There’s something unsettlingly exciting about the minimalism of Apple’s recently re-launched TV offering The device’s matt and glossy black plastic school features just a single front indicator light yet oozes class.
That design perfection is carried over to the apparently one-piece, no-joins, aluminium remote control which, along with a less exciting power cord, completes the contents of the packaging.
You’ll have guessed by now that we’re largely fans of the device so if praise of Apple’s shiny products offends you we’d suggest looking away now…
Provided you know both the password for your Wifi and how to add new devices to your network, setting the up Apple TV is a doddle which requires just three very simple steps: 1. plug a HDMI cable into your TV and the device 2. connect it to the mains and 3. configure your network settings via the onscreen menu.
If you limit devices which can connect to your network via MAC IDs this can be handily found in the Apple TV’s ‘About’ settings screen. It may also be on the packaging but the size of the text on it was too teeny for your reviewer to read.
Once you’ve added your iTunes account details in the onscreen menu – needed so you can rent films – you’re free to explore the device’s three content menus Movies, Internet and Computers which dominate Apple TV’s home screen.
Movies is where you’ll find full-length films available to rent from the iTunes store as well as trailers for what’s currently showing at the cinema. As well as a ‘Top Movies’ hotlist films can be browsed by genre and keyword search. If you’re a Mac or iDevice user you’ll be at home with the Cover Flow style presentation of the films.
Click on a title and you have the option to watch a preview clip or trailer, rent the movie, read a short synopsis, add to a wish list or, via the ‘more’ option, view Rotten Tomatoes ratings of the film as well as to click an actor, producer or director’s name to see a list of related titles. Beneath the film’s home screen is a (sometimes) handy list of titles other users have also rented.
Once you’d added a film to your wish list the Movies menu on the Apple TV’s home screen updates to include a ‘Wish List’ option allowing you easy access to films you want to rent later.
Apple’s terms for watching a movie are fairly generous, once paid for you have 30 days to watch the film and 48 hours to finish watching once you’ve pressed ‘play’.
Once a film is rented it sits along the top of the home screen for easy viewing with the number of days left in your rental period shown beneath. Start watching a film and then leave it part-way through and the status is updated to show the number of hours left to finish watching it. Go back into the film and you have the option to resume from where you left off or watch from the beginning.
We picked Noel Clarke’s 4,3,2,1 – our favourite film of 2010 – as our first rental. Despite our iTunes account having credit in it from an iTunes voucher we were confusingly asked to confirm the security code of the associated debit card. Checking our iTunes account we were pleased to see the rental cost had in fact been deducted from the account credit and Apple may need to revisit the requirement to confirm the card code where there’s a credit balance in iTunes.
To check the service with 2 films we also rented the lamentably under-appreciated Mad City, this time we weren’t asked to input our card code which just adds to the confusion.
Despite using the Apple TV with a fairly standard broadband connection, once we pressed ‘play’ on our films they started instantly just like on Virgin or BT Vision’s on demand offerings and it was possible to start fast forwarding through them pretty much from the outset.
Internet is where you can view YouTube clips, content from a MobileMe or Flickr account, watch and listen to podcasts from iTunes or connect to internet radio stations.
Although our retail model correctly identified we were in the UK, our Internet section also initially offered an option for the Netflix service which isn’t available here. Within a few flips around the system this had vanished but Apple might want to look at disabling this by default outside the US.
The YouTube section is speedier than we’d expected but, inevitably, the quality of the content is highly variable with clips we’ve seen on a computer screen looking pretty ropey when played on a fairly unexciting 32″ TV. Unlike our film rentals some YouTube clips we played suffered from delayed playback at the start though all recovered after a few seconds. If you have a YouTube account you can login and save videos to your favourites list as well as rate them.
In our view the YouTube feature has potential but its ‘not there’ yet and a mainstream UK audience used to high quality on demand services such as 4oD and iPlayer may not be impressed by fuzzy clips on their main TV.
Podcasts is basically an Apple TV front end to the same category in iTunes. We tried out David Mitchell’s Soap Box and (geeky fanbois that we are) a vodcast of Apple’s ‘keynote’ from January 2010 where Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad.
This was one of the clips we’d played on YouTube earlier and the vodcast was of far higher quality although some of blacks were a little grainy and banded. Whether this was a limitation in the original footage or the result of streaming over broadband is unclear.
The integration with mobileme is a little underwhelming, the Apple TV can only access galleries on accounts rather than any content stored on the iDisk so no sharing of – for example – holiday videos seems possible. Flickr contacts can also be added and images played as a slideshow. By definition the results depend on the quality of the original images – we used our Apple TV with our sister site MayorWatch‘s Flickr account – and though the slideshow does a good job of presenting the images, it’s a bit passive for us.
The radio section offers quite a wide choice of stations though we struggled to find any BBC ones and, in a nice touch, the audio continues to play even after you leave the radio section so you can pick a station to listen to while watching a slideshow or browsing films. A quick press of the ‘play/pause’ button stops the audio regardless of which screen you’re in.
The last content option on the home screen is Computers which currently allows you to play iTunes content from any computer in the home provided you have the Home Sharing option enabled within that device’s iTunes. We like this but couldn’t make it work with a MacBook while the screen was closed regardless of whether the power cord was plugged in or not. Having a laptop open all the time isn’t something we’re keen on – accidents tend to happen – but it may be an insolvable issue.
Missing at the current time is the highly anticipated AirPlay support allowing the streaming of content from iPhones and iPads. Unfortunately the otherwise very helpful staff member at Apple’s Convent Garden stair who served us told us we could stream from the iPad right away. We knew this wasn’t the case from the “coming soon” disclaimers on Apple’s website so beware if this is your primary reason for buying.
Although the other content options will interest many, the real focus of the Apple TV as sold in the UK is movies. If Apple’s marketing team is smart they’ll be looking to position this as the ideal companion to a Freesat or Freeview set top box, able to bring on demand movies even to homes who eschew subscription TV.
Though overall we love it, we do have some minor niggles with Apple TV – searching by selecting each letter with a remote is a pain no matter how pretty the remote and as Apple make a great Bluetooth keyboard it would have been nice to have the option to use that with the TV box.
It would also be nice if the device knew British as well as American English. Few people in the UK say ‘Theatre’ instead of ‘Cinema’ and none (or at least none who know how to spell) spell it ‘Theater’.
More seriously it’s a real shame the TV episode rental option available in the US isn’t available over here and it’d be nice to see Apple work with the major broadcasters to bring catch-up services such as iPlayer, ITV Player and 4oD to the device.
The Apple TV’s price point of £99 feels about right – if you currently buy DVDs which you just watch once you’ll quickly make back the Apple TV’s purchase price in savings from renting instead – and the device has a reassuringly well-built feel to it.
We’ll have a second look once AirPlay is enabled as it’s likely to significantly expand the device’s desirability but in the meantime if you don’t have a subscription to Virgin or BT Vision or a games console already offering on demand movies, this is an ideal way to bring the feature to your television.
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