AppleTV - Take 2  
Home Theater Media Servers Home Theater/Media Center PCs
Written by Andrew Robinson   
Saturday, 01 November 2008

Introduction
In all my years of reviewing audio equipment, no product has graced my system that I’ve despised more than the original release of Apple’s AppleTV.  The first incarnation of the wireless media extender/server for Apple users was so fatally flawed that it begged the question, “Why bother?”  I wasn’t alone in my feelings for the AppleTV.  Sales were abysmal (which is uncommon for many upstart Apple products) and consumers either returned them in record numbers or voided their warranties by cracking them open and making them do the things we all hoped they could.

Personally, I bought three more and, with the help of some third-party software, managed to make the AppleTV what I wanted it to be with little effort.  Minus the fact that it still didn’t support multi-channel audio, 1080p video or high-definition, all was well.  I didn’t buy iTunes content.  Instead, I ripped my own music and movies in formats that ensured proper sound and picture quality and stored them on a local server instead of utilizing the meaningless hard drives in the AppleTVs themselves. 

Well, it seems that Apple has wised up and, instead of discontinuing the flawed AppleTV, they decided to re launch it.  Introducing the AppleTV, uh-um, Take 2?  It looks exactly like the old AppleTV.  It is the old AppleTV, same size, shape, connections, heat problems, remote, etc.  They beefed up the internal hard drives, offering both 40GB and 160GB versions, while lowering the prices from $299 (40GB) to $229 and $329 (160GB) down from $399.  The price decrease is a good thing, for I felt the original AppleTV was needlessly expensive for what you were getting.  Truthfully, physically and hardware-wise, there is little to differentiate the old AppleTV from the new AppleTV.  You can even upgrade your original AppleTV to Take 2 for free by simply downloading the firmware ***if your AppleTV has done already automatically. (done WHAT already automatically? – Please fix)*** All of the changes and improvements come at the software and interface level, which, I’m happy to say, is brilliant.

The old AppleTV interface was okay and about the only aspect of the AppleTV that was, indeed, HD.  The new interface is more iTunes meets Kaleidescape then Apple’s old Front Row.  The interface is so slick and easy to use that many manufacturers at this year’s CEDIA show in Denver took to ripping it off for their own benefit (expect news of hefty lawsuits to come).  AppleTV Take 2 is now a real HD product, provided you’re okay with 720p HD downloads and 5.1 Dolby Digital surround.  While the AppleTV Take 2 supports 1080p and seemingly every resolution below that, don’t expect to watch any 1080p native content (maybe minus trailers) any time soon.  However, the addition of multi-channel audio support and at least 720p video is a huge step up from the crappy, overly-compressed and pixilated video that seemed standard with the old AppleTV.  Take 2 adds the ability to buy and rent movies, as well as purchase music directly from iTunes without the need for a home computer.  The bought files are stored on the AppleTV itself and can be later transferred to a home computer (sorry, still no external hard drive support) to free up space on the AppleTV’s internal hard drive.  The past version of the AppleTV could only view content downloaded from iTunes on a home computer, then streamed or synched to the AppleTV.  This simple fix is huge for the AppleTV, because it means users no longer have to have a Mac to utilize the AppleTV.  This said, it makes the AppleTV a cheap gateway product for consumers to discover and eventually become Mac users.

So, if all things are pretty much the same under the hood, what does the beefed-up AppleTV service get you?  Like I said, you can rent and/or purchase new and old films from the library, which grows daily and carries with it full support from every major studio.  You can rent movies (old and new releases) in either standard-definition or in HD (720p) for between $2.99 and $4.99, respectively.  One caveat is that, while most new releases hit AppleTV on Tuesday, they are not always for rent or purchase.  It always seems the films you’d rather rent are for purchase only and vice-versa.  You cannot yet purchase HD movies with 5.1 audio; those are rental only.  Purchased films come in the 480i format with a stereo audio track.   The purchase price of SD video through iTunes and the AppleTV ranges from $9.99 to $14.99, depending on the studio and whether or not the film is a new release.  iTunes and AppleTV do feature cheaper downloads and purchases on a weekly basis, usually classic films and/or hugely popular blockbusters that can afford to cut the consumer a break.  These titles rent for 99 cents and some can be purchased for seven dollars or so.  The rental policy has not changed since the last version and is still good for 30 days, but the rental expires 24 hours after you press play.  Within that 24-hour window, you can watch the film as many times as you’d like, but once it’s gone, it’s gone.

TV shows work much the same as movies on AppleTV, but they are for purchase only and, unlike movies, can now be purchased in HD.  This is huge for consumers, since TV season DVD sales have exploded as of late and Blu-ray disc versions of your favorite shows are starting to hit shelves at alarming rates.  The HD television episodes are relatively new, but nevertheless are available and give a glimpse of what’s to come for the movie side of things.  HD television shows retail for $2.99 per episode, whereas non-HD episodes retail for $1.99.  I hope you like hour-long shows vs. half-hour sitcoms, for the price is the same regardless of length, making HBO, Showtime and other long-format shows a better value.  Again, like their motion picture counterparts, iTunes and AppleTV often have “specials” or lower pricing on shows and/or seasons, some of which are completely free.

Music downloads remain relatively unaffected by the AppleTV Take 2 update and, like past iTunes purchases, still suck a little.  The bit rate is way too low.  iTunes Plus material helps, but it is far from a Music Giants or even Amazon-quality download.  You can now purchase and download music videos from AppleTV and iTunes, though I can’t imagine why, since they are the worst value in the entire iTunes arsenal.  $1.99 for what is usually a two- to three-minute clip of bright lights and booty shaking is absurd.  There are videos for 99 cents, but they usually feature artists you couldn’t care less about, singing songs you can’t stomach anyway. 

AppleTV Take 2 also adds YouTube and Internet photo browsing support, which at first glance doesn’t seem all that great, but once you utilize it, it’s rather cool.  YouTube on the AppleTV works and looks the same as it does on your computer, which is good and very bad for those of us with large HD sets.  Still, it didn’t stop many guests from cuing up some poor sucker getting cracked in the family jewels by random objects as I readied dinner.  As far as photos go, the AppleTV works with your computer’s iPhoto.  It can also access photos from sites such as Flickr, which is really useful.  Lastly, you can enjoy audio and video podcasts via your AppleTV, which is becoming a very popular and entertaining way for consumers to keep up on current events and/or areas of interest.

Set-up
Setup was a snap, since all of my AppleTVs were already installed in every room in my house and set to stream from my home computer in my office.  I updated each one to Take 2 by accessing the AppleTV’s settings and hitting update.  The process took about 15-20 minutes per AppleTV but, once done, they were ready to rock and roll.  While the new interface and usability is drastically different then the old, there is zero learning curve to the new format and features.  The remote still sucks for searching by keywords and for YouTube and Flickr photo searches but, oh, well, Apple’s going to do what Apple wants to do, I suppose.

I put the AppleTV Take 2 through its paces in a variety of systems, from my reference theater to my bedroom LCD TV, all of which feature 1080p video capabilities, as well as 5.1 surround sound via in-wall speakers of various price points.  Needless to say, being an Apple loyalist and a convergence freak, the AppleTV is my kind of product and, with the new update, may just be the coolest and most useful piece of gear in my entire house.

Music and Movies
Before I got into the evaluation tests, I set out some ground rules.  For the purposes of testing the AppleTV, I used only iTunes-purchased material: music, movies and television. I know you can rip your own material at higher resolutions, but Apple is saying that iTunes and/or the AppleTV using iTunes is all consumers are going to need for all of their entertainment needs. So, I decided to test Apple’s claims and used only their material for the duration of this review.

Kicking things off with a quick music sample, I downloaded Coldplay’s latest, Viva la Vida (EMI), in iTunes’ own iTunes Plus format.  iTunes Plus is Apple’s DRM free high-resolution format, as opposed to their otherwise low-quality 128 kbps standard downloads.  Viva la Vida possesses a bit rate of 256 kbps, hardly DVD-A, but better nonetheless.  On the track “Lost!,” the bass had good impact and definition, though it lacked weight and that visceral punch you get from the CD itself.  There was noticeable spatial compression to the soundstage, making for a more wall-like presentation than an arching or staggered soundstage.  The musical width suffered a little in this regard, too, keeping between the left and right speakers, although the center image, especially vocals, was impressive for a low-res file.  Chris Martin’s vocals were rich, weighty and relatively clear at moderate volumes.  When the volume went up and/or Martin began to sing with a bit more inflection, you could hear the limitations of the format’s encoding and bit rate.  Overall, the track was listenable and non-fatiguing to the ears, but for critical listening and/or showcasing a system’s capabilities, I’d stick with the CD itself or with a better rip.  When comparing my own ripped copy of the same album in Apple Lossless and AIFF encoding to the CD itself, I could detect little difference in sound quality through the AppleTV, so the sound quality of the AppleTV wasn’t entirely to blame – so was the source material coming from iTunes.  This won’t be news to anyone in the audiophile or home theater space.  However, for background music, iTunes-purchased material through the AppleTV works just fine.

Next, I bought the Discovery Channel presentation of When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions, Season 1 (Discovery).  I have this entire program, six episodes, on my home DVR in HD and have seen it many times and the result is always the same: breathtaking.  The HD program takes up a fair amount of space on my DVR, so I was stunned when the six-episode series purchased on iTunes was only a pitiful 3.36GB.  The standard-definition widescreen image of the downloaded episode “The Explorers” didn’t come close to matching the quality of my Dish Network presentation of the same episode.  However, in direct comparison to AppleTV’s first television offerings, like the short-lived NBC drama Raines that I spoke about in my first AppleTV review, the video quality has improved greatly.  Gone is the overly pixilated and choppy video of the past, replaced with what I can only describe as close to DVD-quality standard definition.  There was a touch of excess video noise in the lighter regions of the image, with a bit of macro blocking in the darks.  When seen from a proper viewing distance, the anomalies were less apparent but were still present.  Colors were mostly natural and possessed impressive range, making for more lifelike skin tones and textures, though not quite on par with a disc format and/or the HDTV presentation.  Edge fidelity still seems to be the AppleTV’s Achilles heel, as the stark vertical lines of the Saturn Five rocket and instrument panels inside the craft were more an indication of technology and hardware than the real thing.  Motion was relatively smooth and judder-free, though “jaggies” could be seen when the material was rife with vertical and horizontal contrasts like those I saw in the launch pad’s tower.  Overall, these quibbles didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the program the way it did in my previous experience with Raines, but it didn’t hold a candle to the HDTV telecast.  Sound-wise, for a stereo mix, there was little to write home about.  Dialogue was intelligible, but large dramatic moments like the rockets firing were compressed and lacked focus and weight.  Engaging my processor’s DSPs helped correct some of the sound’s shortcomings, but that wasn’t really the point and assumes too much of the average AppleTV user’s options.

I ended my time with the AppleTV Take 2 with an HD rental, Aliens Vs. Predator Requiem (Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment) in HD, directly from my AppleTV.  I should point out that you can only rent HD material from the AppleTV itself, which means it remains only on the AppleTV used for the purchase.  You can rent SD material from a home computer, then transfer it to other AppleTVs, but HD material stays exclusively on the box used to make the purchase.  Bummer.  I was forced to watch AVP Requiem in my bedroom system on a Samsung 1080p LCD feeding a Denon receiver into Atlantic Technology in-walls.  No slouch system, especially for a bedroom, but far from the reference Sony/Meridian rig in my main theater.  Back to the film, the largely low-light image was impressive even in the 720p realm.  The noise level dropped considerably and the black levels, while not quite as dimensional as, say, a Blu-ray disc, were far from vomit-inducing.  There was still a hint of video compression in the overall color and grayscale tracking, as there didn’t appear to be as much depth in terms of number of colors to make for true, lifelike transitions and rendering, but it wasn’t off-putting.  Skin tones were more lifelike and natural, with more depth and detail over the SD material, and were on par with good (not great) HD material.  Highlights were rich, punchy and composed and edge fidelity appeared sharp and clear.  For example, the interior of the Predators’ ship, while very dark, still possessed good amounts of information that showcased the creatures’ organic-inspired technology.  During the pool scene, again, set late at night, the water looked like water and was free of pixilation and other digital artifacts.  Truth be told, while it was only 720p, I wouldn’t turn up my nose at Apple’s HD offerings.  In lieu of shelling out upwards of $30 for the Blu-ray disc, this represents a nice bargain and a good compromise between having the best and convenience.

Convenience is an interesting thing, which brings me to my final point. Unlike Apple’s first attempt at the AppleTV, Take 2 seems to be rooted more in reality, in that it’s not the end all be all solution for HD lovers.  Instead, like iTunes music downloads, Apple’s philosophy seems to have changed to convenience, enjoyment and ultimately a lifestyle-enhancing product vs. a totally performance-driven machine.  This isn’t to say the AppleTV won’t get there.  Clearly, it has the ability to handle 1080p material and multi-channel audio, and Take 2 is a huge leap in the right direction, but like all things in the CE marketplace, it takes time.  Only this time, Apple is finally headed in the right direction.

The Downside
While I’ve grown to love AppleTVs and use them in abundance throughout my home, I still have a few bones to pick with the slick media extender. First, I still don’t like that it comes with no cables to get you started or that it features none of the necessary connection options to better integrate it into a custom installation, i.e., RS 232 support.  It still gets remarkably hot to the touch and is prone to going “offline” when not in use for extended periods of time.  I’ve never experienced a system crash while watching or listening to streamed content, but it’s not uncommon for the AppleTV to need a reboot if unused for a couple of days.

On the software and interface side of things, manual searching using the remote is still a chore.  The remote itself is still wildly overly directional and not strong enough for moderate to long distances.

I don’t like that you can’t transfer HD rentals to other AppleTVs, or that you can’t rent HD material on anything but an AppleTV.  While you can purchase HD television content now, I have to knock Apple for not making the same available in the film realm.  I suppose it’s only a matter of time.  Who knows, by the time this review is published, they may allow HD movie purchases.

Lastly, the sound quality is adequate, but improves with movies and HD rentals quite a bit.  This said, I don’t know why SD films come standard in stereo and in Dolby Digital.  Clearly, they can do it and offer it on HD rentals, so why not improve the value of their lesser SD material by at least offering it with multi-channel audio?

Conclusion
With a lower price and improved features, the AppleTV Take 2 is not so much a new product as it is a step towards becoming the product we all knew it could be.  The fact that the AppleTV Take 2 no longer requires the use of a home computer is huge in terms of gaining market share.  It also makes the AppleTV more of a standalone product than a glorified media extender.  It’s a worthwhile product with a stellar interface packed with convenience and content that would satisfy even the most jaded music and movie enthusiast.  Unlike the latest crop of Blu-ray releases to hit store shelves, Apple updates their library daily with new and archived releases, making each experience novel and exciting.  The SD imagery is greatly improved, but it’s the inclusion of HD content, if only in rental form, that shows the true potential of the AppleTV Take 2.  I consider it to be a viable source and one I’m glad I’ve stuck with, for after attending this year’s CEDIA show, I have found there are plenty of other companies offering the same performance and strikingly similar interface for way more money.  While I couldn’t recommended the AppleTV in its original incarnation, I can wholeheartedly endorse it now (flaws and all), for it just fits my lifestyle and offers me a level of usability and entertainment I want in my home.

Thank you, Apple, for realizing you’re not perfect and for righting a wrong in making the AppleTV better the second time around.
Manufacturer Apple
Model AppleTV - Take 2
Reviewer Andrew Robinson





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