Great redesign and price
Easy to set up
iTunes rentals only
No local storage
Resolution limited to 720p
Apple has long called the Apple TV, its set-top box designed to connect iTunes to HDTVs and home theater systems, a “hobby.” It’s done this, in part, to reduce expectations for the device. But, with the second-generation Apple TV, Apple has delivered a device that, while limited, contains the promise of turning the hobby into a job.
A Major Redesign
The differences between this model of the Apple TV and the last begin with the exterior. While the first Apple TV was about the size of a small cable box, the new one now rests comfortably in the palm of a hand, so small that it’s almost hard to believe it can be part of a home entertainment system.
As a result of the redesign, the Apple TV no longer has a hard drive and only offers an HDMI connection, removing the RCA outputs from the previous version. As a result, the new Apple TV only works with HDTVs (the previous model was touted that way, but it could work with standard-definition TVs, too).
A New Platform
The major under-the-hood change in the second-generation Apple TV is that it now runs the iOS, the same operating system that powers the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch. For the time being, this doesn’t necessarily translate to much, but it may in the future.
Because the Apple TV runs the iOS, it’s not a stretch to imagine that apps that run on the iOS could eventually be introduced for the Apple TV, which would drastically open up the possibilities for the device. As it stands, the Apple TV can play content from iTunes, stream video from Netflix and Internet radio stations, photos, and podcasts.
While these features are solid—the addition of Netflix streaming especially makes the device much more attractive—the potential addition of other apps (think Hulu Plus) is particularly exciting.
Another key addition is AirPlay, the replacement for AirTunes. While AirTunes only allowed for audio streaming, AirPlay also lets you stream video from an iOS device or desktop iTunes library to the Apple TV and HDTV it’s attached to. As a result, iOS devices now work like remote controls that connect the Apple TV and HDTVs. Not all apps support AirPlay yet, but it’s already a pretty useful (and cool) feature. As more apps support it, the Apple TV will become even more useful.
And New Limitations
Because the second-generation Apple TV removes the hard drive the previous models had, all content played back on the Apple TV is now streamed, either from the Internet or from an iTunes library on your WiFi network.
As a result, you can no longer purchase movies or TV shows on the Apple TV; instead, the second-generation Apple TV allows only rentals. You can still purchase content from iTunes and stream it to the Apple TV, but some people may find this lack of flexibility frustrating.
Another limitation, though not unique to this model, is the way browsing content onscreen is handled. While the graphic-rich method of displaying cover art for available movies and TV shows is visually appealing, it results in a lot of scrolling and a bit of disorientation. It’s hard to know just how much content is available. This isn’t the worst thing—I’d much rather have this than an interface requiring a keyboard and mouse (more on that momentarily)—but it will probably frustrate some users.
Compared to the Competition
Since Apple first introduced this hobby, it’s become a burgeoning business for many of its competitors, including Google and Roku. Both companies offer set-top boxes that stream content from the web to the living room.
The Roku player, which began as a way to stream Netflix, has matured into a platform that also delivers Hulu, baseball, hockey, and more. That flexibility, and its lower price point, make the Roku players an appealing option. Roku doesn’t offer integration with iTunes and the iOS ecosystem that the Apple TV offers, but until the Apple TV supports more third-party apps (especially Hulu), users looking for a web-connected set-top box should give it strong consideration. The choice may hinge on the content available on both platforms and your level of allegiance to Apple.
Google, on the other hand, has released its Google TV platform to many consumer-electronics manufacturers, with plans to embed it in HDTVs, Blu-ray players, and other devices. Google TV requires a keyboard and mouse, and is unable to access Hulu and most other major sources of video (Google-owned YouTube is, of course, available). It’s hard to imagine wanting to use a keyboard and mouse to watch TV, and the lack of content is a big drawback.
It’s worth noting, too, that many other home-theater components, especially Blu-ray players, can also stream Netflix, but none integrate with iTunes.
The Bottom Line
As noted above, if the second-generation Apple TV is opened up to allow more third-party apps, it could become a fantastic, affordable, flexible device to connect the living room with the Internet. If that happens, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to nearly anyone.
As it stands, it’s certainly a solid option. It’s especially useful when combined with AirPlay and Apple’s Remote app.
The Roku players certainly bear consideration, but if you’re particularly attached to the iOS and iTunes ecosystem, the second-generation Apple TV probably deserves a place in your living room.