Product review: the new Apple TV

5 May 2012

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With all the hoopla about whether Apple is going to bring out a physical television or not – remember, it never said it plans to – it is easy to overlook what I believe to be a formidable product offering in the TV space, the existing Apple TV.

I would count myself among many wags who have urged Apple on to make a television set. And why not? It has had TV tuner technology since the 1990s, it makes beautiful displays and with every new device lately be it the iPad or the iPhone or MacBook Air, design freaks can’t wait to see what Apple does next.

But remember the consumer TV business is highly commoditised and as a result is stagnating, no matter how sleek, beautiful and web-connected the machines become.

And let’s not forget, Apple’s own iPad has become a second TV for many.

So when the opportunity came up to review the new Apple TV I seized it as a chance to see in my mind’s eye what an actual TV made by Apple might feel like to use and gauge whether Apple sees the need to go into the physical TV set market.

First impressions

As usual, unboxing any Apple product today is a treat in itself. You can’t help but admire the care with which everything is presented and placed.

Unboxing the Apple TV box itself – it’s a tiny box just 1-inch high, almost eight inches wide and long – is the last word in minimalisation, it’s just a ribbon of plastic to protect the inputs.

As with a lot of things you try to connect to TVs I dreaded problems with HDMI leads and that kind of put me off setting it up. So I was relieved to see just how quick and easy it all worked out. I just went to the respective HDMI channel and there waiting for me was an experience unmistakingly Apple.

First of all the box itself, there are no buttons. It only comes alive if you are doing anything via the remote and the only sign of life is a tiny blue/white light. If the device isn’t being used it goes into sleep mode.

On the screen itself is a TV representation of iTunes and a range of other services such as Trailers, Netflix and Bloomberg.

What I wasn’t prepared for was how ‘Apple-esque’ the experience was on the TV. It felt like I was using an Apple Mac in terms of controls. The only niggling part of set-up was how I had to input my Apple ID and my Netflix ID and password using the sleek little silver remote control Apple provides with the Apple TV. This was time-consuming because you are moving a cursor up and down, left and right, but thankfully you’ll only ever have to do it once.

The device connects to the internet via either Wi-Fi or an Ethernet cable. Its safe to assume most people these days will use Wi-Fi and AirPlay works beautifully in this scenario.

Content is king

I was impressed with the range of content available. Brand new releases that would be in the video store are all up there on iTunes’ movie store. This being Ireland we don’t have access to the great variety of TV box sets that are available in the US and UK, but the latest movie releases by video are still a compelling reason.
Another cool option is synching the iTunes music library on your Mac via iTunes Match and it is amazing seeing your favourite songs available to play through your TV.

Netflix really comes into its own on the Apple TV. The movies and documentaries available show up in perfect HD. Unfortunately one thing you can’t control is preventing the latest material watched from entering your Facebook Timeline. My partner and her sister had a fine old time of it watching Teen Mom one afternoon while I sat there red-faced as everyone I know on Facebook assumed this was my choice of programme. Anyone who knows me, the next time Charmed appears in my Timeline, it wasn’t me okay?

As I said, the latest releases in the iTunes movie library are a must, and overall there’s quite an eclectic mix up there. New releases cost €4.99 and once you hit play you have 48 hours to watch the movie as much as you want. Until you actually hit play you have the rights to watch the movie for up to 30 days. As the movies get older they decline in price to movies that can be rented for €2.99 down to 99 cents in some cases.

Downloading movies is pretty instant and seamless and you get billed to your iTunes account in the same way as you would for a song or an app.

Apps for the TV

I think the Apple TV is the greatest hint yet as to what an Apple experience would be like if the tech company decided to go and make a TV. The Apple TV device lets you choose screensavers from resources like National Geographic or your Mac, iPhone or iPad’s camera roll.

The store experience is intuitive and when you are going through content like songs or videos album art is displayed prominently and the files are presented in a cascading 3D form.

Channels such as Bloomberg sit cosily alongside apps like Netflix and something tells me that Apple has to be working on something big in terms of bringing content apps to the TV screen.

Whether Apple brings out a physical TV or decides on a set top box, either strategy will work in its favour because there’s so many more directions the Apple TV can go in.

Firstly it’s a content hub for not only video but photos, songs and movies from your various Apple products and I can see real competition heating up from rival platforms like the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 in the PC, Windows Phone and Android ecosystems. Apple has a headstart in this regard because it controls its entire ecosystem. Nevertheless PC users can still make use of the Apple TV for sharing content via iTunes.

But secondly, there’s room for added functionality. For example apps for various media outlets. Another example is communication – it’s always been beyond me why services like Skype have taken so long to emerge on the big screen. Imagine if Facetime on Apple’s iPhone could communicate across the world with iChat on a Mac and a similar app designated specifically for the big screen TV. I think that would be wonderful.

My experience with the Apple TV has convinced me that it’s not the end of the world if Apple doesn’t bring out a physical television any time soon. It would be the end of the world, however, if the sublime functionality I witnessed on the Apple TV isn’t seen as a foundation for a whole slew of new apps.

Verdict

The device I reviewed was the third generation Apple TV which was unveiled at the same time as the new iPad. The big news was that it came with 1080p high definition.

As high definition goes it is as good as having a physical DVD, very high quality indeed. My partner did a double-take when I casually explained that the hi-def movie we were watching one Saturday night, Crazy, Stupid, Love, was more than likely coming to our TV via broadband and via Wi-Fi from a server somewhere in California. She was stunned.

Another key thing to bear in mind is if you lose the tiny little remote that comes with the Apple TV you can actually download a piece of software from Apple that can turn your iPhone, iPad or iPod touch into a version of the remote. Slick or what.

I think the Apple TV is a sign post of sorts for a lot of innovation to come. Interoperability is the key word here. And I can’t wait.

The Apple TV went on sale in March and is avilable for a suggested retail price of €109 including VAT.

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Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com