If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. That seems to be the motto for Apple with the Apple TV, which Steve Jobs once described as his hobby. The latest model retains the tiny form factor of the second generation player, but it improves on it by adding a new, easier-to-use interface and support for 1080p resolution Full HD playback.
The price of the Apple TV remains unchanged at £99. So is there enough here to convince those of you who've been less than impressed with previous versions to plump for Apple's little box of TV tricks?
Design and connections
Outwardly, little has changed in this update. That's no bad thing in my book, because if you were to design a simple media streamer from scratch, this is pretty much how you'd want it to look. For starters, it's tiny -- small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. It's ideally sized for hiding away beneath your flat-screen TV and the combination of rounded corners and matte black design are quite cool without 'screaming look at me'.
Its petite dimensions leave you wondering why so many other media streamers are so large and unwieldy. The case design is very tidy -- even the power supply is built into it.
There are no buttons on the front to break up the clean lines. Around the back is a pretty minimal set of connections, but enough to get the job done. What you get is an HDMI port, optical digital audio-out and an Ethernet socket. As Wi-Fi Wireless N is built in, you don't have to use the Ethernet socket at all, but some people may find it more reliable for streaming HD movies if they've got poor Wi-Fi coverage in their home.
As with the previous model, there's no memory card reader and the micro-USB port on the back is only used for service and support, so the only way to get content onto this box is via your home network and broadband connection.
The remote remains unchanged from the previous model too. It's minimalist in the extreme, but somehow Apple has made it work. Measuring 12cm long by 3cm wide, it's tiny. But as the body is hewn from aluminium, it feels sturdy and pleasant to hold.
A four-way navigation circle is at the top with a select button in the middle, and beneath this is just the menu button, which doubles as a back button, and the play/pause button. If for some reason you don't get on with this mini zapper, you can use the Remote application that's free to download for the iPhone or iPad.
The most noticeable difference on this model is the new interface. Apple has largely given the older, list-style menus the heave-ho. The new interface uses a grid-style layout that's a lot closer to what you get on the iPhone and iPad. Across the top of the home screen is a banner that shows cover art for the movie and TV rental service. Beneath this there's a grid of large colourful icons for the various supported services.
The top line has entries for movies and TV shows, which takes you to the iTunes interface where you can rent and stream content. Next is an icon for music which is actually the entry for iTunes Match, Apple's cloud-based music service. After this comes the computers entry, where you access music, photos and videos stored on your computer. Finally on this row is the settings menu. Beneath this top grid line you'll find the icons for the various other services including Netflix, YouTube and Vimeo.
The list-style interface elements haven't been completely removed, however. For example, if you access the computers icon and select your iTunes library, the artist, song and album entries are presented as long lists down the right-hand side of the screen, with album art shown on the left.
The interface is by far the slickest, fastest and easiest to use that I've seen on any media streamer. The Apple TV really does stand head and shoulders above the competition here. However, as there's an update available for the second generation Apple TV to give it the same user interface, the new UI is not in itself a reason to upgrade if you've got the previous model.
Buying movies and TV shows
If you're happy to rent content, then iTunes remains the best way for UK users to do this. Firstly, Apple's purchasing system makes it very easy to buy movies, TV shows or music tracks, using either your existing Apple ID or one you've created on the Apple TV. Secondly, iTunes has the largest and most up-to-date library out there. For example, at the time of writing, the iTunes movie service offered new releases such as Tintin, Breaking Dawn, The Help and The Ides of March, while in the TV section you could purchase new shows such as Homeland, Alcatraz and The River.
What's more, most of these movies and shows are available in HD. Films cost between £1.99 for older titles and £4.49 for the newest releases. TV shows cost between £1.89 and £2.49, with a series pass covering a show's whole season priced at between £10.00 and £28.99.
Both the movies and TV shows interfaces are excellent. There's now a banner to let you quickly jump to stuff like the top movies lists, purchase TV shows or to search by TV network or movie genre.
Beneath this there's a banner with promoted content -- usually a mixture of new release and popular shows or movies. Below is a grid of content divided into categories such as comedy, kids and family and new releases, with each movie represented by its poster art. It looks fantastically inviting and makes it a cinch to find the type of movies or shows you want to watch.
While the user interface is slightly different to what you get on the PlayStation 3, it's still very quick and easy to navigate around and looks ace, as you can browse through movies by poster art.
Home Sharing and Airplay
Sharing your existing media collection to the Apple TV from iTunes really is child's play. Just open iTunes on your computer and turn on Home Sharing. You can then browse through it using the computers option on the Apple TV. However, this simplicity comes at the cost of flexibility.
Its reliance on iTunes means you always have to have your computer turned on and iTunes loaded up to get access it. You can't simply go to a library of tunes stored on a NAS drive, for example, as you can with most other media streamers. Also, there's no way to share videos in popular formats such as DivX, Xivd and MKV. It's a case of Apple's way, or no way.
Naturally, the Apple TV can also be used as an Airplay device, so you can send music, photos and videos to it directly from any iOS device or your computer over Wi-Fi. On the 'now playing' screen on your iOS device, you just tap the Airplay icons at the bottom and select the Apple TV as the device you want to use as your player and your content will start streaming. It really couldn't be much easier to use.
The range of other services supported by the Apple TV is not great. Apple has added an app for Netflix, which is most welcome, as it means there's finally another way for UK viewers to access movies and TV shows other than iTunes. However, currently the database of content is a tad limited, as we highlighted in our Netflix review.
There are a few other useful services, including YouTube, Vimeo and Flickr, along with Apple's own move trailers app. Naturally, the radio and podcast apps are still present, and MobileMe and a Photostream apps are here too. After that, things become pretty desperate. I mean, who cares about Major League Baseball.TV or even the The Wall Street Journal video news service in the UK? Obviously, the biggest omission here is the BBC iPlayer and there's no support for 4oD, ITV Player or Demand 5. It also lacks a Lovefim app.
The fact remains that if you want the best access to UK online TV content, you're better off buying a PS3 as it supports iPlayer, Netflix, Lovefilm, 4oD and ITV player, and only costs £20 more.
Also, I can't really understand why Apple doesn't add an App Store to the Apple TV and open the device up to third-party developers. After all, apps have been one of the things that made the iPhone and iPad so great, and even the Popcorn Hour and Roku players now have app stores onboard.
The hardware inside the Apple TV has been beefed up. It now uses a single-core A5 processor and supports 1080p resolution Full HD video, rather than the 720p HD-ready resolution that the previous model was limited to. As I've already said, the menus zip along and have beautifully fluid coverflow-style animations. The jump in resolution does make a big difference when streaming video, especially on larger screens.
So if you've got a monster 50-inch set then you will see a significant improvement in the quality of the video output. While iTunes HD streams are not quite Blu-ray quality, they are remarkably good for a streaming service. They're much better than the HD streams you get on BBC iPlayer, for example, which are limited to 720p.
The player is also fanless, so there's no annoying whirr in the background to distract you from the viewing experience. On a decent broadband connection -- I tried it on an ADSL line that speed tests at around 17Mbit/s -- HD movies and trailers take just 8 seconds to play, so you won't be sitting around twiddling your thumbs waiting for your movie to start.
The third generation of the Apple TV is a great product if you're happy to rely on iTunes and Netflix for your TV and movie content. It provides a slick and polished experience and it's the easiest-to-use player of all the network media streamers I've reviewed. However, the lack of support for UK services such as BBC iPlayer is frustrating, and I can't help wishing that Apple would add an App Store so other developers could create apps for it.
Although there's a huge amount to like about the device, if you didn't find the idea of the Apple TV appealing before, then there's not much here that's going to change your mind.