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

Apple TV (fall 2010)

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Matthew Moskovciak
Matthew_Moskovciak.jpg

Matthew Moskovciak

Senior Associate Editor / Reviews - Home theater

Covering home audio and video, Matthew Moskovciak helps CNET readers find the best sights and sounds for their home theaters. E-mail Matthew or follow him on Twitter @cnetmoskovciak.

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Apple TV (Fall 2010)
8.0

Apple TV (fall 2010)

The Good

The <b>Apple TV</b> 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.

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.

Design
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.

Our other frustration is the lack of cross-platform browsing and search. For example, if you browse movies, you'll notice that "The Trip" is available to rent for $5, but it's also available to watch on Netflix at no extra charge if you're a subscriber. That's not necessarily a knock against the Apple TV, since no other device handles this well either, but it would be nice if there were a "Watch for free on Netflix" button when browsing movies.

The Apple TV definitely provides a vastly better browsing experience than the Roku 2, but as one CNET editor put it, the Roku 2's interface "gets the job done." It depends on how much you care about ease of use and eye candy.

Movies and TV shows
Last year, Apple's Apple TV offerings were a mess, with a 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. The selection of TV shows is really quite comprehensive, with tons of shows offered both by major networks and cable stations. If you're interested in what the selection is like, check out iTunes.

Apple TV
Your saved purchases are stored in the cloud and you can download them to other iOS devices.

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.

The main iTunes competitor here is Amazon Instant, which just happens to be featured on Roku's line of competing boxes. For TV, the selection of shows seems to be nearly equal between the two services, and the pricing for HD shows is the same at $3. However, Amazon.com does offer the option to purchase SD versions of shows for $2. It's a nice choice, especially for shows where you're not as picky about image quality. On the other hand, Amazon currently doesn't provide the option of downloading movies or TV shows, only streaming them.

Streaming services: Netflix, MLB.TV, and more
Aside from iTunes, the Apple TV also supports a few streaming-media services, including Netflix, MLB.TV, NHL, NBA, YouTube, Vimeo, and WSJ Live. It can also 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.

Apple TV
Apple TV's collection of streaming services is smaller than Roku's.

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.

AirPlay
The Apple TV's lack of streaming-media apps is somewhat made up for by AirPlay. We've covered AirPlay plenty in the past, but it's a killer feature if you own other iOS devices. The idea is you can stream photos, music, and videos straight from another iOS device to the Apple TV. That includes many third-party apps, so while the Apple TV doesn't have a Pandora app, your iPhone does and you can listen via AirPlay. Notice we said many third-party apps, because not all of them support it, including Hulu Plus and HBO Go. So while AirPlay can substitute for some apps, it's not a panacea.

The other awesome aspect of AirPlay is that you can stream your personal music collection. It works with any music you have stored on an iOS device and you can also stream your iTunes music collection from a computer. It's one of the easiest ways to listen to your digital music in your living room and it's only going to get easier with iTunes Match--more on that later.

AirPlay mirroring
AirPlay mirroring is the latest update to the Apple TV's AirPlay functions, but despite the hype, we don't think it's a very useful feature yet. The mirroring displays exactly what's on your iPad 2 or iPhone 4S on your TV screen, including games, the iPad's menus--almost anything. The exception is apps that don't allow "HDMI video out," which includes HBO Go. Also, don't count on AirPlay mirroring as a way to get streaming-video apps like Hulu Plus on your Apple TV. The video quality is much too choppy and the resolution of the iPad is too small to be enjoyable on a TV.

iPad mirroring is a cool trick and it's definitely fun to show off, but right now it doesn't have much of a practical purpose.

iTunes Match: Coming soon
The Apple TV home screen lists movies and TV shows, but there's strangely no header for music--yet. Expect that to change when iTunes Match is released later in October. You can read the full details on Apple's site, but the idea is that for $25 a year Apple will store your personal music collection in the cloud.

We haven't had any chance to use iTunes Match yet, but it's an intriguing option that we think could add a lot of value to the Apple TV. We'll update this review when iTunes Match is released later this month and we gets some hands-on time with the service.

Performance
A lot of fuss is often made about the fact that the Apple TV isn't 1080p, but we don't think that's a major shortcoming. Streaming content in general looked very good, both from iTunes and Netflix. We could nitpick about some of the minor false contouring we saw, but the most people won't notice the difference. Wireless performance was also rock-solid over our testing period.

Apple TV vs. Roku 2: Which should I buy?
There are lots of options for streaming media these days--Blu-ray players, game consoles, and so on--but when it comes to streaming-media boxes, we think the choice should come down to the Apple TV and the Roku 2. There are other decent options (WD TV Live, Boxee Box, Sony SMP-N200), but the Apple TV and Roku 2 currently offer the best value.

We've covered this head-to-head matchup of streaming boxes before, and our answer is still largely the same. If you want the widest variety of content, go with Roku. If you're already committed to the Apple platform--iTunes, iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad--go with the Apple TV, as you'll gain a lot from Apple-only features like AirPlay.

We'd also add one more comment: if you want the simplest, most straightforward streaming-media experience, Apple TV has the edge there too. That might not matter to tech enthusiasts who've been streaming media for years, but it makes it a more mainstream-friendly box.

Apple TV (Fall 2010)
8.0

Apple TV (fall 2010)

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 7Performance 8