Apple TV Impressions - A Cable Box Killer?

Apple TV

In early 2007, Apple attempted to wrangle TV-based entertainment away from cable companies and DVD players with Apple TV. Unfortunately for them, it never really took off. It was released at a time when watching TV on your computer was not much more than a novelty and cable companies were already offering easy on-demand options. The market was simply not big enough.

Three years later, the market has changed. With the success of Hulu, Netflix Instant Watch and (for better or worse) BitTorrent, more and more people are watching TV on their computers. So Apple's trying again with a new version of Apple TV; one that's much easier to use and much cheaper as well. But is the market finally ready for Apple to take over their TVs? Let's find out.

The Basics

Apple TV is a $99 set-top cube about the size of two cigarette boxes placed side-by-side. It's primary objective is to pull TV shows and movies off of Apple's service to act as an easy-to-use rental device. HD movies are available for rent for $4.99 while shows run $.99 each. Both are presented commercial free.

In addition, the new Apple TV supports Netflix Instant Streaming, a variety of web radio channels and YouTube viewing.

You can also have Apple TV pull content from your iTunes library on your computer, letting you enjoy music, movies, TV shows and even digital photographs you have stored there.

The Highs

Breezy Set-up

If there's one thing Apple knows, it's Keep It Simple, Stupid. Setting up the Apple TV is about as easy as it gets. Plug in the power and your HDMI cable and you're good to go. If you have a receiver that doesn't transmit audio through HDMI, you can also plug in a digital audio cable. The rest is basically automatic. If you have WiFi, connecting to that network takes a second, and if you don't, there's an Ethernet port for a wired connection. I'm not especially savvy when it comes to hooking up new equipment and it took me all of 5 minutes before I was up and running.

Slick Interface

Apple TV comes with its own fancy silver remote, and even though it only has a few buttons, it's able to handle of the navigation, from browsing Netflix to selecting your iTunes playlists. The interface is not unlike the iPhone, where you've got a Home menu and then deeper menus once you select any of the different categories. It's basically fool-proof design, and if you know how to use a cable TV remote, you're probably overqualified.

From Zero To Movie In 10 Seconds Flat

The trick to Apple TV is that everything streams to the device, so you don't need to worry about storage space. Because everything is streaming, you're able to hit play on an HD movie or TV show and start watching almost instantly. It's head and shoulders over cable TV on-demand, where there's hardly any HD available for streaming and the selection is much broader (8,000 movies, 3,500 of which are in HD).

The Lows

TV Selection Needs Work

There are currently only four companies providing content for the Apple TV store: ABC, Fox, Disney, and BBC Earth. If you're a fan of the other networks, you're out of luck, but that's not the worst of it. Seems that major shows on the supported channels, "House" and "Modern Family," for example, are nowhere to be found. This is certainly something Apple will be working on in the coming months, but if you're looking to yank your cable TV cord out today, you should know that some of your favorite shows will be yanked with it.

Connecting To Your Computer

For some reason I had a heck of a time getting my Apple TV to recognize my iTunes library, despite both systems having Home Sharing on, using the same network and Apple ID. After multiple resets of both machines, I was able to get it working, but other connection issues persisted...

Computer To Apple TV Lag

Apple TV is able to pull from any iTunes library on your local network, but even after placing my laptop next to my wireless router, I was still seeing delays in streaming data. Sometimes movies in my iTunes library would get stuck in an infinite load when attempting to watch them on Apple TV, and other times my music would skip or cut out. Compared to the ease of Apple's rental store, enjoying the media you already own seems trickier than it should be. When it works, it works rather well, but it's not 100%.

The Verdict

Depending on your needs, Apple TV is either excellent or just so-so. If you're looking for on-demand TV shows and movies, as well as a good Netflix streaming option for your TV, it's a solid choice (presuming you don't mind waiting for some of the TV omissions). If you're more interested in streaming content from your computer to your TV, there appear to remain a few kinks to work out of the system.