I’ve had my eye on Apple TV since seeing the album art screensaver years ago at a friend’s party. But as I often do, I got caught up in a waiting game and ended up getting nothing for all this time. First, I wanted to wait until Apple TV got 1080p support. But more importantly, I was – and still am – sort of torn between the Google/Android and Apple ecosystems, liking certain aspects of each and enjoying both on my Galaxy Nexus and iPad, respectively. And that’s the thing with the gadget market now – we’re not just buying a nice smartphone, tablet, streaming device, etc., we’re buying the ecosystem that comes with it. Google and Apple each make it really easy to sync music, movies, apps, photos, documents, and bookmarks across multiple devices on the same platform, but really difficult to do so when different platforms are involved. So it is really easiest to stay consistent with regard to platforms.
After liking my Galaxy Nexus and Google Play Music so much, I wanted to wait for the next batch of Google TV settop boxes to come out to at least see how they stack up to Apple TV. But due to the lack of real info on release date (probably this summer at the earliest) or price, and also due to having a February birthday and my father asking me several times what I wanted, I decided to cave in and buy Apple TV so I could enjoy it now rather than waiting indefinitely as is my M.O. And I am not surprised that I really like it.
Setup for Apple TV (ATV) is really simple and easy and really only requires two connections – HDMI and power. Initially, I used wi-fi for the first few days but then decided to hardwire it to my router to be safe.
One oddity: I have ATV routed via HDMI through my home theater receiver, which then connects to a 768p plasma TV. So in the settings I changed the TV resolution from “auto” (which ATV set to 720p) to “1024×768 – 60 Hz” to match my TV resolution. The picture came through fine, but I lost audio. No big deal, but I found it odd that the display resolution can affect audio.
The remote is functional and attractive (and tiny). It does what I need it to do, but if I didn’t have an iPad to use as a remote I would find it a pain to input text (like when searching YouTube) with just multi-directional and select buttons. The iPad remote works well.
The user interface consist of tiled icons that provide access to different content. It is attractive and easy to use, but not customizable.
iTunes Store content:
The iTunes Store is broken down into different icons for movies, television, podcasts, trailers, etc. The layout within each is very attractive and intuitive. Based on my experience, previews and trailers are HD but in stereo only, while a movie I rented from iTunes was in HD and had 5.1 Dolby Digital audio. It looked and sounded great, and while Amazon on Demand on my Blu-ray player dropped down in quality at times based on connection, I never had that issue with ATV.
Also, the iTunes Store has a really great selection – probably the best on the market, and is very well-suited for a settop box.
Another way to get content on ATV is to stream it from iTunes on a Mac or PC. This works seamlessly for audio and video, including 1080p video, based on my experience. There’s also a way to share photos through iTunes, and there is really nice slideshow functionality, although I wish ATV recognized folder heirarchy (as is it displays all photos from folders and subfolder in the same giant folder).
Album art screensaver:
One thing I was really interested in and had trouble setting up was getting the album art from my iTunes library to be used in the screensaver. Based on my research on the issue, many people think that Apple discontinued this feature. Whether it was once temporarily discontinued or not, I was able to find it with some effort. The default screen saver pattern is “random” and with that option set there is no album art option. But when I changed the pattern to “floating” I discovered that there was, in fact, an album art option and it let me select which iTunes library to pull from. And I was pleasantly surprised to find that the screen saver still ran even when the computer from which the album art was pulled was off, so I guess the unpublished 8 GB of flash memory is holding my album art.
Other content channels:
The YouTube channel works well. There’s also Vimeo and Flickr, neither of which I have used yet. I would love to get the NHL Network channel but it is pretty expensive (through no fault of Apple). The free NHL content – standings, schedules, and highlights, are still pretty cool though. I may give Netflix another shot after discontinuing it because I didn’t have time to watch enough movies to make it worthwhile.
[UPDATE: I decided to give Netflix a try and the interface looks really good, and the appearance and interface is consistent with the iTunes Store too, which is a nice touch. So far Netflix has been working well. The HD looks good, but not quite as good as Blu-ray, and I will wait till I watch more iTunes content and Netflix content before I compare their quality. There is a good amount of HD content. Some Netflix movies/shows have Dolby Digital audio, but that is really hit or miss, unfortunately.]
Of all features of ATV, this is where it is most important to have an iOS device. AirPlay allows media to be streamed from an iOS device (or from iTunes) to ATV. It works really well and opens up the door to much more content on ATV, as I can now stream full TV shows, news reports, etc., from apps on my iPad. There is also AirPlay Mirroring, which allows the exact screen from the iOS device – even when there is no media being played on it – to be “mirrored” on ATV. I was disappointed in myself for not reading the footnote on Apple’s website that says that AirPlay Mirroring is only available on the iPad 2 or later and the iPhone 4S. But AirPlay still works on my original iPad, and that is good enough for me.
First and foremost, I wish that ATV could pull music from my iPod Classic via the dock connector. I understand that Apple is trying to push iCloud and iTunes Match, but it still sells iPod Classic and should make an effort to integrate it with other Apple products, like ATV.
I also wish that ATV had more sizable and accessible memory so that I could store some music on it rather than relying on having a computer with iTunes running or using the subscription-based iTunes Match. Again, I understand that Apple is pushing the cloud, and that the lack of memory allows for lower prices, but maybe 16GB of user-accessible storage wouldn’t hurt.
The lack of analog output is a negative too. I know that the digital audio carried by HDMI and optical is far superior to analog, but not everyone has a sound system that allows for digital audio input, and people should not have to rely on their HDTV to convert the audio from digital to analog. For me, my Pioneer receiver plays HDMI audio without a problem. But it has also “zone 2″ function that allows audio to be sent via analog cables to a second receiver in another section of my apartment, and it cannot convert digital audio to analog for zone 2. This issue probably affects a very small percentage of people, but it is still frustrating.
I’d like to see a built-in browser and some more apps that deliver free/ad-supported content. And the ability to re-arrange the content icons. Wishful thinking, I know.
I really like ATV and it is definitely worth the relatively low $99 pricetag. Its user interface is really easy to use and ATV is great for watching YouTube, NetFlix, and renting movies and TV shows. But really, it is more fair to look at ATV as sort of a connector between Apple and TV rather than a standalone device, and ATV is exponentially more useful because I am already in the Apple ecosystem by using iTunes and iPad. This is certainly by design, and provides an incentive to stay in the Apple ecosystem.
I will keep my iTunes and Google Play Music libraries current and continue to use my iPad and Galaxy Nexus (which I would anyway) in order to get the best of both the Apple and Google ecosystems.