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Apple TV Review July 22, 2013

Posted by Maniac in Reviews.
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Clarification:  After checking the model numbers of my device I would just like to clarify to anyone reading this review that this is a review of the Third Generation Apple TV (Second Revision).

Before I start this review I would like to ask you, the consumer, a few questions.  Do you have a 720p or 1080p HDMI equipped HDTV?  Do you have an iTunes account or plan to create one to purchase or redeem prepaid codes for music, TV shows or movies?  Do you already own a current generation Apple device like an Apple iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch or a recent Mac-equipped computer like the iMac, MacBook, or Mac Pro?  Well, if you do, keep reading.

Now that we have the baseline requirements out of the way, lets talk about extras.  Extra points will be awarded if you already have a digital surround system.  Don’t worry, it doesn’t matter if it uses HDMI or optical for digital audio.  Finally, you should have a wireless home network.  WiFi is not a requirement of the Apple TV as it will work with a wired home network, but if you have an iDevice, you’ll need a wireless network to get it to stream to the Apple TV.

The Apple TV is a set-top streaming box which offers full digital streams of purchased or redeemed iTunes content, as well as access to other typical streaming video providers like HBO GO, WatchESPN, YouTube, or Amazon Instant Video.  I understand that many of these optional programs are already offered in other stream capable devices, game consoles, and Smart TVs, but the Apple TV offers you one hell of a fantastic capability that no other device I’ve seen on the market will offer, and that is the ability to wirelessly stream video and audio content from a compatible iDevice to your HDTV and Home Theater System.

Before we start talking about installation, there are a few limitations that prospective users need to be aware of.  The current generation Apple TV is only equipped with HDMI video output.  Video can output from the Apple TV in either 720p HD or 1080p HD, depending on your HDTV model.  Yes, I said HDTV model, not TV model.  That means if you are still using Standard Definition TV or HDTV without HDMI input, the Apple TV is not something you’ll be able to use.  I know this will probably detract many who do not own HDMI-equipped HDTVs, but I believe that all new TVs on the market must come HDMI equipped now, so any future new HDTV you purchase should be Apple TV ready out of the box.

When you first open the package up you’ll notice that the Apple TV is small, VERY small.  That’s because it is simply designed to stream content.  I would equate it more to an OnLive set top box or something similar.  When all you need to do is stream, there’s no need for a lot of hardware.  Because it is so small, it should fit on your TV stand without much issue, even if it is crowded with other devices.  Packaging is very similar in style to an iPhone or iPad’s.  Just unwrap the package, pull the top off like the top to a shoebox, and your device will be perfectly wrapped right on top.  The Apple TV only comes with a power cable along with the device, so you’ll need to have some HDMI cable already available before installing it.

Hooking up an Apple TV is quite easy,  In fact, you can watch my short How-To video and see for yourself how easy it is to install, even if you have a High-Definition Home Theater system.  Just plug a HDMI cable into the back of the Apple TV and then to the back of your HDTV.  If you have an older digital Home Theater system, the Apple TV has a single optical audio connection which can do 5.1 Dolby Digital, or you have a newer HDMI-equipped Home Theater, plug the Apple TV directly into it with a HDMI cable, and keep the Home Theater connected to your HDTV.

Once it’s connected, push any button on the Apple TV remote to start it up.  The initial setup is quite easy.  Just give the Apple TV your WiFi information if you intend to use its Wireless connection, but if you prefer, you can simply plug a network cable into the back of it.  Regardless of what connection option you choose, you’re going to want to have the device connected in some way to a network equipped with High-Speed Internet.  This will allow you to make full use of the device’s apps, perform system updates, and give you access to all your purchased and redeemed iTunes content.

I cannot in good conscience write this review without covering what I believe is the best feature of the Apple TV, AirPlay.  I cannot stress how incredible it is to be able to stream audio and video content from my iPhone to my Home Theater wirelessly with the push of a button.  I was one of the first people to buy the iPhone HDMI adapter so I could at least have some kind of wired capability to plug my iPhone into my HDTV and surround system.  Now I can stream whatever I want instantaneously without having to.  I can tell you this, audio quality is just as good as it was when it was wired.  Most of your content, in particular your music, will output as 2-channel PCM stereo, but the Apple TV will output 5.1 Dolby Digital audio if your content and setup supports it.  As for video, an iPhone 4 had a limit of 720p HD for any streamed video content through a wired HDMI connection, now I can stream online videos from my iPhone 4 in 1080p HD.  On top of that, AirPlay is compatible with a lot more third party apps than the HDMI adapter was, like Google’s official YouTube app, allowing me to stream video content from apps and programs that I previously couldn’t.  This was a tremendous improvement over the wired solution.

If you have the latest iPhone or iPad, you can also make use of an awesome feature called AirPlay Mirroring.  With mirroring enabled, you can wirelessly transmit EVERYTHING that is currently visible and audible on your device to your HDTV with the push of a few buttons.  With a double-tap of the home button, a swipe over to the volume control, and the tap of a new button which will magically appear whenever the iDevice is on the same network as the Apple TV, you can instantly mirror your device.  This is a fantastic option for someone interested in doing a presentation to a large crowd of people, like students.  Imagine being a teacher who needs to show their students the lesson plan they created with their iPad.  With the tap of a button, it will stream your content to any screen the Apple TV is connected to.  Having an iPhone 4, I can’t make use of this feature yet, but now I’m really looking forward to upgrading my phone so I can do even more.

The user has the ability to name their Apple TV whatever they want during setup, so don’t worry about having multiple Apple TVs running on the same network.  Your iDevice will give you a list of any Apple TVs it can connect to, and you will be able to select the one you want from that drop down menu.  By default the Apple TV will stream all content it is told to, but AirPlay features can be password protected at the user’s request so for example your sister can be locked out of streaming embarrassing content to your HDTV while you are watching HBO GO or WatchESPN content with your friends.

Even if you don’t have an iDevice, you still will be able to use AirPlay from any computer with iTunes installed, so you can still stream your music and videos that are on your laptop or desktop, so long as they’re iTunes compatible.  This is not usually a problem I’ve seen with audio files, but I have certainly seen it as an issue with video, as there are a lot of video file formats that iTunes does not support.

I know there are some people who prefer to use sound docks or perhaps a Bluetooth-equipped portable speaker system to get better sound quality from their portable device.  In my opinion, nothing compares sound-wise to a properly wired Home Theater system.  Because of that, I try to integrate any kind of audio solution for portable devices into my own Home Theater, opposed to having docks throughout my house.  That’s why I used the Apple HDMI adapter, so I could connect my iPhone to my Home Theater.  The other problem I’ve noticed with docks is that while they were fine when Apple was using their own proprietary charging port on the wide majority of their iDevices, they are no longer using it with their latest iPhones and iPads, rendering these legacy docks unusable for anyone who upgrades.  I know that Apple has released an adapter for people still using third-party charging devices, but I have noticed a kind of hit or miss with them.  While I have seen them work for charge, only half of the adapters a family member of mine uses actually are capable of transmitting sound or video through the adapter.  On top of that, what happens if Apple decides to change their charge port again?  Are they going to release another adapter for their adapter?  By using WiFi to stream your content instead of a wired adapter, it saves me from having to buy new adapters when I upgrade my iPhone to a newer model, and kind of future-proofs the Apple TV.

When you’re done, just switch inputs to something else.  There’s no reason to turn it off.  The device is designed to run continuously, and only put itself into sleep when it is not in use, so don’t worry about leaving it on accidently.  You can manually put the Apple TV into a sleep mode from the options menu, but its not needed.  Its a good idea to keep the unit running in case you plan to stream anything from your iDevice.

Just like with other online-connected devices, you’re going to need to perform device updates every once in a while.  However, I have not seen them released on a frequent basis.  I updated it once when I installed it, and since then I haven’t had to update it once.  In fact, the device worked fine on its launch firmware, and only was updated because I chose to update it.  Granted, I never tried to use any of the streaming apps before I updated it, so I may have gotten a prompt to update before using them had I not updated it as soon as I turned it on.

The Apple TV also has a pretty nifty failsafe in case its software breaks for any reason.  There is a USB port in the back of the device that is designed for system restoration in case the device stops working.  Simply connect the Apple TV to any computer with iTunes installed and perform a restore.  It should work exactly as it does with iDevices, and let me tell you something, that restoration and backup feature on iTunes has saved my iDevice on more than one occasion, and I’m really happy its a feature the Apple TV takes advantage of.

Its got a hefty set of initial requirements, but for most people interested in buying an Apple TV, I believe these are pretty reasonable requirements.  In fact, I meet all those requirements and I freaking love this thing.  I don’t purchase movies through iTunes, but I have redeemed several through Digital Copy codes included with Blu-Ray Disc movies that I purchased over the years, and it was a nice bonus that I could wirelessly stream movies that I had redeemed through the Apple TV without having to go to my shelf and pop the disc into my PS3.  To me, AirPlay alone makes the Apple TV worth the $99 US price tag, and I can’t imagine having to go back to plugging my iPhone back into my stereo whenever I want to listen to a single song on it!  It also stops me from having to buy new adapters every time I update my iDevice!

In short, if you meet the requirements above, get an Apple TV, you’ll be glad you did.

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