[Tech] Review: Apple TV 2

When the team behind the excellent open source media centre software XBMC announced a version for jailbroken iOS devices I immediately grabbed a copy for both my iPad 1 and iPhone 4. Despite not being optimised for touchscreen devices, the iPad app in particular worked brilliantly, allowing me to access the hundreds of movies and TV shows stored on my home Network Attached Storage in exacty the same way as I already do on my XBMC-based home theatre PC.

As good as the iPad experience was, the real reason that XBMC had been ported to iOS devices was so that it could be run on the 2nd generation Apple TV. So, given my love of XMBC and non-Mac Apple hardware it was only a matter of time before I picked one up. Sadly in order to start jailbreaking I need a type-b micro USB cable, which hasn’t yet arrived, so I’ve had to test the device out as Apple intended.

Unlike it’s predecessor, which ran a version of OS X and came with a DVD slot and a 160GB hard drive, the ATV2 is all about minimalism and streaming. Based around iOS the tiny, black, puck-like box is simple, sleek and at £100, cheap.

The device comes with a standard 2-pin power cable. There’s no need for a bulky power brick, which is impressive given the ATV2’s diminutive size. The remote is slim and rendered in durable aluminium with just a four way control, select, menu and play buttons. It resembles a second generation iPod nano, though – despite appearances – there’s no clickwheel for quickly scrolling through menus. The back of the machine features a standard HDMI socket, the aforementioned micro USB port, optical audio and ethernet connections. Apple doesn’t see fit to include an HDMI cable in the box, which is slightly stingy as it is the only possible way to use the device, but I suppose it helps keeps costs down.

Once powered up, the ATV is soon off and running. Initial setup is simple and user friendly. Wifi is baked in, but I already run ethernet cables to my home theatre setup so I went for the wired option.

The main menu is elegant rather than beautiful. Horizontally the categories from which you can select are Movies, Internet, Computers and Settings. To someone used to XBMC it all seems rather limited, but I suppose that’s an unfair comparison at this stage.

Movies gives access to film rentals through the iTunes store. There are loads of titles available in 720p HD (the ATV can’t manage 1080p) from £1.99 each. As a means of accessing the iTunes rental service on your TV it works very well, but does of course tie you in to Apple’s service. Users in the US can also stream from their Netflix accounts, but there’s no support yet for equivalent UK services like LoveFilm.

The Internet tab offers the chance to view content from YouTube, Flickr and MobileMe, and to stream live baseball from the MLB, which requires a paid subscription. Sadly there’s no sign of a BBC iPlayer channel yet.

You can also stream podcasts from iTunes’ comprehensive directory and access Apple’s database of Internet radio. The radio section is particularly disappointing. At its most basic it works. The interface is pretty, and stations can be bookmarked. But there’s no search facility, which can make it a drag to locate stations. Worst of all, the list of stations is almost exclusively American. Not a single BBC service is offered. There’s also no option to record, pause or rewind output and even station logos are left out. All of those are features you can get from radio apps like TuneIn on other iOS devices for next to nothing.

The meat and drink of the Apple TV’s daily life is found under Computers. Here you can access PC or Mac based iTunes libraries that you’ve shared. That means you can stream music, access your playlists and of course watch movies and TV shows stored in your iTunes library. Of course that means you need to have a computer up and running iTunes somewhere on your network, or you need to have your NAS set up as an iTunes server. Music and movies stream well, and if your library is already in the right format for iTunes to handle (H264 MP4s by and large for video, and most audio formats except FLAC) then this could be all you need as the hub of a great HTPC setup.

Personally I miss the fine control that XBMC offers. For instance, while watching Toy Story 3 I found the video and audio ever so slightly out of sync (I think my TV is delaying the picture by processing it before whacking each frame up on screen) with absolutely no way to adjust the delay.

There are some nice touches elsewhere. It’s possible to set a screensaver for the device that pages through photos, either stored in your iTunes library, or – brilliantly – those that are stored on Flickr. You can even access any Flickr user’s photostream without the need to log in.

The other big feature, and one that’s been getting steady updates with each recent new iteration of iOS is AirPlay. This allows video stored on an iPad or iPhone to be sent wirelessly, at the touch of a virtual button to an Apple TV. It works well from within the iPad’s video app, but I can’t think of a circumstance where I’d have video on the iPad that wasn’t also stored centrally on my NAS. Still it’s nice to know the feature is there. Additionally with iOS 4.3 and above, third party apps can also make use of the AirPlay feature. I can’t test it as I’m yet to upgrade my jailbroken iDevices to the latest version, but in dream world it would be great to send the video stream from, say, the Sky Mobile app straight to a big screen. Obviously that’s never going to happen without some cunning jailbreak trickery, but you get the idea.

To conclude, the limited features on offer work well (apart from the annoyingly crippled radio app) but I can’t help but feel that it’s a pretty thin offering designed purely to drive more revenue through Apple’s various music and video storefronts. Obviously I bought my ATV to use XBMC so I’m happy at the price, but even for just £100 regular users might feel a bit shortchanged.

6/10

A review of the jailbroken Apple TV 2 is coming soon.

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Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [Tech] Apps for Apple TV? « TGIGreeny.com - April 15, 2011

    […] selection of available sources (your iTunes library, iTunes rentals, YouTube etc) is pretty poor. My own Apple TV2 sees little use – and will continue to do so until I get around to jailbreaking it and […]

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