Up to now the story of the media-streaming device hasn’t exactly made pleasant reading for its participants. Most previous versions of these devices (which take music, video and photos from your PC and play them on your TV and stereo), have been unreliable, hard to use and generally shunned by the buying public. The Apple TV, though, follows the typical Apple mantra – keep it simple and make it pretty – and could potentially be the first to triumph in this market. See also: Apple TV review, January 2009.
Latest version: Apple TV review (2012)
We say 'potentially' because, for UK users, there are a few rather significant flaws.
Get the connection
The first of these concerns the connections. HDMI (high definition multimedia interface) and component video are provided as standard. But, while the quality of these are good, they aren't connections you're likely to find on a television that’s more than three or four years old – in fact, many of today's televisions won't work with Apple TV out of the box.
Scart can be used, although you will need a Scart socket that supports component video rather than RGB input – which rules out the Scart connectors on most UK televisions. Any good HDTV (high-definition television) should work, but if you’re using a standard-definition television then you’ll need a converter. JS-Technology.com does a Component (YUV) to RGB/VGA converter for £90, but as this is getting on for half the cost of the Apple TV, you might question whether it’s worth it.
Provided you can get the Apple TV to work, though, you should find it an easy device to use thanks to Apple’s intuitive interface although, even here, we had a few niggles.
Once we connected the box to our test HDTV, the device started looking for a network connection. We were using Wi-Fi instead of an ethernet connection and the Apple TV couldn’t find our network. Once we typed in the network’s SSID (service set identifier) on the onscreen keyboard, though, we were up and running.
The Apple TV comes with a 40GB hard drive, a capacity that seems rather miserly for a supposed media streamer. This is undoubtedly fine for an audio player, but if you’re looking to use it for video then you’ll quickly find that space disappearing.
The drive does work well, however, and the Apple TV manages to avoid the picture break-ups and glitches that frequently come with streaming video over a wireless network. The basic rule of Apple TV content seems to be: if you can play something in iTunes, you can play it on Apple TV. That puts some limitations on users, but then that’s the price of simplicity.
To start playing files, we first had to download content from our iTunes library onto Apple TV’s hard drive. It copies movies first, then TV shows and finally music – there seems to be no way of, for example, making it copy music first of all.
The remotest part
Once some of our video and music was on the Apple TV's hard drive, we started jumping around using the tiny remote. While the remote looks like an iPod, it doesn’t act like one. What looks like a clickwheel doesn’t operate just by moving your thumb around the circumference of the wheel. Instead you need to click up, down or sideways to move. And while it’s admirable that Apple has managed to shave a remote down to six buttons, you’d better be careful with this one – it’s so small losing it may be a problem. The box is quiet but got hot after about an hour.
Music playback was reminiscent of the iPod’s interface, with lots of ways to view your collection. Album art was beautifully displayed, although it was annoying that the album stops playing as soon as you leave the music area.
Video, though, is a different matter. It’s not that video files don’t look good – provided they’ve been exported to 640x480 – but there simply aren’t many of them. Even in the US there isn’t a lot of 720p content available. Here in the UK the amount of video content (in any form) available at the iTunes store is paltry. Added to that is the fact that Apple TV won’t play DivX formats.