For the first few days after the Apple TV (2nd generation) started shipping to consumers that had pre-ordered, I faithfully called my local Apple store to check their stock. They finally received a box of 20 units on the third day, so I raced down to the store to purchase not one, but two. You see, I had recently purchased the latest iteration of the Mac Mini, hooked it to my living room TV as a home theatre pc, and ripped many of our family’s most watched DVDs (unfortunately for me, our most watched DVDs are currently of the children's genre like Strawberry Shortcake and Dora the Explorer) onto its hard drive using Handbrake, so I wouldn’t need to mess with the ever expanding DVD pile blocking my TVs IR port. One of the benefits of this configuration was the ability to watch Netflix and Hulu content straight on the TV. Granted, it was a little more expensive than just a DVD player, but I had big dreams that I would one day be able to stream the video files to my other TVs around the house, I just didn’t exactly know how yet.
Luckily, Apple solved that problem for me fairly quickly, and at an uncharacteristically low price too (for Apple, anyway). It was only a few months later that Apple announced their Apple TV refresh with streaming video support. While the details were sketchy about exactly how it would, I was hopeful that it would work out for me. I was not disappointed.
First, the Apple TV box is very, very small. It’s about the size of the average smartphone box sold these days. Inside the box is the Apple TV unit, the aluminum Apple remote, the power cord, and a short pamphlet with some brief setup instructions. As soon as I got home, I immediately ripped open one of the two Apple TV boxes, grabbed an extra HDMI cable I had found laying around my house a few days earlier, and plugged the necessary cords in per the instructions. After logging into my home wireless network from the Apple TV, turning on home sharing on my Mac Mini, and then getting my Apple ID and password entered back on the Apple TV, I was in business (Note, I had upgraded my iTunes software a few days earlier as well so as to enable photo sharing and the other updates that allowed the Apple TV to play nicely with my computer).
The Apple TV’s homescreen menu is laid out horizontally with five different categories: Movies, TV Shows, Internet, Computers, and Settings. Under the Movies heading, a user can browse through iTunes’ most popular movies, browse by genre, search by movie name, and view information and watch trailers for movies in theatres now. Unlike the first generation Apple TV, movies and TV shows are available only for rent, not purchase. Movie rental prices for newer releases are $4.99 with older movies renting for $3.99. A bit steep compared to Redbox, and even the local video rental shops pricing. I suppose Apple is counting on the convenience factor of on-demand availability and no out-of-stocks to justify the high price-point.
Under the “TV Shows” heading, a user can browse through iTunes’ most popular TV shows, brows TV shows by genre, browse TV shows by TV networks (of which only 20th Century Fox, ABC, ABC Family, ABC News, BBC America, BBC Earth, Disney Channel, Disney XD, and Fox are available as of the date of this review), and search by TV show name. All TV show rentals are $0.99. While this is a decent value, especially for hour-long shows, I’ll just head out to the living room and watch shows on Hulu or Netflix for free.
The “Internet” tab contains a listing of functionality for Netflix, YouTube, Podcasts, MobileMe, Flickr, and Radio. The Netflix integration is outstanding, with the user interface conforming to Apple’s traditional Frontrow-style. I’ve found myself listening to Internet radio fairly often as well. I’m not sure how many stations are available, but it sure takes a long time to scroll through the list for each genre.
The “Computers” tab is where shared iTunes libraries show up. I’ve got my Mac Mini’s iTunes library shared, so I have all of my music and movies available instantly in each room that I have an Apple TV hooked up. If I had purchased TV shows or podcasts, they would be available as well, I just don’t have any of those. In addition, the newest version of iTunes integrates stored photos into iTunes, so once a source directory has been selected, those photos show up in the shared library. I now have around 1,500 songs, 45 movies, and 8,000 photos available instantly around my home.
The “Settings” menu allows some limited customization, like changing the screen saver format and frequency, changing the name of the Apple TV, customizing parental controls, and several other network and iTunes related settings.
My initial impressions of the Apple TV after a month or so of use have been very, very positive. It does exactly what I was hoping it would do as I’m able to stream movies, music and photos from my Mac Mini to other rooms of my house, as well as access Netflix content. I likely will not rent movies or TV shows too often. The one problem I’ve experienced is the home sharing connection with the Mac Mini seems to drop fairly regularly. I’m still experimenting with the sleep patterns of both the Mac Mini and the Apple TV, and my hunch is that is where the problem lies. As of today, I’ve turned the power saving mode on both devices to never sleep so we’ll see if that remedies the situation. If not, hopefully Apple recognizes the problem and bakes a bugfix into the next software update. Hopefully Apple has a plan to add additional fuctionality either through an app store or regular software updates (Hulu, please - but not Hulu Plus).
As for recommending the Mac Mini, if the aforementioned functionality sounds appealing to you at a $99.00 price-point, and you have a wired home network or a relatively fast wireless network (I have a wireless N router), I would strongly recommend the new Apple TV.