If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. That seems to be the motto for Apple with the Apple TV, which Steve Jobs once described as his hobby. The latest model retains the tiny form factor of theplayer, but it improves on it by adding a new, easier-to-use interface and support for 1080p resolution Full HD playback.
The price of the Apple TV remains unchanged at £99. So is there enough here to convince those of you who've been less than impressed with previous versions to plump for Apple's little box of TV tricks?
Design and connections
Outwardly, little has changed in this update. That's no bad thing in my book, because if you were to design a simple media streamer from scratch, this is pretty much how you'd want it to look. For starters, it's tiny -- small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. It's ideally sized for hiding away beneath your flat-screen TV and the combination of rounded corners and matte black design are quite cool without 'screaming look at me'.
Its petite dimensions leave you wondering why so many other media streamers are so large and unwieldy. The case design is very tidy -- even the power supply is built into it.
There are no buttons on the front to break up the clean lines. Around the back is a pretty minimal set of connections, but enough to get the job done. What you get is an HDMI port, optical digital audio-out and an Ethernet socket. As Wi-Fi Wireless N is built in, you don't have to use the Ethernet socket at all, but some people may find it more reliable for streaming HD movies if they've got poor Wi-Fi coverage in their home.
As with the previous model, there's no memory card reader and the micro-USB port on the back is only used for service and support, so the only way to get content onto this box is via your home network and broadband connection.
The remote remains unchanged from the previous model too. It's minimalist in the extreme, but somehow Apple has made it work. Measuring 12cm long by 3cm wide, it's tiny. But as the body is hewn from aluminium, it feels sturdy and pleasant to hold.
A four-way navigation circle is at the top with a select button in the middle, and beneath this is just the menu button, which doubles as a back button, and the play/pause button. If for some reason you don't get on with this mini zapper, you can use the Remote application that's free to download for the iPad.or
The most noticeable difference on this model is the new interface. Apple has largely given the older, list-style menus the heave-ho. The new interface uses a grid-style layout that's a lot closer to what you get on the iPhone and iPad. Across the top of the home screen is a banner that shows cover art for the movie and TV rental service. Beneath this there's a grid of large colourful icons for the various supported services.
The top line has entries for movies and TV shows, which takes you to the iTunes interface where you can rent and stream content. Next is an icon for music which is actually the entry for iTunes Match, Apple's cloud-based music service. After this comes the computers entry, where you access music, photos and videos stored on your computer. Finally on this row is the settings menu. Beneath this top grid line you'll find the icons for the various other services including Netflix, YouTube and Vimeo.
The list-style interface elements haven't been completely removed, however. For example, if you access the computers icon and select your iTunes library, the artist, song and album entries are presented as long lists down the right-hand side of the screen, with album art shown on the left.
The interface is by far the slickest, fastest and easiest to use that I've seen on any media streamer. The Apple TV really does stand head and shoulders above the competition here. However, as there's an update available for the second generation Apple TV to give it the same user interface, the new UI is not in itself a reason to upgrade if you've got the previous model.
Buying movies and TV shows
If you're happy to rent content, then iTunes remains the best way for UK users to do this. Firstly, Apple's purchasing system makes it very easy to buy movies, TV shows or music tracks, using either your existing Apple ID or one you've created on the Apple TV. Secondly, iTunes has the largest and most up-to-date library out there. For example, at the time of writing, the iTunes movie service offered new releases such as Tintin, Breaking Dawn, The Help and The Ides of March, while in the TV section you could purchase new shows such as Homeland, Alcatraz and The River.
What's more, most of these movies and shows are available in HD. Films cost between £1.99 for older titles and £4.49 for the newest releases. TV shows cost between £1.89 and £2.49, with a series pass covering a show's whole season priced at between £10.00 and £28.99.
Both the movies and TV shows interfaces are excellent. There's now a banner to let you quickly jump to stuff like the top movies lists, purchase TV shows or to search by TV network or movie genre.