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Apple TV Review (2010)  Print E-mail
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Written by Mike Flacy   
Thursday, 07 October 2010
Article Index
Apple TV Review (2010) 
Content and Quality

I didn’t care for the Youtube application as much, mostly because the content on Youtube is hit or miss when it comes to HD quality.  The Flickr application is great though and makes it easy to slide through photo presentations for friends.  I also liked that the Internet radio app continued playing the music when I exited back out into the menu.  I’m left wondering why there wasn’t any Pandora included though.  I realize that Apple wants you to spend money on music in iTunes, but nearly all new CE set-top boxes are including a version of the popular streaming music player.

Content

One of the biggest challenges that Apple is facing with the Apple TV is a lack of premium content, likely due to their hard line stance on community pricing.  Their movie coverage is better than the television episode library with about 8,000 movies to rent (nearly half are in 720p high definition).  They are also keeping to the promise of having the most recent releases available for download with Get Them to the Greek and Iron Man 2 ready to be downloaded when I hooked up my review unit. On the Television side of the content library, there are only 4 studios supporting the AppleTV (Fox, ABC, Disney and the BBC).  You won’t find the latest episode of the Office on the Apple TV or the last season of the Big Bang Theory, although you can buy it on iTunes on your PC and stream it to the AppleTV for a higher cost.  Apple’s doing a poor job of getting the latest episodes up on time as well, especially for many ABC / FOX headlining shows like House and Modern Family.  My guess is that the studios are trying out the Apple TV as a test more so than fully supporting it.  It’s probably difficult to make a case for providing access to their programs for such a cheap price when other mediums like Hulu or their own proprietary players can deliver ads.  Apple is also going to have a hard time competing against services like Amazon’s VOD when they are offering access to many cable stations with shows like Mad Men.

Apple TV Content Screen

As mentioned earlier, the Apple TV plays a limited number of video formats.  For those who rip their content to file formats like Divx or even just AVI, you won’t find compatibility in the Apple TV.  It has to be in MP4, MOV or M4V format to be streamed onto your AppleTV.  Streaming from a hardwired computer (or media server) to a wireless Apple TV works flawlessly, but streaming from a wireless laptop to a wireless Apple TV didn’t fare as well with our tests.  You will likely be greeted with numerous buffering screens due to the stress on your wireless network.  It makes me wonder how successful AirPlay will be when it rolls out for the Apple TV in November.   AirPlay is designed to work in conjunction with iOS4 devices (iPad, iPhone 4, iPod Touch) and push the application to the Apple TV.  Apple’s allowing third party developers to stream their application data to the Apple TV and it may not be just limited to music / video.  The ability to control your apps while watching your television may just be the game changer that gets the Apple TV into iPhone / iPad owners home theater systems.

Audio / Video Quality

Interested in seeing how the Apple TV stacked up against the competition, I compared 720p streaming content on four other platforms: the Xbox 360, the Samsung BD-3600, the Roku XDS player and my Time Warner HD cable box.  I was using Iron Man and some of my favorite episodes of Lost as a basis of comparison.  There are difficult to see a clear difference in Iron Man, but the diverse locales (and various lighting changes) in season 4 of Lost really showed how much cleaner the Apple TV was able to handle image quality.  There’s a definitely superiority to their encoding process for video and it was evident in the streaming quality of the video.  There was less of that pesky blocky pixelation that you see so often on streaming content with low-bitrate encoding.  Regarding audio, there was little difference in any of the players, with the exception of the terrible Time Warner audio clipping problems.  The 5.1 surround sound tracks all sounded excellent for streaming quality.  Of course, the Apple TV doesn’t hold a candle to 1080p video on Blu-ray discs or 7.1 DTS surround mixes, but it’s the best cloud-based streaming solution that I’ve seen so far in terms of A/V quality.

Conclusion

Apple has a definite problem with the Apple TV.  Without more content or applications to support the platform, it’s going to have a hard time competing with other more complete offerings like the Roku XDS, Boxee’s upcoming hardware release or even existing set-top boxes.  Apple needs to find a way to convince the other television studios to jump on board, but I would wager that wouldn’t be announced until next year.

That being said, the Apple TV is a fantastic piece of hardware.  The streamlined interface, speedy responsiveness, excellent Netflix design, superior streaming A/V quality and relatively low price compared to other Apple products are more than enough to consider a purchase.  If they add the ability to stream all applications (I’m looking at you, Hulu Plus) from other Apple devices with Airplay, expect to see legions of Apple fanatics integrating the Apple TV into their existing home theater setups before the end of the holiday season. 






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