Apple TV

by Doc Coleman - Nifty Tech Editor on January 17, 2012 · 11 comments

in Featured, Hardware

This is a review that I’ve planned to do for a long time. It seems like each time I get geared up to do this review, the manufacturer changes something about the product and sets me back to square one. Which means that I’m trying to do a review of a very good, unsung piece of hardware and software, and then they do something that just makes it better. Darn them!

Still with me? If you’ve read the title of this article, you know that I’m talking about the Apple TV, currently available from Apple’s online store, Apple Stores about the planet, and other retail outlets for something around $99. The latest incarnation of the Apple TV is a small black box, about the size of a hockey puck. It comes with a power cord and an Apple Remote in the box. To make it work, you’ll need a TV and a cable to plug into the HDMI port in the back of the Apple TV and into whatever ports you have in your TV. For most of us, that means that you’ll want a TV with an HDMI port and an HDMI to HDMI cable to connect the Apple TV. Apple expects that you’ve already got the TV because they  expect customers like you want to be on the cutting edge of big, flat screen technology, and you’re adding on the Apple TV to make your big screen TV do more.

We actually upgraded our TV to make better use of the Apple TV, and were able to get a large LED flat screen TV with two HDMI ports for about $700, but that is a discussion for a separate review. As far as HDMI cables go, prices on them vary wildly depending on the source. You should be able to find a six-foot HDMI cable for under $20, although some places price such cables as high as $70. I’ve yet to see any evidence that a more expensive cable provides better or longer lasting service, so I would recommend you to get the least expensive HDMI cable you can.

Once you’ve plugged in the Apple TV, connected it to your TV, and switched over to your TV’s HDMI input, you’re pretty much ready to go. You will need one more thing to make the most of your Apple TV, but if you’re reading this article, you probably already have it: an internet connection. The Apple TV can connect wirelessly to your existing 802.11n wireless network, or you can connect it to your local router via an ethernet cable. For most people, the wireless connection will be more convenient, but the ethernet connection requires less configuration and is faster. If you’ve made it through the jargon up to this point, you can relax. We’re done with all the techie speak for now.

So, now that it is hooked up, what can you do with an Apple TV?

I am so glad you asked.

The Apple TV Home Screen

Right out of the box, the Apple TV will let you browse Movies, and TV shows available from the Apple Store. You don’t need an account with the Apple Store to browse these offerings, but you will need one if you want to buy or rent any of the programs available. But even if you don’t want to do business with the Apple Store at all, the Apple TV can be a great boon to you.

The TV Menu

The latest version of the Apple TV hardware and software allows you access to a number of internet based content services, including Netflix, the NBA, the NHL, MLB.TV, WSJ Live, YouTube, Vimeo, podcasts of all kinds, Photo Streams, Mobile Me and Flickr Galleries, and internet Radio. The Apple TV lets you pull all of this content from the net and display it on your large TV screen, and play it through your TV’s speakers.

Apple TV provides access to a variety of content from the Internet

And this is really what the Apple TV does so beautifully. It puts all this content from the net on your big TV screen using nothing more than the Apple Remote. If you can use a remote, you can pull movies from your Netflix queue and watch them. You can find YouTube and Vimeo videos, you can search for new podcasts, and you can display pictures from Mobile Me and Flickr galleries. Some of these services will have additional costs, but a lot of this content is free.  Apple TV is the easy way to put this content on the biggest screen in your house.

Or you can pull content from your iTunes Libraries.

Now, let’s say you also have a computer with iTunes installed. If you turn on the iTunes Match service on your computer, you can now access all of your music from the cloud and play it through your Apple TV. If you’ve got iTunes Home Sharing turned on your computer and your Apple TV and your computer are on the same network, then you can reach all the content on your computer through your Apple TV. This includes movies, TV shows, music videos, music, podcasts. As far as I can tell, the only things you can’t access are apps and iBooks. And the pundits keep expecting apps for the Apple TV any day now. I’m not sure I’d want my iBooks on the big screen, though.

Play content directly from iTunes on your computer.

Let’s say you also happen to have an iDevice, such as an iPad, an iPhone, or an iPad Touch. With the latest version of the software, you can now throw your audio and video to the Apple TV through the WiFi network. Want to show your friends the video you just shot? Have them gather around the TV and play it directly from your iDevice to the Apple TV. This is also a great way to show off photos taken from your iDevices. I use it when I am home to play podcasts through the TV while I am working in the living room. This way I can move around and still be able to hear the podcast clearly while I am working. And if a video podcast episode comes up in my playlist, I can watch the video on the big screen.

So, I imagine that some of you are saying, “OK, that is nice, but I don’t see anything fantastic that the Apple TV is doing. All it does is put web and iTunes content on my TV.” To an extent, they are right. It does just put web and iTunes content on your TV. And then you forget that it is there. This has always been one of the hallmarks of Nifty Tech for me: it does what it does so well that you forget it is there. For me, the Apple TV really scores up there. Once you’ve got it set up, it just becomes the magical channel on your TV that lets you pull content from all over the place.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Richard Green aka Mainframe January 17, 2012 at 8:03 AM

I’m think of getting one for the Den TV. One – I could use a Netflix device (currently I’m using a Wii). Two – Since my wife has an iPad2 she could use it to mirror what’s on it to the TV.

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Doc Coleman January 17, 2012 at 9:34 AM

I understand that mirroring to the Apple TV is one of the new iPad functions, but I’ve never used it in mirror mode. I should try playing with that sometime after work this week.

My family liked the Apple TV so much we have three. Two of the old ones, the ones with built in hard drives for syncing with iTunes, and one of the new pucks. One of the old ones had to be retired to make room for the puck. Or semi-retired. If we get a new TV for the bedroom, we’ll move the old one to the guest room and put it back into service.

Doc

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BigJohn January 17, 2012 at 6:24 PM

I’ve been eyeing the Apple TV for a while, debating whether to get it or the Video Connection Kit. They’re both the same price, and I think the Apple TV offers much more. I just had my first experience with renting a movie on iTunes, and the only bummer was that we had to wait for the entire movie to download before we could watch it. A spontaneous choice turned into a 1.5 hour wait for an HD download. I imagine the same is true through the Apple TV?

For only $99 I think I’m going to get one to replace the TiVO I’m ditching this month.

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Doc Coleman January 17, 2012 at 7:24 PM

An hour and a half? Good grief!

The new Apple TV doesn’t have that kind of issue. However, if the problem with your previous rental experience is the fact that you’ve got lousy bandwidth, you may still have issues. When you rent a movie or TV show on the current Apple TV, it streams down from the internet. It will take a few moment to buffer part of the show before you can start playing, but you aren’t locked into a download screen. You can browse around at other content. When the movie is ready to play, the Apple TV will tell you.

However, if you do have issues with bandwidth, you may experience stutters and hangs while watching the show. This isn’t Apple’s fault.

Interestingly enough, last week my wife and I were watching an episode of Dexter on the Apple TV that was streaming from the iTunes library on my server. We had problems with stutters and momentary hangs. About half way through, the show hung up altogether. My issue in this case was that my server that was sending the content to the Apple TV was overloaded, as it was also managing backups of at least three different computers simultaneously. Since we had bought the episode from the iTunes Store, we switched over to the streamed version. Never had a problem. It can be weird the way that works.

I think you’ll find the Apple TV to be much more versatile than the Video Connection Kit. Crossing my fingers and hoping you don’t run into any more hour plus download times! At least with streaming video, you’re OK if it takes that long, as long as the show doesn’t play faster than it downloads.

Doc

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Geek Revealed February 12, 2012 at 2:41 AM

Nice Review! After reading the post Now i am temted to buy one.
Thanks for sharing!

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Doc Coleman February 12, 2012 at 4:34 PM

Glad you liked the review. While the Apple TV may not be for everyone, it does do a good job of allowing you to display content from the net or your computer up on your large screen TV. There are several areas where it could be improved, but what it does, it does well.

Doc

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Sony KDL46EX640 March 19, 2012 at 10:57 AM

I never understood the loor behind these. This is no different from a TV with built in internet apps. Honestly..Apple people just seem to go gung-hoe about every single thing that launches.

I mean seriously, it was a good review man I’m not trying to give you hate. But I just dont understand the point in these things…

Pretty much any tv created in the past 2 years has BUILT IN everything this thing has: Youtube, Netflix, buy/stream movies, watch youtube, go on the internet, etc.

Kind of worthless.

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Doc Coleman March 19, 2012 at 4:58 PM

Actually, this review has been in the works for a lot longer than two years, and pre-dated the most recent version of the Apple TV.

And it is important to remember that there are an awful lot of folks out there who have TVs that are older than two years and don’t have Smart TV features built in. For those people, it is a lot more economical to look at buying a $100 add-on box to gain these features on their existing TVs, instead of paying hundreds or thousands of dollars to buy a new TV. If you’ve got the available income to be able to afford to buy the latest and greatest TV, more power to you. Let me remind you that The Nifty Tech Blog is a user-supported venue. We do not have corporate sponsors and we do not receive any reimbursement from manufacturers for doing these reviews, and every product that we review is something that we have purchased ourselves with our own money. If you’ve like to support our work, there is a tip jar at the top of the right hand column, and any donations you make will go towards hosting of the blog, and towards acquiring new tech to review.

The other aspect to consider is that your Smart TV will stop being useful when technology changes and you want to get new services that aren’t already built in. At that point, you’ll need to replace your entire TV. While Apple doesn’t guarantee to upgrade the Apple TV software and firmware, if they do create a new version with new features that are not available on your current Apple TV, you’re only paying $100 to replace it, not a thousand or more for a new TV.

So, while the Apple TV may be worthless to you, it isn’t worthless to everyone.

I hope you find other review that are more to your liking!

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Eric December 31, 2012 at 11:14 PM

A very informative review. I was under the impression that the device only linked to other Apple units. A lifelong PC guy, I joined the “evil empire” last summer with the purchase of an ipad. The sales guy was really talking up the Apple TV, but I passed. I have recently been considering the little box for the living room, but will probably just replace my current TV with a smart one in the near future. The bedroom TV might be a good place to watch some streaming content though….

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Doc Coleman January 2, 2013 at 6:24 AM

Eric,

The original Apple TV had to link to a computer using iTunes, but that computer never had to be a Mac. The new Apple TV is now much more of a stand-alone device as you can access online services directly, in addition to being able to access content in iTunes on your computer. I have heard several people argue in favor of Smart TVs, but I’m not sure how great a deal they are. While a Smart TV has all these things built in, it is only good for the life of the TV, and I haven’t seen a lot on the ability to update the Smart TV. The Apple TV seems more upgradable in terms of software updates, and you can move it from TV to TV as needed. And if a newer model of Apple TV comes out with features that aren’t backwards compatible, you’re only looking at $100 to get a new one, not the cost of an entire new TV.

Still, there’s room for lots of cool tech. We haven’t been able to do a serious study of Smart TVs yet. We may yet recommend them in a future review.

Doc

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