At a Glance
Editors' note: This is an update of our previous Apple TV review, reflecting a lower price and new features added early this year. The hardware has not changed; existing Apple TV customers can add the new functionality, including movie downloads, with a free firmware update.
In addition to providing access to YouTube videos, Flickr and .Mac photo streams, and all other iTunes content, Apple's revamped set-top box now brings high-definition and standard-definition video rentals from the iTunes Store to your TV. But it still tries to keep you in Apple's backyard, as it lacks support for popular non-Apple video standards such as DivX and Windows Media files.
The diminutive device (measuring 8 inches square and 1 inch tall) links only to wide-screen TVs, via an HDMI, component, or analog connection. It decodes movie files at up to 720p resolution, and it can upconvert them to 1080i and 1080p.
Compared with other media streamers we've reviewed, the Apple TV is a cinch to set up and use. For instance, entering a five-digit code into your computer gives the Apple TV access to your PC's iTunes content. Even the complicated task of setting up Wi-Fi on a gadget without a keyboard is comparatively easy--if you stick to the established 802.11g standard. Interoperability issues between some current draft-n products forced me to use Apple's own AirPort Extreme Base Station to get the Apple TV to operate over an 802.11n network. Also easy to use (but easy to lose) is the bundled, minimalist remote control, which has a ring-shaped section for playback control and a Menu "go back" button.
Apple uses free software updates to improve the Apple TV's features over time. Since the original release, the company has added support for YouTube, Flickr, and (more recently) movie rentals, as well as the ability for users to purchase content without a computer. Meanwhile, a number of free but unofficial Apple TV hacks (including keyboard/mouse support, plus the ability to browse the Web, install OS X, or even play DivX and Xvid files) have surfaced online.
With the addition of downloadable movie rentals and a further streamlined interface, the Apple TV is a much more compelling device. For now, however, you may be better off continuing to rent your movies on disc. The selection of flicks is worse than that of your neighborhood video store, though the situation will improve over time, and prices are similar: New HD (1280 by 720 resolution) movie rentals cost $5 and library titles go for $4; standard-definition (720 by 480 resolution) movies are $1 less.
The new screen offers options to rent movies and TV shows, to buy music or podcasts, to look at photos (on your PC or over Flickr), or to watch whatever you find on YouTube. Pick the Movies option, and you can select the Top Movies category (which includes current hits and classics), browse through genres, see what's in HD, or search by a keyword. For instance, I searched for "Ford," and got John Ford, Harrison Ford, and the more obscure Ford Rainey. But the library's only film directed by the great John Ford was the minor work The Horse Soldiers. Apple needs to do some work in the classics division.
When you click a movie, you receive a brief synopsis and options to view the trailer, rent the standard-definition version, and, if the service has it, rent the HD version. Once you've downloaded the film, you have 30 days to begin watching it; once you've started it, you have 24 hours to finish it.
A download can take hours, and you may have to wait quite a while before you can start--or finish--watching a flick. With my 1.5-to-3.0-megabits-per-second DSL service and an ethernet connection to the Apple TV, I had to wait more than 2 hours before I could start watching the first movie I rented (the HD version of Doctor Zhivago). That accurately reflects the estimates given on Apple's Web site. When I switched to a Wi-Fi connection, however, I was in for a bigger surprise. My wife and I attempted to watch the standard-definition version of Once. Although the selection started almost immediately, we had to stop twice during the viewing to let the Apple TV catch up.
If a technical problem interrupts the download, restarting it may lead you to wonder where Apple's reputation for ease of use came from. In my tests, where the screen had previously said 'Downloading' or 'Press Play', it suddenly said 'Download Error'. Eventually I learned that restarting an interrupted download was possible, but I had to search Apple's forum discussions to find out where that option is.
Luckily, Apple is responsive about problems that demand refunds. When I finally got to view Doctor Zhivago, I discovered that this 2.35:1-aspect-ratio film had been panned and scanned to 16:9. I didn't finish the viewing or download, and complained online to the iTunes store. The service credited my account for the rental and assured me: "The iTunes Store will investigate the issue and will try to fix it." I do not believe the representative knew I was a reviewer. The other two movies of the same aspect ratio that we watched were properly letterboxed.
The HD video quality didn't compare to what Dish Network beams to my home (to say nothing of Blu-ray or HD DVD), and the standard-definition content is sub-DVD quality (despite being the same resolution).
Can Apple jump-start the still-struggling downloadable-movie rental business the way the company did the MP3 player market? Probably not. The biggest hurdles to getting high-quality video over the Internet in a timely manner are bandwidth and infrastructure problems that neither Apple nor competitors such as CinemaNow, MovieLink, and Vudu can fix.
The Apple TV also uses iTunes to transfer selected video and music to its built-in hard drive. The capacity on our $229 (as of 3/17/08) review unit was 40GB; the $329 model has 160GB. You can transfer photos by directing iTunes to a folder on your PC, or by using software such as Adobe Photoshop Elements.
Computer-based test videos that the Apple TV could play looked great. I saw no blockiness in the streaming video, and images looked naturally sharp without any signs of artificial edge enhancement. Using 802.11g Wi-Fi produced some unwanted video pauses, but everything moved smoothly over ethernet and via 802.11n wireless. Soundwise, I detected a very slight harshness in a Pink Floyd piece, but nothing I was likely to notice with the volume set at a regular listening level; Itzhak Perlman sounded perfect.
If iTunes and an iPod are the beginning and end of your PC-and-Internet media world, the Apple TV is a great choice; you might even occasionally rent a movie with it if you already own it. But if you dislike those limitations, keep looking.