The latest Apple TV media streamer is here, and unlike the original that launched in 2007, this one has a lot of competition. It features a super-small frame, fantastic iTunes movie rental and Netflix support, a clean-looking and smooth-operating interface and overall good performance. But can Apple’s latest compete with the established competition?
I mentioned in the intro that the Apple TV has certain limitations, and I’ll cover the most important ones on this page… media support. Unlike the other media players we’ve taken a look at in recent months, the Apple TV almost exclusively supports media formats that Apple itself has a hand in. That includes all formats purchased through iTunes, and others that can be had by ripping CDs or converting video… through iTunes of course.
This lacking support automatically rules out those who consider themselves to be media hounds, because chances are good that your media library includes many formats that the Apple TV, or iTunes for that matter, won’t even recognize. There’s no typical AVI support here, and also no support for one of the biggest formats of the moment, MKV.
The lack of some of this support is likely for the reason that much of it is heavily used in piracy. But even so, it’s unfortunate that Apple has decided for us that we should avoid non-Apple formats, and in truth, it would have taken little effort on Apple’s part to include more support than it had. Apple’s known to hate licensing fees, but Matroska (MKV), for example, has none at all. And better still, the Apple TV already supports H.264… a codec commonly used for MKV encodes.
It’s for this reason that the Apple TV is perfectly suited for those who heavily use iTunes, because chances are good that if you have video files gained either by ripping or by being purchased from other services, they’re not going to be playable here. On the upside, for those that do have lots of Apple-derived content, you can’t get much better support than this.
M4V, MP4, MOV
H.264, MPEG-4, Motion JPEG (M-JPEG)
Unknown (Yes if hard-coded)
HE-AAC, AAC, Protected AAC, MP3 CBR, MP3 VBR, Audible, Apple Lossless, AIFF, WAV, Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound Pass-Through
JPEG, GIF, TIFF
If there’s an immediate downside on the hardware side, it might be the exclusive support for HDMI and nothing else. For older TV’s, or even newer ones with already-occupied HDMI ports, hooking the Apple TV up might prove to be a challenge. If you’re so willing, you could purchase an adapter to convert HDMI to another connector, but there’s no guarantee that such a configuration will work out for the best. Of course, the result of the exclusive HDMI connector is the smallest set-top media player out there, so it’s hard to consider that a “con”.
The piece of lacking support I find to be most major is for iTunes LP, a format Apple brought to the table with iTunes 9 last fall. For music albums purchased in that format, users are greeted with interactive menus and special content, but for some reason, the Apple TV doesn’t take advantage of it. It’s unfortunate, because it’s a format that’s perfect for a device like this. Hopefully a future firmware update will introduce support, since it should be here.
Like the Apple TV itself, the included remote control is also small, and quite simple. It features a total of four buttons: “Menu”, “Pause/Start”, the “OK” button which is in the center of the “wheel”, and also the wheel itself. Though small, this remote is about as sturdy as it gets. The entire unit is built of aluminium, so dropping it shouldn’t affect it in the least. On the back is a simple hatch that can be removed to swap out the battery (Panasonic CR 2032).
In way of accessories, Apple includes the manual, two pure white Apple logo stickers (not pictured), and also a very sturdy power cable. Unlike the other media players I’ve tested in recent months, this power cable thankfully doesn’t have a super-thick adapter plug, so it can be plugged in anywhere, easily.
With a look at the hardware and support out of the way, we can move right into a look at the usage of the device, and its implementations.