Apple TV (2012) review

The design is Identical to the previous version of Apple TV, but the third-generation box has a new interface, and new specs - namely support for 1080p - but is it worth the upgrade, or for people yet to get one, the purchase? We've been living with the new version for the past couple of weeks to find out.

Design

This new Apple TV is still small, still black, and still has the same connections on the back. For those measuring up a space on their home cinema stand, it measures a dinky 22.9 x 99.1 x 99.1mm. That also makes it small enough to use on your TV hanging from the wall in the bedroom without needing to invest in another shelf.

With zero buttons and only a single, white status light on the front, everything is controlled via the included aluminium remote. Around the back are the ports needed to get you connected to your TV. That means you get power in, HDMI out, optical audio out, Ethernet and a Micro-USB socket (for updates and support). You can connect your Apple TV to your home internet connection via wireless 802.11b/g/n.

In the box you'll get the Apple TV, the remote, a power lead and nothing else. That's right, you've got to go and buy the HDMI cable. Still, you can pick them up at Amazon for under a fiver so it's not the end of the world.

Like Apple's MacBook and MacBook Pro line, the remote control is sleek, thin and tall with black buttons and adorned in brushed metal. You get the iconic Apple circle (it's not a scroll wheel), a menu key and a play/pause button to get you going. Of course, if you've got an iPad, iPod touch or iPhone, you'll be putting the remote in a drawer somewhere to gather dust, as you can use any of the iOS 4-friendly devices to control it all, via an app, and setup is very simple.

Downloadable for free via the App Store, the Apple Remote app gives you all the power of the metal remote, with the added bonus of an on-screen keyboard for typing in search requests, as well as gesture controls to control what's happening on the screen. The remote app is very easy to use and additionally means that you don't have to worry about a line of sight for the IR remote. That means you can bury the Apple TV out of the way at the back of your collection of set-top boxes. 

Inside

If you were to open up the box - we recommend you don't - you would find a new A5 processor, upgraded from the A4 processor in the 2nd gen model, and the ability to stream 1080p video to the box instead of 720p. That doesn't sound like much, but the new processor gives it a bit more beef, allows it to offer the new streaming capabilities and, to be honest, that's the last time we or you should mention the processor.

1080p or 720p

As any home cinema buff will tell you there are many different types of HD. The main ones to concern yourself with are 1080p, 1080i, 720p, and 480p. We mention this because movie studios offer variations of HD-quality movies in the Apple iTunes store. Take The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn. We wanted it to be one of test films, but on closer inspection the movie, while available in HD, currently comes only in 720p HD.

The Thing (2011), the current number one in the iTunes movie store, is also 720p. Of the current top 10 movies in the store, only three are available in 1080p format at the moment.

That's a very different experience from the US store, which is mostly 1080p, and even from TV shows within the UK store that are also mostly 1080p.

We're sure this will change eventually, but for now, it's a little frustrating.

Interface

Apple has also updated the device's interface too, adding a couple of new features at the same time. The new interface is very un-iOS-like, although there is a move towards a more icon-style interface, in this case five icons wide.

Movies, TV Shows, Music, Computers, and Settings get top billing, but it does mean services like Netflix, Trailers, Photo Stream, Vimeo, Flickr and others get a more prominent look-in as well.

The interface is very easy to navigate around using either the Apple TV remote or your iPhone or iPad.

Once you get past the icon-based home screen the rest of the Apple TV menu system and interface is very similar to what Apple has offered before. For movies and TV shows there are lots of box shots and album cover-style artwork, while apps like Netflix still use cover flow to suggest and recommend.

Apple has now added Genius to Apple TV, giving you suggestions for other movies and TV shows you could be watching based on your previous viewing habits. The Genius suggestions are somewhat random in our testing. Having rented Planet of the Apes, it recommends we should watch Priest, Abduction, Conan, Surrogates, Faster or Red Riding Hood.

Our rental of Hot Tub Time Machine last year means we should be watching films like Copout, When in Rome, Going the Distance, and The Informant.

For some worrying reason Bruce Willis seems to feature heavily in all our suggestions. Even more worrying for some, Apple is capturing data from a long way back.

Apps, or a lack of them

When it comes to apps, there aren't really any on the Apple TV. For a company that is telling us apps, apps, apps, everywhere else, not to have any here is strange.

It's not just iTunes, iTunes, iTunes, though and there are some third-party services here but with the exception of  Netflix, they aren't very inspiring. 

The list includes: Movies, TV Shows, Music, Computers, Settings, Netflix, MLB.TV, Trailers, WSJ Live, YouTube, Vimeo, Podcasts, Radio, Photo Stream, MobileMe, Flickr.

No games, no Spotify, no BBC iPlayer and no LoveFilm - the list goes on.

Streaming content

If you've got an Apple computer you can stream your iTunes library to your new Apple TV at the press of a couple of buttons. It's all very simple and very easy to do as long as you have that computer turned on with iTunes opened. You can't stream off a hard drive, for example, that's tucked behind your TV cabinet. 

One of the main reasons to get an Apple TV is that you can use AirPlay to stream certain content from your iPhone or iPad, and Apple laptop too.

If you live in the world of Apple and are a huge iTunes user, then the ability to stream content to your TV will be very much welcomed, however Apple's stance on what can and can't stream to the Apple TV is confusing. The brilliant Sky Go, for example, can stream music, but not video. Some games stream, but most don't.

Likewise, while pictures and video you've taken can be sent to the Apple TV box, you can't mirror the screen to playback on your TV via Apple TV, even though you can with a dedicated hardline from an Apple cable. If Apple was to add this feature, as it already has for the upcoming OS X update Mountain Lion, there would be even more reason to get one.

Our tests with OS X Mountain Lion and the new Apple TV worked a treat. Performance is quick and it means you can share anything you like from your Apple computer to your TV at the press of a button. Expect this feature sometime over the summer with the launch of the new OS.

Imagine playing Angry Birds Space easily on your 50-inch television from your iPad via the Apple TV all at 1080p without a cable. Sounds lovely, doesn't it?

Verdict

Apple TV is still a strange beast to understand.

On the one hand you get access to a wealth of movies and shows here in the UK from iTunes, and from Netflix, but falls short of supporting Video on Demand services such as the BBC iPlayer, 4oD, ITV player, or LoveFilm. which makes it pretty disappointing if you aren't going to spend money with Apple.

If you travel to the States a lot then you can buy an iTunes US gift card and enjoy US movies and TV shows ahead of the UK release.

There are better systems out there, like Roku, the Xbox 360, or more than likely your DVD player to make your TV smart if you are looking for much more choice.

But if you've got an iPhone or an iPad, the idea that you can quickly send content, be it video, music or pictures to your TV to share is fantastic. The system works really well. Photo streaming is lovely for parties. And we love the fact that you can buy a series of Mad Men, then choose to watch in on the way to work on your phone then when you get home, on your TV, makes sense. The Roku just won't give you that same experience.  

To make this product truly great though, Apple needs to add consistent AirPlay streaming support to all elements of the iPad and iPhone rather than just a few apps. If it did, then we would be wholeheartedly recommending this to every Apple customer - and that's a lot of customers.

Apple TV is clean, it is easy to use, but it doesn't scream iOS or OS X and that surprises us. As it is, Apple's confused interface and overall confused message still makes this very much a hobby, even if it is an interesting one at less than £100.