After endless speculation and debate, Apple's latest event came and went with nary a mention of a Cupertino-made television set. But Apple's little set-top box did get a refresh, bringing some oft-requested upgrades and improvements to the $99 device. The 2012 Apple TV has a new interface, a new A5 SoC, the ability to (finally) stream movies you've purchased through iTunes, 1080p movie streaming through iTunes and Netflix, and more. It's also as deeply integrated with Netflix as ever, and AirPlay is getting better all the time. The Apple TV also holds a lot of clues for what Apple's trying to do in the TV space, whether or not it ever decides to build an actual television.
The new Apple TV feels more like a refresh rather than a leap ahead, but Apple's clearly pushing on with its television strategy. So will the new version nudge out the set-top competition and earn a spot in your home theater stack? Is this model differentiated enough from the last iteration to warrant another $99 from last year’s buyers? And more importantly, is this really the way forward for media consumption on your biggest screen? Read on to find out.
David Pierce contributed to this review.
Hardware / design
Physically, the 2012 Apple TV is utterly unchanged from the previous model. Generally speaking, that's a good thing — the black body, glossy on the sides and matte on top and bottom, is still easy on the eyes. At 3.9 inches square, 0.9 inches tall and 0.6 pounds, it will definitely slide inconspicuously into your home theater stack, and probably your pocket if you were so inclined.
There's nothing to see on the box except the Apple TV logo on the top, a blinking white LED (it either blinks or just glows, depending on what's happening) and a set of ports on the back. It's hardly a Swiss Army knife as a hub, but it does have a full-size HDMI port, and for most people that's probably enough. There's an optical audio jack for plugging in speakers, plus a Micro USB port — though it's just "for service and support." There's also a proprietary charging port, which I'd typically find frustrating, but since the Apple TV comes with a long cable that doesn't require a power brick, I'm actually a fan.
Apple's reticent to share the specs for the Apple TV, except to say that it utilizes a version of its A5 SoC. It's a step up from the A4 inside last year's model (and is probably responsible for the new 1080p support), but it's not the new A5X, and it's only single-core instead of dual. Those specs should only matter to the jailbreaking crowd, though, since the one A5 core does its job fine — I had virtually no performance issues, and the small issues I saw didn't seem to be due to a lack of processing power.
Setting the Apple TV up is simple — the deep connection to your iTunes account means you don't have to do anything other than plug the box in, type in your Wi-Fi password (or plug in an Ethernet cable if you have one handy), enter your iTunes credentials, and you're up and running. Buying or renting a movie is about a three-second process after that, and even moving the box around only requires re-connecting it to the new network.
Apple got the design right last time, so why change now?
Handsome, but not always useful
The Apple TV's remote hasn't changed either, and unlike the box itself the remote could probably use a little re-thinking. It's handsome enough, with a long, silver aluminum finish and a five-way directional pad (along with menu and play / pause buttons). The buttons all have nice travel and a soft touch, though the directional buttons aren't separated enough from the center button to be easily differentiated with your finger. A couple of times, I press the center button when I wanted to go right, or went left when I meant to hit the center. Navigation is dead simple and very intuitive, but the remote can be a little frustrating.
For basic functions the remote works fine, but as soon as you want to do anything more than scroll through your Netflix queue it breaks down — and you’ll often want (or need) to do more than just scroll thorough a list. Since so many of the apps and services require usernames and passwords, and search requires strenuous one. letter. at. a. time. input., having to right-right-right-down-down your way through more complex menus still feels like a hassle. Fortunately for iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad users, there are companion remote apps for iOS, which work much better — mostly because they give you access to a full keyboard.
Software and content
The new hardware may be indistinguishable from the old, but the new Apple TV reveals itself immediately in its user interface (at least, until you update your old box, since most of the interface changes were almost immediately rolled out to last-generation boxes.)
Where the previous Apple TV was intensely text-based, the new model looks and feels a lot like iOS. The home screen is arranged into rows of five large, rectangular icons, which are sorted alphabetically and look a lot like the home screen on your iPhone. The new look is certainly an aesthetic improvement, but I'm not sure it makes the Apple TV any easier to use — you'll do a lot of navigating around the grid to find the app you want, in some cases more than before. There's also no way to hide or rearrange the icons, so you're stuck staring at WSJ Live and the NBA, no matter how little you might care about them.
Once you get off the home screen, the look is a little more familiar. Most apps show a list of menu options on the right and a Cover Flow-style carousel of thumbnails and images on the left. Next to the icon-based home screen it feels a little stale, as if Apple didn't finish redesigning the UI or convincing developers to stick to the new rules, but the device is still relatively easy to navigate. Apple improved the on-screen keyboard layout, too, switching from a 26 letter long menu that took forever to scroll through to a simpler QWERTY-style layout. That helps a lot, though you're still going to want your iOS device handy (unless, you know, you don’t have an iOS device).
Apple TV now looks like an iOS device
The general interface is smartly designed and reasonably easy to use, especially in comparison to other products on the market. On many devices, it’s not immediately obvious how to search for videos or find the Netflix app, but the Apple TV couldn't be more intuitive. It definitely passes the babysitter test — hand someone the remote, and they'll immediately be able to do everything the Apple TV can do.
Finding things to watch
For some reason, you weren't previously able to buy a movie through iTunes and watch it on your Apple TV. You just couldn't. Fortunately, movies and TV shows are included in the Apple TV's iTunes in the Cloud feature, so along with your purchased music, you can now watch movies you've paid for in addition to those you rent from the device or your computer. Unfortunately, there are some licensing hang-ups with the new addition — HBO has an exclusive window for some of its content, for instance, and its partners aren't allowing Apple TV users to re-watch their movies during that time. Apparently they’re working it out.
These ongoing negotiations with content partners represent the most troubling thing about the Apple TV. Netflix is great, but there are plenty of other ways to watch TV shows and movies, and Apple TV supports none of them — Hulu is perhaps the most conspicuously absent. For now, you're stuck with Netflix or buying and renting through iTunes, an expensive proposition that's still going to leave you without some of the shows and movies you might want to watch. To its credit, Apple seems to be aggressively pursuing deals for more content, but given how long the stalemate between cable companies and tech companies has gone on, it's hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
You can stream your own content from other devices, of course, but there are plenty of limits there too. The Apple TV supports M4V, MP4, and MOV video files, plus AVI under very particular parameters. Fortunately, video files from every source are shifting away from the once-dominant AVI and toward the Apple-friendly format, but if you have a huge library of downloaded movies you still might be out of luck.
Apple wants to make the content that is available easier to access, so it's made a deal with Netflix that allows you to sign up for either service using your iTunes account. It saves the hassle of entering your username and password — as I mentioned, that's no small improvement — and makes it terrifyingly easy to spend eight bucks a month to stream more movies. This is clearly Apple's vision of the future: Apple TV apps are the channels, and your iTunes account is your cable bill. It's not a bad system, I just wish there were more such channels.
Until the content falls into place, AirPlay remains Apple's real trump card, the one feature the Apple TV offers that no competing device can equal. There's no real change in the AirPlay experience with the new box, though I'd hoped for a slight improvement thanks to the new processor — there's still some noticeable lag, which can make complex and fast-moving games unplayable at points if you're mirroring them to your TV. But pushing YouTube videos or pictures to your TV, or just using it as a giant monitor while you hold your iPhone or iPad in your hand, is pretty awesome. If nothing else, it's a stellar $99 wireless receiver for audio, letting you stream music from the palm of your hand through your home theater stereo with only the smallest lag between songs.
Picture / sound quality
When all is said and done, all upgrades rolled out and apps updated, there's really only one noticeable difference between this year's Apple TV and last year's: the new model can stream 1080p video from iTunes and Netflix, while past versions could only go up to 720p. That spec bump is actually pretty huge, as long as you have the hardware to support it (namely a 1080p TV). I still saw a little bit of compression artifacting while streaming movies, but in general the new device is a fantastic watching experience. Video is sharp and clear, with every lens flare in Star Trek as crisp as the points of Spock's ears. It's not quite at Blu-ray level of quality — again, mostly due to the compression — but it’s definitely a step in the right direction.
Sound quality is obviously hugely dependent on your home theater setup, but the Apple TV is plenty capable in the audio department — it can do Dolby Digital 5.1-channel surround, and pushes out regular stereo sound well, too.
1080p streaming looks amazing
This year's Apple TV is a strange little device. Nearly everything it did before, it now does better — it streams 1080p content, is easier than ever to navigate, and remains one of the simplest devices to set up and use that we've seen. But when I reviewed the 2010 Apple TV, my biggest concerns were all about the content: the available content on a device like the Boxee Box or the Roku positively dwarfed the Apple TV. That's still true, though the iTunes integration with Netflix is a solid sign that Apple's thinking the right way.
But that's the worrisome part: it's not up to Apple. Whether HBO, ESPN, Time Warner, CBS and all the others are willing to play the subscription game Apple's proposing is a question currently without an answer. If Apple can get the content in place — even Hulu and HBO Go apps would go an awfully long way — the Apple TV will be a truly killer device, whether or not the company ever decides to make an actual TV set. Until then, devices from Roku and Western Digital still provide more complete options for cord-cutters. Of course, with Roku boxes starting at $49.99, you don’t necessarily have to make a big investment to get the best of both worlds. Still, it would be nice if Apple could deliver both those worlds in a single box.
Want to see how the new Apple TV stacks up to its competition? Check it out right here!