Apple may or may not release a television someday. In the meantime, it offers a tiny $99 streaming box called the Apple TV.
The Apple TV has never felt like a revolutionary product, but consistent updates have transformed it from a glorified Netflix player into a solid streaming-video box. Apple's beefed up its channel selection, adding , in addition to stalwarts like Netflix, MLB.TV, and YouTube. The Apple TV remains deeply integrated with iTunes, allowing you to stream purchased and rented movies and TV shows, plus with iTunes Match you can get access to your entire digital music collection (if you're a subscriber).
AirPlay remains the Apple TV's secret weapon, letting you push videos, music, and photos from an iPhone or iPad, including content from most third-party apps. And if you've got a newer Mac, you can even pull off full-fledged -- yes, that means you can stream free Hulu right to your TV.
Yet, the Apple TV can't be considered the premier living room box. That honor goes to the Roku 3, which offers up more content options (including Amazon Instant, HBO Go, Pandora, Spotify, and Rdio), excellent cross-platform search, and a nifty remote with a headphone jack for private listening.
If you're deeply invested in the Apple ecosystem, especially iTunes, the Apple TV is a polished streaming-video box that's well worth its $100 price tag. But most buyers are better off with the plucky Roku 3 -- even if it doesn't stream YouTube.
Editors' note: This review was updated April 1, 2013, to take into account recently added features and the competing Roku 3.
Design: Same sleek, black box
The look of the Apple TV hasn't changed from the last incarnation, but it's still the best design around. It's a simple, unobtrusive black box with a small white light on the front that illuminates when it's in active use. Around back are a handful of connections, including HDMI, optical audio output, Micro-USB (for service only), and Ethernet. There's also built-in 802.11n Wi-Fi for connecting to your home wireless network. Note that HDMI is the only video connection available, so if you have an older TV, you're out of luck.
Unlike most other streaming boxes, the Apple TV's power supply is built-in, so there's no separate AC adapter. It also gives the Apple TV a useful heft that keeps it planted even with a heavy HDMI cable hanging out the back.
The included remote is minimalist in a classic Apple way. It has just a navigation circle at the top, a Menu button (which doubles as a Back button), and a Play/Pause button. That may not seem like enough, but I rarely felt the need for additional controls. Skipping forward and backward is intuitively done with the navigation circle, and although you'd think you'd need a Mute button, Play/Pause worked just as well in every instance I ran into. That said, you'll still need your TV's remote to control power, volume, and input switching.
The Apple TV can also be controlled with an iPad or iPhone using Apple's Remote app. You can remotely control music from your iTunes collection, and use swipe gestures to navigate menus. The actual remote is still better for onscreen navigation, but if you already have your iPhone out, it's useful in a pinch. If you're controlling your music collection using the Remote app and the Apple TV is hooked to a separate audio amplifier, you won't need to have the TV on, either.
User interface: Paving the way for more apps?
The Apple TV user interface got an overhaul in 2012. Gone are the old list-style menus, replaced with larger cover art at the top and square icons along the bottom for movies, TV shows, music, computers, and settings. Navigate farther down and there's a grid of icons for the Apple TV's other supported services; it looks more like the screen of an iPad or iPhone than ever before. I'm not convinced that the new home screen is better than the old design, but it's not a huge step in the wrong direction. And if the Apple TV ends up getting its own app store, as has been rumored in the past, the icon-driven design will make a lot more sense.
Selecting movies or TV shows brings you to the iTunes interface. There's a menu bar along the top of the screen by which you can jump to useful features like your purchased content and content you've added to your wish list. Below there's a carousel of promoted content, followed by cover art broken down by categories like new releases and genres. iTunes is still one the best places to buy video content, although Amazon Instant is very competitive these days.