Review: Apple TV

The new Apple TV

Apple TV wowed the tech world when Steve Jobs unveiled it at a recent press conference but does it live up to its promise to change the way we watch TV? WhatClinic.com‘s Caelen King got his hands on the device to find out.

Having casually read up on the Apple’s latest attempt to crack the set top box market I knew before I ordered one that it would be small, but I still wasn’t fully prepared for just how small it is. You can see it here in the picture beside an iPhone 3G.

Apple’s previous TV box lived in a much bigger case like their other add-on devices, the Time Machine and Airport Extreme. The reason for this was simple – it had to be able to house a hard disk and have space on the back for component audio and video sockets. The new model does away with both of these features leaving it incredibly compact. They’ve also gone with a stylish black finish, making it look more at home sitting beside the majority of TVs on the market.

The connections on the back of the current model are simple: power, HDMI, micro USB (for servicing only), optical audio out and Ethernet. With pretty much all TVs having HDMI connections now, the lack of component audio and video isn’t that big a deal. The video output is limited to 720p though, which seems like a deliberate ploy to sell a new model in 12 months that supports 1080p.

One of the reasons that the video is limited to 720p must relate (in a roundabout way) to the lack of a hard drive in this model. Apple have jumped the gun a little and decided that this device can only stream content, so limiting the resolution to 720p dramatically reduces the maximum bandwidth required. The streaming works in two ways – you can rent a movie directly using your iTunes account, or you can stream from your own iTunes library.

There are a few major flaws with this decision. Here in Ireland we only recently got access to some of the films available on iTunes. We still don’t have access to TV programmes, leaving a really large chunk of the Apple TV’s potential usefulness unavailable. It is easy enough to get around this by buying a US iTunes gift card (and following the instructions all over the internet), but we shouldn’t have to get around these restrictions. Someone in the distribution chain is dragging their heels in getting content released as widely as possible.

Secondly, if you want to stream content you have already downloaded and stored on a NAS you need to leave a connected computer with iTunes installed running because the streaming runs over Apple’s own Home Sharing system. This almost defeats the purpose of the Apple TV box, as most modern games consoles and even some TVs can handle direct computer to TV streaming without any add-ons.

There is no denying that the Apple TV itself is beautifully designed, as is the UI when you use it, but taking all the limitations listed above into account it remains a nice-to-have toy rather than an essential piece of kit. Expect that to change though as more features are rolled out both in software (see the upcoming iOS 4.2) and hardware (in future models).

This is a guest post by Caelen King of WhatClinic.com

Buy the Apple TV from Apple.com: