Review Update: Fall 2015
As of October 30, 2015, the new Apple TV is available in two versions: $149 for the 32GB model and $199 for the 64GB model. (That's £129 and £169 in the UK, and AU$269 and AU$349 in Australia, respectively). It includes a full-blown app store, integration with Apple's Siri voice-recognition for search and device operation, and a new remote control with a touchpad.
But the 2012 version reviewed here -- now priced at $69, £59 and AU$109-- remains the steal of the bunch. Consistent software updates have kept it a worthy option for streaming video to any HDTV. It delivers video streaming support for Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBO Go (and HBO Now), MLB.TV, and many other providers.
For both the new and old models, AirPlay remains the Apple TV's secret weapon. This feature lets you push videos, music, and photos from an iPhone or iPad, including content from most third-party apps. And if you've got a Mac that runs a reasonably recent version of Apple's OS, Apple TV supports full-fledged screen-mirroring, meaning that you can stream anything on your laptop right to your TV.
Yet, the original Apple TV can't be considered the premier living room box. For now, that honor remains with the Roku 3, which offers up more content options (including Amazon Instant, 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, sure, the Apple TV is a polished streaming-video box that's well worth its price tag. But even despite the price differential, most buyers are better off with the plucky Roku 3.
For a complete list of the video and audio apps available on this Apple TV, the newer model and competing boxes from Roku, Amazon and Google, check out What you can watch on the new Apple TV -- and how it compares to Roku, Fire TV and Chromecast.
Editors' note: The original Apple TV review follows.
Design: Same sleek, black box
The Apple TV still has the best design of any streaming video box. 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, with support for dual-band Wi-Fi. 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. The simplicity makes it easy for anybody to pick it up and get the hang of it, and for the most part its simple controls are enough for everyday use. On the other hand, it can't compete with the Roku 3's delightful remote that adds a built-in headphone jack, Wi-Fi direct control, and a few handy additional buttons like "skip back."
The Apple TV can also be controlled with an iPad or iPhone using Apple's Remote app. Like most smartphone control apps, there's an onscreen "remote" that you can use and the ability to navigate menus via gestures. For most uses, it's not all the useful, especially since you can't actually browse streaming content on your iPad a la Google's Chromecast. What is cool is the remote apps lets you remotely control music from your iTunes collection on a PC, which can be easier than using the remote. And 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 an app store?
The Apple TV user interface got an overhaul in 2012, adopting a more app-centric design that kind of makes your TV look like a giant iPad. Apple's own services are pinned to the top, including rotating cover art for top TV shows and movies. Below are all your other apps and you can rearrange the order so your favorites are toward the top. The icon-driven design works well enough, but it does beg for a true "app store" for the Apple TV.
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. Selecting a title brings up a synopsis, Rotten Tomatoes ratings, cast info, and more. The layout is excellent for browsing content. While I personally use Amazon Instant for most of my video content purchases, I'm always impressed by how nice the iTunes Store experience is when I use the Apple TV.
iTunes Store: Movies, TV shows
The iTunes Store has been through many incarnations on the Apple TV, but it's in the best state it's ever been in. TV shows are $3 for HD, $2 for SD (although it's increasingly rare to find the SD option); movies are $5 to rent in HD, and anywhere between $10 and $20 to purchase.
All of the content is streamed (rather than downloaded) and you can access your purchased movies and TV shows to rewatch as many times as you'd like. Your movie and TV show purchases can also be streamed or downloaded to other Apple devices, including the iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch, Macs, and PCs running iTunes.