Over the years, the Apple TV has delighted and frustrated in equal measure. This diminutive media streamer has always been slick to use, its polished interface and simple set-up making it an ideal choice for newbies. By contrast, its deliberately restricted online environment, limited format support and moderate video and audio performance have long undermined its potential appeal, especially for more enthusiastic, knowledgeable buyers. But now it’s back, upgraded and, says Apple, better than ever. So what’s the truth?
Apple TV 2012 – out of the box
Although a diminutive affair, the 2012 Apple TV feels both well made and classy. It has Wi-Fi built-in, so you’re good to go right away, save that there’s no HDMI in the box, which seems a little mean-spirited. Still, its silver-finished remote is a notch up on the cheap-feeling white design you once had to make to do with, and if you prefer Apple’s Remote app can do the driving via your iPod Touch, iPad or iPhone.
Although simple to plug and play, the new Apple TV is pretty flexible. As with the last model you can stream audio and video to it via AirPlay, use ‘Mirroring’ to duplicate games, photos, video and web pages from your iPhone or iPad on to your TV screen, browse and replay audio and video from your iTunes library and, of course, stream content from a range of online services, such as the iTunes Store.
This is the key selling point of the 2012 edition of Apple TV: it includes support for native 1080p HD content from iTunes.
For now there’s only a relatively limited amount of content on offer in that form, but the number is growing everyday. Still, both 1080p rentals and (legally ripped) digital copies of Blu-rays streamed from our Mac’s iTunes library look great, while Netflix movies (sadly unavailable here in Singapore), although a shade softer (even in HD) than the best we’ve seen, are very watchable.
iTunes content, particularly Apple Lossless files, sounds fine fed via either the optical digital out or HDMI. However, the Apple TV insists on adjusting the sampling rate of your music from 44.1kHz to 48kHz, no matter how you configure its digital output. True, that will bother audiophiles more than mainstream users, but it’s an issue just the same. Dolby Digital 5.1 film sound works fine, although it’s a shame it’s not present on more movies in iTunes.
AirPlay and Mirroring work brilliantly and, like the Netflix app, add hugely to the Apple TV’s appeal. All the same, you’ll find more to play with in many rival streamers: D-Link’s Boxee Box gives you iPlayer and Spotify access, for example. You can’t plug in a local USB hard-disk or replay media from outside of iTunes, either. Of course, should you choose to jail-break your Apple TV, things might well be different…
Perfect iPad partner
We’ve mentioned AirPlay and Mirroring, but they’re both features that warrant a little extra space, especially as both come into their own when it’s the new iPad that’s serving up the content. Movies are obvious: now in 1080p they can be sent straight from the new iPad to be displayed in their native resolution on your Full HD flatscreen – you’ll even get Dolby Digital 5.1 if the movie and your home cinema kit supports it.
More of a surprise is how effective the new iPad and Apple TV combi is as a gaming solution. Like Real Racing before it, Sky Gamblers: Air Supremacy fully supports the two-screen system, so your tablet displays your radar, messages and acts as your controller, leaving the uncluttered action to be sent to your screen and displayed in proper 1080p. Due to the relatively small size of App Store games you don’t get the kind of ultra-detailed textures you get from a home console or PC game, but if this isn’t a glimpse of the future of gaming, we’ll eat our special, trend-predicting hat.
The latest Apple TV is still restrictive in some ways, but it’s also, finally, an appealing and capable streamer. The new 1080p video looks the part, flipping your video and audio to your TV via AirPlay is almost magically appealing, Mirroring is brilliant, especially for games, and the Netflix app really adds to your viewing options. At $148, Apple TV (2012) is a worthy upgrade your TV will thank you for.