Updated: March 14, 2015
Brace yourselves. This is the very first time ever that Dedoimedo reviews an Apple product. Now, I am familiar with Apple hardware, and my various family members have been using tons of them over the years. However, I have never really spent any serious time fiddling with any of these. Now that my friend has loaned me his Apple TV appliance, I must.
Anyhow, my quest for the ultimate home media player continues. So far, nothing really fits the bill. On the software side, XBMC might be the desired software component, but neither the RaspBMC nor openELEC really wowed me, especially when paired with the Raspberry Pi board, price and functionality wise. The same goes for Rikomagic and Chromecast. When it comes to watching TV, I just use whatever smartness my LG box has to offer, out of the box [sic]. Maybe Apple TV could make it happen? Let's see.
It's all about style
There's no denying the elegance and forethought of the Apple TV design. The simple block of plastic is nothing more than a simple block of plastic, and yet, it's a very handsome block of plastic.
The actual appliance is powered by a single-core Cortex A9 processor, dubbed Apple A5, with associated processor graphics, 512MB of RAM, which equals that of my Pi board, and 8GB NAND Flash cache. Connectivity includes HDMI, optical audio, Bluetooth, 100Mbit Ethernet, and 802.11a/b/g/n Wireless. This is more than enough for 1080p playback.
You control Apple TV using an included Apple Remote (IR), but you can also try other devices. You can also purchase Apple Wireless Keyboard, or use a free application available for iOS devices. But we're going back to the cost problem that haunted me when testing all these other appliances. For instance, the Raspberry Pi set soared from the basic cost of USD35 up to about USD125 ready for use, which kind of shatters the illusion of low-cost media centers. And for Chromecast, you need a second device. There.
Using Apple TV
The moment you connect the device into your wall socket, it will boot up. The initial setup is very quick and simple. Based on your network location, Apple TV will setup several regional services. For instance, prices in the iTunes stores will show in the local currency, whether you like it or not. You may also see some local language strings here and there, even though the interface language is English. Controlling the device with the little remote is a pleasant experience, but the infrared sensor is relatively weak, and you need a good, clear line of sight to use it. You can't hide the appliance, like I did with the Pi box, by sticking on the back of the TV.
The interface is black and slick. Now, without sounding like a fanboy, but you have to appreciate the presentation layer here. We're not talking about the functionality, we will address that later on. The way things are shown to the user is very intelligent. From the initial boot via first-time configuration to playing around and using the appliance, Apple TV has a professional feel. The system menu options are natural, logical, intuitive. You will not spot any random menu entries, beta-quality leftovers or other weird items. There will not be any errors, flickers, artifacts or such. You can tell posh when you see it.
However, posh does not necessarily mean useful, and this brings me to how well Apple TV serves its content. The main interface revolves around tiles, somewhat similar to what Windows has. The four main categories are Movies, Music, Computers, and Settings.
You can buy or rent musics and videos from several online stores, including iTunes. You can also sync and share content among different devices, especially if you have an Apple line of products at home. There is a very strong - and expected - emphasis on integration within the Apple ecosystem. You also have access to cloud features.
Apart from the main categories, there are some twenty apps linking to online broadcast networks and streaming services, depending on your region. Most of the stuff requires that you sign in for an account, plus it's not free. For example, in order to watch NBA, I had the option to buy a league pass that costs some USD129. That's quite a bit of money.
Eventually, I ended up streaming Youtube videos, but then, for that, you do not need Apple TV. Any browser or cheap appliance will do. I also previewed several movie trailers and American baseball league game summaries. And that brings me to the big problem with this kind of approach to entertainment. One, it's very US-centric, which is fine should you happen to enjoy American channels. Two, it's very expensive. But if you're in a mood for free, international content, you will not find much of it here.
I did a quick calculation how much it'd cost me to enjoy Apple TV the way I like it. Assuming that the appliance could provide me with all the content I like, which means mostly British comedies, older films and documentaries, I'd probably have to shell out about a thousand dollars a year. This is more than twice what I play for cable plus Internet. That's not small change. Even renting somewhat older, not so popular movies costs a non-trivial USD4.99 each. Sure, one might argue that people spend more on fast food, cigarettes, a typical drink in a pub, or a fancy coffee, but that's not the point. What matters is that I already have access to similar media at a lower cost.
Beside the obvious monetary challenges, Apple TV worked really well. The system is fast and responsive, despite having only 512MB of RAM. The playback was smooth. The remote is a joy to hold and click. The interface invoked not one iota of frustration, and despite my plebeian desire to sort of mock Apple's efforts, there can be none. This company knows how to design beautiful products, even though they aim at the higher-income American audience, and thus miss the international crowd. But then, Apple TV is not really meant to conquer the minds and hearts of users in Columbia, Portugal, Russia, Israel, or Vietnam.
With the price tag of USD99, HDMI cable excluded, Apple TV is not much more expensive than would-be cheap alternatives like Raspberry Pi, Rikomagic, Chromecast, and others. Because this thing works without any extras, and it's important to remember that. That said, as a home entertainment center, it's mostly useful to those who like American networks and are willing to spend extra money on content.
The design, the interface and the usability are spotless, though. You can't fault the way it's been put together. Really lovely. However, I personally believe that if your taste goes beyond the strict airing schedule and restrictions of the provided, built-in applications, you have more freedom using a standard computer plus HDMI cable. If you're concerned about the fiscal side of things in the long run, buying a proper smart TV makes more sense, and this is true for all the products I've played with so far, Apple TV included. Now, it is one step above the rest in terms of aesthetics, reliability and quality, but the content is expensive and not very exciting. All in all, something like 7.5/10.