I’ve been looking at various internet-to-TV devices as part of my Life With Google TV series. I’ve covered Google TV, Roku & Boxee Box so far. Time for Apple TV! If you buy a lot with iTunes or have an iPhone or iPad, this is a great device. Amazing, in some ways. But the lack of Hulu and Amazon support puts it behind Roku, in my view.
Real Life Testing Approach
As I said with my Boxee review, my approach with these devices has been to use them as if I know nothing little-to-nothing about them. How might a typical consumer start with them, if they selected one from the several choices out there?
With Apple TV, I’d never used the previous version. Nor have I ever rented a TV show through iTunes. Testing Apple TV was pretty much a blank slate for me. I ordered one through Apple about a week after they came out in October. I finally got to using it this week.
In some ways, I’m glad I waited. Airplay functionality has just been added to iOS 4.2, the mobile software that both the iPad and the iPhone can use. It makes it easy to view pictures, watch video and listen to music through your Apple TV. But more on that, later in this review.
Also, this is a review about how Apple TV works in the United States. That’s where I’m based. I’m sorry that I’m unable to test this properly for those outside the US.
Apple TV is a $100 box that can easily fit into the palm of a hand, just as the picture from the Apple web site above shows. It’s small! So small that when I was moving cables around behind my TV set, and I ran out of hands, I held the Apple TV with my mouth. Perhaps not the smartest thing to do, as it was still plugged into my electrical outlet. But it’s that light and tiny.
Above, in another picture from the Apple web site, you can see the back. There’s no external power transformer. The power cable, included with the box, plugs directly into the unit. It also accepts a wired internet cable, or you can use the built-in wireless connection (I tested it mostly with a wired connection). HDMI is your only video-output option (720p is supported; 1080i or 1080p is not); an HDMI cable isn’t included.
I thought the Roku remote was small. The Apple TV remote is insanely small. To the right, you can see it compared against a DirecTV remote. Using the remote, you can easily navigate through menu options, pause what you’re viewing, fast-forward, rewind and so on. I only wish it also could control my TV’s volume. Backlighting would be nice, but with only three main buttons, it’s no great loss.
One nice thing is that if you have an iPad or an iPhone, you can download the Remote app and control your Apple TV that way. It makes it easy to breeze through the menus, and you can enter text using your mobile devices on screen keyboard. Here’s a nice hands-on review with more about it. Very simple, very intuitive, unlike the Logitech remote app for Google TV that I tried recently and found a nightmare.
As for software setup, there’s not much to that. You’re asked to provide your iTunes account. If you use Netflix, you’ll be asked for your Netflix username and password. There’s no need to get a device code from Netflix as some other devices have needed.
The Apple TV box had no problem finding my wireless network. When I went with a direct ethernet connection, that was detected without trouble.
From the Apple TV home screen, you’ve got four main viewing options:
- Movies (streamed from the internet, purchased through Apple iTunes)
- TV (streamed from the internet, also purchased through Apple iTunes)
- Internet (content from Netflix, YouTube & some other sources)
- Computers (content from computers running iTunes, either Macs or PCs)
In my reviews of streaming media devices, I’ve been mostly looking at how the boxes let you access television content via the internet. While iTunes has a vast collection of TV content, there are two major drawbacks: it’s only for sale, and what’s on iTunes isn’t necessarily on Apple TV.
Apple TV: Pay-Per-View Only, No NBC, CBS, Amazon, Hulu…
Apple TV provides content from a wide variety of television networks:
Even PBS & BBC America. Top Gear, anyone?
What’s missing? NBC, CBS & Viacom, to name some, which think charging $1.00 per episode to rent (OK, $0.99) is too little. Fox might even leave Apple TV in the future, saying in September that being on the device is a “short-term test.”
Now, Google TV has been derided in usefulness because all the major US television networks — ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox as well as Viacom — block Google TV from letting people watch the content they release freely on the web. However, Google TV will get a big boost when Hulu Plus comes to the service in the near future, providing access to content from NBC, CBS & Fox. For $8 per month, Google TV users can finally watch huge amounts of TV content with no per episode “rental” costs.
In contrast, Apple TV has largely seemed to escape similar criticism for its own effective network blocking. Heck, at least three of the four major US networks are willing to let Google TV users pay a monthly subscription for access to their content. With Apple TV, they’re not even allowing that.
In part, Apple TV’s limitations on this front may have escaped more media attention because it’s far less ambitions that Google TV, in terms of being a central way to search for TV content wherever it resides. Also, as I’ll get into, the way iTunes pipes into Apple TV helps round out the service’s offerings. But ultimately, Apple TV provides access to less content natively from the device than Google TV does, since Google TV supports Amazon Video On Demand.
Apple TV especially is limited in native support compared to Roku. For $60, rather than Apple TV’s $100, the Roku provides access to Hulu’s all-you-can-eat TV content, Amazon’s pay-per-view content, as well as additional TV content from Netflix. Apple TV does have Netflix, and iTunes provides an alternative to Amazon — but no support for Hulu Plus may be pricier TV viewing for some, and less variety.
These two stories from us go into greater detail about Roku and explain how Amazon, Netflix and Hulu Plus all work:
Apple TV Vs. iTunes TV
You’re to be forgiven if you assume that buying a TV show through Apple TV is the same as doing it through iTunes. After all, when you search for TV content, Apple TV says “Search iTunes Store TV Shows,” as you see in the screenshot below:
The search functionality works very well. Enter a few letters, and suggestions come up on the right side of the on-screen keyboard. But you’re not really searching all of iTunes. You’re only searching against iTunes TV shows that are also authorized for Apple TV.
For example, for Thanskgiving, I wanted to watch an old episode from Mad About You, from when Paul and Jamie had a family Thanksgiving dinner that, well, let’s say it proved that turkeys can fly (it’s really funny — a free 5 minute “minisode” is available). A search on Apple TV brought up no matches. The series simply did not exist, as far as Apple TV’s “iTunes Store” search was concerned.
Searching iTunes directly, for content to view on a Mac, PC, iPad or iPhone, and it’s a different story:
There’s the series. In fact, the exact episode that I wanted is listed at the very top, not surprising given the time of the year.
I don’t know if Mad About You is missing from iTunes because of NBC’s blocking or not. It was originally an NBC show. But you wont find it at Hulu either, despite Hulu being partially owned by NBC. You will find some minisodes through the Crackle site run by Sony, which is the studio behind the series. My guess is that Sony owns the rights and isn’t letting anyone stream the show for free or rent.
Whatever the reason, the show is on iTunes to buy but NOT on Apple TV to rent. You want to watch? You’ve got to buy.
Renting Vs. Owning
This leads to another important difference between iTunes and Apple TV. On iTunes, you mainly buy TV shows, with rental a cheaper option that was only recently released. On Apple TV, it’s rentals only. You pay, you play once, and then you’re done.
When you select a show, this is clearly explained:
That’s the message I got went I went to rent the most recent episode from The Simpsons. For $1, I’d only be able to watch it on Apple TV. I’d have up to 30 days from the start of renting it to actually view it. If I hit play, then I’d have 48 hours to finish the show.
In contrast, over at Amazon, I’d be able to BUY the episode for the same price. On Hulu, I could watch it for free. On the Fox site itself, it’s currently offered for free.
For this particular TV episode, Apple TV isn’t looking so great. Of course, Amazon will also have some shows that are rental only. Amazon’s viewing time period for some shows might be shorter. Or longer. iTunes might be cheaper in some cases than Amazon, or maybe not. You can buy Weeds for the same price in both places; True Blood is only a rental at Amazon for $2; at iTunes, it’s purchase-only at $3.
It’s difficult to tell who “wins” — iTunes versus Amazon — across the board. But in the spot checks I made, Amazon generally came off as pretty impressive and flexible. This is even more so when you compare Amazon to Apple TV, rather than iTunes.
From iTunes Into Apple TV
There’s a way around the limitations of only being able to rent — and only rent a limited number of items — on Apple TV. It’s through iTunes Home Sharing.
You need a PC or Mac that’s running iTunes. On either operating system, within iTunes, you select “Advanced,” then “Turn On Home Sharing.” You enter your iTunes account information, and that enables things on the computer side. On your Apple TV, you go to “Settings” from the main menu, then “Computer,” then “Turn On Home Sharing.”
After you’ve done that, from the “Computers” option in the Apple TV main menu, you’ll be able to select any computers that are sharing with Apple TV. Music, photos, movies and TV shows that are on iTunes on your computer can be viewed on your Apple TV.
It works really well. I was able to pull this type of content from a laptop that was upstairs, while I was downstairs watching through Apple TV. The downside is that the laptop has to be on with the lid open. I could never figure out a way to make it work with the lid shut. However, you can “sleep” your computer with the lid open, and a network call from Apple TV will wake it up.
With Home Sharing, all that content that some networks don’t really want being played through Apple TV makes it there, in the end. Anything you buy through iTunes can stream into your Apple TV box and out onto the big screen of your television.
If Apple were really clever, it would figure out a way for your Apple TV to talk directly to iTunes on your computer, so that you could access all the content that iTunes provides without having to get off your couch. But for now, you have to suffer some inconvenience with this workaround. Want a show on demand, that Apple TV doesn’t list? Find your laptop, download the content into iTunes, and then you can view it via Apple TV.
Keep in mind that streaming from iTunes on your computer only works with content you’re purchased, not rented. If there’s a TV show or movie you’ve rented through iTunes, that can’t be routed to Apple TV. Of course, you can rent directly from Apple TV, but the rental options are more limited, as previously explained.
Aside from Home Sharing, there’s another way to route iTunes content into Apple TV. That’s called Airplay. It’s awesome. But I’ll come back to that in a bit.
Movies & Netflix
As said, I’ve focused mostly on TV content in this review. Apple TV also provides access to a wide range of movie rentals. As with TV, you can search for titles:
You can also browse films by genre, new releases and in other ways such as by rating (G, PG, etc.). The entire browse experience is nice, with options to “wish list” films and easily read reviews and ratings.
If you have a Netflix account, that’s available through Apple TV. Just don’t look for it under movies. Fair enough — Netflix also offers TV content. Still, it feels kind of odd tucked under the “Internet” options:
Once within the Netflix application, you have access to suggestions, your instant queue plus the ability to search for films and more:
YouTube & More
Also under the “Internet” option is YouTube. Here you can search:
Preview more about videos:
And once selected, they expand to fill your screen and are easily paused, rewound or fast-forwarded.
Aside from video, the Internet option also allows streaming of pictures from MobileMe and Flickr accounts, plus you can select from various podcasts and internet radio stations.
The Purchase Process
Having now covered movies and TV on Apple TV, I wanted to touch a bit on the purchase process overall. It’s pretty painless, but remember the CVV code from your credit card — those three digits on the back, or four digits on the front of an American Express card.
Anything you buy through Apple TV will be charged to the credit card you have registered with iTunes. To verify your purchase, you’ll have to enter your CVV. I never remember this, and I much prefer Amazon’s system where you can create a custom PIN. Still, it’s not that hard to remember.
You’ll be told how much something costs before you buy. After that, it gets a little funky. With two different rentals, I’ve felt like nothing happened. Then I’d go back to the main menu for Movies or TV Shows and eventually (15-30 seconds) find that a “Rented” section had been added with my selection.
In one case, I accidentally clicked the play button of a TV show as I hunted around to find where the rental ended up. That started my 48 hours sooner than I wanted. I guess I’ll be really careful, next time.
Remember, Apple TV isn’t downloading and storing any of this content to the box itself. Instead, it’s being streamed through the internet as you watch. The streaming worked very well, with no buffering for me.
Just come back from a trip with a lot of pictures on your phone? Pull up a picture, tap the Airplay icon, and it’s on your TV. Flip to the next picture, and that shows up on TV. Want to listen to a song on your iPhone? Play the song, tap the Airplay icon, and now it’s coming through your TV’s sound system. Hey, now throw a picture over that music. Yes, you can do both at the same time.
It’s really, really nice, when it works. It usually does, though I’d get the odd glitches where something wouldn’t send right.
For TV and movie content, Airplay is slick. Anything that’s purchased and stored on your iPad or iPhone (iPhone 3Gs or higher) can be flicked over to play on your Apple TV.
In the screenshot below, my iPad is playing the “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia: It’s A Very Sunny Christmas” special that I bought through iTunes. The red arrow points to the Airplay button. When I push that, I get an option to send the video to Apple TV:
After selecting Apple TV, the video transfers:
It’s that easy. It also means that if you’re on your couch, and you’re an iPhone or iPad user, you can more easily bypass the limited content that Apple TV has without having to find your computer. Download to your mobile device, then Airplay out to Apple TV.
Annoyingly, the biggest problem I have with Airplay right now is that it doesn’t allow you to stream video you’re recorded using the iPhone’s own video camera. Still pictures? No problem. Video from iTunes? No problem. Your own video? No can do, unless you import that video into iTunes. Crazy.
Another annoyance is that Airplay seems linked to the Apple ID you use with your device. So, if several people in your household have different devices, you have to log out and painfully log them in, spelling out both the user name and password — which won’t be remembered for the future.
Great For Apple Fans, But Roku Still Shines
By now, I’ve reviewed the four major internet-to-TV devices out there (links to all the reviews below). I’ll be coming back with a wrap-up and comparison of them all in the near future. But my general thoughts are as follows:
Google TV: It’s complicated, and unless you like being an early adopter and have money to spare, this isn’t likely the solution for you. Not right now.
I’ve seen the Sony Google TV unit recently advertised at Best Buy for $300 rather than $400, and that includes a Blu-ray player. If you’re looking for a Blu-ray player already and want something additional, then Google TV may make sense. The same is true if you’re looking for a new standalone TV.
I’ll be reviewing the Logitech Revue in the near future. It sells for $300 and has no Blu-ray player. If you see a price drop, then it might make more sense.
If your a Dish TV subscriber, special features in any Google TV device make it much more appealing. Again, more on that in the near future.
Finally, Google TV will almost certainly improve. The addition of Hulu Plus alone will be a huge help.
Boxee Box: At $200, you’re saving $100 off the cheapest Google TV option. But right now, you’re also getting a box that lacks the big three of TV and movie streaming: Netflix, Hulu and Amazon. The first two are promised. I haven’t heard about the latter.
While the upgrades will be fine, and I do expect them to arrive, buying this device now doesn’t leave you with a lot of mainstream viewing options. I’d do it mainly because you want a device that lets you browse the web, as both Boxee and Google TV do, but you don’t want to pay the extra money for Google TV.
Apple TV: If you’re happy buying from iTunes or you do virtually everything through Netflix, this is a great device. It’s even more appealing to anyone with an iPhone or iPad who has wanted an easier way to get picture onto their TV.
Boxee promises great support for playing your own media, which I plan to test, as well as revisiting support that Google TV provides and that will be coming from Roku. But flicking a song, photo or video your TV is pretty slick. For $100, there’s a lot packed in a tiny box.
Then again, have you explored Amazon and found what a great replacement for iTunes shopping that it could be? Would Hulu Plus save you money if you watch a lot of TV through the internet? If so, strongly consider the Roku in addition to Apple TV or instead of it.
Roku: Starting at $60, you get all the TV resolution of Apple TV (720p) but fewer limitations. For $80, you move up to 1080p. Hulu Plus gives all-you-can eat TV content. Netflix does the same with movies and TV. Amazon provides an excellent pay-as-you-go rival to iTunes.
If you’re not tied into iTunes, the iPhone or the iPad, Roku seems an easy choice. If you are tied to those devices, I’d still seriously consider a Roku in addition to an Apple TV. You might find the Apple TV turns into your device for streaming personal content while Roku becomes your preferred commercial media device.
For more about connected TV devices, including my past reviews Google TV, Boxee and Roku, see our past articles below:
- Life With Google TV: First Day Review & Impressions
- Programming Your DVR Made Easy: Google TV, Dish & The Logitech Revue
- Boxee Box: First Day Review & Impressions
- Roku: First Day Review & Impressions
- Roku + Hulu Plus = Pretty Awesome
- Internet-To-TV Players Compared: Roku, Apple TV, Boxee & Google TV
Also see our Internet-To-TV page for further stories that will come.