Steve Jobs doesn’t have many failures to mar his comeback at Apple, but if most Apple aficionados had to find one, we’re guessing it would be the little white box known as Apple TV. The first version arrived with a fizzle back in 2007, largely panned for its high price and low functionality. Apple has steadily sanded off rough edges year after year, though, and in 2010 Apple TV underwent a metamorphosis, entering a cocoon and emerging smaller and cheaper than ever. But does the latest version of Apple TV finally deliver on the promise Jobs pitched three years ago, or is Apple still struggling to break onto the big screen?
“Unobtrusive” would seem to be the operative word for the redesigned Apple TV, which shrinks to such tiny proportions that it’s apt to almost disappear in home theater cabinets designed for the hulking, heat-gushing equipment of yesteryear. At only 3.9 inches square and just under an inch thick, you could easily pocket the device, though we’re not sure how much utility that particular trick actually serves, unless you’re the migratory breed of college student who moves his A/V equipment around twice a year. Its all-black design — and cables — melt into the darkness of an A/V cabinet, with only Apple’s signature white LED signaling that it’s even on. Sadly, the remote requires line of sight, so zip tying it to the back of your TV or burying it deep in your A/V cabinet isn’t an option.
The case itself seems to be constructed from the same polycarbonate Apple favors for just about everything, although cast in jet black rather than the traditional milky white. As usual, tolerances are tight and the entire package feels brick-solid — as it should, considering there are no moving parts — not even a fan.
Around back, Apple offers an ultra-minimalist selection of ports: HDMI for video, optical digital audio, mini USB for service, an Ethernet jack for connectivity (although it has 802.11n Wi-Fi too), and a standard two-prong power jack that accepts the type of cable you might normally find running into a laptop AC adapter. The included one has an unusual look and feel that reminded us of the cord on a table lamp from the 1970s. Not that you’ll do much looking at it anyway.
The remote has become a sliver of aluminum somewhat reminiscent of last year’s iPod Nano; slim but solid and eminently holdable. It bears only a five-way directional controller, menu button, and play-pause button, which together provide everything you need for the Apple TV.
Apple TV started as a simple — some might say too simple — mechanism for getting iTunes content from computers to TVs. It’s evolved since then, but not that much.
This year, Apple added Netflix streaming to the device, which lets owners dive into a library of more than 15,000 streaming movies and television shows for as little as $8.95 per month. It can also handle content from YouTube, MobileMe, Flickr, and a large variety of streaming radio stations, plus MobileMe.
The Apple TV also takes a step backward this year. Unlike last year’s Apple TV, which had internal storage to accommodate downloaded content, Apple has shifted the 2010 model to an all-streaming design. Pull it from the Internet, pull it from your computer, just don’t expect to pull it from the box itself. Unlike just about every other streaming player, the Apple TV also lacks a USB port to play content from thumb drives and portable hard drives.
The Apple TV’s limited output options may be one of its most notable shortcomings. While competing models like the WD TV Live Plus and Roku XD can output true 1080p, the Apple TV only handles 720p. So much for leveraging the full quality of your $3,000 TV. Perhaps even more significantly, it will only output via HDMI, not through any legacy connectors like component, composite or S-video. Ironically, the same cut corner that clearly helped Apple stick to its lean $99 price point also severely limits its appeal for the budget-oriented crowd; your TV will need to be no older than seven years, at the most, to even work with an Apple TV. There goes any chance of hooking it up to the hand-me-down bedroom TV or basement clunker.