Friday, October 1, 2010

New Apple TV (2nd Generation) Detailed Review

Thirty-one days after ordering my two new Apple TVs, they arrived via FedEx this afternoon. These Apple TVs join a first generation Apple TV, a Boxee-dedicated laptop, a media server, and Airport Express devices as the media components for the household.

By now, there are probably hundreds of reviews of the new Apple TV on the Internet.  This my personal take on it as an avid user of the first generation Apple TV.

Technical Specifications
Apple does not provide a lot of technical details about many of its devices and the Apple TV is no exception.  Luckily, iFixIt has already tore one down to provide us with specific.  Here's a summary of the Apple TV's technical speifications based on Apple's documentation and iFixIt's tear down:

  • Operating System: iOS (same operating system used in the iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch)
  • On-board memory: 256 MB (equivalent to the iPad 1st Gen and iPod touch 4th Gen)
  • Processor: Apple A4 (identical to iPad 1s Gen processor)
  • Storage: 8 GB of flash memory
  • Connectors: HDMI, Ethernet (10/100BASE-T), digital optical audio, Wi-Fi (802.11b/g/n), power
  • Power Supply: 3.4V @1.75A (5.95 watts)
  • HD Video Output Max: 720p

Initial Setup
Before you get started with setting up the new Apple TV in your environment:

  • Make sure you have an HDMI cable.  There is no cable in the box.  I recommend that you don't waste your money on a Monster cable. You can get an AmazonBasics High-Speed HDMI Cable for $7. You can also order cheaper cables from Meritline, but shipping might take longer than than Amazon.com or Buy.com.
  • Update your iTunes application to the latest version (as of this writing, that would be iTunes 10.0.1)
  • Enable Home Sharing on the iTunes library (or libraries) on the Macs or PCs that you wish to access through the Apple TV, assuming you have person content such as music, videos, and photos that you wish to access from the Apple TV.
  • If you plan on viewing photos on the Apple TV from one of your computers, designate the folder where your photos reside in the iTunes client by going to the Advanced menu and selecting Choose Photos to Share...
HDMI Cable
Once the above is complete, plug the HDMI cable between your TV and the Apple TV, the power cord, and the Ethernet cable (if using one).

Language Selection
Next, follow the on-screen setup to select the language option of your choice.

Network Configuration
At this point, you need to configure how your box will access your local network and the Internet, which could be done using an Ethernet cable or Wi-Fi.


  • Option 1: Ethernet Setup.  Did you plug the cable in?  Congratulations, you're done with Network Configuration.
  • Option 2: Wi-Fi Setup.  If you did not plug an Ethernet cable in, the Apple TV will automatically prompt you to select a Wi-Fi Network from a list of available ones.  Go ahead and select your Wi-Fi network and enter the Wi-Fi passwords (your WEP key or WPA password, typically).

Apple Support
Next, the Apple TV will request to have your usage information be shared with Apple.  If you are comfortable with this, check out their privacy statement and select OK.  Otherwise, select No Thanks.

If everything worked correctly, you will see the main menu with cover art for the latest Top Movies.  If all you're going to use your Apple TV for is rent movies and TV shows from Apple, view Podcasts and YouTube videos, you're done with the setup.  If you need to access your local content, continue.

Home Sharing
You need to enable Home Sharing on the Apple TV in order to access your personal content that resides on a Mac or a PC (or multiple ones).  Before you proceed with enabling Home Sharing on the Apple TV, make sure you already did this on the iTunes client on your Mac or PC.

To enable Home Sharing on the Apple TV, go to the Computers option on the main menu and select Turn on Home Sharing.  As with the iTunes client, Home Sharing requires your Apple ID and password.  The Apple ID and password used on the Apple TV must match the set used on the iTunes clients you're going to access.

The Apple TV will also prompt you to use the Apple ID and password you just entered for the iTunes Store for renting TV shows and movies.  If you're the only one using this device or comfortable with others in your household renting movies and TV shows using your Apple account and you're credit card associated with that account, select Yes.  Otherwise, select No.

If everything worked correctly, you should now see your iTunes libraries under Computers.

Netflix Setup
If you don't have a Netflix account, do yourself a favor and get one right now.  For $8.99 per month (or $7.99 in Canada), you can stream unlimited movies and TV shows.  It's definitely worth the money and the Apple TV makes it even worth more as it has the best Netflix implementation I've ever seen.

To enter your Netflix credentials on the Apple TV, select Internet from the main menu then Netflix.  You will be prompted for your Netflix Email and password.  Enter them and you will be on your way to streaming thousands of TV shows and movies.

iOS Remote Setup (optional)
If you own an iPhone, an iPod touch, or an iPad it's a good idea to download the iOS Remote from the App Store.  It's a great application and makes using the Apple TV even easier because you would be able to control it from anyone in the house and without a line-of-sight.  For instance, one of my Apple TVs was Velcro'ed on the back of a TV hanging on the bedroom wall.  I would not be able to access it if it wasn't for the iOS Remote app.

Additional Setup Options (recommended)
Two additional setup options that you should consider.  The first to to rename the Apple TV to something more meaningful than just Apple TV.  If you get more than one Apple TV, it will be easier to distinguish the difference devices when access them using the iOS Remote app or when you're streaming content to them using the new AirPlay technology (either from an iTunes client or from iOS devices running iOS 4.2 or higher). You can change the name by selecting Settings from the main menu, then selecting General.  From there, select Name and select one of the preset names or create a name using the Custom... option on the menu.

Finally, it's probably a good idea to set up the screensaver to use your own photos, which you can do by selecting Settings from the main menu, then selecting Screen Saver.  From there, select Photos followed by the Computer that has the photos that you wish to use for the screen saver.  Finally, select the specific folder to use.

First Impressions
The new Apple TV is one of the best devices on the planet for bringing your content to the family room.

Usability
Just like the majority of Apple's products, the Apple TV is easy to use and intuitive.  Setup is a breeze, especially if you are already an iTunes user.  The menu is simple and straightforward.  The integration with iTunes, the iTunes Store, Netflix, You Tube, and the iOS Remote app are so seamless the entire ecosystem feels like one.

Functionality
Here's what you can do with the new Apple TV (items in italic are unique to the 2nd generation Apple TV):
  • Rent and stream movies from the iTunes Store ($4.99 in HD)
  • Rent and stream TV shows from the iTunes Store.  This is currently limited to Fox and ABC networks, which includes BBC America and Disney ($0.99 per show in HD).
  • Stream movies and TV shows from Netflix (This feature requires a Netflix subscription.  Existing Netflix subscribers can just put in their user name and password).
  • Stream YouTub videos (free)
  • Stream audio and video Podcasts from the iTunes Store (free)
  • Stream content from your MobileMe account (requires a MobileMe account)
  • Access photos on Flickr (free)
  • Stream audio from radio stations around the world (free)
  • Stream personal videos from one or more of your own iTunes library
  • Stream personal music from one or more of your own iTunes library
  • View photos and beautiful slideshows from your one or more of your own computers
  • Select a set of photos to use as screen saving on your big screen TV.

Form Factor
The small form factor (at 3 3/4 " x 3 3/4" x 3/4") makes it easy to integrate into any environment.  You can put it on top of your DVD player, you can tape it to the back of the TV or just put it in plain view and it would not be intrusive.

Disappointments
I am disappointed with the fact that the new Apple TV does not have additional integrations (or channels) besides the iTunes Store, Netflix, YouTube, and local content.  I would've loved to have seen a Hulu and Pandora channels for examples.  Additional simple games would've been great as well.  Since the Apple TV uses the same operating system as the iPad and iPhone, I am hopeful that apps are on the way.



Comparison with 1st Generation Apple TV
The 1st generation Apple TV did a great job with bringing digital content from the PC to the living room.  At the time of the release of the original Apple TV, Apple believed (and continues to believe today) that customers do not want a compute on the big screen TV.  They just want entertainment.  With the release of the 2nd generation Apple TV, I would say that Apple only tweaked the concept of the original and did not completely revamp at, at least on the surface.  By switching from the MacOS to the iOS on the new Apple TV, Apple may be laying the ground work for bigger things to come.  Those bigger things are more likely to be the apps.  Just like apps transformed the iPhone from a slick phone and iPod player combo to a pocket device that can do pretty much anything, apps could transform the new Apple TV from a basic media player to an all-in-one game console (for casual gamers at least) to god-knows-what...

In the meantime, comparing the 1st generation Apple TV with the 2nd generation Apple TV might be helpful for existing 1st generation Apple TV users who might be thinking about making the plunge with an add-on Apple TV or a replacement to their existing one.

Storage
Possibly the biggest customer facing change from the 1st generation to the 2nd is the removal of the storage in the Apple TV.  The original Apple TVs sported internal hard drives of either 40 GB or 160 GB (the former was discontinued a while back).  The new Apple TVs do not include any storage.  There's an 8 GB flash drive on the device, but that's only used for the operating system and buffering streaming media in real-time, not for synchronizing media files with iTunes, as was the case with the 1st generation model.  Apple's justification for this change is that no matter how large a hard disk on an Apple TV users can never have enough storage and that users do not like to synchronize (funny that Apple thinks that users enjoy synchronizing their iPods and iPhones!).

It is true that using a streaming-only model gives you access to unlimited storage in a home network.  It's easy to add more storage to desktops and laptops using internal or external storage and you can always add more.  However, having internal storage in the 1st generation Apple TV made the device more portable.  For example, you can take your old Apple TV on vacation with you and have access to your music, videos, and photos.  You can't do that with the new Apple TV.

User Interface (UI)
If you currently own a 1st generation Apple TV,  the UI of the new one will look very familiar.  The primary difference is that the "My Movies", "My TV Shows" and "My Music" are gone and have been replaced by a "Computers" link which gives you access to the various iTunes libraries on your network.  This change is welcome as it gives the user access to multiple libraries on the network "on the fly."  For example, if you have multiple computers with different content (e.g. photos, music, etc...) you don't have to put them all on a single network.

Rentals vs. Purchases
Because the new Apple TV does not have any storage, Apple will not let you buy and download movies or TV shows directly from the Apple TV.  You can only rent  and stream them.  If you want to purchase movies or TV shows on an iTunes client and then you can stream that content

Support for AirPlay
AirPlay is Apple's new standard for streaming content from one device to another.  It's essentially AirTunes on steroids.  Where AirTunes streamed music from iTunes clients and 1st generation Apple TVs to AirPort Express-connected speakers and other 1st generation Apple TVs, AirPlay allows the streaming of other types of media such as photos and videos.  Apple is licensing AirPlay to third-party hardware manufacturers such as stand-alone speaker and receiver makers.  Already iHome and Denon announced plans to support the standard in their offerings.

The new Apple TV and the old Apple TV can have music streamed to them from any iTunes client on the network.  The real magic with AirPlay is going to happen when Apple releases iOS 4.2 for iPhone and iPad.  Once that happens, you will be able to stream photos and videos directly from those devices to the new Apple TV.  Unfortunately, users of the 1st generation Apple TV will be out of luck as far as AirPlay is concerned.

Connectivity
The 1st generation Apple TV supported HDMI, digital optical audio, component video, and analog audio.  The 2nd generation Apple TV does away with the component video and analog audio.  This makes sense as the vast majority of users are likely to use the device with an LCD or plasma TV, where HDMI is ubiquitous.  This will be annoying for users holding on to older TV models or with no free HDMI slots on their TVs because of other devices (cable box, BD DVD player, etc...).

Price
The new Apple TV sells for $99.  The old Apple TV sold for $229 before it was discontinued.  If you are still interested in the 2nd generation Apple TV Amazon is currently offering it for $149.

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