If you nip over to Apple’s online store, you’ll see all manner of shiny things immediately available for purchase.
iPhones, iPads, Macs and iPods take up pride of place. Underneath, at the time of writing, Apple proudly and prominently displayed a Nike FuelBand, an iOS-compatible telescope, and hideously expensive Philips Hue bulbs, which quite possibly arrive in a box labelled ‘more money than sense.’
Look carefully, squint a bit and — sandwiched between the things Apple actually cares about and the company’s ‘favourite holiday gifts’ — you might just see a small selection of other items, one of which is the least known of the iOS family, the Apple TV.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the Apple TV something of a dirty little secret as far as Apple’s concerned. It’s barely noticeable on the store home page, and the company rarely mentions it during events.
Now and again, a few new channels appear without warning, assuming a half-arsed Apple software update doesn’t turn your Apple TV into a shiny black brick, and there’s still no hint of an SDK or App Store for third-party apps.
That means, out of the box, you’re stuck with whatever channels Apple deigns to provide (which isn’t much — and even less for anyone outside of the USA), along, naturally, with the means to buy and rent movies, TV shows and music from the iTunes Store.
An under-appreciated gem
It all seems so limited and limiting, which is why people are often surprised how highly I rate the Apple TV; in fact, I consider it among the best Apple kit I own, and it’s certainly one of the most under-appreciated devices in the company’s line-up.
Frankly, I was just as surprised myself when I realised how good the Apple TV was, but to be fair it did happen all of a sudden, once AirPlay arrived in fully-formed fashion. AirPlay is Apple’s take on wireless media streaming, and it was initially audio-only. As of iOS 4.3, video entered the equation, enabling you to fling pretty much whatever’s on your iOS device at your telly, by way of the Apple TV.
Losing the game
The system remains imperfect for gaming — there’s sometimes a perceptible (if only very slight) lag that throws off timing — but it’s excellent for everything else. If your TV outputs to a decent amp, an Apple TV makes a perfect conduit for music and radio apps; when companies don’t bafflingly block AirPlay video (I’m looking at you, Channel 4), the Apple TV again provides a link between your device and TV.
If you’ve a PC or Mac knocking about, various servers (Air Video, StreamToMe, Plex) enable media in all kinds of formats not supported by iOS to be re-encoded, fired across your network to an iPhone or iPad, and then get beamed to the Apple TV, which happily squirts the resulting footage to your telly.
It's even possible to stream audio and video from non-Apple devices. Use an app such as Flipps HD on your Android smartblower and you get to join in the fun, too.
Why you need an Apple TV
The Apple TV isn’t alone in its niche, and all manner of broadly similar units exist, some boasting features that enable owners to truly geek out, from NAS support to built-in BitTorrent clients. But there’s something about the Apple TV’s simplicity and elegance combined with the scope evident when it’s used in conjunction with iOS devices that makes it truly delightful.
It’s not a halo product, the sort of thing that will convert Android advocates or Windows fans to Apple, but any music or telly fan with an iPhone or iPad to hand would be mad to pass one up; and Apple too should give its little black box more TLC, rather than considering it second best to some flashy, expensive Wi-Fi lightbulbs.