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Apple TV

An Apple Media device lets you Rent HD movies and TV shows, stream Netflix, and more

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Apple TV and the Plight of the Early Adopter

  • Oct 5, 2010
The Apple TV (second generation) was released last week, and like the dutiful Apple Fan Boy that I am, I picked mine up as soon as it appeared in the Apple Store.  After a full weekend of playing with the device, I'm still somewhat conflicted as to whether or not I would recommend it others.  The truth is... it depends...

Judge a book by it's cover?

If you go for pure design aesthetics, as usual, Apple has done an incredible job.  The new Apple TV is tiny.  It's about the size of a squared-off hockey puck.  It has no buttons, and only connections for power, HDMI, optical audio, and ethernet.  It also has a USB port, but that currently has no value as a media player.  If you opt to use the built-in WiFi and an HDMI connection, you only end up using two cables... power and HDMI.  There is also a single white light on the front to let you know whether the device is "ON" or in "SLEEP" mode.  For those who must pass the most stringent WAF standards (Wife Approval Factor), the Apple TV is an easy sell.

 Can it play my old VHS Tapes?

The primary function of the Apple TV is to stream online content to your TV on-demand.  That means it won't play your DVD's or blu-ray disks.  It also does not have any storage available for content, so you can't even buy your favorite episodes of Glee to store on the device to watch over and over again.... well, not without some help from another device, anyway.  So what's the point?  That's where things get a little fuzzy and where you have to decide if the Apple TV is right for you...

Netflix -- I'm leading off with Netflix because this is the BEST interface for Netflix I've ever used... and I've tried a bunch...I've used Netflix apps on Xbox Live, LG Blu-ray players, Plex for Mac, Windows Media Center Plug-in, and the iPad.  If you have a Netflix account with On-Demand streaming, the Apple TV is worth it for that feature alone even if you have one of the methods I listed above -- it's that much better.  The Netflix interface on the Apple TV gives you several ways to browse the On-Demand library and presents you with lots of information that is easy to digest and scan through.  The feature I liked best, however, is when you select a movie, you can click to a "More" screen which shows actors and the director of that movie.  If you highlight an actor's (or director's) name, you then see other movies available for On-Demand.  None of the other devices I've used had that feature, and it makes it really fast and fun to find something new to watch.  The Netflix interface on the Apple TV also seemed to start playing content faster than any of the other devices I used, and I found the picture quality to consistently superior to the other Netflix streaming devices.  If you're already paying the $9+/month for Netflix, this is the best way to enjoy it.

iTunes Rentals -- The next best option for content is iTunes rentals.  Apple is offering TV show rentals for $0.99 per episode and HD movie rentals for $4~$5 per movie.  I found the movie selection to be pretty good, but the TV shows are currently limited to Fox and ABC programming.  It is early, and this may change in the future, but for now, that can be pretty limiting.  I feel that the $4-$5 charge per movie rental is a little steep, especially if you consider if you rent two movies per month, you could probably get a much better value by going with a Netflix plan (which does require a blu-ray or dvd player to get the most out of it since not all content from Netflix is available on-demand).  However, the pictures quality from iTunes is very good, and even though the Apple TV is only capable of 720p High Definition output (as opposed to the more detailed 1080p), I still found the picture quality to be VERY good.  I watched several movie trailers on my projection screen, and even though the image wasn't quite as sharp as a bluray, I would have no problems watching a movie through the Apple TV.

iTunes Home Sharing -- What if  you already have a huge music, movie or tv collection on your computer?  That's where Home Sharing comes in to play.  Home Sharing lets you share your iTunes content from your computer so you can stream it to your Apple TV.  This has some drawbacks.
  1. Your computer needs to be on and running iTunes for this work
  2. Your content needs to be in the iTunes library which only supports specific formats
  3. My parents don't know what any of this means and are going to have to call me to set it up for them.
If you're a little more savvy to how all this computer and networking stuff works, then the Apple TV is a great device to get music and video from your computer to your big TV.  But this is going to be a major turn-off for lots of people

YouTube -- Like most other "internet ready" devices, the Apple TV has a YouTube interface as well.  Once again, the interface is great and easy to navigate (and if you use the Remote app on your iOS device, you can even use the keyboard on your iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad to enter in your search for that "sneezing panda" video (which is much easier than chasing the cursor around the on-screen keyboard using the arrows and enter key on the remote control).  While the interface is great, I just don't find YouTube content that compelling that I'd spend an evening watching it.  But if you have some friends over and wanted to show them a great rendition of "Do You Want to Know A Secret", this is a great way to do it.

And the Other Stuff -- In addition to the above,the Apple TV has streaming radio stations (I was able to find my KROQ as well as NPR, which would have been handy if this was around when I was in college on the East Coast and I was jonesing for some Kevin & Bean).  There's also connects to Mobile Me and Flickr, which were both interesting, but not how I'd spend an evening.

Other than the Netflix interface, the other currently available features on the Apple TV aren't terrible compelling, but Apple still has one more trick up their sleeve.  When Apple first announced the new Apple TV, they also revealed "AirPlay", and it's scheduled to be released in November.

AirPlay is where the Apple TV currently has the most potential.  AirPlay allows you to stream content from your iOS device to the Apple TV.  During the announcement, Steve Jobs gave the example of watching Toy Story in the car on the way home on your iPhone, but when you get in the house, you press a button, and you can continue the movie where you left off, only watching it on your home TV via Apple TV.  While that's interesting, I think the bigger use case will be streaming your personal photos and videos from your iPhone to the Apple TV.  Eventually, developers will be able to access those same services, so potentially Hulu and Pandora will let  you AirPlay their content from your iOS device to the Apple TV as well.  Taking it a step further, game developer might be able to AirPlay video to your TV and let you use the iPhone or iPod touch as a video game controller.  All of a sudden, Apple is in the video game console business just as quickly as they found themselves in the mobile gaming industry.

So Who Should Buy the Apple TV?

The Spender
-- If you've got deep pockets and don't mind regularly dropping $4 for a Starbucks, then the $.99 TV rental or $5 movie rental probably won't scare you away.  The convenience factor is huge and the content library will only continue to grow, so the Apple TV is a great way to access that content.  But even if you only watched one half-hour TV rental per night, you would be spending $30/month, and that could quickly escalate if you toss in a few movies.

Netflix Subscribers -- This one is pretty much a no-brainer.  If you have internet and you have Netflix (on-demand access), then this is the best way to get the most out of your Netflix account..  Other than the one time cost of $99 for the Apple TV, there's no additional cost beyond the monthly Netflix fee you're already paying. 

The iFAN -- If you're already bought into the iPad, iPod, iPhone and iTunes ecosystem, then the Apple TV is essentially a $99 dongle that your other devices can share to stream content to your TV wirelessly (eventually).  At this point, you're already familiar with the iTunes Home Sharing configuration and understand the Device Authorization rules for getting content from your computer to your iDevice.  It's only a matter of time before Apple opens up more pathways to share content between the iOS devices and the Apple TV, so this should be a great fit.

The Traveller -- This one hasn't really been touched on much, but due to the Apple TV's tiny size, it really becomes a great travel companion.  If you're in a hotel or visiting family and you have access to the internet, you can plug in the Apple TV  and you have instant access to a huge rental/Netflix library.  Plus, after a full day of taking pictures of the kids on your iPhone, at the end of the day, you can gather around the TV and check out the pictures and videos from that day without having to hassle with cables and computers or syncing.  Why wouldn't you take the Apple TV with you wherever you go?

Who Should NOT Buy the Apple TV?

The Audiophile -- If you only want the very best in audio and video quality, stick with blu-ray.  As of now, that is still the best way to get the highest quality picture and sound.  As internet speeds increase and compression improves, that could change, but for now, blu-ray still trumps everything else that is out there.

The Miser --  If you're hoping the Apple TV has a one time cost of $99 and then expect to watch whatever you want for free, you better really really like YouTube.  Like a DVD player, the Apple TV really only works if you're willing to spend money on the content.  You have buy disks for a DVD player, and you have to pay for movies and tv shows (either via rental, netflix, iTunes, etc) if you want to watch them on the Apple TV.

The Unplugged -- If you don't have a high-speed internet connection, don't bother.


It's pretty hard to come up with a blanket statement to summarize the usefulness of the Apple TV.  It depends on how much you're willing to pay, how you plan to use it, and what you have already.  And even still, it's very early in the lifecycle for the Apple TV and there are plenty of features still to come.  But based on my early experiences with it and its untapped potential yet to come, I'd personally buy it again in a heartbeat.   

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More Apple TV reviews
Quick Tip by . September 28, 2010
Now that the Apple TV is shipping, I wonder how long until Apple releases an SDK for the system.
Quick Tip by . September 17, 2010
Apple's AirPlay iOS 4.2 feature might make the AppleTV the "must have" accessory for all iOS device owners. Instant Video DJ from you couch. If you come across a cool video on the web while browsing on your iPad, click a button and send the video up to your TV.
Quick Tip by . September 16, 2010
From the current specs alone, the AppleTV redesign doesn't offer me much more than my existing setup, but I'm anxious to see if the App Store gets expanded to the AppleTV sooner rather than later.
About the reviewer
Andrew ()
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I'm a technology early adopter. I thoroughly enjoy geeking out with the latest hardware, software and electronics. I probably have as much fun setting up, tweaking, and configuring systems as I do actually … more
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Apple TV has been redesigned to be small in size but big on entertainment. Rent from the largest selection of HD movies — many available the same day they come out on DVD. Watch Netflix titles instantly. Rent TV shows, commercial free in HD. And stream photos and music from your computer to your widescreen TV.
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