A new feature that the original Apple TV didn’t fully support was AirPlay, Apple’s system for letting you send a video or song from an iPhone, iPod, or iPad (and soon, Mac) to the Apple TV. I’m now in love with AirPlay. Here’s a few examples of how I’ve already used it (in very Apple commercial type ways):
- I frequently listen to podcasts as I’m fixing my lunch and getting ready for work in the morning. When I leave the house, I want to continue listening to the podcast episode on my walk to the Metro. In the past I’d start the podcast on my Mac but when I wanted to put on my headphones and play it on my iPhone, I’d have to manually fast-forward to where I’d left off on the Mac. Now I can start playing it on my iPhone and use AirPlay to send the audio to my stereo speakers. When I’m ready to leave, I just switch the source back to the iPhone with no interruption.
- My daughter wanted to watch a Sesame Street video. It takes several interminable seconds for my Harmony remote to switch on my TV, tune it to the right input and do the same for the stereo system. I was able to search for it on my iPhone using the YouTube app and get it ready while waiting for the TV to warm up and then send the video the TV when it was ready.
- My brother-in-law was in town over the weekend and wanted to show us pictures of his trip to Dubai that were on his iPad. He hit the AirPlay icon and showed us his slideshow on our big TV. He also had some video he’d taken backstage at a play he was in that he could beam to the TV.
You don’t have to use AirPlay to watch YouTube vidoes, though. Apple TV’s YouTube app lets you search for videos and watch them right on the device. Better, if you give it your YouTube account name and password, you can view movies you’ve marked as Favorites, which is great for those Sesame Street videos that need finding frequently. It also lets you see any YouTube channels you’ve subscribed to, and any videos on any YouTube playlists you’ve created. This last one is a major unsung feature. By default, YouTube gives everyone a “Watch Later” playlist. Go to a video on YouTube’s site (doesn’t always work with an embedded video elsewhere) and you’ll see an “Add to…” option under the video. Select “Watch Later” and YouTube will remember that video. Go home and pull up your Watch Later list and there are all the videos you didn’t have time to watch at work.
Apple TV will let you pick photos to show as a screen saver when the device is idle. You can associate it with a local computer’s iPhoto library and pick any albums you’ve set up there, but that computer has to be awake and logged in for this to be useful. You can pick your Photostream, but then you get every single video in that stream. Minutes after picking up the Apple TV I snapped about 25 photos of my daughter on a carousel in the Pentagon City Mall. When I got home iPhoto pulled those 25 photos in from Photostream and I culled them down to the three best shots. But all 25 still live in Photostream, including the blurry ones and the ones where she’s not looking at the camera. You can delete things from Photostream, but if iPhoto has already imported them, deleting them from Photostream doesn’t delete them from iPhoto, and vice versa. So you have to delete each bad shot twice. Plus maybe you deleted a good photo by mistake, perhaps the one that was actually your wife’s favorite… If it’s still in Photostream (because you haven’t deleted it and haven’t taken 1000 photos since), you can just restore it right from there. In the end I told Apple TV to use my Flickr account. If I want to view a very recent picture I haven’t put on Flickr I can always manually navigate to the Photostream. It is fun to watch them pop up as you snap pictures on your iPhone.
iTunes Match, if you’ve paid for it, is the default way to listen to music on the Apple TV. If you haven’t paid for it, you can stream stuff from your computer (if it’s awake and logged in) or use AirPlay from an iOS device. It all works very well but I definitely recommend using the Remote App on an iOS decide to pick songs or streaming them from a computer. Finding a song using a normal TV remote to scroll down a list of several hundred artists is pretty bad compared to flicking a touch screen.
Digression about iTunes Match: I have some music in my iTunes library that I ripped as Apple Lossless files. iTunes Match downconverts ALAC files to 256kbps AAC files. I don’t think my ears can actually tell the difference, but if I could anywhere, it’d be on my stereo speakers. Also it screws up the matching with some songs from the Beatles Mono boxed set, substituting the stereo mixes. I will say that I was skeptical of iTunes Match initially but I like the flexibility it gives in letting me have all my music wherever I want it without having to sync constantly to an iTunes library. That said, it’s a huge tease if you don’t have an internet connection all the time like, say, if you ride the subway every day and that’s where you happen to listen to music most of the time. My iPhone will taunt me with the name of a song I want to listen to but can’t load.
I have not tried any of the sports offerings. I’m tempted to check out the MLB app but I think that most of the Nationals games will be blacked out for me. Blackout rules are infuriating enough, and it’s extra obnoxious that the MLB won’t give you a straight answer on which games you’ll actually be able to watch before paying for a subscription. I may spring for one month just to see.
Other little things:
- The interface is very responsive. The little aluminum remote is nice and I like that it’s larger than the older white plastic ones.
- My Harmony universal remote didn’t need to be reprogrammed when switching from the 1st generation Apple TV to the new one.
- You can hold the Menu button on the remote down for a few second to jump directly to the top menu from anywhere in the system. Handy if you’re several levels down.
- The device is very small. I expected it to be and was still shocked when I saw the packaging.
Reviews on other sites that have nice screenshots and stuff: