The TV industry is already pushing for Ultra HD / 4K, which is the next step after Full HD. But what does it actually mean for our TVs, media boxes, movies & games? We explain why Ultra HD is important and why there is much more to it than just higher resolution.
Apple has just launched a new version of their small, inexpensive Apple TV media box that will add new functionality to your HDTV. The new Apple TV now supports 1080p resolution and a new user interface has been introduced. The box naturally still supports all the functions that made the last generation so popular, including AirPlay, iTunes rentals, Home Sharing and Netflix streaming.
But is the new Apple TV (1080p) a real improvement over the Apple TV (720p)? Is it worth upgrading? And what exactly can you expect? FlatpanelsHD will find out in our Apple TV review.
The new Apple TV remains unchanged. It looks exactly like the previous generation. The small black box feels robust, has rounded soft edges and rubber underneath. The box is so small that you barely notice it and you can easily hide it in furniture or behind your TV.
On the back Apple has incorporated an HDMI port, and a port for connecting an Ethernet cable. The box also has built-in WiFi. The optical output can be connected to a sound system to enable music playback over AirPlay without having to turn on the TV screen.
Connect the Apple TV to your TV with HDMI
The box comes bundled with a small remote control that is left unchanged as well. You can also download the free Remote app for iPhone / iPod / iPad through the App Store. More on this subject later.
Apple TV has been tested on a Panasonic ET5 Tv and a Dell U2410 monitor, connected through HDMI. The internet connection is 8 Mbit/s but the box has also been used on a private 25 Mbit/s connection.
We used an iPhone and a Macbook Air but you can also use iPad/iPod or a Mac/PC with iTunes to enable most of the functions demonstrated in this review.
Below you can see our energy consumption measurements on the Apple TV box. The box is always in a standby mode, awaiting AirPlay inputs from for example an iPhone or iPad.
Apple TV consumes just 1.9 W in use and 0.8 W in standby mode. This is ridiculously low and basically means that the box is one of the most energy efficient electronic devices available on the market.
New user interface
With the new box, Apple also introduced a new user interface that looks more iOS-like – but apps are still missing. We would have loved to see an App Store on the Apple TV box but Apple has not decided to take this route yet. The new interface could indicate that Apple has grander plans but so far we have to do with this and let Apple control which “apps” are available on the Apple TV box.
The new user interface for Apple TV – it has also been updated on the previous generation
The selection of “apps” depends on where you live. In USA, Apple has included interesting sports services as well iTunes and Netflix, but in Europe the offerings are less compelling. Netflix, for example, is only available in the US and UK.
The new interface has also been updated to 1080p resolution, and it looks great on a flat panel TV. Personally, I liked the old interface better but it might just be a matter of habit. The 720p Apple TV has also received the new interface and it works the same way – just only in 720p.
Navigating through the menus, we felt that the new box is slightly faster. The old version was definitely a great performer in this area but the new processor inside Apple TV 1080p just takes it a little further. However, when it comes to video buffering and AirPlay it basically comes down to your Internet connection and wireless network. Our experience is that you need at least 8-10 Mbit/s for a trouble-free experience.
YouTube on the Apple TV box
The new interface is not a game changer and we miss an App Store. Apps such as Facebook and Twitter can stay on the platforms that make sense, for all that we care, but an open App Store would make a world of a difference. Just imagine having all the available video services on your Apple TV; maybe even games. The possibilities are endless and we have already seen what the App Store did to the iPhone and iPad.
Remote and iPhone control
The remote control looks identical and there is not a lot to add here compared to the last generation of Apple TV. The remote is still extremely minimalistic and has only very few buttons. This is something I personally appreciate from a user friendliness point-of-view, but some buttons also have hidden function that you need to discover before it all makes perfect sense.
Apple’s remote control
Instead, let us take a look at the Remote app for iPhone, iPod and iPad. With the app you can make a lot of things much easier. The app is free and is well-thought-out. Unlike 99 % of remote apps for “Smart TVs”, Apple has made user experience an important element.
The first thing you will notice is how you can control the user interface on the TV screen without having to constantly look down at your iPhone’s touch screen. This may sound obvious but actually none of the TV makers have been able to replicate it. Remote apps for modern “Smart TVs” basically just moves the buttons from the physical remote control to the smartphone/tablet touch screen, which means that you constantly have to look up at your TV, look down at your touch screen to press the right button, look up at your TV and so on. With Apple’s remote app you just swipe your finger across the touch screen to navigate.
Another advantage of the Remote app is the keyboard extension. If you want to search for movies or TV shows in iTunes or Netflix, or browse through YouTube, you need a keyboard. An on-screen keyboard on a TV screen have always been terrible idea, but with the remote app you can use your smartphone or tablet as a full-size keyboard when searching for content on the Apple TV. Your search text also automatically shows up on the touch screen device so you don’t have to constantly look up at the TV screen while writing.
Control Apple TV with your iPhone/iPod/iPad
The physical remote control relies on infrared signals and if you choose the hide away the Apple TV box in furniture or behind your TV, you cannot use the remote. The remote app for iOS works. It relies on WiFi and can control the Apple TV from anywhere as long as both devices are connected to the same home network.
iTunes, streaming & services
Apple TV relies heavily on the iTunes universe for content and Apple allows users to rent and buy movies and TV shows through iTunes. You can also stream content from your other iTunes-enabled devices but if you want to stream from for example a NAS server or another DLNA-enabled device, you are out of luck. Streaming inside iTunes works great but if you consider the Apple TV as an alternative to streaming boxes from Western Digital, Boxee and the like, you need to know that Apple TV is not dating DLNA devices - unless you jailbreak it. We will not look at jailbreaking in this review but you can find numerous guides on the Internet.
New Apple TV with 1080p
Let us try to take a look at the iTunes integration. Apple TV has no built-in hard drive and therefore relies on streaming from a home network or the Internet. The home network streaming is covered by the “Home Sharing” function that we will take a look at later. Here we examine Internet streaming and the services found in Apple TV. We would like to start with iTunes.
iTunes is an integral part of the Apple TV. Through iTunes you can rent (0.99-3.99 USD) or buy movies (up to 18.99 USD) and TV shows (typically 1.99 USD). The movie catalogue varies from country to country but Apple is at hard work trying to expand the movie selection to more countries. The US iTunes store is obviously the most comprehensive and offers more than 2500 movies and many more TV shows. With the introduction of the new Apple TV, Apple also upped the resolution in iTunes to 1080p and a quick look through the catalogue reveals that most movies are now offered in the Full HD format.
Movie rentals on the Apple TV box
We dug deeper to examine the picture quality compared to both 720p on the last generation of Apple TV and Blu-ray discs that are also available in 1080p. Movies in the 1080p format from iTunes generally look good. We noticed a real improvement over the 720p versions and detailing is definitely better. But compared to Blu-ray, the picture quality still lacks something.
Apple implemented a new compression algorithm with the jump to 1080p, which can also affect picture detailing but the bitrate is still not fantastic for a 1080p stream. What matters is obviously the real-world result and I have to say that given the circumstances, Apple manages to deliver quite good picture quality. Pictures appear shaper and detailing is higher. It is not 100 % comparable to Blu-ray movies but is definitely better than the 720p offerings in iTunes. I think that most people will be very satisfied with this level of picture quality but Blu-ray should remain the preferred choice for movie enthusiasts. Also, Apple TV still does not support the 1080p24 format that most movies are produced in. Instead, it changes the frame rate. This definitely needs attention from Apple.
Movie rentals on the Apple TV box
With the new Apple TV, Apple has also started to move movies into iCloud. This may sound strange but it basically just means that you can access movies from any Apple device with iTunes. Let’s say that you watch an episode of a TV shows in your living room through the Apple TV box and leaves you house after 26 minutes. When you pull up you iPad on the train later that day you can continue from where you left. This obviously requires all devices to use the same Apple ID. Movies and TV shows in iCloud is a clear indicator of where Apple is heading and even though not all movies are available in iCloud, more and more are added.
Another new cool feature that Apple neglected to talk about it at the presentation is the option to make your DVD and Blu-ray movies available in iCloud and stream the same movies to all your Apple or iTunes-enabled devices. It basically means that you can register your DVD and Blu-ray discs (if they come with a digital copy) and gain access to the movies in iTunes afterwards. You will even get a 1080p version even though your original DVD discs were in lousy SD resolution. This option is only available in the US right now.
Internet radio on Apple TV
We moved on to do some testing on a wired and wireless network. With 1080p streaming our wireless network at the office introduced some buffering issues. Occasionally a 1080p movie would stop to buffer. The router is a cheap solution from the local supermarket and it is located in the room next door so it obviously has its limitations. Instead I tried connecting the Apple TV box to my home network that is powered by an Apple TimeCapsule. With this setup, 1080p streaming was no problem at all and everything ran smoothly. Our testing shows that you might want to consider your router setup if you are planning on using a wireless solution and our recommendation is to use a wired solution whenever you can.
Let’s move on to talk a little about the other “apps” on Apple TV. Besides iTunes, the following services are available.
iTunes (called Movies & TV shows)
Flickr (picture service)
Vimeo (video service)
NFL (Ice hockey)
Live WSJ (Wall Street Journal news)
Movie trailers on Apple TV
Some are left out in countries outside the US. Netflix is one of the most interesting services and you probably already know Netflix if you are residing in the US (see the Netflix section further down if you want to learn how to access Netflix outside of the US).
Netflix has been offering some 1080p content for some time and with the bump to 1080p on Apple TV, you can also enjoy this content. The Netflix app on Apple TV even supports adaptive streaming, meaning that picture quality will scale up or down based on the speed of your internet connection. If you have a fast connection, 1080p picture quality through Netflix actually looks pretty good. Still not Blu-ray quality but good enough for most users.
Watch Baseball from MLB on Apple TV
AirPlay was one of the features that made the previous-generation of Apple TV popular, and it is obviously still around. AirPlay basically allows you to stream video, music and pictures from any iOS device or PC/Mac with iTunes onto your TV screen
Stream video, pictures og music from an Apple devices to your TV screen via AirPlay
AirPlay requires no setup, it just posit that all devices are connected to the same network. Once they are, an AirPlay logo will appear on your Apple device or in iTunes. Want to view your vacation photos from your iPhone? Press AirPlay. Want to watch a YouTube video that you found on your iPad? Press AirPlay. Want to listen to music from your friend’s Macbook in your home? Press AirPlay. Really, it is as simple as that. It is extremely intuitive and makes a lot of sense. You don’t have to worry about formats, codecs and so on. If it plays on your iOS or iTunes-enabled device, it plays on your TV screen via Apple TV and AirPlay.
Mirror your iPad or iPhone screen on the TV screen with AirPlay Mirroring
AirPlay has also recently been extended to "Mirroring". The most apparent function is to mirror your iPad/iPhone screen on your TV screen. But a much more interesting use of AirPlay mirroring is to include it in games and some developers already have. In Real Racing 2 you can enable AirPlay Mirroring (double press the Home button and swipe to the left). When activated the TV screen will display the action and the iPad screen will give you an overview of the race track.
AirPlay Mirroring makes Apple TV a game console
It works pretty well and we experienced close to no delay on the controller (iPad). With Mirroring, AirPlay becomes a truly unique function and will allow Apple to extend their ecosystem and compete with PlayStation and Xbox consoles for the living room game console.
With AirPlay you can use your iPad as a controller and have the TV display the game action
AirPlay Mirroring is not perfect, however. Even though games run without hiccups the frame rate is a bit too low. In Real Racing 2 I sometimes noticed juddering – mostly during sharp turns. This is probably a combination of processing power and wireless limitations but it needs further improvements before we can call it a perfect implementation. AirPlay Mirroring also has another problem. Because the aspect ratio on an iOS device differs from the aspect ratio on an HDTV you will experience black bars – at least if the app does not support full screen viewing. Real Racing 2 does but if you activate AirPlay Mirroring in a game or another app without real Mirroring support, you will get black bars on each side. AirPlay Mirroring also requires a fast and stable wireless network.
AirPlay Mirroring sometimes introduces black bars due to the different aspect ratio in iOS
AirPlay naturally requires you to own other Apple devices. It does not work outside the Apple ecosystem. This is both an advantage and a disadvantage. The tight integration means that you can use AirPlay always when using an Apple iOS device. It is so deeply integrated into the devices, and it just works. The disadvantage is that you will not benefit much from all the opportunities if you own an Android or Windows products.
All in all, I have to say that AirPlay is so convincing that the function alone makes the Apple TV box worth buying. I have personally used it throughout 2011 on the previous-generation Apple TV and it runs perfectly 99.9 % of the time. The problems I have encountered with AirPlay during the last year can be counted on the fingers of one hand. And when compared to the built-in counterparts in “Smart TVs”, it is evident that Apple is already light years ahead. I have absolutely no doubt that AirPlay will be one of the most important features of the coming Apple HDTV.
See this video demonstration of AirPlay from an iPhone.
Home Sharing has been around since the first generation of the Apple TV box that was an entirely different product. Home Sharing allows you to access videos, music files and photos on another iTunes-enabled PC or Mac in your home. They just need to use the same Apple ID.
Home Sharing is also available in the new Apple TV (under the Computers tab) but it is slowly becoming less relevant due to the increasing focus on AirPlay and iTunes in iCloud. Why would you want to stream a rented or bought movie from iTunes on your PC when you can stream it directly from the internet to the Apple TV box via iTunes in iCloud? And why would you want to turn on your PC/Mac to watch your photos when you can access them from the Photostream app or use AirPlay to stream them from your iPad?
With Home Sharing you can watch movies and photos and listen to music from a iTunes-enabled PC or Mac on the home network
I will not spend much energy on Home Sharing. Instead, see this video below where it is demonstrated (via the old Apple TV 720p).
To activate Home Sharing, enable sharing in iTunes from the top menu.
Netflix is available on Apple TV in the US and one of the most interesting video apps on Apple TV. Netflix also recently became available in the UK but in the rest of the world it is still inaccessible – unless you make your Apple TV box think it is located in the US.
It is really easy to do with a service such as Unblock-Us. It will cost you 5 USD per month and an additional 8 USD per month for a Netflix subscription plan. From here you have access to movies, TV shows and documentaries – all you can eat.
The new Apple TV with 1080p looks exactly the same. Nothing has changed since the last generation of the box. The remote control is that same and you can use the same Remote app for your iPhone/iPad. But this is not a bad thing because last year’s box was a great design and package.
Apple TV relies heavily on iTunes and depending on your country you will have more or less content in the store. In the US, iTunes now a wide selection of movies and TV shows and recently iTunes moved to iCloud to allow users to access their content from any Apple or iTunes-enabled device. The move to 1080p resolution improves picture quality in iTunes and Netflix but Blu-ray discs are still offering the best possible picture quality experience despite using the same Full HD resolution. In the end it all comes down to compression, but Apple has certainly moved forward and improved things compared to the 720p days.
In my eyes, AirPlay is one of the major features in Apple TV. It offers unique opportunities and very, very compelling future prospects. With a push on a button you can stream video, music, and photos to the TV screen from any iOS device. And with AirPlay Mirroring you can even turn the Apple TV into a game console. AirPlay Mirroring is also coming to OS X Mountain Lion for Macs this summer. If you own other Apple devices, AirPlay alone is a reason to buy Apple TV.
And then there is the negative list. Apple TV requires other Apple devices to make real sense. We still miss an App Store because even though Apple has added new “apps” in 2011, the selection of video services is still limited to Netflix (and iTunes). And outside the US, iTunes’ movie and TV show offerings are not always that arousing. AirPlay Mirroring is not perfect either – at least not yet.
So, the conclusion? If you own other Apple devices, such as the iPhone or iPad, Apple TV is a must-buy in my opinion. In that case I would highly recommend it. But if you own devices with another OS, you will lose AirPlay - which is a big loss. Apple TV makes pretty much all other “Smart TV” platform look outdated, but we also feel that the Apple TV still holds more potential. Lastly; if you already own the 720p Apple TV version, I don’t see a ton of compelling reasons to upgrade.