What the heck was Apple thinking?
At Apple’s Special Event in September there were many announcements on Apple Computer’s entire product line including the iPod, new iTunes, and the new Apple TV. After looking at a number of set-top players over the years, we were keen on examining the Apple TV 2nd Generation up close and personal. Steve Jobs promised us a new way to watch TV when he announced the brand new Apple TV (Gen 2) as he highlighted all the cool ways users would be able to stream movies through iTunes and Netflix. He even showed us how killer it would be to transfer the contents of your iPhone or iPad to and from your living room through Apple’s new magic box – the Apple TV.
Apple shipped the new Apple TV at the beginning of the month and all the Apple fanboys lined up to get their latest Apple shinny thing – us included. For months we have anticipated this release as Apple TV was sure to be a game changer. Even when Apple announced the price of the box would be just $99, there was a flurry of activity with set-top media companies making sure they didn’t price themselves out the market. After all, big, bad Apple was coming to eat your kids and steal your pets with their new cheap box! Well, we got our Apple TV box a couple of weeks ago and it took us all about 10 minutes to plug it in to get it up and running. After playing with it for a few weeks, we really have to ask ourselves, “What the heck was Apple thinking when they released this garbage?”
There is actually a lot to like about this second generation Apple TV and we have seen the Apple fanbois (and apologists) trip over themselves to be the first in line to give it the highest praise. But those that claim this is will forever change the way we watch TV are either nut-jobs who know nothing about media players and streamers, or are totally dumb. Yeah, those are your two choices. There is definitely something wrong with the Apple TV – not that any player is perfect – but the Apple TV has some deep-seated, fundamental issues like Dexter Morgan, or Sue Sylvester. You know there is something there and when you see it, you don’t understand how everyone looking can’t see it either.
Let’s look a bit closer at what Apple has delivered. First of all the box is hella-small: Apple TV (G2) measures in at 3.9" x 3.9" x 0.9"and weighs 0.6 lbs, a little bit larger than a hockey puck or clay pigeon. It is smaller than any other media player we have reviewed or seen and with no fan, it will be absolutely quiet when placed in your home theater. Instead of a Realtek- or Sigma-based chipset to power this latest generation media player, Apple is using the same Apple A4 processor used in the latest iPhone and iPad. The A4 package carries 8 GB of onboard storage – not RAM – but NAND onboard flash storage. There is 256 MB of 400 MHz DDR2 of standard SDRAM, but the entire platform runs on less than 6 Watts of power. While the A4 processor seems like a great chip for powering a rinky-dink 10 inch screen, does it really have the processor power needed to decode my Blu-ray ISO or Dolby Digital sound? Of course not. I’m stupid for even thinking of that. Apple’s solution, however, for playing “non-standard” files like MKV, ISO, or AVI is for the user to recode their entire multimedia library to fit the narrow window of what iTunes can play, thus making that content recognizable to Apple TV. In our previous Apple TV article, we un-boxed the A-TV and detailed what you would need to do to get your media files to play. Basically, once you have them in a ‘container’ that iTunes can understand (MP3, M4A) you would drop and drag them into iTunes so that they are visible to Apple TV and you can then play them. You have to convert non-iTunes-compatible files by using a third-party converter like Super, and Handbrake to allow iTunes to catalog the media. Again, we ask Apple: What the heck where you thinking?
Apple TV Set-Up and PlaybackWe started off the simple procedure of hooking our system up by connecting the Apple TV directly to our receiver using an HDMI cable that Apple didn’t feel they needed to include in the box bundle. Now, we have plenty of HDMI cables lying around the Legit Bunker, but most people don’t. So when they break open that tiny box expecting to be able to watch the player right away, they will have to go to the store and pick up a HDMI cable, or unplug an existing HD device. For those who may have older TVs or monitors with DVI or Component inputs only, you are again out of luck as you will need to get a converter cable or adapter. “I’m cool with updating all of my tech, and I’ve got extra HDMI cables around,” you say, “I’m going to be alright. This is still a great box!” Well, let’s take a quick look at the specs: Apple TV’s Specifications
- System requirements:
- AirPort Extreme, Wi-Fi 802.11b, g, or n wireless network (wireless video streaming requires 802.11g or 802.11n) or 10/100BASE-T Ethernet network
- iTunes Store account for renting movies and TV shows
- Netflix account for streaming Netflix content
- For streaming media from a Mac or PC: iTunes 10 or later; iTunes Store account for Home Sharing
- Video formats:
- H.264 video up to 720p, 30 frames per second, Main Profile level 3.1 with AAC-LC audio up to 160 Kbps per channel, 48kHz, stereo audio in .m4v, .mp4, and .mov file formats
- MPEG-4 video, up to 2.5 Mbps, 640 by 480 pixels, 30 frames per second, Simple Profile with AAC-LC audio up to 160 Kbps, 48kHz, stereo audio in .m4v, .mp4, and .mov file formats
- Motion JPEG (M-JPEG) up to 35 Mbps, 1280 by 720 pixels, 30 frames per second, audio in ulaw, PCM stereo audio in .avi file format
- Audio formats:
- HE-AAC (V1), AAC (16 to 320 Kbps), protected AAC (from iTunes Store), MP3 (16 to 320 Kbps), MP3 VBR, Audible (formats 2, 3, and 4), Apple Lossless, AIFF, and WAV; Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound pass-through
- TV compatibility: High-definition TVs with HDMI and capable of 720p 60/50Hz,2 including popular models from these manufacturers: Hitachi, JVC, LG, Mitsubishi, NEC, Panasonic, Philips, Pioneer, Samsung, Sony, Sharp, Toshiba, Vizio, Westinghouse
- Wireless: 802.11n Wi-Fi (a/b/g compatible); 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz
- Ports: 1 HDMI; 1 optical audio; 1 Fast Ethernet; IR receiver; microUSB (for service and support)
- Dimensions: 3.9 x 3.9 x 0.9 inches
- Weight: 0.6 pounds
- Power: Built-in 6-watt universal power supply
Even if you are the most staunch Apple fan, you have to admit, this Apple TV (Gen 2) model makes no sense from a consumer’s perspective. Instead of making a device that can recognize and play all sorts of multimedia formats, Apple would rather you run selected media formats through iTunes at a crappy resolution. When you look at what Netflix offers for the Apple TV it makes you throw up in your mouth a little. The Apple TV Gen 2 hit the streets about the same time as the Iron Man 2 release, but when we went to stream this recent release, we couldn’t find it. There were plenty of other “recent releases” listed in Netflix like Friday starring Ice Cube and Alvin and Chipmunks….Come on, Alvin and the freaking Chipmunks as a new release??? Get out of here. Netflix customers pay at least $10 a month for the ability to stream Netflix’s latest and this is what I get?
When we finally did find something to play, the picture quality of what was offered was pretty crappy. We didn’t purchase any movies or television shows from the Apple TV “store” so we cannot tell you if there is a big difference in picture quality versus Netflix. There were a bit too many ‘standard definition’ titles for my taste though. It is no surprise that when we compared a Blu-ray with Netflix, the Netflix picture was blown away by its more traditional cousin. We also compared the Netflix picture quality on the Sony PlayStation 3 and Apple TV and the Apple still sucked. For people with television sets under 42-inches or so, the picture quality may not matter, but when you compare the Apple TV to any other media player out there, it gets its butt kicked when you take into consideration picture quality and format compatibly.
Again, who would pay for the Apple TV? Only people who are already married to iTunes to play all of their media files and who can keep their PC or Mac running with iTunes at all times will be happy with this solution. For the rest of us, it’s really stupid having to re-encode every file we have on our system to H264 or M4V. Again, you can use programs like Handbrake, MakeMKV, or Super to convert the files you have before watching them, but if you have a collection of ripped DVDs or home videos, you will spend the majority of your time converting files, not watching them. For the majority of users out there, this is a non-starter and it is one of the reasons that non-Apple users point and laugh at Apple users. There are way too many (and better) alternatives to the Apple TV. We put together a simple chart mapping out some of the most common features for media players. The results are below (click for larger version):
From just this quick look, we can’t even give Apple TV box the award for “Best Wireless Netflix Box That Is Under $100”.
The Future of Apple TV
Apple does have plans to release AirPlay. The idea behind AirPlay is that any iOS device that can play multimedia will be able to “send” this media to the Apple TV and thus to your theater. It is supposed to take the dependency of iTunes out of the loop. In theory, the VLC app that we have for the iPad should have a new little icon on the interface to send the picture to Apple TV. This is great if it ever happens the way Steve Jobs described, but it still doesn’t solve the fact that the Apple TV still displays a maximum of 720p picture quality. What would be more innovative is if Apple would allow DLNA for the Apple TV (and iPad/iPhone/iOS) to stream content from network attached devices and drives…you know, like every other media player on the market.
Before you go and write this review off as an Apple-hater on a rant, you need to know that I don’t hate Apple. In fact, I really like Apple and think that Apple products are very good for the PC and entertainment industry. When you look at the Apple TV, there are a bunch of things that I like and would love to see with other set-top boxes. By far the strength of the Apple TV is the ability to read “meta data” from the net like IMDB. For each movie or music title you view, you can get a complete history of the title, the creator, the actors and even cross-reference other titles from this information. It’s not intrusive either when it shows this information. There are a lot of people who want to see the movie posters of the titles before they hit “play”, I could personally not give a crap about a stupid poster, but it is a nice amenity.
Other than the meta-tag reading, I’m not really sure what else this “player” can do that is unique to other boxes out there. There are many boxes that can stream Netflix and YouTube…most of them support resolutions higher than 720p. There are also tons of media players that can play MP3 and M4A media files…they can usually play AVI, MKV, ISO, and many, many other file formats though without the use of a computer running iTunes. There are even set-top boxes that run as quiet as the Apple TV but support attaching external drives full of media files that the player can play…again, without the use if iTunes as a medium. Like I said, you can like this product for the things that is does, but there is no way that it can compare to any current player on the market. Apple, you really let me down. I hope your new OS update will include something that people want and will set you apart. Maybe include Hulu access and playback, or at least being able to watch the network streams of current shows instead of trying to gouge viewers by charging $1 for the latest episode of Glee…you know the same episode that I can watch for free anytime with a browser and laptop. I don’t even like the Apple TV remote as it doesn’t have TV volume, mute, or power so now I have to have my hands on at least two remotes when I'm watching a movie.
Sigh…the more I try to use the Apple TV, the more frustrated I get. The list of what is wrong with the Apple TV is a long one. Legit Bottom Line: While pretty and quiet, the $99 Apple TV (Gen 2) is really a media streamer that needs to mature much more. Unless someone gives you an Apple TV for your birthday, we recommended that you stay away from this box.