Apple TV 2 review

21 Dec 2010

Short Review

ATV2 may lack support for playing any video codecs other than mp4’s, and any apps/expandability, but it’s bloody good at what it does do. It’s tiny, inexpensive, silent and doesn’t even get warm. It streams far smoother than I expected it to. I absolutely love it, and may have to get another one for another room.

Long Review

Yeah, I couldn’t resist. I got an Apple TV 2 as well. If you’re bored of all this, imagine how my wife Leigh must be feeling!

My main fear about using this as my Media Centre, was that it required a Mac running to serve the files, and where those files could be stored. Computers will never have enough space to store everything I need, and I’d rather that I stored them on a RAID drive so that I don’t lose everything when a HD fails.

As it turns out, I can stream just about any content from NAS to iMac to Apple TV. The NAS stores all the media, iTunes on the iMac accesses it from there, and serves it to the Apple TV, all over N wifi. It sounds (and is a bit) clunky but streams brilliantly. I expected stuttering and buffering over such a setup, but there wasn’t. It buffers for a few seconds before playing, but once it’s going, it’s flawless. Very impressive! Only on large 1080p content did it have a couple of hiccups (I know ATV can only output 720p, but it does accept 1080p input and I wanted to test a big file) but still not enough to spoil the movie.

The hardware is non-descript compared to the Boxee Box, but it’s tiny, silent and runs cold! The opposite of my PS3 basically. I also own the 1st generation Apple TV, which while quiet, was large and hot enough to fry eggs on.

The ATV interface itself is pretty bland and unexciting, but at least its inoffensive, (unlike the current Boxee). Besides, the best interface for the ATV2 is actually the remote app for iOS devices. It now lists all the iTunes Libraries and their content on the network, so you can play all your files using the remote without ever having to use the UI. This is especially useful if you want to play music without having the TV on. Unlike ATV1, sharing is setup by turning on Home Sharing, rather than inputting a passcode to pair it – so much easier. Also, the decision to stream, rather than store and sync on the limited ATV1 hard drive, turns out to be very wise. While you can’t purchase directly from the ATV, it does remove the doubt of whether something has synced or not.

Airplay works as well as advertised, and if it’s enabled for third party apps (as Steve himself has apparently promised) that opens up things like BBC iPlayer too. In general though, Airplay feels like a bit of Red Herring at the moment. Native apps would still be better in most use cases. Handy if you’re watching a movie on the iPad, and then want to finish it off in the living room. AirFlick looks like a promising addition in this area, allowing streaming from Mac to ATV.

More functionality is going to be added by Firecore with their ATV Black hack to add a browser and Plex Client. Be warned though – what the product page conveniently doesn’t tell you is that you need to jailbreak your ATV first, and at the time of writing, there isn’t an updated pwnage tool that works with the latest version (ATV 4.1, which is iOS 4.2.1). My experience with a hacked ATV1 wasn’t great, it wasn’t very stable and felt like more trouble than it was worth. Hopefully ATV Black will change this.

Downsides

There is perhaps one more downside. Buying DRM’d Movies and TV Shows from iTunes is a whole lot more convenient than ripping and handbraking DVDs or Blu-Rays. The Apple TV2 just gives more more motivation to do that, especially when it scratches the ‘quick, we need a new movie to watch RIGHT NOW’ itch.

As for the advantages:

If you already have the 1st generation ATV, you may be wondering why you want this one? After all you can’t store anything on it, and it’s rental-only – no other purchases. Well, dramatically better streaming (presumably due to N wireless card, rather than just G), easier operation (no syncing) and the whole smaller and colder thing.

As the saying goes, your mileage may vary, but is it ‘the one’ for me? It might just be! In the last few weeks I’ve had the PS3, Boxee Box and Apple TV all set up. When I want to watch something, or listen to music, I’m finding it’s the ATV that I go to instinctively. The PS3 is still in use for iPlayer, 4oD, DVDs and BluRays (and gaming of course), but the Boxee Box doesn’t get a look in. This might have been different if the v1.0 Boxee firmware wasn’t such a downgrade from 0.9. It still might be different with future Boxee updates, but at the moment, it’s the Apple TV 2 that I’m glad I bought.

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