capsule review

Review: Apple TV (2nd generation, late 2010)

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Just as with the previous Apple TV, you can use this new model to play back audio from a Mac or PC running iTunes via Apple’s AirPlay system, previously known as AirTunes. The name change is due to the fact that iOS devices running iOS 4.2 (due in November) will gain the ability to send videos and photos wirelessly to your TV set via the Apple TV. With iOS 4.2, iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch users will be able to tap on an AirTunes icon while playing media on their devices, select an Apple TV on their local network, and see the media routed directly to the TV attached to that Apple TV. This feature will not only be supported in the built-in iOS media apps, but in third-party apps as well. (AirPlay video playback will likely be limited to formats that the Apple TV understands—namely, MPEG-4 and H.264.)

Unfortunately, because iOS 4.2 is still in development, we weren’t able to test AirPlay’s video-sharing features. They sound like they could be pretty cool, but for now it’s just a promise—it’ll be up to Apple to deliver a good-quality AirPlay experience in November.

But wait, is there more?

We already know that the new Apple TV is using the same processor as the iPad, is running iOS, and has at least some internal storage. And that opens the door for the possibility of the Apple TV one day being able to run third-party apps that could expand its capabilities. If the Apple TV could stream live baseball from MLB.com or play back Hulu Plus videos, for example, that could make it an even more interesting product to appeal to more users. (Those services will probably work via AirPlay, but it would seem much more efficient to offer them directly on the device.)

The Apple TV’s Netflix interface makes it clear that Apple wants the Apple TV user interface to be consistent across different services. But it’s not hard to imagine Netflix as the perfect example for third-party developers wanting to add features to the Apple TV. If Netflix support is any indication, Apple is no longer afraid to offer Apple TV owners alternatives to the company’s own iTunes Store—and for the Apple TV to make a big splash, it’ll have to compete with the Rokus of the world that give users lots of choices.

Then there’s the question of whether the Apple TV’s iOS base could mean that it becomes a new gaming platform. There are certainly lots of iOS games out there, and if they could be adapted to the big screen (with iOS devices like iPod touches and iPhones as Wii-like controllers, complete with gyroscopes and accelerometers) there might be a lot of potential there. Still, it’s hard to gauge how likely this scenario is. We certainly don’t advise anyone buying an Apple TV in the hope that it will become a game console—but it’s an interesting possibility to consider.

Macworld’s buying advice

The new Apple TV is a spectacular hardware upgrade from the old model. The device is easy to use, and excels at three tasks: playing back content from local iTunes computers, renting iTunes content over the Internet, and playing back Netflix streams. But it’s somewhat hampered by a limited selection of TV shows available for rent, and locked out of the larger catalog of items available for purchase. And until Apple expands the Apple TV’s capabilities, either by adding support for other Internet streaming services or by opening the device to third-party development, the product is locked in to only a few content sources.

But at $99, this tiny box is a remarkable deal if you’ve got an HDTV and have made an investment in iTunes purchases. Once iOS 4.2 arrives, users of iPhones and iPads will likely find AirPlay a great way to get the content on their devices up onto a big screen. And if you’re both an iTunes user and a Netflix subscriber, the product is right in your wheelhouse. This is a good product that has the potential to erase its status as a hobby and become a hit—but it feels like a few pieces of the puzzle are still missing.

[Jason Snell is Macworld's editorial director; Jonathan Seff is a senior editor.]

[Updated 9/30 to correct error about function of Remote app.]

At a Glance
  • Pros

    • Small size
    • Low price
    • Runs cool
    • Supports Netflix streaming
    • Solid 720p playback
    • Responsive interface

    Cons

    • Limited rental content on iTunes
    • Home Sharing requires single iTunes account
    • Initial setup still requires tedious text input
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