Apple TV (2nd generation, late 2010) review

The original Apple TV, announced in 2006 and released in early 2007, was Apple’s first take on providing media streaming to the living room. Four years and three software updates later, the Apple TV remained just a ‘hobby’, to use the word repeatedly uttered by Apple executives to describe the product. With the release of the second-generation Apple TV, Apple has dramatically changed the technology while also redefining the product’s target audience. It’s an enormous change with a huge amount of upside, but until the device becomes more flexible – and the UK gets more content – it’s still a work in progress. UPDATE: read our latest Apple TV review.

The big picture

Before digging into the details of what the Apple TV’s software does and doesn’t do, it’s worth reviewing the hardware itself. Almost the only thing the new Apple TV has in common with its predecessor is its name. The previous silver-and-white model was essentially a stripped-down Mac powered by a single-core Intel processor and running a modified version of OS X 10.4. With its included hard drive, it had a bigger footprint than a Mac mini, consumed a lot of power, and threw off a whole lot of heat.

In contrast, this new black box is a quarter of the size of the original Apple TV, runs a version of iOS just like the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch, and is powered by the same Apple A4 processor used in the iPad. The new Apple TV relies on solid-state storage (8GB worth, according to iFixIt) rather than a moving hard drive, sips power, and runs cool to the touch.

Apple TV

To top it all off, the previous Apple TV cost £223; this new, more advanced model will set you back £99. [As usual there is a price discrepancy between the US and UK. In the US the device was previously $229, and now costs $99. Bearing in mind that the US price doesn’t include sales tax, the UK price before tax should be comparable with the US pricing, but excluding VAT the UK price is £84.26 (or $129.76) which leaves UK shoppers paying around £20 ($30) more. Apple claims the extra cost “includes approximately £23 VAT, duty and levies”.]

The Apple TV is 98mm square, 23mm high, and weighs 270g – or, to put it another way, it’s really small. On the back you’ll find a plug for the included power cable, an HDMI port capable of carrying HD video and 5.1-channel digital audio to your TV, an optical digital audio port for connecting directly to a surround-sound audio system, a 10/100Base-T Ethernet port (in case you prefer wired networking to the Apple TV’s built-in 802.11a/b/g/n WiFi), and a micro-USB port that Apple says is reserved for service and support (at least until some industrious people came up with a way to use it for other purposes). You’ll need to supply your own HDMI cable for use with the Apple TV and if your HDTV has support for only component inputs, and not HDMI, you’re out of luck.

Along with the major upgrade to the hardware, this new Apple TV comes with a shift in Apple’s philosophy about what the Apple TV is for. If we had to sum up the original Apple TV philosophy, it would be that the device existed as a way to take the iTunes content you stored on your computer and play it back in your living room, and also facilitate the purchase and rental of additional items from the iTunes Store.

The new model, in contrast, won’t let you buy stuff at all. The only financial transactions that happen on the box itself are rentals – of movies and, in the US for now, HDTV shows. Movies are available in the UK and you can rent them for £4.50 for HD, or between 99p and £3.49 for standard definition. Once rented you have 30 days to watch them.

HDTV shows, on the other hand, are notoriously absent. We presume that Apple is still striking deals with television companies in locations outside America and that this feature will be implemented down the line. There is some debate as to how applicable 99c (or approx 59p) HDTV show rentals are in the UK, although it is compelling when compared to the approximiately £50 monthly charge required by Sky and Virgin Media for HDTV. For now, though, it remains a future promise.

Apple TV

Since buying stuff from iTunes requires you to download the file and store it somewhere, you have to do that from a Mac or PC running iTunes. (The Apple TV will play those purchases back, of course, but you must make the purchase on your computer.) Without a hard drive, there’s no way to sync that content from your computer to the Apple TV, so playback requires a Mac or PC with iTunes 10.0.1 or later to be running to watch anything not coming from the internet.

This is a big change for older Apple TV owners, who may have dumped lots of content onto the Apple TV’s drive and preferred to shut down their computers before sitting on the couch for the evening’s entertainment. It also marks the first time that Apple has truly embraced using its own hardware to facilitate the playback of paid video content from a service other than Apple, because the new Apple TV offers full support for Netflix video streaming in the US. Again, this is something missing in the UK device. Netflix enables unlimited streaming of a back catalogue of movies for $8.99 in the US. There are rumours of a UK launch soon, and – like HDTV rentals – this could well be a game changer.

It should be noted that if you have a US iTunes account you can download and watch HDTV shows in the UK, but Netflix checks your IP address and will not play outside of the US (or Canada).

Remote control

By default, you control the Apple TV via the included infrared remote. It’s basically the same aluminium remote Apple sells for £15 for Macs, but with a tiny design variation: the ring of buttons is ever so slightly raised.

If you prefer to stow your Apple TV somewhere out of sight (or aren’t a fan of Apple’s remote) you’ll need to control it by other means. The good news is that version 2.0 of Apple’s Remote app for iOS will work as a WiFi-based remote – and it’s now a universal app for iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad.

The Remote app functions more or less the same as the hardware remote. It works well for scrolling around the Apple TV interface and selecting items, but the change in the way you access content from your iTunes-running computers has led to a huge loss of functionality with the Remote app. With the old Apple TV, you could load an interface visible on your iOS device that let you select categories (Movies, TV Shows, Podcasts, and so on) and select an item to play. Now, the Remote app is little more than a direct replacement for the capabilities of the hardware remote.

Getting set up

Apple seems to have got in a groove recently when it comes to packaging. The company has slimmed down and eliminated as much plastic and waste as possible, especially on Macs and iPhones. The Apple TV follows that trend, arriving in a tiny cardboard box. Inside there’s just the Apple TV, an elegantly wrapped power cable, the remote, and a small paper Getting Started guide.

After attaching an HDMI cable and plugging the Apple TV in to an HDTV, we were up and running. The problem with a device like the Apple TV, though, is that to really get it working you need to enter in some data, on a device that doesn’t come with a keyboard. Yes, the iOS Remote app will let you key in text – but only once it’s sharing the same network as the Apple TV.

We had to enter in a WiFi password and then an iTunes ID and password (in order to connect to iTunes and the Remote app via Home Sharing), all with the remote, before everything started working smoothly. It’s a pain, and there’s probably no alternative. At least it’s something you only have to do once.

The first time we tried to rent a movie, we did run into a bit of security: the Apple TV prompted us for the security number on the back of the default credit card on the iTunes account we were using. Once we entered it, all future rentals happened with just a couple of clicks and no other identification was necessary.

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