Apple TV has always been an odd title on Apple’s bookshelf, so much so that even Steve Jobs described it as a ‘hobby’ product.
Steve Jobs’s biographer gave the little box a great boost in January when he revealed that Jobs claimed to have cracked the knotty problem of a great TV interface that would be worthy of Apple.
This year has also seen constant rumours of a genuine Apple-branded TV set. Isn’t it funny how Apple’s manufacturing partners are just terrible at keeping trade secrets secret? It’s almost as though someone wants the moon-eyed fans kept on the edge of their seats, topping up teh interwebs with constant chatter.
Even dull-eyed readers will spot that this is not a TV set, but another iteration of the Apple TV set-top media streamer.
This is the third generation Apple TV, although like the 1984-style unspeaking dealt to the third-gen iPad, this is simple Apple TV rather than Apple TV 3. It shares the same tiny body and lack of internal storage as Apple TV mark 2, but it’s got a brand new user interface that’s supposed to be a lot more TV-friendly.
Yet according to former Apple engineer Michael Margolis, it’s an interface Jobs threw out five years ago. The truth, or a smart way to cover lukewarm reaction to the new UI?
Design and connection
As we said in our unboxing, Apple TV is a thing of simple beauty, dwarfed by other set-top boxes and mocking their gaudy displays, indicators, front-panel controls and logos. It may cost £99, but the one thing it doesn't look is cheap.
It’s a black so glossy it’s hard to photograph, 98mm square and 23mm tall, weighing 270g (roughly equal to a kitten). The back panel hosts connections for power, HDMI, SPDIF optical digital audio and 10/100 Ethernet. The WiFi antenna (802.11a, b, g or n) is hidden in the case.
Quite how Apple has managed to fit a power supply into it is impressive, although it may contribute to the kitten-friendly warmth of the box when it’s running. Still, it’s nicer than having another DC power brick and that A5 single-core chip won’t power itself.
The HDMI port supports the HDMI 1.4 standard, so it will also carry Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound, but you can also use the optical digital audio output.
The USB port is for servicing only - Apple's determined to make you rely on network or cloud storage, even if you have photos on an SD card.
I wasn't a massive fan of the original Apple TV remote - I'm all for stripping things down the basics, but not even having a power button? It's just a little too counter-intuitive to have to learn a special key combo to put a device to sleep.
That's still a problem with the new Apple Remote, but it is a very responsive device for controlling your Apple TV, once you've got used to the Menu button also being the back-up button, and the centre of the D-pad being OK/Enter.
The old Apple remote was also too small, as though designed for a child's hand. It's not just easy-to-lose but also strange to hold, and with a metallic finish that looks great but doesn't feel planted in your hand. Maybe someone will make a gel-case like they do for equally-slippy phones.
The lightness has one advantage: it doesn't get heavy as you browse through menus and input your details. Maybe Apple's on to something here as the TV remote becomes less of a simple channel-zapper and the instrument of exploration and transaction.
You’d expect an Apple product to be easy to set up, and Apple TV doesn’t disappoint - a handful of menus buzz you through language, localisation and network setup. With so few buttons, entering passwords and login details with the onscreen keyboard is slow and painful. There’s a separate login for iTunes Match, Netflix and any other third-party content services as well, not to mention entering searches on YouTube.
I found that Home Sharing with other iTunes libraries on the same network only worked when it was turned off and back on for each library. It’s disappointing that while iTunes on a PC or Mac will recognise iTunes-friendly network storage, Apple TV can’t access them.
It was easy to set up Apple’s Remote app for iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch, which will become the interface of choice, so you can lock the tiny-but-vital remote in your safe for the few occasions when it is necessary. It also gives you a better keyboard for search,
A similar process enables Airplay for throwing iTunes content or your iPad/iPhone’s content to the TV screen via the Apple TV.
I’ve seen a lot of TV interfaces - some of them very good at dealing with both on-demand and broadcast content. Simplicity often wins over style, and a few manage both.
Apple TV’s old interface was very list-based, and whatever Steve Jobs thought of it, the icons-based approach is a winner. If you want to browse iTunes in detail, the Remote app gives that flexibility.
The top row is a context-sensitive row of cover art for films, TV, local music or in the iCloud depending on where you are in the second row. It also shows titles you’ve got currently rented or recently purchased.
Below this are the third-party portals, your own photos, and with Photostream they’re beautifully-displayed, while MobileMe gives you access to your phone and tablet content on a bigger screen.
Better than the listy old Apple TV interface? Both have their strengths but this gives Apple TV room to grow as new services arrive. Jump into movies or TV and it’s a very iTunes-y experience - some would say it’s too wordy for a TV. You can watch trailers, rent or buy (in HD), or add it to a wish list. Recommendations of similar content are lined up below for a browsfest.
The third party portals at launch aren’t much different from a lot of other smart TV platforms:
Netflix , YouTube, Flickr, the Wall Street Journal, and Major League Baseball TV (a niche audience for the UK, but maybe it syncs to Apple’s hipster demographic).
BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, 4oD, Demand Five and Sky Go are very obviously missing, but after Apple’s recent rapprochement with the BBC and ITV, it can’t be long before they bag the UK catch-up and streaming services.
So it’s a cut above the typical media streamer, even if it can’t access network storage, but right now it’s a fancy iPod for TV. If it’s going to take off like the iPhone and iPad, it needs the apps that galvanised developers, Apple fans and the mainstream. Maybe there’s a good reason why not, but with this interface, if Apple does the sensible thing and releases an SDK to the developer community, there’s already space for users to place their own apps and customise the interface like its tablets and phones.
It’s a crucial psychological barrier that turns it from an Apple TV into ‘my Apple TV’, and earns it a place at centre-stage.
To a certain extent, it’s already possible using Airplay with an iPad or iPhone. Suddenly, the handheld becomes a controller for games and other experiences on the TV screen. BBC iPlayer is much better, but Sky Go is among the apps that are blocked from using Airplay - hopefully this will change for the launch of Sky’s internet TV service, Now, this summer.
Recombu Digital verdict
Steve Jobs’s daming ‘hobby box’ verdict still holds true. There are so many directions it could go to become mainstream - a Freeview HD tuner, storage for recording functions, UK catch-up TV services, and most importantly, apps.
Until then, this is still a niche product for getting Apple’s existing products onto the big screen, and at £99 worth getting for that purpose. The hacking community which sprang up around the first two iterations of Apple TV will love the extra power. Most of all, I suspect, it’s a prototype for the forthcoming Apple iTV.