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Apple TV

Apple TV review: for those with money to burn

I’m lucky enough to own a Samsung Smart TV. I bought it because I believe in converged devices: I want to watch TV and hop in and out of the web and my apps seamlessly. That is our TV experience of the future. Samsung got that right with its Android-based TV OS and is streaks ahead of the competition.

Matthew Buckland
Matthew Buckland is a web guy who has over the years worked in a programming, editorial and business capacity within the online media environment. He now dedicates... More

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Unfortunately Samsung got it right in concept only: the execution of that vision leaves much to be desired, meaning I never used the TV’s so-called Smart OS. It’s slow and clunky, and does silly things like perform automatic updates when you are about to load an app that make you sit for minutes before you access it. I’m over it, I don’t use it. While I may be an early technology adopter, I’m not your guinea pig, thanks.

I think this is the lesson that Apple taught the world. And it’s the reason it became the biggest tech company in the history of the world. After despairing at my dream of convergence TV and just thinking it would be well, a dumb screen, I decided to give the third-gen Apple TV go.

Generations ago

I had shunned Apple TV years ago in favour of a Mac Mini. The last Apple TV I had was the clunky, old school first generation with a large case, about as big as the old Mac Mini. The new generation is compact, sleek and minimal, just 23mm x 98mm x 98mm and weighing in at a mere 0.27kg. Its understated design is typical Apple beauty.

Image of Apple TV remote

But more importantly it comes with Apple’s TV iOS (6.1) which has brought it in line with its other iOS devices (the old Apple TV ran a version of Mac OS). It’s a typically slick and familiar iDevice experience — and if you are an iPhone or iPad user, it’s pretty much the same experience.

But if you have an older TV or monitor or a slow internet speed, don’t bother. This is only for digital HDMI and fast connections, aimed unapologetically at the upper-end of the market. Also if you live in a country other than the States, I would make sure you have a US app store account. I’m not sure Apple TV is worth it without one. The only reason I wanted one was to get the latest movies first — not to wait 100 years for them to be released in another country.

Apple TV OS shot

Apple TV’s 10 foot user interface is simple enough to use, and it is fairly attractive. For a TV experience you want big, you need HD and you don’t want to fiddle too much in front of your TV with a mouse or keyboard, moving through this window and that — you just want a simple, fast experience that gives you the media you want.

But the ugly stepsister of simplicity is something that is too simplistic. In the quest for understated brevity, the Apple TV comes with too many restrictions and not enough functionality. And it’s a balance I don’t think Apple has cracked.

I found myself wanting more, thinking that I should have rather just plugged a PC or Mac Mini into my TV, and paid the extra for a whole lot more, rather than buy this Apple TV. Why invest in an Apple TV that has no web browser? Why doesn’t Apple allow app downloads or more customisation? Why invest in an Apple TV device that can only download one show at a time, meaning a big fat wait every time you want to see a new show. Why use Apple TV when you can’t plug your portable hard-drive with all your movies into it? Why care about an Apple TV without an SD slot? Why watch Apple TV when you can’t seamlessly watch the AVIs you have just shot on your camera to the big screen?

Some are more equal than others

If I had to plug in a Mac mini or a PC hooked up to XBMC or Plex I would be able to do all of the above. A small PC with Windows 8’s metro tiles that are almost perfect for that 10-foot user interface experience, would also work a whole lot better. Hell, if I didn’t care about HD so much, I could even link up a cheap Raspberry PI to my TV.

I just wonder what Apple TV has got going for it when you get better products in the media centre market like (the now defunct, but gorgeous) Boxee, Mede8ter and a host of other media centres around. Compare the Boxee remote (multiple buttons and a neat little keyboard) with the rather dinky-looking Apple TV remote and you realise it’s just no contest. What was Apple thinking here?

A beautiful failure

Then there’s Apple’s closed ecosystem. It’s a pain in the ass, and I am tired of Apple telling me what I can and can’t do with my personal media. One wonders if this will be the downfall of the company as other companies catch up to Apple’s head start, and then improve on it with open media standards?

Another irritation with Apple TV was that the device came without an HDMI cable, which means I had to go hunting for one. It just wasn’t the usual plug ‘n play Apple experience I’m used to. Apple is all about that quality, seamless experience — why did it stuff it up by not including an HDMI cable?

Compared to other Apple devices, the Apple TV has a long way to go, and I bet you employees at the company are privately embarrassed at this product. Worst of all is that it is impossible to improve: the third-generation Apple TV remains unjailbreakable as of writing this article. There is just very little you can do with this walled garden.

My advice: run away. Or wait ’till Apple gets this right and brings it in line with its other products on the market.

Images: Apple TV from Apple.com


  • tonyseifart

    Just last week I gave away my AppleTV to a friend for all the reasons you’ve explained above.

    Even though I’m on a 4Mbit ADSL line I could barely watch programmes on SD and there is no way for me to “download” a movie during the day so I can watch it seamlessly at night. So there’s the constant buffering while watching a movie.

    I’ve now shelled out for a Mac Mini – and am incredibly impressed by it. It’s what my Apple TV should have been all along.

  • http://twitter.com/ErinChampWalker Erin Walker

    I have a 4MB line and can watch any full HD movie straight off. If you have the speed and US account it really is a joy to use, for the latest series or movie and radio. Other than that can’t do much with it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=601261719 Andre De Wet

    Good points but I would add, I have one and i stream all my movies off my harddrive in another room right to the TV. So you wanting to plug in an external. Leave it plugged into your TV in a study and just wireless your house. It then truly comes into play how easy everything is.

    A trick missed here I think.

  • FalKirk

    The premise of your article is flawed. Televisions make poor computing and web devices. They are not good at email, web browsing etc. We prefer to do computing on our computers (notebooks, tablets and phones) rather than on fixed, large screen televisions. This is why the whole “second screen” movement is growing so rapidly.

    I understand that you disagree. But so long as you rest your article on the foundation that the televisions should be a computing devices, your argument, in my opinion cannot be supported.

  • Apple TV 3rd Gen owner

    Hey brother – my family does not experience several of the shortcomings you raise. We mirror our iPads/iPhones to the 3rd gen Apple TV and thereby get full browser capability with familiar touch controls for sizing, panning, scrolling, etc. Similarly we get access to all iPhone/iPad games as we have already customized our existing iPhone/iPad devices on Apple TV. The personal movies we have taken are also available in this same way from the camera roll on the iPhone. We also use the Puffin browser (available from Apple app store) mirrored from the iPad to watch Flash video streaming on the Apple TV. We use the “iMemories” third party cloud to share family videos with family across the world, and watch this via Puffin browser (mirrored from the iPad) on Apple TV (and on our iPhones/iPads anywhere). This also works for any show we find on the Internet. When we purchase or rent movies via iTunes via Apple TV we do not need to wait for download – the program starts on Apple TV in seconds. All TV programs, movies, etc. purchased from Apple are kept in Apple’s cloud forever, so we do not need to store them or back them up at home. This gives access to all videos from all devices (iPhone, iPads all family members) at all times from all places including the large screen in our home TV via Apple TV. Photos we take on the iPhone stream to iCloud via Photostream and automatically become part of Photostream slideshow on Apple TV and personal photo albums can be viewed on Apple TV, too. Our TV is an older analog (36″) that we connect to the third gen Apple TV via HDMI converter ($30). So, no elite TV required.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Thomas-Georgetown/100003547535900 Thomas Georgetown

    You have a lot of ‘whys’ in your article. I just have one, why didn’t you do some reading on its capabilities before buying one?

  • http://twitter.com/matthewbuckland matt

    This article is about what I think Apple TV should be relative to its competition, and how I think it fails as a media centre.

  • http://twitter.com/matthewbuckland matt

    Ah, but you have to use another device to get that functionality out of the Apple TV, which I think is a dependency and a weakness. Why should I need a further device to get browsing functionality, when the media centre attached to my TV should be able to do it?

    By the way with XBMC or the like you can mirror your iPad pretty easily. It doesn’t have to be an Apple TV

  • http://twitter.com/matthewbuckland matt

    well, I agree with you on email, but not on web browsing (and many other computing functions). I think browsing can be a “lean back” activity, and it is perfect for TV. TV’s are already computing devices, so I am not so sure you can really argue against a very powerful and already-prevalent trend that companies are investing billions into.

  • http://twitter.com/matthewbuckland matt

    so I agree with you up until a point. I stream wirelessly… and I should have raised this in the article (which I didn’t). The problem with where we are on this: it is never 100% perfect, especially for HD movies. But I still would want the flexibility of a single centralised media centre that has everything that can receive a hard drive and stream to the rest of my devices…

  • FalKirk

    “I think browsing can be a “lean back” activity, and it is perfect for TV.” – matt

    I think the entire industry agreed with you and Microsoft and many other companies have been banging their heads against the living room for almost two decades in an attempt to prove that the TV can be a computing device. And each attempt has failed abysmally.

    I do believe that we live in a multi-screen world where the TV is just one of many screens that we can use to observe computing content. But I also believe that the TV is better suited to acting as a display rather than acting as an input device. Time will tell (if it hasn’t already).

  • CanAmSteve

    I’ve been an Apple TV user from the first “toaster” model (that thing could heat a room). It’s been an orphan stepchild its entire life, with Apple never seeming to know just what to do with it, and I share most of your opinions about the device – a pain in the ass generally, too restricted, confusing interface and only really useful with a high-speed internet connection (“What? That’s not universal?”, says shocked Apple exec :-)

    The latest updated software (on both my iMac and the Apple TV) seem to finally play well together – previously I had about a 50% chance of getting through an hour without something crashing. I’ve really fallen out of love with iTunes even more than the Apple TV – every update seems another desperate attempt to get the “kids” market. Strangely, I’m the one with the credit card they so love, and I really don’t need to relearn an already awful interface every other week.

    I think my problem is that I am not a TV addict like many – I like to use my DVR to record shows to watch when I have time and the Apple TV is an add-on to that, so I use it only occasionally and simply can’t imagine the usefulness of AirPlay or pairing my iPad/iPhone with the Apple TV, because I know Apple will break it next week with some OS update.

    That said, for $99 it’s hard to complain too much. And if you live outside the US but have a US iTunes account, you can watch network shows that are otherwise difficult to view, what with ip address sniffing and all.