The Apple TV's low $99 price makes it an easy impulse buy for Apple fans. Since its release in fall 2010, the streaming-media box has received a variety of software and service updates that make it more appealing. Now, the entire iTunes video catalog is available for streaming.
The Apple TV may just be a "hobby" in Apple's eyes, but it's been quietly improving over the last year. The current iteration of the product was released in the fall of 2010, and at that time was derided for only being able to stream a few Fox and ABC TV shows. Since then, Apple has issued a variety of software and service updates. Now, the entire iTunes video catalog is available for streaming. Apple has also tightly integrated Rotten Tomatoes movie ratings, and iTunes purchases are saved in the cloud, so you can always restream them--or download them to iOS devices (iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch) and computers running iTunes. And with the advent of iOS 5, the Apple TV's gotten a few new features, such as AirPlay mirroring and Photo Stream support. And all of that is in addition to a wider range of third-party content "channels," including Netflix, YouTube, Vimeo, a good sports lineup (NHL, NBA, MLB.TV), Flickr photos, the Wall Street Journal, and Internet radio and podcasts--some (but not all) of which require paid subscriptions.
Apple TV's compact design still beats the Roku 2's
The Apple TV's exterior design may be over a year old, but it's still best-in-class. The compact all-black box has a glossy finish around the sides, and a matte finish on the top that does a good job of resisting fingerprints. It's technically larger than the competing Roku 2, but both are so small that you'll barely notice them in your TV cabinet.
Around back are the Apple TV's few ports: HDMI, optical audio output, and Ethernet. (There's also a Micro-USB port, but it's only used for service and support.) Note that HDMI is the only video connection available, so if you have an older TV, you're out of luck.
Of course, Apple TV also has built-in 802.11n Wi-Fi--the fastest currently available. So as long as you're using the Apple TV either in an area covered by your Wi-Fi network or with an Ethernet cable, you're good to go.
The detail page for a movie has a plot summary, cast and crew information, and Rotten Tomatoes movie ratings. You can browse by actors and directors, so if you liked Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life," you can browse his other films. The only competing streaming-movie service that looks nearly as good is Vudu, which somewhat surprisingly isn't offered on the Roku 2.
The user interface isn't quite as strong when it comes to third-party services like Netflix. The Apple TV forces Netflix to adopt an Apple TV-like look that forces you to pick categories like "Instant Queue" or "Recently Watched" right away. It's fine, but it's not as good as the more standard interface used on the PlayStation 3, which gives you large cover art right away and lets you quickly browse between the different categories. It's not surprising that Apple wants to control the look and feel of the menus, but in this case it hurts the user experience. The same criticism extends to many of the other third-party services.
Last year, Apple's Apple TV offerings were a mess, with only a fraction of the content on iTunes being available to stream on the Apple TV. The rest of iTunes' catalog required you to first download it on a PC using iTunes. The upside was 99-cent TV show rentals; the downside was limited selection and confusion.
Apple switched its approach over the summer and it's made a huge difference. Now all TV shows available on iTunes are available to stream on the Apple TV. TV show rentals are gone. Instead, you can purchase an HD episode for $3 or a season at a discounted rate.
Apple also remembers your purchases now with iCloud. That means not only can you rewatch shows on your Apple TV, but you can also download them to a PC or other iOS device. That's a great option, especially for long trips.
Aside from iTunes, Apple TV also supports a few streaming-media services, including Netflix, MLB.TV, NHL, NBA, YouTube, Vimeo, and WSJ Live. It can stream podcasts and Internet radio, plus it provides access to photos via either Flickr or Photo Stream. Apple doesn't do a great job of pointing this out, but the podcast section includes video podcasts, so you can get content from sources like Revision 3, CNET, and TED Talks.
That's not a bad collection of services, but the Roku 2 has many more and we're not just talking about niche content providers--the Roku 2 supports Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant, HBO Go, Pandora, MOG, Rdio, and Epix. Of course, it all depends on how much streaming content you consume, but heavy streamers will be better off with the Roku 2.
The included remote is as minimalist as the box itself. It's the same superslim clicker included with iMacs, consisting of an aluminum casing with a directional pad, a menu button, and a play/pause button. The Apple TV interface is simple enough that this remote is all you need, as long as you're familiar with standard Apple navigation--use the menu button to jump back.