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Apple TV (fall 2010) review: Apple TV (fall 2010)

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The Good The Apple TV lets you stream all of the movies and TV shows available in the iTunes Store to your HDTV on a pay-per-view basis, with purchases stored in the cloud for future on-demand access. It offers Netflix and a handful of other online video, audio, and photo services, and can stream content from any iOS device or computer running iTunes. Apple TV's user interface is the best of its kind.

The Bad The competing Roku 2 offers more streaming services, including Amazon Instant, Hulu Plus, HBO Go, and Pandora. The new AirPlay mirroring feature seems cool, but doesn't currently have much practical use. And the upcoming Roku LT will offer much of the same streaming functionality for half the price. Apple TV won't work with older, pre-HD TVs.

The Bottom Line The Apple TV is an excellent streaming video box, especially for Apple fans who will use AirPlay and the upcoming iTunes Match service, but it's missing a few key apps like Hulu Plus and Pandora.

8.0 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Features 7
  • Performance 8

Editors' note (March 7, 2012): As of March 16, 2012, the 2010 Apple TV reviewed here has been replaced with an updated 2012 model. The new Apple TV adds support for 1080p video, has an updated A5 processor, and sports an updated main interface (which is also available on this model via a free download). Otherwise, the features and design of the new model are identical to the one reviewed here.

Editors' note: The Apple TV reviewed here was originally released and reviewed in fall 2010. Because Apple has added a variety of new features and service changes via free software updates, we've updated the review below and raised the rating accordingly.

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 that have made a big difference. 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. 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.

The Apple TV's main competition is Roku's line of streaming boxes, and it's a close call. For the budget buyer, it seems likely that the upcoming Roku LT will offer the best overall value, as long as you don't need to stream music or videos from your own PC. At the $100 level, the Roku 2 XS offers more streaming-media options (Amazon Instant, Hulu Plus, HBO GO, Pandora, and MOG), but its user interface isn't nearly as nice as the Apple TV's and it lacks Apple-friendly features like AirPlay. The Roku 2 XS remains our Editors' Choice for its superior lineup of streaming media services, but the Apple TV is a better choice if you already own other Apple products or if you prefer its more refined user interface.

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.

Apple TV
The Apple TV is tiny, but the Roku 2 is even smaller.

The Apple TV's 0.6-pound weight gives it a solid feeling, especially compared with the hollow-feeling Roku 2. That heft doesn't just give it a perceived boost to build quality; it also helps keep the Apple TV planted in place despite the weight of an HDMI cable tugging at the back. (The textured nonskid surface on the bottom helps too.)

Apple TV portas
There's only HDMI for video, so you can't use the Apple TV with older TVs.

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.

Apple TV remote
The included remote is as simple as it gets.

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 we never felt the need for additional controls. Skipping forward and backward is intuitively done with the navigation circle and although we thought we wanted a Mute button, Play/Pause worked just as well in every instance we ran into.

The Apple TV can also be controlled with an iPad or iPhone using Apple's Remote application, and the experience is quite good. You can remotely control music from your iTunes collection, and use swipe gestures to navigate menus. We did prefer using the actual remote for navigation, but if you already have your iPhone out, it's useful in a pinch. If you're playing music from your iOS handheld and the Apple TV is hooked to a separate audio amplifier, you won't need to have the TV on, either.

User interface
The Apple TV's user interface is far better than that of any other streaming-video box we've yet seen.

Apple TV interface

Apple TV
Apple TV's user interface is the best we've seen on a streaming-media box.

The main interface has simple, straightforward menu choices. Jump into movies and the experience gets even better, with large cover art for browsing. The detail page for a movie has a plot summary, with cast and crew information, plus Rotten Tomatoes movie ratings. We also loved that you can also 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.

TV offerings are similarly laid out, and if you subscribe to a season of a show, you'll even get an iOS-style red number in the upper left corner letting you know there are new episodes.

Apple TV
The Netflix interface isn't quite as good on the Apple TV as on competing devices.

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 from the first screen 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.

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