Media Streamer

Second-Generation Apple TV Media Streamer

ARTICLE INDEX

Introduction

Ever since Louis Daguerre took the first photograph and Thomas Edison lowered the needle on the first phonograph, media has been a part of our lives. The reproduction of still and moving images and sound is an art form that we are unlikely to see the zenith of in our lifetimes. Since the early part of the twentieth century, sound and video reproduction usually came in the form of magnetic tape, film or vinyl records. Now with the proliferation of digital storage methods, evolution has accelerated.

First we had optical media. The ability to store vast amounts of data on a coaster-sized disc was a huge breakthrough for AV enthusiasts. Now our vast libraries of tapes and records would fit on tiny discs that never wear out and don’t require cleaning. Even as a teenager, I was amazed at the quality and convenience of the first music CDs.

Specifications

  • Video Formats: H.264 up to 720p at 30 FPS, MPEG-4 up to 720 x 432 (432p) or 640 x 480 Pixels at 30 FPS, Motion JPEG up to 720p at 30 FPS
  • Picture Formats: JPEG, GIF, TIFF
  • Audio Formats: Dolby Digital 5.1, HE-AAC (V1), AAC (16–320 kbit/s), FairPlay protected AAC, MP3 (16–320 kbit/s, with VBR), Apple Lossless, AIFF, WAV
  • Processor: Apple A4
  • System Memory: 256 MB
  • Flash Memory: 8 GB
  • Inputs: Ethernet (RJ-45), 802.11n Wireless
  • Outputs: HDMI, TOSLink, Micro USB (for service only)
  • Dimensions: 1" H x 3.9" W x 3.9"D
  • Weight: 0.6 Pound
  • MSRP: $99
  • Apple

Today we have a newcomer in the marketplace: the all-digital player. If the data on an optical disc is merely ones and zeroes, why not do away with the disc entirely? With the advent of dirt-cheap hard disc storage and super-fast Internet speeds, you can stream your media right to your TV or audio system without the complexity of an optical reader. This is a relatively new category and the first product I’ve had the chance to review is the Apple TV.

I had considered adding one of these set-top boxes to my system when the first model came out in 2007. The idea of having a large rental library available at the beck and call of my remote is very appealing. An added attraction is the ability to stream all my iTunes content to my TV and/or audio system with no loss in quality or convenience. In the fall of 2010, Apple started shipping their second-generation box. This product really piqued my interest as it sells for a mere $99. After having the Apple TV in my living-room system for over two months, I can say this is a no-brainer addition to my gear rack. Please read on as I delve into the many features offered by this tiny component.

Design

The first Apple TV was a hard-drive based media bridge and sold for as much as $269 depending on storage. With the second-generation product, Apple has gone in a different direction and the changes are significant. First and foremost, they have done away with any form of on-board storage. There 8 gigabytes of flash memory installed but this is used only for buffering. Anything you play through the Apple TV must reside elsewhere, either in the cloud or on your computer.

The unit itself is roughly the size of a hockey puck with gently rounded corners. The entire base is a thick piece of rubber so it will sit on top of just about anything without trouble. My only complaint is that it’s so small; the cabling makes it difficult to position. The included power cord comes coiled in a circle which means there are no kinks to remove when unrolling it. Any cables will work just fine so long as they’re HDMI or optical. There are no analog outputs whatsoever. The micro USB port is for service only. A 33-page manual is included which gives you just enough information to hook things up, connect to your home network, and start watching and listening. There is also a short troubleshooting guide. You can find more detailed information on Apple’s website and in many Internet forums and websites.

Network connections include a 10/100BASE-T Ethernet and WiFi via a built-in 802.11n receiver. It’s backwards-compatible with b and g and operates on either the 2.4 or 5 gHz bands. There is no external antenna to spoil the clean look and in all my testing, it was not missed.

The remote is a tiny strip of aluminum with just two buttons and a navigation circle. One key is labeled menu and is used to back you out of wherever you are in the iOS interface all the way to the root. The other button is play/pause. Fast forward and rewind are handled by the right and left parts of the nav circle. Select is at the center. Despite its diminutive size, the remote feels like an expensive piece which is typical of all Apple products. It also has very strong IR output. I was able to point it casually and execute commands reliably every time. It’s undeniably sexy and my only regret was putting it away after I’d programmed a Harmony to control the system!


Setup

In true Apple-fashion, the Apple TV is simplicity to install. My living-room system is anchored to an older Denon 3806 receiver which only has two HDMI inputs. Since they were both occupied, I connected the cable directly to my Pioneer TV. Audio flowed through an optical cable. Since I planned to use the system for music, I used a Dayton glass-fiber one. After plugging in the power, I was ready to rock.

The Apple TV powers up when you send any command so I pressed Menu to get things started. First up was connecting to my wireless network; which took all of about 10 seconds after I put in the password. If anyone reading this is running an unsecured network, please stop now and rectify this before continuing. It’s way too easy for some dork to park across from your house and steal your Internet service. Another upgrade I made when installing the Apple TV was a new Cisco E3000 router. Since I knew I’d be streaming HD video and uncompressed audio, I wanted the fastest WiFi network possible. For $150 or so, the E3000 is the Cadillac of routers. It’s gigabit so even hard-wired connections are speedy. It was a huge jump in performance from my old 802.11g unit. To get the most out of an Apple TV and any WiFi device, this, or an equivalent router is highly recommended.

Main setup screen

Audio & video setup

After downloading the latest firmware, I moved to the setup which was quick and easy. The menu is a crossbar arrangement with categories for Movies, TV Shows, Internet, Computer and Setup. I lamented the lack of looping menus right away. When you get to the end of a long list of choices, you have to scroll back up to get to the beginning. I ran through the configuration options; which didn’t take long as there aren’t too many choices. Output resolution maxes at 720p. This applies to all content regardless of origin. That means standard-def video will be up-converted by the Apple TV. There is a cool screen-saver function which lets you float photos across the screen. I was happy to see Apple giving some consideration to us plasma TV owners. The General setup area has everything you need for network configuration, logging into the iTunes store, updating the firmware, setting the sleep timer and choosing a language. You can set parental controls for every area that streams content from the Internet. This includes Netflix, YouTube and Internet Radio as well as the Apple TV rental library. Audio and Video settings are pretty basic. You can turn on dynamic range compression, Dolby Digital bitstream, loop playlists, and turn off the menu sounds. There are no video options other than subtitles and closed captioning. AirPlay is Apple’s multi-zone feature. Once you enable this on Apple TV, you can send your music or video to different units around the house. Each Apple TV has a unique ID which lets you control any or all of them. This is a convenient and inexpensive way to have content distribution in your home.

Main screen

Movie search – the same interface is used for all search functions on the Apple TV.

Movie info page

TV Show info page

Movies and TV Shows take you to the Apple TV’s extensive rental library. All content can be browsed by genre and other parameters. Or you can simply search for what you want. There is no keyboard peripheral available so you’ll have to use the cursor to type your search terms. It’s a bit cludgy but reasonably intuitive. Search results pop up as you type so you don’t usually have to spell out the entire term. The search interface is identical across all the Apple TV’s apps so it will always look familiar. The movie library is quite large and I managed to find everything I looked for. TV shows are a bit limited in that only major networks represented are ABC and Fox. It’s lucky for me that most of the shows I watch are on those two networks! There are other feeds available from BBC, PBS, Smithsonian, the NBA, Marvel Comics and many others. Even though NBC and CBS are not represented, there is no shortage of good stuff to watch. These rentals are $.99 an episode for either SD or HD. Any show originally broadcast in HD is on Apple TV at 720p with the original Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. The Movie tab includes an In Theaters section with trailers in HD for most currently showing titles. This is a great resource and it’s all free of charge.

Main Netflix screen

Netflix queue

Under the Internet tab there are several options. The most significant of these is Netflix. Anyone with an account can stream the entire Netflix library with their Apple TV. While the quality varies from terrible to OK, the amount of content available is staggering. The app allows you to manage your queue so you don’t have to go to your computer to add titles. I immediately found all the original Battlestar Galactica episodes (the ones from the eighties) and added them, fun! Other services included are Podcasts, which accesses any show in the iTunes library, Internet Radio with literally thousands of feeds from all over the world, YouTube, Flickr, MobileMe and Rotten Tomatoes movie reviews.

Podcast selection

The Computer tab is the place for streaming all your iTunes content. Any podcast subscriptions will appear here. You can also play anything from your own music or video library. The interface requires many button presses to get to what you want. If you have a large collection of songs, it can take a while to find a particular album or playlist. Fortunately, there is a solution: the Remote app. This comes free from the App Store for iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad. Basically, it looks just like the iPod interface except it’s accessing content from your entire library, not just what’s stored on the device. It also includes AirPlay support so you can send the stream to different devices your computer’s audio system. If you have pictures or video stored on your iPod/Pad/Phone, you can send that content to the TV as well.

Main screen for iTunes library access

Once I downloaded the app, I had to enable Home Sharing in iTunes and turn on the options to look for Airplay connected speakers, look for iPod remotes and allow iTunes control from remote speakers. While this greatly improved the functionality of the Apple TV as a music player, there were a few caveats which I’ll cover in the next section.


Setup

Over a two-month period, I tried most of the services available on the Apple TV. My overall experience was extremely positive. Video quality on iTunes content looked great on my 50-inch plasma display. 720p is still HD resolution and the difference from 1080p was minimal. Will this replace your Blu-ray player? Certainly not, but it’s much better than the best DVDs and what I watched easily bested broadcast HD. Other video feeds like Netflix or podcasts were only as good as their origin which means fair at best. Podcasts showed obvious compression artifacts and frame drops. The same was true of YouTube content. Still, there’s something fun about watching some of these homemade gems on a big TV. You must watch the Angry Birds Peace Treaty at least once!

Netflix streaming was about the same experience as I’d had on other devices. Their quality varies widely but some titles are HD and eminently watchable. Audio is limited to stereo but most of what I heard was OK. It helps to use the surround programs on your receiver to expand the otherwise small soundstage. I appreciated the ability to manage my queue from my couch instead of going to my computer to add or remove titles. If Netflix ever improves their quality to a more consistent level, other services will have some serious competition. The value of having this much content available for as little as $7.99 a month is unmatched.

Second-Generation Apple TV

Since my main interest in video was the iTunes rental library, I watched several titles during the evaluation. BBC’s Bleak House is an eight-part miniseries originally broadcast in 2005. The video is hi-def but the audio is only stereo. If you buy the Blu-ray version, it also comes only in stereo. I made a direct comparison between the disc and streamed version and came away impressed. The Blu-ray is tack-sharp with superb contrast and color. The only thing different about the streamed version is a slightly lower level of detail. And I’m talking very slight here. My wife and I watched the entire thing, for only eight bucks mind you, and enjoyed every minute. At no time were there any hiccups or glitches. Ordering an episode required only a few clicks of the remote. Playback started in less than a minute. When you pause you can see the buffering progress. The entire 50-minute segment downloaded in about 20 minutes while we watched. There were no interruptions during the show. We did our viewing during evening hours when Internet traffic is usually heavy and saw no difference in response time or playback quality.

Another TV show I tried was Flash Forward. This was also in hi-def but this time with 5.1 surround sound. Audio quality was easily equal to the DVD which I had on hand. Video quality was slightly superior to what I’m accustomed to from my Oppo BDP-83. Like Bleak House, there were no pauses or frame drops. The picture was both noise and artifact free. Whenever I paused the show, the screensaver came on within two minutes. This also works when playing back audio-only feeds so you never have to fear burn-in with your plasma TV. While I’m on the subject of TV shows, I should mention there were a few significant shows missing from the lineup. I settled in one evening planning to watch a few episodes of ABC’s V but found it was not available. A little digging revealed that Fringe is not in the library either. I was slightly consoled by the presence of Fall Guy, but only slightly. So the TV selections are by no means complete. Yes there is a lot of content but there are some gaps.

The only time I experienced any buffering delays was when watching movie trailers. There over a hundred titles available from movies either currently in theaters or coming soon, all in HD. Hiccups were annoying as I sometimes waited several minutes for a two-minute trailer to buffer before I could watch it.

Music playback was very impressive from the Apple TV. You can send your audio over HDMI but I always experience better sound when using coax or optical digital connections. Plus in this case, I had no choice given the lack of HDMI inputs on my Denon receiver. I listened to many classical and rock albums and at no time could I discern a difference from the original CD. All of my iTunes music is ripped to Apple Lossless format. Tracks I had purchased, compressed of course, sounded small and restrained just as they do when played directly from my iPod. While the Apple TV is not in the category of audiophile playback devices, it more than holds its own against the average CD or universal player.

I used Apple’s free Remote app to control the system for music listening. The pros are, it’s free and it gives you an iPod-like interface for serving up selections from your iTunes library. The cons are – it’s a bit finicky in operation. Often times, it would not connect to my library, which required a visit to the settings area to re-establish the link. It also took a few seconds to re-connect EVERY TIME the screen went dark. This got old real fast. I thought I could work around this by using my Harmony remote to pause or skip tracks but this was not possible. Once you’re controlling the Apple TV with your iPod/Pad/Phone, other remotes are locked out. So the simple act of pausing the music required pressing the phone’s home key, sliding my finger, waiting for the re-connect then finally pressing the pause button; less than elegant. At least there is the potential for improvements in the app since it’s nothing but software. I can’t really blame the Apple TV for this shortcoming.


Conclusions

I had considered an Apple TV for nearly three years and now that I have one I’m glad I waited. The early versions were not as slick as the current unit and more expensive to boot. For a mere $99, Apple delivers a high-quality media player that makes a vast library of content available at a whim. Not only is the iTunes selection comprehensive, the addition of Netflix and other Internet feeds make this a serious contender to replace cable or satellite service. If you don’t watch sports, the Apple TV will provide a goodly chunk of what you currently get from the big providers. While I’m on that soapbox: It would be nice if more TV shows were available. Two major networks out of four is a bummer and even the included feeds are not complete. I don’t claim to understand the intricacies of the broadcast biz but c’mon guys, give us the shows. We’re willing to pay and everything! I’m just sayin’.

While I have every intention of holding on to my optical media (it will be pried from my cold, dead fingers), digital players like the Apple TV are now a necessary part of my AV lifestyle. The convenience of simply picking what I want to watch or listen to from an on-screen menu or from my iPhone has to be experienced to be understood. I’m now listening to music in a whole new way. No longer am I tied to a single 72-minute disc. I can cue up any mix imaginable and play media for hours at a time, hands-off. The gaps in rental content selection are not a deal-breaker for me, especially for only ninety-nine bucks. I don’t know if we’ll ever have true a la carte media as long as there are cable and satellite providers but if the Apple TV is a glimpse of the future, I am at least hopeful. Highly recommended.