I finally got around to adding a 2012 Apple TV (Third Generation) to our home entertainment system. We'd been making do with our Blu-Ray player, which could stream most of the content we're interested in. We could even stream from our Mac server using the DNLA capabilities of the Blu-Ray player, but that was more of an adventure than a really useful capability since it would regularly quit, skip, or not see the server.
So, I have to say that I wasn't too unhappy when the Internet streaming part of our Blu-Ray player simply stopped working one day, and hasn't uttered a peep since. That gave us a good excuse to purchase an Apple TV to meet our streaming needs.
Apple TV 3 Overview
Apple has always claimed that the Apple TV is a hobby, not a practical mainstream device it intends to sell in large numbers.
I don't believe that for a moment. The Apple TV may not have the reach of an iPhone or iPad, but Apple certainly wouldn't be very upset if its hobby product took off in a big way, and it may be poised to do just that.
The Apple TV 3 has some very important features that were lacking in earlier incarnations of Apple's streaming media server. The two most important are support for 1080p (the original Apple TVs supported up to 720p), and AirPlay capabilities (more on that in a bit).
The other important feature in a streaming media server is the services it supports. The Apple TV 3 offers a nice collection of services, starting, of course, with the ability to rent or purchase TV shows or movies from Apple's iTunes Store. The Apple TV also supports Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBO GO, ESPN, MLB.TV, NBA.com, NHL GameCenter, WSJ Live, skyNEWS, YouTube, vimeo, flickr, Quello, and crunchroll. Apple will most likely add more services over time, to keep up with the competition.
While the list of providers is pretty good, some well-regarded services are missing, including Amazon Instant Video and BBC iPlayer.
Consistent User Interface
One of the best features of the Apple TV 3 is its consistent user interface. No matter what streaming service you select, the interface remains the same. I can jump from Netflix to Hulu Plus to skyNEWs and easily navigate each service using the same techniques. When we used another streaming device that allowed each service provider to run as independent apps, there was no consistency. It was so bad that we wouldn't bother to use some of the services that we now find easy to use on the Apple TV.
AirPlay may be the killer application that sets the Apple TV apart from many of its competitors. AirPlay allows the Apple TV to become an accessory to, or more accurately, an extension of any device that supports AirPlay. Of course, that's limited mostly to Macs and iOS devices, but with the addition of third-party software, even PC users can get in on the fun.
AirPlay allows you to wirelessly stream content from an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch. AirPlay is a great way to share photos and videos on your iOS device or Mac with a group of friends.
AirPlay also supports dual screen, allowing an app to use your TV and your iOS device's screen at the same time. Some great examples of the dual-screen capability can be found in iOS games that are AirPlay-aware. They can send the game's images to the big screen, while the iOS device's screen becomes the game controller.
You can also use AirPlay on any supported device to stream audio to the Apple TV, which will dutifully send it along to your home entertainment system for your listening pleasure.
The other killer AirPlay feature that the Apple TV supports is AirPlay mirroring, which is the ability to mirror your iOS or Mac desktop. This capability is particularly appreciated by those of us who have to give presentations from time to time. An Apple TV is easy to throw into a bag and then plug into a large TV at any location.
AirPlay Mirroring also lets you display the screen of any app, even ones that aren't AirPlay-aware, on your TV's screen.
Apple TV Specifications
The 2012 model of the Apple TV has a 3.9-inch square body that measures just under an inch in height. The side panels are a glossy black, while the top is a matte finish with an Apple logo in the center.
The front contains the IR receiver for the remote and a single white LED that when steady, indicates the unit is operating, and when off, indicates the Apple TV is asleep or off. The status LED also produces a number of blink codes, each of which indicates a different condition.
The rear of the Apple TV is the business end, where all of the connections to your TV and entertainment center are made. You will find an HDMI port, optical digital out, Ethernet, a Micro USB port for technicians to perform service and diagnostics, and an AC power connector. That's right; you won't have to worry about an AC wall wart. The Apple TV's power supply is internal, which is pretty amazing considering how small the device is.
The size of the Apple TV was a surprise. I knew it was small but I didn't realize how small until we bought one. Its compact size means you can place the Apple TV just about anywhere. I plopped ours next to the cable box; we still have room on top of the entertainment center for future doodads.
2012 Apple TV (Third Generation) Specifications
- Processor: 1 GHz single-core Apple A5
- Memory: 8 GB Flash + 512 MB SDRAM
- HDMI 2
- Optical audio out
- 10/100 Base-T Ethernet (wired)
- 802.11a/b/g/n (Wi-Fi)
- IR Receiver
- 1080p, 720p
- H.264 30 frames/s, High or Main Profile level 4 or lower, Baseline Profile level 3 or lower with AAC-LC audio (up to 160Kbps per channel), 48 kHz stereo audio in .mv4, .mp4, and .mov formats
- MPEG-4 2.5 Mbps, 640x480 30 frames/s, Simple Profile with AAC-LC audio (up to 160Kbps per channel), 48 kHz stereo audio in .mv4, .mp4, and .mov formats
- M-JPEG 35Mbps, 1280x720 30 frames/s, audio in ulaw, PCM stereo in .avi format
- HE-AAC (V1), AAC (16 to 320 kbps), Protected AAC, MP3 (16 to 320 kbps), MP3 VBR, Audible (formats 2, 3, and 4), Apple Lossless, AAIF, WAV, Dolby Digital 5.1 surround pass-through
- JPEG, GIF, TIFF
Services supported (as of summer 2013; subscription may be required):
- iTunes Store for renting or purchasing TV shows and movies
- Streaming media from Mac or PC using iTunes 10.6 or later, with home sharing enabled
- iCloud streaming (iTunes Match content)
- Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBO GO, ESPN, MLB.TV, NBA.com, NHL GameCenter, WSJ Live, skyNEWS, YouTube, vimeo, flickr, Quello, crunchyroll, Trailers, Photo Stream, Radio, Podcasts
- AirPlay streaming and mirroring from iOS devices and Macs
Installing and Using the Apple TV 3
Installing the Apple TV could not be easier.
You start off by connecting an HDMI cable (not supplied) between the Apple TV and your HDTV. We don't use our HDTV's built-in speakers, so I also ran an optical TOS cable (not supplied) from the Apple TV to our home entertainment system's receiver.
The Apple TV can make use of a wired or wireless connection to your network. I chose to use a wired connection, since we have an Ethernet port nearby. Once all audio, video, and Ethernet cables were connected, I plugged in the power cord.
I selected the correct inputs on the TV and receiver, and was greeted by the Apple TV's setup system. The small Apple TV remote is used to handle the setup process. Network configuration was properly detected with no assistance or changes necessary from me. If you're connecting wirelessly, you'll need to supply the wireless network password, using the remote and an onscreen keyboard.
With the network set up, you're ready to start using your Apple TV.
Using the Apple TV Remote
The remote is a very small, narrow device, with just three buttons and a 4-way scroll wheel that lets you select up, down, left, or right when moving through the selection box in the user interface. The other three buttons provide Select, Play/Pause, and Menu functions.
I highly recommend using the supplied remote initially, especially during the setup process. After that, there are many third-party remotes available, as well as iOS apps that you can use to control the Apple TV if you wish. So far, we're content with using the Apple TV's remote. The only real drawback is that its diminutive size makes it easier to lose than a standard remote. We solved that problem by using a small plastic storage box to hold all of our remotes.
The Apple TV uses an icon screen that's 5 icons wide. The first row of icons is dedicated to Apple-provided services, including iTunes Movies, TV Shows, Music, Computers, and a Settings icon that lets you fiddle around with the Apple TV's preference settings.
The remaining rows include a mixture of third-party services, such as Netflix and Hulu Plus, and some Apple services, such as Photo Stream and Podcasts.
Using the Up/Down, Left/Right scroll wheel, you can highlight the service you wish to use. Once it's highlighted, click the Select button and you will enter the selected service. You can use the Menu button to back out to the previous menus, or you can hold the Menu button down for a second to jump back to the home menu.
Using Third-Party Remotes
While the Apple-supplied remote works well, you may prefer to use a single remote to control all of your home entertainment devices.
Most universal remotes have configurations for the Apple TV, but if your preferred remote doesn't, the Apple TV has got you covered. It can interact with your remote and learn which buttons you want to use for the Up, Down, Left, Right, Select, Menu, and Play/Pause functions. That's a novel twist to the remote overload problem, and it means you may be able to use your current TV remote even if it doesn't offer Apple TV codes as an option.
Image and Sound Quality
I don't have any equipment that I can use to take measurements, so you're stuck with my subjective evaluation. Image quality is dependent not only on the service you're watching, but also the specific titles. I started by watching a few of the trailers streamed from the Apple servers. All of the trailers I picked played back without a hitch, and to my eyes, looked the same as the high-quality direct broadcast HD content we regularly see on the TV.
Of course, a short trailer can probably fit in the memory buffer, and may have less compression than a full-size HD movie. So, the next thing on my list was to watch a movie or three; oh, the things I do for these reviews.
I chose several movies from major services, including iTunes, Netflix, and Hulu Plus. Being careful to choose movies in 1080P HD format, I didn't see much variance from service to service. All of the movies looked good and didn't have any visible or annoying compression artifacts.
I also tried watching some older TV shows that are stored on one of our Macs. I imported them into iTunes and made sure that home sharing was turned on. When I went back to the Apple TV, there they were. Watching the shows on the Apple TV was a much nicer experience than crowding around the iMac's display.
Sound quality was an issue at first. It wasn't terrible, but I wasn't hearing any surround information; just basic stereo. This hitch was soon remedied when I remembered that our AV receiver was configured for a different surround format. Setting the receiver to Dolby Digital 5.1 took care of the issue.
Apple TV 3 Conclusions
I think it's pretty obvious that I like the Apple TV 3, and prefer it to our previous method of streaming Internet content. It also lets us easily play back content from our iPads, iPods, and Macs.
The user interface is very good. Although each service has a slightly different interface, the way the remote works across the platform is consistent.
One common complaint about the Apple TV is the perception that it supports a limited array of services. I can see how this could be a deal breaker if you need certain streaming providers, such as Amazon or Pandora. Of course, this is partially offset by the ability to make use of these services via AirPlay and a Mac or iOS device that has these services installed.
Another issue that has been mentioned is the lack of support for some surround sound formats, particularly DTS and its variants. The Apple TV 3 does pass-thru Dolby Digital 5.1 to a TV or AV receiver. While DTS is said to use less compression in the encoding process, it also produces a larger file format. It's important to remember that the Apple TV is primarily an Internet streaming device, where the size of the data being streamed really matters.
Is the Apple TV Right for You?
I'll take the Apple TV, some popcorn, a comfy couch, and a ginormous HDTV any day. But is it the right streaming media player for you?
If you have Macs, iPads, iPhones, or an iPod touch, the Apple TV is without doubt one of the best accessories you can buy. The ability to use AirPlay to mirror your device's display or stream content stored on these devices makes the Apple TV a no-brainer.
The same is true if you use iTunes as your media library. You can play all of the rich multimedia content on your home entertainment system via the Apple TV. And if you subscribe to iTunes Match, all of your iCloud music is available for direct streaming to the Apple TV; you don't need to turn on a Mac or iOS device to enjoy your music.
If you travel on business, the easily portable Apple TV will let you make presentations from any iOS device or Mac using the AirPlay feature. All you need to add is an HDTV, which most locations will have available.
Finally, if you're just looking for an Internet streaming media device for your entertainment system, the Apple TV 3 can easily fill that need. The iTunes Store has one of the largest libraries available for purchasing or renting movies or TV shows; in addition, the wide variety of music, podcasts, and iTunes U lectures and classes really make the service unique. Throw in the currently available third-party services, such as Netflix and Hulu Plus, and you have a streaming Internet media device that is hard to beat.