Apple TV review: UK edition Apple TV review: UK edition

Categories: TVs & Home Cinema Reviews   Tags: ,
We love
Tiny and beautiful
We hate
No TV shows. Streaming only option creates major flaws
We actually prefer the older model
Launch Price

Apple TV review: UK edition

The new Apple TV has slipped on sale here in the UK, complete with an all new, absurdly small design, and the potential to turn media streaming into something more mainstream. Does it succeed? And what features have been lost in the Apple TV’s journey across the Atlantic? Find out in our full new Apple TV review.

We certainly can’t fault Apple in its bid to simplify set up with the new Apple TV. It really is child’s play, and the Apple TV packaging is as sparse as you’d expect from Cupertino’s designers. Inside, you’ll find just a few instructions underneath the hockey puck style device. There’s no HDMI cable, though these cost just a few quid online, and the power lead is now longer than with the older model, which is helpful.

Apple's remote is tiny, but actually not the ideal way to control the new Apple TV

You also get Apple’s swish new remote – complete with its unnecessary extra play button in the middle, for reasons unknown, since the central button performs exactly the same function.

It you own an iPod touch, iPhone or iPad however, you’ll rarely reach for the remote. Unless you like typing by scrolling through letters on screen, the best way to control the new Apple TV is with the iPhone/iPod touch app.

When it comes to hardware, the new Apple TV lives up to almost all the expectations Jobs and Co set themselves over the last few years. It’s smaller, cooler, quicker and more gorgeous-er. Take a look at the photos and you’ll see that it comfortably sits in the palm of a hand, it’s that small. And the price? Yes, £99 is more than the $99 Apple TV costs in the US, but for the tech you get, it’s still impressive.

It would be close to impossible for the new Apple TV to be any smaller

Although a more graphite shade, the new Apple TV still sports that subtle, sexy unibody-metallic look of the latest MacBooks and the Mac Mini, and is barely big enough to house just the ports you need on the back: power, HDMI, micro USB for firmware updates, optical audio, and Ethernet – there’s N-standard Wi-Fi built in too, and the whole thing is silent as a mouse that’s, well, dead. Unlike the scorching old Apple TV, this new model is cool to the touch, too.

So long as you’ve got the latest version of iTunes up and running on your PC or Mac, the new Apple TV really is very nearly a plug and play system. Log in once, enter your details and you’re on your home network in seconds. We had a few problems since we already had Home Sharing set up on our Mac, but we resolved these by switching it off and setting it up again. In all, we were up and running in less than five minutes.

So long as you don't have Home Sharing already up and running set up is a simple process

As always, Apple design beautifully and while the new Apple TV is mind-bendingly small the experience is not about the box, but the screen it works its magic on. This isn’t about the hardware, it’s about the software. Since iOS is inside, the possibilities here are endless.

There’s no denying Apple’s software strategy worked a dream with iOS on the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad, but this is where the problems come in with the new Apple TV. For once, Apple has crippled its new product with the software it runs – or rather, doesn’t.

The new Apple TV’s software looks almost identical to the older model (though it’s running iOS at its core now), but one of the problems we have – and it’s a UK specific one – is that there are actually fewer options. We figured that US movie streaming service Netflix wouldn’t be supported here, but the lack of TV shows to rent is a real blow.

Our disappointment was compounded when we put the new Apple TV head to head with the old version: since you can buy TV shows on the older Apple TV in the UK, seeing the space on the new model’s menu screen is all the more irritating. We’re sure Apple’s working on UK TV rentals, but at the moment, there’s been no official word, and we’re left with an inferior experience.

The UK version lacks TV shows, which the older model let you download and keep

That Internet tab is disappointing too: there’s no browser to be had, so you’re stuck with YouTube and Flickr as your only visual entertainment. As always, our problem with these sites on TV is that usually we’d rather just have the TV off than use them, and unless you’re into a particular hobby with hordes of related videos and pictures, the chances are you won’t use them much either.

With only movies available to rent in the UK, we’re left with streaming from a PC or Mac as our only option for on-screen entertainment. It should come as no surprise by now that Apple is sticking to its guns on format support with the Apple TV, and if you’re planning on sending telly shows or your favourite films its way, they’ll need to fit Apple’s bill.

That may or may not be an issue for you, and while Apple TV will accept 1080p videos, it’ll downscale them to 720p for output. We can’t honestly say that we’re too fussed about the 720p resolution cap on videos it plays (They do look fantastic), and seem to stream well over Wi-Fi, but as ever, Apple TV will only play MPEG-4 and H.264 video in .m4v, .mp4 and .mov containers (as well as motion JPEG), so all those DivX AVI files sitting on your PC might as well stay there.

Likewise, Apple’s audio support is broad enough (AAC, MP3, Apple Lolssless, AIFF, WAV) but still likely to annoy purists after a way to play their lossless FLAC files. As always, every file accessed through Apple TV must first be fed into iTunes on a PC or Mac: again, this could be a sticking point for some.

Play music off your laptop, on your telly and through its speakers

But these issues we’ve come to expect, and it should be clear by now that if you don’t like to play within Apple’s walled garden, you should look elsewhere. Apple caters to those tied into the Mac / iOS / iTunes eco system, and it does it simply. The new Apple TV will also support AirPlay streaming from iOS devices with a future update, but we were only able to test this feature out with a MacBook for the time being.

The new Apple TV is immediately listed as an AirPlay Speaker for music within iTunes, which is nice, but you could do that with the older Apple TV anyway, just under a different name – AirTunes.

Our real problem with the new Apple TV comes with Apple’s streaming only model. It has some huge drawbacks, with the first being the lack of sizeable internal storage for media. Because Apple TV doesn’t support network attached storage (NAS) devices, your Mac or PC needs to be left on to play media you already own, and you’ll notice the delays if you start skipping through tracks in an album while it buffers.

We much preferred keeping music on the older Apple TV’s hard drive, for playing whenever we liked, absolutely instantly – especially since it would automatically sync with our computer’s hard drive anyway.

The new Apple TV’s lack of storage also means that you can’t buy movies and songs to keep. Where the old Apple TV downloaded like a trooper, and synced them to your computer the next time it switched on, the new version will only rent titles, and has no way to grab new music at all. Now, don’t get us wrong, it’s nice that you can stream movies close to instantly over iTunes to the Apple TV, it’s just that we’d like the option to both buy and stream… and not have a laptop or desktop computer left humming away uselessly, acting as an overblown hard drive elsewhere in the house.

It’s not all bad news though. Some internet-based entertainment is handled well by Apple TV. Podcasts support on the new Apple TV works surprisingly well considering there’s no storage: you can add favourites, and you’ll get iOS style number alerts next to shows with new episodes you’ve yet to watch or listen to.

We're sorry to say, but we'd still go for the older, bigger model

In spite of the new Apple TV’s beauty though, it is ultimately a misfire. Had Apple sorted its TV rentals out first, offered a music streaming service to avoid leaving a computer switched on, or even opened Apple TV up to apps from the outset, we’d be looking at a very difference machine. But should you be considering Apple’s TV companion, you should weigh it up based on the things it can do today, not in the hope that future features will be added later on.

As it stands, the new Apple TV is a lame duck. A great looking one, granted, but one with half the features of its American cousin, and still not enough to make us trade in our more flexible PS3 or Xbox 360 movie services.

It’s incredibly rare that an old Apple product out-classes its successor, but the old Apple TV was vastly superior in operation, if not in the heat or size stakes. Until Apple remedies the situation, that adage of the experience being down to software rather than hardware rings true, and in this case, the experience sucks.

  • Chris

    Thanks for honest and frank review…..Boxee Box it is then!

  • bensillis

    No problem Chris – glad to help. As it stands right now, we honestly think Apple has let down British customers. But having seen the Boxee Box in near final build for the UK, we can't say D-Link has dropped the ball in the same way. Fingers crossed, we'll have a review for you soon.

  • Mace

    I must say I'm hugely underwhelmed by the new Apple TV.
    Like Chris, I think the Boxee Box looks good.
    What do you think of the Sony SMP-N100? a circa £110 bit of kit that seems to have slipped under a lot of peoples radars.

    • bensillis

      We're chasing one down Mace. It does look good.

  • Rob Hague

    I can't say I agree – but then it looks like I use my AppleTV in a different way…
    I'm not interested in overpriced movie/tv rentals from iTunes as they are stupidly overpriced compared to my existing Lovefilm subscription.
    I am interested in streaming content from the home network to the TV and for this the new AppleTV excels – and is significantly better than the original version. It connects to and sychronises with remote libraries significantly faster than the old AppleTV which could take several minutes to pull a photo archive across for viewing. Streaming TV shows recorded using EyeTV present no format conflict issues and the delay before they start is no worse than that of an optical disc spinning up. Accessing libraries from multiple computers is something the old box could not do. This one achieves it with no fuss what so ever.
    On the subject of heat – that reflects the power usage of the device – with a good run of stats now I'm seeing a consistent 20p a day reduction in my electricity bills compared to the original box. Much less than using an overly hot tv-console for the same job I'm sure.
    New features, I'm sure they'll come with time, but the box has to sell on it's current features. As it stands I am finding the new box a significant upgrade.

  • Fan

    Thanks. I will stick with my old apple tv where I could buy new album without turning on my Itunes. I think in the future I will just use Mac mini as my old apple tv replacement.

    • bensillis

      If you have a Mac Mini, you definitely should consider it, esp if it's one with an HDMI input. Obviously, the problem is cost (£650!), but since you've already got one that problem is removed.

  • James Hodkinson

    I got one, but need some help!

    When I tried to watch an HD movie, it takes over 2 hours to 'load'

    I thought it was instant streaming… what's going wrong?



    • bensillis

      Are you connected over Ethernet or WiFi? If the former, there's definitely a problem either with the ATV or your broadband. If the latter, how far away is the router, and can you stream YouTube HD videos on a laptop at the same distance comfortably?

      • James Hodkinson

        Wifi – The wireless router is in the next room. I'll try a youtube HD video later. Normal video streaming is ok on either my pc laptop or my imac.

  • Tx1oss

    Glad I read this, I’ll stick to my Xtreamer’s for now on my home network. Can’t wait for my ipad 2 though.
    Thanks Ossie

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