Monday, June 11, 2012

Apple HDTV

The new Apple TV is just a 1080p version of the old Apple TV with updated firmware, but it's still one of the best ways to watch your videos on your HDTV.

Two years later, and our Editors' Choice set-top box Apple TV ($99, 4 stars) is back, and it's new and improved. Those improvements are very, very slight, but they still count. The 2012 model is pretty much identical to the old one in size, shape, features, and its $99 (list) price tag. For a full rundown of every nook, cranny, and function of the Apple TV , our review of the last iteration of product still applies here. An overhauled iOS-like interface gives the Apple TV a fresh menu system, but that's available to last-gen Apple TV owners through a software update. Still, the new model supports 1080p video and keeps its under-$100 price, so it retains its Editors' Choice crown.

Physically identical to the last version, the new Apple TV is a tiny black, square puck measuring 0.9 by 3.9 by 3.9 inches (HWD) and weighing 9.6 ounces. The front panel shows a single white light indicating that the box is on, the top has a matte black finish with an Apple logo on it, and around back are connectors for the power cable, HDMI, microUSB, optical audio, and Ethernet. Even the remote is identical, a slight, simple silver wand with a navigation pad and play/pause and menu buttons. If you put the new Apple TV next to the previous one, you can't tell them apart.

The Apple TV uses the new iOS 5.1-based interface right out of the box. You can install the same interface on the old Apple TV, however, and get the same features and menus. Prior to receiving our review unit, we loaded the new Apple TV OS on our old Apple TV, and you can read our hands-on story for a closer look.

Getting Online
Setting up the new Apple TV was fast and easy. I just had to enter my language and Wi-Fi information, and I was into the main menu. Features like movies, TV, and music (and all other direct Apple services) require signing into the iTunes Store, but once that was set it was clear browsing. It's certainly an easier process than setting up a Roku box; I didn't have to activate anything through the Web. The new Apple TV interface even let me log into Netflix without hitting the Web. Simplicity is key here.

Video services include access to your iTunes libraries, Netflix, YouTube, Vimeo, and It's a good selection, but Hulu Plus would really add to the device's functionality. Considering Apple sells most recent episodes over iTunes, though, the absence of Hulu makes sense.

Music encompasses both the massive iTunes library, including your own music ripped from CDs if you want to spend $24.99 per year on iTunes Match, and a full selection of podcasts and Internet radio stations. But you need to subscribe to iTunes Match if you want to listen to any of your purchased music on iTunes without a networked computer or an iOS device, even if your music library is purchased completely through iTunes.

Connect Your iPad
iPad and iPhone integration is seamless, with videos and music streamed wirelessly through AirPlay to the Apple TV with just two taps of the screen. You can also use your iOS device as an Apple TV remote, which makes entering text when logging into accounts or searching for movies and music much easier thanks to the touch screen keyboard.

The only real difference between the new Apple TV and the old model is that the new one supports 1080p video and can output at that resolution. While you won't notice much of a difference if you have a smaller TV, if your HDTV can support 1080p and is larger than 40 inches, video will be crisper than its lower-resolution equivalent. This, however, depends on the quality of the content and your bandwidth. I watched a preview of "The Simpsons: Tapped Out" in 1080p and it looked clear and smooth. After that, I loaded a "Being Human" featurette during a dip in network performance and the video looked slightly blocky thanks to the compression. The 1080p support is great when your media can reach that level, but that won't always be certain.

If you already have an Apple TV from 2010 or you don't have a large 1080p HDTV, you don't need the new box. If you're new to the game, and want to stream all of your iTunes media and Netflix, the new Apple TV is a top choice. If you have an iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad, the benefits are even more apparent thanks to AirPlay support and the ability to use those devices as a remote. It still doesn't have a particularly large selection of non-Apple services, but a good-looking, dead-simple-to-use interface helps the Apple TV keep its Editors' Choice rating. If you don't want an Apple product and prefer more streaming media services over the iTunes library, consider the Roku 2 XS ($99, 3 stars) or the inexpensive Roku LT ($49, 4 stars). The Roku 2 XS offers 1080p output, and the Roku LT offers 720p video at half the price of the Apple TV.

Apple TV OS

The updated Apple TV operating system is a remarkable piece of home media management software, and comes out as the newly redesigned Apple TV debuts in 2010. It’s all about the “cloud” now. Though there is no way to store purchased or digital content, it relies on streaming from the internet, Mac and Windows computers and, with AirPlay, from iPhones, iPod touches and iPads. Add in Netflix compatibility and it’s no surprise it lands in first place on our list.

Ease of Use:
As with the last version of the Apple TV and its operating system (OS), the user interface (UI) is extremely easy to use. The remote that comes with the Apple TV media server can be used to click around to choose a movie or TV show to rent and view, but to search for something, you will have to type in the letters and numbers on the screen, which takes time.

We highly recommend using the free Remote app for the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad (if you have one of those devices), and use that with the full digital QWERTY keyboard to make searching easier. Plus, the touchscreen interface makes it easy to scroll, browse, fast-forward and rewind when playing back a movie or TV show.

If you don’t have the new Apple TV, but the previous generation, you’ll still be able to use it, but Apple isn’t providing any new home media management software updates to the OS. This will keep the older system from accessing any new features as Apple sends out updates.

Video and Sound Quality:
The Apple TV home media management software and the iTunes Store still support standard definition (SD) resolutions of 480i and 480p and high definition (HD) of 720p. 1080i and 1080p still aren’t supported, but Netflix doesn’t either. 1080p may be the best HD resolution, but it takes up a lot of space and bandwidth, so 720p is much easier to transmit, and it still looks great on an HDTV. Many broadcasters are still using 720p and 1080i (since it’s interlace, the resolution is actually closer to 720p) for their HD shows and movies.

Sound quality is excellent for this media server; iTunes rentals and purchases of both HD and SD movies and TV shows are usually Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound. If your home theater includes a great set of surround sound speakers, you’ll certainly enjoy the full audio experience.

Purchase or Rent Content:
This is where the Apple TV home media management software really shines, since it uses both the iTunes Store and Netflix for accessing movies and TV shows. However, there is an interesting feature with the Apple TV, since it doesn’t store anything. You no longer rent, download and store movies or TV shows; it’s all based on “cloud computing,” i.e., it streams from Apple’s iTunes servers over the internet.

The iTunes Store was the first to offer rentals of TV shows, starting at .99 cents per episode for both SD and HD for some networks’ shows. Other television networks are likely to jump on board, so expect to see that price point expand to other television shows.

Once you rent a show, you have 30 days to hit play, then 48 hours to view it once you do (up from 24 hours for movies). The Apple TV home media management software can also keep track of your favorite shows if you’ve bought a season pass, making it easy to see what you’ve missed and what’s new to watch.

Renting HD or SD movies is just as easy, and prices start at $3.99 and $2.99 respectively, though we always see movie specials (for both renting and purchasing) on the iTunes Store via both the Apple TV and on a Mac or PC with iTunes. You have 30 days to hit play, then 24 hours to watch it before it expires. We’d love to see the 48-hour window, like TV show rentals.

Apple usually throws some movies together—like the action blockbusters they had for a while during the summer—and offers a great price for rental or purchase. Most of the films are popular and inexpensive to rent or buy, without too many of the B-movies that most of us would avoid.

Another great new feature on this media server is Netflix, one of the most popular ways to rent movies digitally or through the mail via DVD or Blu-ray disc. If you’re a US subscriber, you’ll be able to access Netflix’s large library of streaming HD and SD movies to rent and watch. This is a tremendous addition to the Apple TV home media management software and is also available as an app for the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad.

Let’s talk about purchasing content. With the newest Apple TV, there is no storage, so renting content directly through the unit and the iTunes Store is pretty much all you can do. However, since it’s all about streaming: you can purchase movies, TV shows or music from the iTunes Store on a Mac or Windows computer and stream it over to the new Apple TV media server. You’ll need to be running the latest version of iTunes. It may seem to be a hassle, since it’s not stored on a hard drive in the Apple TV home media management software, but it’s easy and there’s no strange “hiccups” while streaming.

If you purchased content or have some songs, photos and videos on an iPhone, iPod touch or iPad, you’ll be able to stream it over to the Apple TV via AirPlay. AirPlay can also be used with select third-party devices, so you can listen to music through compatible speakers wirelessly, from an iTunes-equipped computer or the iPhone, iPod touch or iPad.

Play Digital Media Content:
As we mentioned above, the Apple TV home media management software now streams everything, since it is based on “cloud computing.” The unit will play back a variety of videos, music and photos from a computer via streaming. Videos need to be converted for the Apple TV with software like iMovie or third-party Mac and Windows apps.

If they’re native H.264, MPEG-4 or Motion JPEG clips, they’ll be played without a problem. The maximum supported resolution is 720p, so keep that in mind if you have 1080p or 1080i home movies from an AVCHD camcorder you want to playback.

Unlike the older version of the Apple TV’s home media management software, the new OS doesn’t need to sync up to a Mac or Windows computer’s iTunes to play music from there. It easily plays back most audio file types (AAC, MP3, AIFF, WAV and more) and sounds excellent.

When it comes to photos, it’s also fairly easy to stream photos and watch them in glorious HD. Choose an album on your Mac, and you can digitally flip through photos, or even view a quick-and-easy slideshow.

Internet Content:
Even though the Apple TV OS doesn’t support HULU or Pandora (yet), it does access content on YouTube, Apple’s own MobileMe and photos on Flickr. Apple also offers video and audio podcasts to check out, along with a wide variety of internet radio stations and now the popular internet radio site. Overall, it accesses many of the best and most popular of the two online video and photo sharing websites.

Help & Support:
Apple’s tech support is world-class, receiving top ratings in recent business surveys. Help and support for the home media management software includes phone and email contact, user forums to connect with others, a user manual and a FAQs/Knowledge Base to find the most common answers.

The new Apple TV operating system relies on streaming from the cloud (Apple’s servers), Macs and Windows PCs and via AirPlay, and the iOS devices (iPhones, iPod touches and iPads). Even though you can’t store anything on it, the cloud and streaming work great, with no visual or audio issues. Plus, access to the iTunes Store is also a big feature for the new Apple TV.

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