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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.