Apple TV is pitched as both a home media player and as as an IPTV (Internet Protocol TV) service. Apple TV offers movies, TV shows, music, radio and more from the internet, direct to your TV.
It is one of the few products released by Apple in recent years not to be considered a break out success in a time where Apple has knocked out huge successes with the iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch and Macbook / iMac range. With this new version of Apple TV, you can access downloadable content via iTunes and your PC, and it also integrates some familiar online services and other download / online streaming options.
If you live in the US or Canada, Apple supports the ever popular Netflix as part of its interface, meaning you don't have to switch between Netflix and the Apple store when looking for movies. For everyone else there's YouTube integration as well as MobileMe and Flickr compatibility. Apple is yet to include Zune, Hulu or any other IPTV services in the interface, but if rumours are to believed then that support should come eventually.
Music streaming via Apple TV is easy enough which is great for quick and easy access to your music library. Now you can run all of your computer's music through your TV's sound system. With the ability to quickly pull up songs via your TV, the music streaming feature is a great benefit for entertaining, especially when considering just how much of our libraries are already in iTunes on our computers for syncing with iPods and iPhones.
"If you don't live in North America, your content choices are limited... Without Netflix or the full US iTunes which has far better range than Australia, your content range is restricted to content available from the iTunes Store Australia, YouTube, or content that you've stored on your computer and then imported into iTunes"
What is Apple TV & How Does it Work?
Apple TV is small computer inside a very sexy little black box, with a great piece of Apple software providing a slick user interface for browsing and watching digital content. It is predominantly designed as a Video on Demand (VOD) streaming service where new content is streamed to the Apple TV box and the displayed on the TV. Importantly, that means no Freeview TV or Cable TV channels through Apple TV and no saving or recording of content to a digital hard drive as the Apple TV device streams and does not store. If you've got your media and movies in iTunes on another computer in the house, you can use Apple TV to stream the content to the TV. If you're buying a new movie on Apple TV, you will be streaming it down through your broadband connection to your Apple TV.
Previous iterations of Apple TV allowed Apple TV owners to purchase movies online, but that ability has been removed in the latest release in order to focus on providing a smoother streaming experience.
iTunes does offer an ever increasing range of 1080p movies and TV Series available to rent for less than you'd pay from a DVD rental franchise like Blockbuster or Video Ezy. It is easy to search through the titles and to buy / pah with a couple of clicks. You can either browse through the various menus or just perform a search if you have a specific movie in mind.
One of the key features of the new Apple TV is that the updated 2010 device is tiny. It can fit easily in one hand and therefore can be hidden off to the side of your TV and out of the way so as to not add to your ever growing stack of set top boxes (STBs) and other TV hardware. The box has just five ports: HDMI, Optical digital audio, Ethernet, USB and power. There's also built-in Wi-Fi (spec N for faster speeds and greater connectivity through walls) capability, allowing for a greater manoeuvrability when placing or transporting the device.
Getting started with Apple TV is easy, especially if you already have an iTunes account. After choosing a language and Wi-Fi connection (Wi-Fi setup is not compulsory) you are asked to decide if want to allow Apple to know everything you're doing with your account or not. That's it, just two steps and you're straight in to it. You can even sync your iTunes account, so all the media currently on your computer will now be available on your TV via Apple TV.
TIP: If you do need to set up a new iTunes account then obviously it will prompt you to do that first. But it's probably a better idea to get that up and running on a computer before you bother with the Apple TV installation. Setting up an account on any service is easier with a keyboard and mouse rather than a controller.
Using & Interacting with Apple TV
The menu system flows with the familiar ease of Apple's other products. The interface offers its regular videos from Apple TV's own sub-sect of iTunes on the home page. It's a simple matter of scrolling sideways to access the Movies, TV Shows, Internet, Computers and Settings menus.
Most TV shows and movies are available for streaming within a day or two of coming out on DVD. To rent a movie or TV show, simply make your selection. Renters have the option to watch the trailer via the preview button, rent the video in full HD, add it to a wish-list or check out the 'More' options. In More, renters can view the cast, director, producers and reviews of the movie in question. Combined with the preview option this makes for a much easier choice when choosing a film, as you can check out the films before making the decision to rent.
It takes a minute or two to get started, depending on your connection, but once the stream has started there is no loading time mid-film. Apple TV makes sure a substantial buffer has been set up before beginning the movie.
In the Internet menu users have Netflix, YouTube, Podcasts, MobileMe, Flickr and Radio to choose from. The Netflix service is built in to the interface, so there's no jumping between programs. The same goes for YouTube, Radio and any Podcasts you search for. Remember though that Netflix is only available in the US.
The Computers menu allows you to not only watch or listen to media from your computer, but any other iOS device as well. So if you're halfway through a show on your iPad or iPhone you can push it straight to your TV and resume watching via your Wi-Fi connection.
"With the preview option, there's no doubt that this feature makes browsing Apple TV for a new movie to watch on Friday night far more fun than the video store"
Another great iOS exclusive feature is control. If you have an iPhone or iPad you can use them as a touch-screen remote control by downloading a free app. Not only does that mean the search function is more accessibly due to the iOS's software QWERTY keypad, you'll also never lose your remote again. iPads are a bit too big to misplace easily and if you lose your iPhone you can just call it. This is a fantastic idea that is now being picked up by a few IPTV service providers. Unfortunately right now no other smartphone is compatible with Apple TV, but rising competition in the field should hopefully change that before the next Apple big TV revamp.
Apple TV is a great Video on Demand service. If you have a broadband connection and are looking for an easier way to rent HD, or even SD movies, then it's a good idea to give Apple TV some consideration. If you're thinking about streaming live TV, then you'll need to looks elsewhere.
At an RRP of AU$129 Apple TV is pretty much in the impulse-buy category, especially when compared to the price of Google TV or the monthly plans of other IPTV providers. For a purely movie rental service Apple TV is hard to beat for price and ease of set up, but you'll be disappointed if you want a massive content range.