Media Streamer

Second-Generation Apple TV Media Streamer

ARTICLE INDEX

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.