Apple TV First Impressions

Long time no see. I decided that instead of rambling on and on about my newly acquired Apple TV, I’ll just write about it in my blag. I’ve divided the review into sections so you can dive into the action if you’re only interested in one of the aspects.

Pricing and the Package

For Apple, the 119 € they charge for the second generation Apple TV is not much. I mean, it’s like two iPad HDMI cables, right? With that price, you get a beautiful and very small black box that has a HDMI (limited to 720p) output for video/audio, alternative optical S/PDIF output for audio, ethernet jack if for some reason you don’t want to use integrated wireless chip, and a micro-USB slot for debug purposes (no, I think you cannot connect external drives).

I really don’t have anything but positive things to say about the package and hardware, every detail is beatifully executed. For reference, the hi-fi Cambridge Audio dock that is basically just the S/PDIF part of Apple TV costs a whopping 200 €. So if you can live without 96 kHz / 24 bit audio and satisfy yourself with “just” CD quality sound output, you save 80 € and get a ton of features for free.

Oh, the remote really could be better. The buttons are hard to press, and what looks like an iPod wheel is actually just a 4-way button. While the remote is small and well built, I really recommend using iPod, iPhone or iPad with the Remote app with this one – especially if you ever want to type anything (like movie search). Also, with the Remote App, you can tuck Apple TV into any corner of your living room without the need of direct line of sight and constant pointing with the remote towards the corner you picked.

Movies and Trailers

I have not yet tested the movie rental / purchase option, so no comments on there, except to say that the searching, browsing and buying process seems very streamlined, easy and quick, very much like iTunes. Movies have actor and director metadata, which you can use to find all movies of a certain actor / director, which is something you cannot do in your local Blockbuster’s (or Makuuni here in Finland).

Trailers work very nicely, and compared to the silly “Download to view in annoying Quicktime window” experience you get with PC (and Mac) everything is very streamlined. I think I won’t be looking back to other alternatives of viewing Apple.com trailers after this. Browsing titles is a joy and you even get to the different trailers of a given movie very easily. Thumbs up on this one.

Apple TV Internet Gadgets

This is a part which really could be done a lot better. Apple TV is essentially an iPod with external display, so why not make it possible to buy stuff for it in the App Store? Maybe Apple wants the users mostly consuming Apple-provided movies when they are not relaying stuff from their other Apple devices, because there is nothing really cool here. Yes, there’s a Youtube app and Vimeo. Yes, WSJ seems to have partnered with Apple and is providing some type of content. No, we still don’t have Netflix in Europe.

Only interesting app for me here was Flickr, and that proved to be a simplistic app where you can find a Flickr user profile, view his picture collections in grid, one by one or in a slideshow, and browse that user’s contacts. That’s it. No search functionality, no nice layouts, no “Flickr front page” or anything. It’s nice for showing off your (or someone else’s) work for friends, if you can bear the slow loading times – the first time I tried, it took like a minute of loading before the slideshow began.

To appreciate the 1-minute loading delay for Flickr slideshows, next time you click a link on the internet, try turning off your screen for a minute and staring at the black screen for that time and you get the idea of the user experience we are provided here. Caching really needs to be improved here, because the same loading delay also happens when you preview different slideshow transition effects in the Settings panel. It seemed I needed to wait for a minute or two every time I restarted the slideshow/screen saver preview to try another transition effect. This is really surprising issue in an Apple-designed product.

Another useful feature is the Internet Radio, which is really simple but also works really well. I’m looking forward to listening those.

Viewing media from other devices and Airplay

Now if you have PC or Mac computers with iTunes, you can rather easily (a definite plus) make their libraries available for playback with Apple TV. This is a nice thing that I haven’t yet much used. The bad part is, that I think DLNA is most likely not supported, nor are any “exotic” video formats (i.e. anything else than H.264 or MP4) or external subtitles. So this will not replace your PS3, Xbox, streaming box or whatever you thought it would. Period.

Unless of course you live in Apple wonderland and routinely transcode all your media to .mp4 files and add them to your iTunes library. For me the library sharing is mainly a nice bonus that I may sometimes use. Based on quick try, playing music worked great from iTunes library, but I had some issues with movies (stutter, aborted playback), probably because wireless network (801.11n) not being reliable enough.

Airplay was the main reason I bought Apple TV, and it seemed to work really well. Among the things I could do with it included:

  • Playing back music from my iPad
  • Watching a video from iPad with subtitles and full playback controls
  • Watching Youtube videos with iPad app using my projector as output
  • Listening to Spotify in my iPod (main reason for purchase)
  • Viewing Photos in iPad and having them also shown through Apple TV

That list describes the capabilities pretty well – basically you need to use Apple apps or computers with iTunes, or a limited set of Airplay-supporting apps (Spotify is among them, there seems to be a few dozen, mainly games, garnering from here: http://theapple.tv/apps/list-of-airplay-enabled-apps/). With a separate Mac application called Airfoil ($25) you can capture sound from any application, but I mainly want to use Apple TV to avoid turning on my HTPC or wiring a laptop to my stereo system every time I want to play something from Spotify. In this regard, Apple TV works just splendidly.

Also worth noting is the fact that audio playback works like a charm even if you don’t have your display turned on – I just turn on my amplifier, and select Airplay in iPod Spotify app, and after few seconds, music starts to flow from speakers. And if I ever want to up the sound quality a notch, I’ll just put a quality DAC between Apple TV and amplifier (which I assume has average quality DAC internally).

Final remarks

Overall, I was very impressed by the looks and Airplay functionality of the device, and the little extras I gained with trailers and movie rentals made the purchase worth its price. I was somewhat disappointed by the lack of polish in the user interface and especially caching in Flickr (which I hope is not repeated in the movie rentals, which is by no means a sure thing based on things I’ve read). It feels that the folks at Cupertino have not prioritized the user experience in Apple TV as high as in iPod, iPhone and iPad. Maybe the TV project they have going on will change that – I just hope they will release a 3rd generation Apple TV box with such improvements.

The final plus I didn’t mention in the review is the power draw. I was initially disappointed that there is no “off” switch in the device, only a clumsy standby mode. But when I plugged the thing into a power meter, I was rather amazed to find out my meter gives 0 W as the power draw for most of the time. I’ve seen the meter flicker at 4 W from time to time, which probably means that Apple TV is using less than 4 W most of the time. That’s less than the standby mode of most devices out there. Big thumbs up for Apple on that one.

Based on the initial impressions, I’d give this product three and a half stars. The concept and hardware is really there, but software side needs to be polished to warrant four stars, and some major changes made if Apple truly wants this offering to be on par with their other lineup.

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Joonas Pihlajamaa

Coding since 1990 in Basic, C/C++, Perl, Java, PHP, Ruby and Python, to name a few. Also interested in math, movies, anime, and the occasional slashdot now and then. Oh, and I also have a real life, but lets not talk about it!

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