Apple TV review: A great streaming box, especially for Apple fans

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MSRP: $99.00

The Good The Apple TV lets you stream all the video content in the iTunes Store to your HDTV, with purchases stored in the cloud. Netflix, Hulu, HBO, YouTube and dozens of other online services are available, plus music, videos, and photos can be streamed from iOS devices using AirPlay.

The Bad Lacks the app store, improved remote and voice functionality of the 2015 Apple TV. The competing Roku 2 and 3 offer more content sources (including Amazon Instant) and cross-platform search. And the Apple TV platform is less of a streaming standout if you don't own other Apple devices.

The Bottom Line While it's a step behind the Roku and less cutting-edge than the 2015 Apple box, the older Apple TV remains an excellent streaming box, especially for those invested in Apple hardware and the iTunes ecosystem.

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8.0 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Ecosystem 8
  • Features 7
  • Performance 8
  • Value 8

The 2012 version of the Apple TV reviewed here has been discontinued as of October 2016. Shoppers instead should check out the updated Apple TV released in 2015. It's 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.

Now playing: Watch this: Apple refreshes tvOS, gets better at searching with Siri

If you've already invested in iTunes TV shows, movies and music, not to mention games on your iPhone or iPad, the updated Apple TV should be your first choice for a home media streamer. However, if you want 4K and HDR video, or if you want more programming choices including Amazon and Vudu, you should also check out alternatives such as Roku and Amazon Fire TV, which start as low as $30.

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.

Apple TV
Sarah Tew/CNET

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."

Apple TV
Sarah Tew/CNET
Apple TV
Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Apple TV user interface

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.

Apple TV user interface

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.

Other streaming services: Improved third-party support

The traditional knock against the Apple TV was that it was short on apps, but that's not fair anymore. In addition to iTunes content, there's support for most major streaming video services, including Netflix, HBO Now, HBO Go, Hulu Plus, YouTube, MLB.TV, Watch ESPN, NBA, NHL, Crunchyroll, Qello, and Vimeo. There are even a couple live TV news apps: Sky News and WSJ Live. There are still some notable exceptions -- particularly Amazon Instant -- but I get the sense that most buyers will be perfectly satisfied with the Apple TV's current slate of services. And it's easy to miss that the podcast section actually includes quite a bit of web video content, including content from TED Talks, NASA, PBS and CNET.

Apple TV interface
Sarah Tew/CNET

The Apple TV is noticeably light when it comes to streaming music apps; there's no dedicated support for popular apps like Spotify, Rdio, Amazon Cloud Player and Pandora. That's not a problem if you own an iPad or iPhone -- since you can easily access those services using AirPlay -- but anyone intending to use the Apple TV as a standalone device won't have many music options.

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