Apple TV review (third gen, 2012), updated for 2017: Apple TV buying advice
Welcome to our review of the third-gen Apple TV (2012), updated for 2017. If you'd prefer to read about the newer model, see Apple TV review (fourth-gen, 2015); for rumours concerning the next Apple TV, see New Apple TV 2017 release date rumours.
The Apple TV is a connected set-top box that offers access to iTunes TV shows and movies, as well as content from Netflix, YouTube and Vimeo. In autumn 2016, Apple stopped selling the third-gen Apple TV, and now only sells the fourth-gen model, dating from 2015. But it's still possible to buy the 2012 Apple TV second hand if you shop around. (Indeed, third-gen Apple TVs may pop up from time to time on the Refurbished Store, although there are none at time of writing.) The unit hasn't changed other than this. We have updated this review accordingly.
Apple TV (third gen, 2012) review: What is Apple TV?
When is a TV not a TV? When it's the Apple TV. Apple TV is not even a TV tuner for free-to-air channels, or a digital video recorder to catch shows while you're away from home or watching another channel. The Apple TV is instead a set-top box dedicated to giving your existing TV access to films and TV shows purchased from iTunes and other services such as YouTube and Netflix, as well as all the music and photos you own.
In essence the Apple TV takes all the content that would otherwise be tied to your iPhone, iPad and Mac, and lets it loose on your TV. It's a media-player for your TV that can show off all those lovely movies, TV shows and photos via the biggest display in the house. And it does so in up to 1080p HD.
This does all mean that the Apple TV is really only of interest to those people who already own Apple products. But hey, we're on Macworld.co.uk, so that's you, right?
Apple TV (third gen, 2012) review: Channels
When we say that the Apple TV isn't a TV in the normal sense of the word, because it doesn't feature free-to-air channels, or a digital video recorder to catch shows while you're away, it does offer what could be described as channels, and this content keeps on growing leaving us hopeful for a future where the Apple TV will include links to OnDemand services just like our iPhones and iPads do - think the iPlayer and 4OD apps and you're not to far away.
Apple has made multiple updates to the Apple TV software over recent month, adding a number of new app-style TV channels, delivering new content to Apple TV users.
For some times Apple has offered UK Apple TV users access to Netflix, YouTube, Vimeo and Wall Street Journal Live alongside the iTunes content.
Then in June 2013, Apple announced several new additions to its Apple TV, including Sky News sparking speculation that on-demand services such as BBC iPlayer could be coming to the Apple TV soon. However, there still isn't an iPlayer channel on the Apple TV, although you can stream iPlayer from your iPad or iPhone to your TV via Apple TV using AirPlay.
Unfortunately despite the fact that apps exist for iPhone and iPad, you cannot stream from the 4OD app, or ITV Player, or any other UK channel's iOS apps, as they do not currently work with AirPlay.
Other 'channels' that are available on the Apple TV in the UK include: Qello, which lets worldwide users stream HD concerts and music documentaries on-demand; Crunchyroll, the leading global video service for Japanese Anime and Asian media; Vevo, more music video content; and some randoms, such as Korean TV.
In the US, the Apple TV includes Hulu Plus, HBO Go, Watch ABC, The Disney Channel, Disney XD, Disney Junior, PBS, A&E, History, Lifetime, WatchESPN and more.
New channels in the US added in July include CNBC – as long as you log in with a Comcast or Time Warner password - and Fox Now, which includes programmes such as New Girl. Fox also requires you to log on with your cable password.
Other recent additions in the US include ABC News, PBS Kids, AOL On, and Willow.
In other news, Popcorn Time, known as the Netflix for pirated movies, will soon work with the Apple TV. Although we don't expect it to be around for long.
We continue to be disappointed by the lack of content on the UK Apple TV, which we wouldn't recommend if it wasn't for Netflix. Other devices offer far more content, as you can see from this round up of alternatives to Apple TV.
Apple TV (third gen, 2012) review: Build and design
The Apple TV is a stylish little black box that won't look out of place tucked beneath even the smartest HD TV. It's like a Mac mini, really, measuring 23 x 98 x 98mm and weighing a calorie-free 27g.
It's shiny black and curvy around the sides, and on the top is a matte black finish given relief by a shiny black Apple symbol and the word TV. You can see what they did there, right? To be honest, we suspect Apple might have preferred to call it the iTV but that name wasn't allowed due to the UK TV company of the same name. (That doesn't stop rumours that Apple will launch a TV one day called the iTV).
The connections are all around the back, as is the power socket.
Apple TV (third gen, 2012) review: Is my TV compatible?
If you're going to buy an Apple TV you need to know your own telly is compatible. It probably is. If you have an HD TV with HDMI connectivity you can use the Apple TV as long as it is capable of 1080p or 720p output at 60/50Hz. You're unlikely to have any HD TV that doesn't fit this criteria, but your old CRT or a small, cheap flatscreen won't have HDMI in.
You'll need a broadband connection to access iTunes and the other content stores.
Apple TV (third gen, 2012) review: Should I buy Apple TV?
There is a lot to like about the Apple TV. It's well-built and easy to use. But it offers access to a limited range of content, at a price that is often more expensive than other sources. And some of the better features really only work with other Apple products. Like many premium Apple tech, the Apple TV is best for those Apple completists who have all the gear and every idea how to match them all up. If that sounds like you, the Apple TV is a great product.
Apple TV (third gen, 2012) review: Tech specs
HDMI is not the only connectivity option for the Apple TV. There's also an optical audio for you to output music as well as 10/100BASE-T Ethernet and Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n) to connect to the web. You can connect a keyboard via Bluetooth, and there is an infrared receiver for use with Apple's own remote. Finally there is a Micro-USB connector which is there principally for tech support purposes.
The Apple TV has its own built-in 6-watt universal power supply.
Apple TV (third gen, 2012) review: What can it play?
There are two ways of looking at this. In terms of file formats Apple TV can play H.264 video, MPEG-4 video and motion JPEG (M-JPEG). Audio formats include HE-AAC (V1), AAC (16 to 320 Kbps), protected AAC (from iTunes Store), MP3 (16 to 320 Kbps), MP3 VBR, Audible (formats 2, 3 and 4), Apple Lossless, AIFF and WAV. And the Apple TV can display JPEG, GIF and TIFF images.
Perhaps more importantly from a consumer point of view, the Apple TV gives your big telly access to iTunes TV programs and movies, as well as those of Netflix, YouTube and Vimeo. You can watch Sky News live or on catchup reports, as well as viewing images from Flickr. There are other services; a full list can be found here: http://www.apple.com/uk/appletv/whats-on/.
Apple TV (third gen, 2012) review: User interface
Apple TV's user interface is simple and intuitive, as you'd expect from Apple, and will be familiar to all iPad and iPhone users as it utilises the bright and bold iOS looks.
The main screen delivers big icons for Films, TV Programmes, Computers and Settings, plus a small range of third-party options, including Netflix. The whole experience is very easy to use and stylish to look at.
You navigate the setup menus and input Wi-Fi network and password via the included Apple TV remote or using your iPhone and the Remote app.
Luckily, the Apple TV Software Update 5.2 introduced a handful of useful new features that included the ability to pair the AppleTV with Apple’s own Wireless Keyboard - making use of Bluetooth hardware that has previously lain dormant within the AppleTV’s glossy little black box (Apple says that other Bluetooth keyboards "may also be compatible" as long as they match the layout of a standard Mac keyboard).
This simplifies the task of entering network passwords or using the search function when browsing the iTunes Store or the YouTube app. It’s not exactly revolutionary, but it does suggest that Apple is still trying to refine the AppleTV's interface and make it easier to use in your front room.
Read our review of Apple's Apple TV 5.2 update here.
Apple TV (third gen, 2012) review: What's on Apple TV?
Access to all the iTunes Store content is easy with Apple TV. There are most of the latest HD movies and TV programmes and series to download. But iTunes movie/TV content isn't cheap.
Season 1 of House costs almost as much as a minute in American healthcare: £26.99. You can buy that DVD via Amazon for under a tenner. Season 7 of House on HD is £39.99 on iTunes; but just £17 on DVD. Catching up with the first six seasons of House on iTunes will cost you £179.79. You can pick up the DVDs on Amazon for £57.52, and resell them on eBay for at least half that if you don't want to keep them.
Movies are cheaper. The Adventures of Tintin is £9.99 to buy on iTunes, or you can rent it from iTunes for £3.49. District 9 is £7.99 on iTunes HD. Via Amazon you could buy the DVD of Tintin for the same £9.99 (£15 on Blu-ray), and the District 9 DVD for £3 (or £6.49 on Blu-ray).
There are lots of iTunes movies at 99p and a range under £5 so it's worth looking around for bargains when you're unsure what to watch.
Citizen Kane costs under £4 on DVD. On iTunes, it's… not there.
And that's another fault with online downloads - the range of what's on offer is minuscule compared to standard DVD and Blu-ray formats.
But it can't be beat for immediate gratification. Missed the latest episode of Alcatraz? Bing, it's there on iTunes and therefore on your TV in minutes.
Rainy weekend and kids getting bored? Apple TV's near-immediate downloads could save your sanity.
You can also watch movie trailers and read user reviews via Apple TV, and even let Genius recommend stuff based on your previous viewing habits - all of which makes renting a dud slightly less risky.
Apple TV offers access to movie/TV renting service Netflix. Netflix costs £5.99 a month for unlimited downloads. The trouble is that the number of telly programmes and movies on Netflix is limited - very much so.
The same is true of the available online downloads from Netflix UK rival LoveFilm, not yet part of Apple TV's connected services. But LoveFilm (£4.99/month for unlimited online downloads) has an excellent DVD/Blu-ray disc-renting service from £5.99/month (3 discs a month) or from £7.99/month for as many discs as you can watch and post back plus the online downloads.
If you watch a lot of movies at home and don't need instant access to the very latest films and TV series Lovefilm's disc-renting service is much better value than iTunes.
Both Netflix and LoveFilm's online downloads don't require Apple TV if your telly is Internet-ready. If your TV isn't Internet ready then Apple TV is a neat solution for adding Netflix.
Sky TV's Box Office Sky Store also hosts a wide choice of the latest movies at the same price, or often cheaper than iTunes.
Apple TV (third gen, 2012) review: Apple TV 6.1.1 software update
Apple TV Software Update 6.1.1. It basically bought some stability improvements, but nothing else.
Prior to that the 6.1 software update let you customise your Apple TV by hiding items from the main menu; added some AirPlay security options; and improved the Remote app (that can be run on your iPad or iPhone) so you could see purchased TV shows via it.
(The most recent version of the Apple TV software is tvOS 10. You can read more about that here: tvOS 10's 8 cool new features for your Apple TV.)
Apple TV (third gen, 2012) review: Apple TV 6 software update
For US customers this update bought iTunes Radio features (iTunes Radio hasn't launched in the UK yet).
It also added new iTunes Music Store browsing; iCloud Photos; AirPlay from iCloud; Podcasts; iMovie Theatre and more.
Apple TV (third gen, 2012) review: Apple TV 5.2 software update
The Apple TV Software Update 5.2 introduced a handful of useful new features. Perhaps the most interesting new feature is the ability to pair the Apple TV with Apple's own Wireless Keyboard - making use of Bluetooth hardware that has previously lain dormant within the AppleTV's glossy little black box (Apple says that other Bluetooth keyboards "may also be compatible" as long as they match the layout of a standard Mac keyboard). Take a look at Best alternatives to Apple TV.
This simplifies the task of entering network passwords or using the search function when browsing the iTunes Store or the YouTube app. It's not exactly revolutionary, but it does suggest that Apple is still trying to refine the AppleTV's interface and make it easier to use in your front room - and that should keep the rumour mill about a full TV product going strong for at least another six months.
Improved iTunes support allows you to play your purchased music via the Cloud even if you haven't signed up for iTunes Match). However, we're more intrigued by the fact that the AppleTV has the ability to transmit audio via AirPlay to a set of AirPlay speakers.
The Apple TV could already receive audio and video from Macs and iOS devices using AirPlay, but this software update meant it could also transmit the audio from films and other streaming video content to a set of external AirPlay speakers. That is great for watching films and TV programmes, as it will give the soundtrack a real boost compared to the relatively modest speakers that are built into most TV sets.
Read our tips for using the Apple TV.
There is a lot to like about the third-gen Apple TV. It's well-built and easy to use. But it offers access to a limited range of content; the Apple TV - at least in the UK - still doesn't offer the variety of content offered by much of the competition. Plus, some of the better features really only work with other Apple products, so the Apple TV is best for those Apple completists who have all the gear and every idea how to match them all up. If that sounds like you, the 2012 Apple TV is a great product, and worth seeking out second hand.