2012 Apple TV
The little Apple TV streaming box has, over the years, simultaneously pleased and disappointed.
Apple TV had something of a soft launch, its initial purpose was somewhat blurry, and even Steve Jobs admitted that it was merely a "hobby" project for the company.
But now, with the 2012 version, popularly known as the Apple TV 3, or even ATV3 – although in newApplespeak its just the Apple TV, just as the new iPad is just the iPad, not iPad 3 – , we think it's finally come of age.
Well, it's come of age in an Apple-y way, anyway.
Y'see, while other products in the video-streaming arena let you access your own content on some type of external hard drive or DLNA device, the Apple TV bangs down the shutters on the outside world and ushers you back into its tightly controlled (if well stocked) iTunes Store.
Apple TV review: Full HD
"So, what's the big deal?", you might say. Well, the Apple TV now supports 1080p Full HD downloads; mirroring from an Apple portable; iTunes match and Photo Stream for synchronising music and pictures across your Apple accounts; AirPlay support and Netflix access.
It's undoubtedly the easiest product of its type to set up. Connect it to your TV or AV amp via HDMI, plug it into the wall and your network, and that's it. Wireless configuration is a snap, too. That's largely down to two things: an assumption by Apple that its users might not know (or care) about the finer details of network operations; and a lovely, intuitive user interface.
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The svelte aluminium remote has a nice weight to it, and its minimal design reflects that of the on-screen menus. If you don't want to use it, though, there's always the option of using the (free) Apple Remote app on your iOS portable.
It works, but can occasionally be a little eager when it comes to tracking finger movements. We'd stick with the hardware wand.
More after the break
Apple TV review: iTunes store
Delve into the store and it's clear that you could be entertained until your eyes (or your bank account) dry out. There's a massive amount of content on offer - from the latest TV shows, including Homeland and Being Human, to new movie releases such as Moneyball and Contagion (both available in 1080p). And, of course, you can also run the gamut of music available.
Titles appear with sleeve art, metadata and, in the case of films, average ratings from www.rottentomatoes.com - a nice touch if you're about to fork out, say, for Senna (definitely do), or Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked (really, really don't).
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There's nothing to moan about when it comes to picture quality, either (save for the lack of 3D content), with edges appearing sharply drawn and detail coming out well in dark areas. Sound quality, likewise, is typically Apple - clear, articulate and punchy.
Weirdly, the Apple TV box insists on adjusting the sampling rate of all audio from 44.1kHz to 48kHz, but we doubt that will be an issue to the device's target demographic... and besides, Dolby Digital 5.1 audio outputs just fine.
Apple TV review: Mirroring
Mirroring works brilliantly - it lets you show your portable device's display on the big screen, or augments what's on your iPad, say, with additional imagery on your TV.
Download the MetalStorm: Wingman game and you'll see what we mean: you get the instrument panel and controls in your hands, where they belong, while all the action takes place on the big screen (with the sound going through your home cinema setup, too, if you wish). Nintendo must be quaking in its boots...
Likewise, AirPlay compatibility opens up your options a little. You can stream music and video from your Apple-sanctioned library, of course, but once you've paired your portable with the Apple TV, we discovered you can also stream the likes of Spotify and even BBC iPlayer, too.
Which is handy, because the Apple TV doesn't have apps for either of these, unlike many of the other devices here. This strikes us as a little odd, given the presence of these on the company's other iOS devices.
So far so convergent, then. But what's the catch that lops that fifth star off the rating? It's the fact that the Apple TV's greatest strength is also a considerable weakness.
On one hand, the closed nature of the iTunes/iCloud model means Apple can keep the content under control; on the other, it means there's no scope for playing files over your home network if they aren't stored in your iTunes library. No DLNA for you, buddy-boy.
Apple TV review: Local file support
Obviously, Apple wants you to spend money in the iTunes Store. That's a given - but to deny you access to your NAS to play your own home movies or stuff you've recorded on a PVR seems churlish. And the presence of a (for service use only) USB port on the rear of the box only serves to rub salt into the wound.
We see no reason why Apple couldn't maintain the same ease of use it offers with online content, but for local, non-iTunes-based files. Perhaps the upcoming release iTunes 11, which is rumoured to include better iCloud integration (and iOS6 support) will allow local files to be stored in the cloud?
You could, of course, jailbreak the Apple TV, but this will void your warranty. Just saying...
So, then, the only thing stopping the Apple TV from running off clutching five stars from this review is the fact that it won't recognise NAS devices or external USB hard drives, or offer an iPlayer app. In fact, if it could do those things, as well as all the other amazing abilities it offers, it would probably be worth six.