The 3rd generation of Apple TV devices boosts the internal processing power and provides long-overdue 1080p HD playback, but ultimately, the stand-alone device falls short of the competition in terms of features and the amount of content you can enjoy through it. But for those with an iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch, Apple TV can go from being a second-class citizen to an essential part of your gadget ecosystem.
Apple TV: 3 1/2 Stars
Apple TV as an iPad/iPhone accessory: 5 Stars
Apple TV Features
- Rent or buy movies and TV shows from iTunes
- Stream video from YouTube, Vimeo, Netflix, MLB, NBA, NHL and WSJ Live
- View your photos from Photo Stream or Flickr
- Listen to Internet Radio and various podcasts
- Access your iTunes library via iTunes Home Sharing
- Use AirPlay to interact with your iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch or PC
Apple TV: The Good
Apple TV packs a lot into an unassuming package. The box itself is four inches by four inches, which is about the size of two credit cards placed side-by-side, and stands slightly less than an inch in height. The back of the little black box holds an HDMI input, a network input, an input for the power plug and an input for optical audio. Apple TV also comes with a metallic-colored remote, which is both compact and simple in design, with only seven buttons (including directional buttons) to control Apple TV.
Like most Apple products, Apple TV is a breeze to setup and use. In only a few minutes, I had Apple TV connected to my wireless network and was browsing through the offerings, which includes Netflix, YouTube, and Vimeo in addition to the iTunes library. The interface is dominated by large icons to take you into the different sections, and if you don't like using the small remote to interact with the device, you can download a free app on your iPhone or iPad.
Want to watch movies from your PC's iTunes collection? No problem. Apple TV can use home sharing to connect with your PC, or if you are at your computer, you can simply click the AirPlay button during iTunes playback to send the video to Apple TV. How to Setup Home Sharing
Apple TV also includes iCloud support, which means you can check out photos in your Photo Stream, and if you subscribe to iTunes Match, you can stream your music from iCloud. Apple TV even uses your Photo Stream for a personalized screen saver. How to Turn On Photo Stream on Your iPad
The inclusion of 1080p video shores up one of the biggest weaknesses found in prior generations of Apple TV, though not all shows in the iTunes database currently support 1080p, and if the show only says "HD" it only supports 720p. You'll need to specifically look for 1080p to ensure the video supports the higher definition playback.
In addition to these features, Apple TV supports a wide variety of Internet radio and podcasts. You can also view photos on Flickr and get the latest news with Wall Street Journal Live.
Apple TV: The Bad
For what it does, Apple TV is great. Set up is simple, video playback is excellent, and it is easy to get the ball rolling with subscription services like Netflix, MLB, NBA and NHL.
The knock on Apple TV isn't what it does. It is what Apple TV doesn't do, which is a lot when compared to similar products like the Roku device.
Here's what you won't get with Apple TV: Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, Crackle, Pandora Radio, HBO Go, Epix, Disney, NBC News, Aol HD, Cnet, Fox News, Facebook, Flixster, Mog, blip.tv, comedy.tv and (believe it or not) much more.
Those are all channels you will get with the Roku device, which is also cheaper than Apple TV if you go with one of the entry-level units. Even the fully-featured Roku device (which supports limited gaming) has the same retail price as Apple TV.
This makes Apple TV a hard sell for anyone that is not already entrenched within the Apple ecosystem. It's a great device, but it simply doesn't measure up to the competition in the feature department.
Apple TV: A 5-Star iPad Accessory
On the flipside, Apple TV is one of the best accessories you can buy for the iPad. Not only does Apple TV interact well with iPad and iPhone services like Photo Stream and iTunes Match, it also supports AirPlay, which allows you to stream music and video from your iDevice to your Apple TV, and AirPlay Display Mirroring, which means you can stream your iPad to Apple TV even if the app you are using doesn't support video out. This makes Apple TV one of the best ways to connect your iPad to your TV.
Apple TV does three things for iPad owners: (1) The iPad overcomes the primary weakness of Apple TV by granting access to Pandora, Crackle and any other video streaming service offered on the iPad, (2) Apple TV connects the iPad to the TV, allowing you to check Facebook, send email or simply browse the web on your big HDTV and (3) The iPad/Apple TV combination results in a great gaming console, with some games like Real Racing 2 even splitting what's displayed on the big screen and what is displayed on the iPad to enhanced the iPad-as-a-controller experience.
Should You Buy Apple TV?
Like music was a decade ago, we are on the precipice of ditching analog video (i.e. DVDs and Blu-Ray) in favor of digital video (especially streaming video). And while Steve Jobs once called Apple TV a "hobby", it is clear Apple is intent on turning this hobby into a valuable asset.
Luckily, the question of whether or not Apple TV is right for you is a relatively simple one to answer. If you have an iPad or iPhone, Apple TV is a great addition to your household. Don't give the Roku device a second thought. While there are a few features of Roku like Amazon Instant Video that can't (yet) be reproduced by the Apple TV-iPad/iPhone combination, there are many more features of that combination that can't be reproduced on Roku.
On the other hand, if you don't own an iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch and don't see yourself purchasing one of these products in the future, Roku is a better choice. Not only does it offer more content, the Roku device is also cheaper. Compare Prices for the Roku Media Player.