Apple TV is a remarkably useful asset
Although the late Steve Jobs alluded to the possibility of Apple entering the television market, there's still no sign of an actual Apple TV yet. Instead, alongside the launch of the new iPad came a modest upgrade to its set-top box, already known as the Apple TV. See also: Apple TV review (2012)
The main material difference is the ability to play high-definition video up to 1080p, where the second-gen topped out at 720p. You can play purchased or rented content from iTunes, or from another iTunes-equipped computer in your home.
Besides content supplied by Apple, Netflix is now available on the new Apple TV. Other portals include YouTube, Vimeo and Flickr. Sadly missing in action are any UK television catch-up services, such as BBC iPlayer, ITV Player and 4OD.
The iOS-based software has had a makeover, and now sports large tiled icons on the main screen, used to access the unit's various functions. This software upgrade is also available for the previous model.
The Apple TV unit itself has barely changed. It's still a small black box, less than 4in square. On the back are connectors for HDMI, Toslink digital audio and Micro-USB. To get on your network, you can use either 100Mbit/sec ethernet or 802.11n WiFi.
The main difference is the processor, upgraded from an Apple A4 to an A5, presumably to handle the extra overhead of 1080p decoding.
In fact, the Apple A5 used inside is based on the dual-core ARM Cortex A9 for the iPhone 4S, but operating as a single-core chip. System memory has also swelled, from 256GB to 512GB.
There's some flash storage on-board, but only for caching video content and not accessible by the user.
It includes a small aluminium remote, with two main buttons and a navigation controller for hopping around various menus. Ease of use is what Apple is known for, and this minimalist approach is a breath of fresh air when compared with overloaded remote controls.
There's no App Store access, but you can use AirPlay to mirror the display of an iPad or iPhone over WiFi, and then play iOS games. With Mountain Lion, this summer's revision for OS X, a Mac's display will be viewable through AirPlay too.
High-definition films downloaded from iTunes are far smaller than the content on Blu-ray discs. And in turn, they aren't quite as detailed either. Differences are small, but video purists will spot them on a good TV.
Audio is limited to compressed Dolby Digital, where home cinema enthusiasts would opt for lossless or DTS soundtracks.
The latest film purchases from the iTunes store cost around £13.99 in HD, and between £7.99 and £9.99 for standard quality. Note that most films offered in the UK are still only 720p, and we couldn't find any 1080p films to buy, only rent.
Rentals are £4.49 for HD and £3.49 for SD. Buying films on Blu-ray and DVD can be cheaper, although older titles cost less on the iTunes store. When streaming 1080p video, a fast internet connection is recommended, roughly 8Mbit for comfortable viewing. We noticed slowdown due to buffering once, when another PC was uploading a file.
With an Apple TV connected to your network, a small button appears in the lower right corner of the iTunes application. This switches playback from the computer to the Apple TV. No cables are required and it's incredibly simple to set up.
You can browse shared iTunes libraries on other computers directly from Apple TV, where music, photos and video are listed. Album covers, film information and various other details are clearly displayed.
When in use we measured the device using approximately 2.3W of power, and 1W in standby mode.
If you don't own any other Apple products, or use iTunes to manage your media, Apple TV doesn't measure up so well against competing streaming devices. Video has to be in a strict format before it can be added to an iTunes library, so may require converting first. Some competing devices aren't so limited, and can play formats such as MKV, WMV and AVI out of the box.
Apple TV: Verdict
If you already use any combination of iPad, iPhone or iTunes on Windows or Mac, Apple TV is a remarkably useful asset. It extends your content fluidly beyond a computer monitor or tablet screen in a way that only Apple can manage. Most importantly, it's incredibly simple to operate, an area where so many other products fall down.