Steve Jobs is the only CEO I know of who can stand on stage in front of the world and joke about how one of the products his public company makes is just a hobby. Apple’s stock doesn’t go down as a result, and the hype surrounding the aforementioned product only gets stronger. It’s well designed, it even seems affordable. The funny part of it all is Mr. Jobs isn’t lying. The Apple TV is a hobby, because without stepping on the toes of the content providers Apple can’t turn it into anything more.

It’s the first Apple device to use a micro USB connector. I’m not even sure why Apple bothers to include a USB port on this thing. You can argue that it’s for firmware updates but there’s also WiFi/Ethernet for that. I can’t help but think Apple wants you to hack this thing. Apple puts up a tall enough wall that it can safely argue to the content providers there’s no way a user can easily get pirated content over to the device.

The new Apple TV is a lot like the old Apple TV, at least functionally. You get the same limitations and the same plays-well-with-others* behavior (if by others you mean Apple products and iTunes). Technically, the new Apple TV is a significant improvement over the original - it doesn’t get stupidly hot, it’s very compact and it’s a lot cheaper.

Inside Apple outfitted the new Apple TV with an A4 SoC (ARM Cortex A8, unknown frequency) and 256MB of memory. The memory is a bit disappointing but with a small enough OS footprint it should be fine for simply decoding video. It also helps Apple keep costs down as memory doesn’t grow on the trees of Cupertino.

The original Apple TV used a hard drive. It was big, but slow and gave off a lot of heat. The new Apple TV has a single 8GB MLC NAND flash device. Read/write latency is more predictable and power consumption is negligible.

The entire device is far more power optimized than the original Apple TV. The original got uncomfortably hot, especially in an equipment shelf with little ventilation. Despite not having any fans and using the chassis as a really bad heatsink, the device never gets more than warm. The new Apple TV draws 2.5W under full load. It’s a smartphone in a box without the phone part. Unlike a smartphone it eats a good amount of power at idle - a whole 1.8W. I don’t think Apple even bothered to enable serious power management on the A4 in the Apple TV, it’s just not necessary. The plastic chassis is used as a heatsink and it barely gets warm to the touch, even after hours of use.

These are the things I like about the Apple TV. The device is small enough to put anywhere. It produces very little heat. It has all of the inputs/outputs that matter. HDMI, optical, power, 10/100 Ethernet and even micro USB for hac...upgrading firmware. There’s an integrated power supply and a relatively long black power cable. You get WiFi (802.11abgn) but you can’t use 802.11b for wireless video streaming. The Apple TV won’t remember more than one wireless password - despite its small size the new ATV isn’t designed to be ported around.

There’s still no on/off switch. It’s supposed to work as an appliance but the jailbreak community would probably appreciate a physical switch, it makes rebooting a lot easier. Apple has to maintain appearances.

Even the startup is improved from what originally shipped on the Apple TV. There’s no gaudy intro, just an Apple logo, a black screen and then a simple to use 10-foot-UI. It all works very well.

You control the Apple TV with this wonderful feeling but awkwardly long aluminum remote. It’s frustrating to use when you need to type in your email address or password (to type in your WiFi password, authenticate with the iTunes Store, or login to Netflix), but wait - Apple thought of that too.

Pull out your iPod Touch, iPad or iPhone and using the (free) Remote app you can use the virtual keyboard to do all of the typing on the Apple TV. The Remote app controls the Apple TV over Ethernet/WiFi, which is a blessing because the physical remote that ships with the device is IR only.

You can’t control volume via the remote so you’ll still need to pack at least one more in your arsenal. The UI responds very well although like the original Apple TV there are occasionally hiccups where the OS scheduler is tied up doing something other than letting you move through menus. In these cases the remote will be unresponsive for a few seconds (hopefully) and eventually you’ll get a burst of every input you’ve been tapping in happen all at once. The same thing happens on the iPhone from time to time, it’s just more unnerving on the Apple TV since there’s one degree of separation between you and the actual device. A multi-core version (or CE4100 with Hyper Threading, ala Boxee Box) would probably fix these issues, although they are admittedly rare. Most of the time you just scroll, point and play.

I can’t help but feel that with all of the simplicity, even Apple hasn’t been able to simplify getting everything to work together.

To grant your Apple TV access to your iTunes library you need to enable Home Sharing on both devices. You need to enable it on your iPhone as well if you want it to control your ATV/iTunes library. You’ll need to confirm the security code on your credit card before the Apple TV will let you rent your first title. These are all for your protection but they aren’t the sort of mild heartburn you’re used to hearing about with Apple products.

Minus the initial inputting of iTunes passwords, Home Sharing enabling and credit card authorizing the Apple TV is simple to use.

The Obvious Limitations
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  • strikeback03 - Monday, October 4, 2010 - link

    By your numbers each user would save about a dollar a year. Meaning that unplugging this thing might not even make the top 100 ways to save energy.
  • naho - Monday, October 4, 2010 - link

    Yes, it is certainly not worth having 5 million people connecting and disconnecting their A TVs every day. Calculate what that would cost with a decent price for peoples time!

    The point is that that if Apple had spent half a million dollars (or probably far less) extra to put some proper power management on the device, they would have saved hundreds of times more for their customers.
  • tipoo - Tuesday, October 5, 2010 - link

    Half a million is probably even overstating it quite a deal, as they already have the iPad/iPhone/Touch versions of the chip power optimized. It would just be a matter of taking those power settings and re-optimizing them for a video device.
  • trip1ex - Monday, October 4, 2010 - link

    I see the ATV as more of a wireless iPOD av cable/dock with a 10 ft GUI and Netflix etc.

    That made it an easy buy for me especially next to Apple's own over-priced iPOd av cables and dock.

    Netflix has search and you can see other movies actors/director are in by clicking the "more" icon under a movie listing unlike 360 (although 360 Netflix is getting search in the future.)

    Wish you could organize the new ATV GUI ala other iOS products because renting tv shows and movies are the last reason I bought the new ATV. Yet those 2 options take up half of the screen real estate in the main menu. Wish I could take over that real estate with the functions I most use.

    Remote sucks without volume. IT's sad that you need your big remote laying around in case of a volume emergency. And with the dynamic sound range in today's movies and with a family it's a must to frequently change the volume. Frustrating because the small basic remote makes your tv and even tivo remote seem rather large and clunky in comparison. (A power button and input button would be nice too, but I can at least deal with them given the low frequency need to use them.)

    Another complaint is the older interface used for content located on your computer in iTunes.

    It's basically Front Row. IT's alright.

    But would love to have the icon/cover art grid interface used in the movie and tv rental menus and also used in the Netflix and even in Internet/Podcast menu.

    I could see this coming down the road in an update. Hopefully that's the case.

    But the best thing is the hobby device finally got an un-hobby like price. AT $99 I recommend any iPOd owner to get one. Doubley-so for any netflix-loving ipod owner. Even someone that just wanted to see photos on their tv should think about one. After all it turns your big screen flat panel into a digital picture frame for less than most digital picture frames.
  • hipnetic - Tuesday, October 5, 2010 - link

    I agree with most of your comments. I think most people are missing the fact that this is a great iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch accessory. If you don't already own one of those, then it's easy to find fault with the Apple TV, but if you do own one of those, the Apple TV is a great addition to the family. Once AirPlay hits and Apple starts advertising this on TV, every iOS device owner will want one of these (or one for every room in their house). Remember, they've sold over 120 million iOS devices, so even a fraction of that number will mean millions of Apple TV units sold.

    My one disagreement is that I actually prefer the older FrontRow UI, so I'm glad that my own content uses that mode. Less glad that I have to go through a couple of extra clicks to get to my own content. That said, I think it's a bit odd that they offer one (and only UI) for the content they're peddling, and a different one for your own content. I'd like to see them offer the flexibility (even if buried under Settings) to set the display mode to whichever you prefer. Me, I prefer to view all my movies in a list (or filtered by genre), rather than a tile view of coverart.

    The big problem for me right now is that there is a bug of some sort that results in dropped frames or stutter every few seconds, which appears to be *more* frequent/noticeable when the movie has fully loaded to the buffer (which seems counterintuitive). Not many have noticed this yet, but as more users (who plan on streaming their own content) get their hands on one, I expect to see the problem more widely reported.
  • Ammohunt - Monday, October 4, 2010 - link

    I ordered one of these the other day since the current full ATX HTPC i have is mainly used to stream itunes and netflix i couldn't warrant the $300 for a smaller form factor HTPC Setup at about $300(alot of the parts i already had) for the rare web surfing. My needs may change in the future for for $100 what do i have to lose?
  • Mumrik - Monday, October 4, 2010 - link

    I was very surprised to see that Anand didn't kick Apple's ass all over the place in the Final Words for selling a media box that can't show 1080P content. I guess I feel this is a far larger issue than Anand did in this review.
  • B3an - Monday, October 4, 2010 - link

    Anand seems to be pretty bias with Apple's useless toys.
    Also the comments get deleted on here that dont put this review or Apple in a good light.
  • Dustin Sklavos - Tuesday, October 5, 2010 - link

    Like yours, right?

    And which review were you reading? The one I'm looking at wasn't very happy with the Apple TV. I do agree that not showing 1080p is an issue, but on most televisions it really is going to be like splitting hairs. With HD video content and animation, the difference between 720p and 1080p is often a pretty mild one.

    That said, even though 1080p playback would basically be a checkbox feature instead of a serious benefit, the lack of it (among other things) is enough to turn me off of the Apple TV, and even Anand said to wait for the newer Roku boxes and the Boxee Box.
  • Spazweasel - Monday, October 4, 2010 - link

    I bought one of these beasties a few days ago, and I'm impressed.

    I primarily use it for NetFlix streaming. That alone makes it worthwhile for me. Compared to even the cheapest HTPC it's much cheaper, and from a power consumption point of view it's an even better deal (it uses only 10% of the power of even the most lightweight Atom-based HTPC). Picture quality is quite good, easily as good as or better than cable (cleanly-compressed 720p looks better than overcompressed 1080p any day), and the user interface is excellent.

    Complaints about the Apple TV seem to be more about the content than the device itself. "I can't watch blahblah" has nothing to do with what you are trying to play it on; that's a matter for Apple's business development effort, not the engineers. Is your favorite TV show not available? Point the finger at the show's provider, not Apple. Plenty of content providers are making plenty of money through Apple, it's not like it's a losing proposition.

    Could Apple TV replace a cable set-top box? Absolutely. Will it? Ask AT&T, Comcast, Warner Cable, etc. I'm sure Apple would be very happy to include that functionality. The reason it doesn't is strictly because cable providers like to rent cable decoder boxes for exorbitant rates (really, Comcast, ten dollars a box per month plus another 7 for "HD technology fee" for something that costs maybe 100 dollars to make?). Cable companies aren't charities, that's a big revenue stream, okay fine. But they don't get to point fingers at anyone but themselves about it.

    As for being able to play torrents downloaded from pirate sites... yeah, go right ahead. I have no interest in that kind of behavior, and Apple has no interest in explicitly supporting pirated content either. If someone is dead set on viewing pirated movies, they should grab a copy of ffmpeg (for free... that's why they're a pirate, because they think they're entitled to free stuff that others have to pay for, right?). It does a bang-up job of converting formats and rescaling, including creating movie files which iTunes (also free) can play well, hence can be played through the Apple TV. Problem solved.

    I like my Apple TV, for good, objective, nonfanboyish reasons. It works well, it's inexpensive to buy and feed, it's small and unobtrusive, it has a good user interface, and was up and running in under 5 minutes from the moment the box was opened. What's to not like?

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