The 3rd Generation Apple TV was released in March 2012, but even now in March 2015 (a full three years later) it’s still the newest model available. I hadn’t even realized myself how long it had been out until I bought one and looked it up. Hence the reason I’m telling you at the start of this review.
This little black box sports a single core varient of the Apple A5 processor. The same chip found in the iPhone 4S, iPad 2, 5th generation iPod Touch and the original iPad Mini. Apple has gotten a lot of milage out of this processor. Especially when you consider that it still sells the iPad Mini, iPod and Apple TV brand new.
Aside from the processor, this Apple TV comes with 512MB of DDR2 Ram, 8GB of flash memory, 802.11n wifi, HDMI 1.4, ethernet, optical audio output and a mico USB jack for maintenance purposes only. Sadly no ability to hook up an external hard drive to it.
The machine can handle H.264 compressed 1080p full HD video at up to 30 frame per second. Which covers most movies and videos that are shot at 24, 25 or 30fps. It also doesn’t seem to have a problem playing back my 60fps (60p) video sent from my iPhone 6. Though my guess is that most of the heavy lifting to change the frame rate from 60p to 30p is happening on the iPhone 6 itself before being sent to the Apple TV. That would only make sense, the iPhone 6 has a faster chip in it.
From a software perspective, this Apple TV is running a version of iOS 8.2. Also known as Apple TV Software 7.1.
My First Impressions
When first looking at the Apple TV in the store (Best Buy), I was curious how they fit the remote in the box. The Apple TV comes with a slim aluminum Apple remote with the same kind of satin finish on it as a Macbook has. It’s elegant and very simple with only seven buttons on it, including the four direction buttons of the direction pad, but not very ergonomic to use. It’s longer than the old white plastic Apple remote they sold before, which is one of the reasons they had to put it in the Apple TV box diagonally.
Like all Apple products, the packaging is superb. Including the black plastic piece of tape that circles the entire device, sheilding the piano black finish of the sides and covering all the ports. The black power cable also has that same soft rubber feel you find on all Apple cords (power, USB, etc.). But the Apple TV does not come with an HDMI cable, which is the only way to hook it up to your TV. In this day and age though, that’s the only connection you really need. Although the first generation Apple TV did come with component and analog audio connection (RCA type). But it was also a much bigger box compared to the second and third generation Apple TVs.
When first starting up the machine, I was surprised to see it ask me to hold my iPhone close to it. After typing in a code it then automatically set up my Apple TV from my iPhone settings, including the password to my wireless modem/router. Something I normally have to enter manually for every wireless device. Pretty nice.
Once that was all completed, I was taken into the main menu and began to fiddle around with how it all worked. One of my concerns before buying it was whether I’d be able to move around the various channel icons since I knew I’d watch some more than others. The first message to pop up on the Apple TV was instructions on how to do that. Hold down the center button until they wiggle and then move them around. Same as any iOS device. Nice.
After that, I decided to try out connectivity with my iPhone, since that was one of the big reasons for chosing an Apple TV over something like a Roku (which also seemed great with the headphone jack on the remote and the development community it has).
AirPlay is what Apple calls it when you connect a device to the Apple TV. Via AirPlay you can send videos, photos, music, podcasts and even mirror the screen of your device to the Apple TV. This works with all modern iOS devices and all Macs made mid 2011 or later. Sadly that means my late 2008 Macbook is not compatible. But after six years, I think it’s time to upgrade to a new Macbook anyway. Something I plan to do later this year or early next year.
Sending video was pretty simple, same with music and podcasts, but I couldn’t figure out the photos at first. It did just work after a minute or so, but there is no toggle in the photos app on the iPhone for AirPlay.
Here is a tip, after a while I figured out that there is a master AirPlay switch in the slide up control panel on the iPhone. The one you slide up from the bottom of the screen. This allows you to turn on AirPlay with said iPhone, as well as a separate mirroring switch which allows you to mirror your display on your TV in either horizontal or vertical orientation, depending on how you’re holding your phone.
Once I discovered mirroring, the usefulness of the Apple TV skyrocketed for me. Now I could browse the web, pinch to zoom photos (something that regular AirPlay of photos does not allow you to do), play games on the big screen and watch any video compatible with the iPhone on the big screen.
Another great discovery was that of the Apple Remote application for iOS. This is an app I already had on my iPhone for remotely controlling my my iTunes library on my Mac. However it also works as a remote for the Apple TV. A far better remote than the physical remote included with the Apple TV. It allows you to slide your finger around the screen to navigate, fast forward, rewind, play/pause, select and use the keyboard on your phone for typing in search boxes. Far faster and more accurate than having to select individual letters/numbers with just a crosspad on the physical remote.
With all of this combined, the Apple TV is shaping up to be an awesome little device. I still have yet to try it with my 2012 Mac Mini, it’s only been since Sunday (two days ago) that I bought the Apple TV.
My biggest complaint is the speed of video from my iPhone to the Apple TV. It doesn’t seem to stream the video so much as load the video from the iPhone to the memory of the Apple TV itself. After it loads a little bit it begins to play. The problem is that it plays faster than it loads. So it’s constantly stopping and I have to wait for it to load more of the video, or I have to pause it at the beginning and wait a whole 3-4 minutes for it to load the whole video before playing. I was expecting a much smoother, better performing experience between two Apple devices.
That said, it’s still better than I had it before. If I wanted to watch video shot on my iPhone before I had an Apple TV, I had to hook my iPhone up to my computer and offload the video files to my computer first and then hook my computer up to my TV via a long HDMI cable and play it through Quicktime or VLC. So even with the wait time, this is much faster and easier. I’m bound to watch more of my iPhone shot videos on the big screen now. Just not as quick or smooth as I was expecting.
Aside from that, my only real complaints are the apps(channels) themselves. It has several apps on it, including the big ones like Netflix, Youtube, Hulu Plus (which I don’t use), HBO Go (soon HBO Now) and several others. But I’m not really a big fan of the layout and navigation of the Netflix app. While it offers more control than the Netflix app on my Vizio smart TV (such as the ability to rate videos and search by genre), I have to jump through more menus and it doesn’t give a quick description of the movie or show when you highlight over the poster icon like my Vizio does. As a result, my girlfriend still prefers the Vizio version of Netflix and I honestly can’t blame her. I was hoping for an even better Netflix experience on the Apple TV, but apparently that’s not the case.
Most of the other apps like ABC, History, etc, are generally pretty useless. They offer a handful of full length shows, but often they are random episodes like episode 6 and 9 of season 3 of some show you’ve never seen. Hardly a good way to get into a new show. Not to mention all the randon “clips” from shows that these content providers give you, which again are useless. I don’t really understand who out there wants to watch one or two minute “clips” of a show. So even though there are all these channels (or apps?) most of them are pretty pointless. I will mostly take advange of Netflix, Youtube, Vimeo and soon enough, HBO Now. Strangely there is no Amazon app. Which is really disappointing as a Prime member.
HBO Now is the main reason I decided to jump on the Apple TV train at this point. While I’ve always been curious about the device, I never felt compelled enough to buy one. Once Apple and HBO announced last week that HBO would be offering a stand alone service called HBO Now with a three month exclusive on iOS devices just before season five of Game of Thrones started and then also dropped the price of the Apple TV from $99 to $69, I decided it was time to make the jump. Wow, what a long sentence.
My girlfriend and I both like a lot of HBO shows, but we cut the cable cord over a year ago. We use just Netflix, Amazon prime, Blu-ray/DVD and over-the-air TV broadcasts. So it will be nice to get a Netflix-like HBO service.
The Future of the Apple TV
So far the Apple TV is proving to be useful if not overly exciting. What the future holds for this device I do not know. I assume more services and apps will be released as time goes on, including rumors of a streaming TV service offered by Apple itself.
Some people are waiting for Apple to release a new version of the Apple TV. A fourth generation. I’m not entirely sure what they expect new hardware to do, as this is mostly a streaming device that just needs more software/content options. Something that could be added to the current model.
Although I can take a few stabs at guessing what new hardware might be able to do. Which would really only be higher frame rates and resolution. Such as 60fps 1080p video and possbly UHD (4K) at up to 60fps as well. To do that, I would expect a fourth generation Apple TV to sport a single core version of the A8 processor, which we know is capable of both UHD resolution and H.265 codec support. If such a chip and resolution is implemented, I would also expect an HDMI 2.0 port and probably 802.11ac wireless. Prossible ram boost to at least 1GB and possibly 16GB of storage, though maybe 8Gb would still be enough. I also wouldn’t expect this new device before early 2016. At the earliest, sometime after the release of the next iPhone this fall. I think Apple would wait for new devices with an A9 processor before putting even a single core version of the A8 into the lower cost Apple TV.
All of that is just a guess though. But I honestly can’t see what more an Apple TV would need from a hardware perspective. It’s not as if Apple is going to turn this device into a full-blown stereo receiver with a bunch of ports and controls. I seriously doubt they’ll ever make an actual television set. The cost would be too much. What they really want to do is get as many people on this platform as possible to lock up content deals and sell you access to content.
Overall, I think I’ll keep this Apple TV. It was cheap enough at $69 to be a spur of the moment buy and with HBO Now coming, along with AirPlay mirroring from my iOS devices, it will prove to have some use. Even if it’s not the most sexy of Apple devices.