We should declare that we stumped up for online purchase of the new Apple TV on the day of its announcement, astounded by the price of $129, and desiring it primarily as a music streamer.
We mention this because reviews written by purchasers are invariably skewed toward the positive, no-one wishing to admit that they bought a duck.
Happily for our meagre investment, the new Apple TV is no duck. Nor duckling, indeed, it being so much smaller than the original by virtue of omitting the former hard drive (there is an unspecified 8GB of flash memory in there to ensure seamless streaming of media and rentals).
Apple TV’s abilities are entirely tied to the world of iTunes. You can watch new movie trailers and rent current and old releases from $3.99 (but more usually $5.99). Quality looks pretty good for SD, great on HD (though HD is still served up with signal compression). For some reason Australia seems to have no movie purchases possible.
YouTube heads a seamlessly presented selection of web content, matched these days by many other boxes, but still presented with Apple’s customary style.
But the column labelled ‘Computers’ is the motherlode, at least for us. The Apple TV will stream anything from iTunes running on computers in your home network — including video, photos and music, along with playlists and the rest. Note, however, that you’ll have problems if different family members have their own separate iTunes Home Shares, because the Apple TV can only sync with one at a time (multiple iTunes accounts are no problem, but you need a common Home Share). And you won’t want to be switching between them because the tedious text input system discourages you from regularly inputting account details (using the Remote App on a iPod touch or iPad helps, but only after initial set-up).
That aside, if you have a big iTunes-based music collection, this is a no-brainer purchase. Stick one in your AV system and plug its optical output into your receiver or DAC for superb performance. Use Apple’s ‘Remote’ App on an iPhone, iPod touch or iPad and you can browse artwork like you have a multi-thousand-dollar media server (you don’t even need your TV on).
Or HDMI into your TV and enjoy the beautiful interface as you click gently on your slim silver remote. High-quality media serving has never been so cheap, nor looked so good. Photo slideshows can be set up as screensavers when playing music. It’s stunning.
Settings are all neat and easy, and the ‘Power down’ option is thoughtfully placed at the very bottom right of the interface, so you can reach and select it blindfold.
Issues? Actually quite a few on initial release — our AppleTV twice failed permanently to access any iTunes libraries and could only be fixed by a system reset or restore. (And that Restore never ends, leaving an onscreen message not to remove the power under any circumstances. But after nine hours hanging, what was a poor boy to do? All was fine, but not yer average Apple experience.) We also found that the Apple TV kept dropping off the Remote App on our iPad, causing some pain, but a recent update to the Remote App seems to have fixed this.
There’s no ability to set up a queue of music as you browse, although the menus will remember your last position and default back there when the current song/album/playlist ends. We tried a workaround for this, creating a ‘Queue’ playlist in iTunes, telling Apple TV to play the playlist, and then using the Remote App to access the computer and add tracks to the playlist on the fly. When Apple TV launched, this didn’t work because it played playlists alphabetically, not in the order you set up — but this bug was fixed in a firmware update (on our press day, Nov 23!), so you can now extend playlists as they play.
Lock-ups and restores aside, the new Apple TV is quite brilliant. It is not one of the new breed of internet TV boxes; the video side is just the iTunes Store in a box, which is OK, but pales beside its role as a superslick media server which can deliver your iTunes collections to any chosen point in the home flawlessly, beautifully. For just $129. See why we got in quick?