When I first heard about Apple TV five years ago, I was skeptical. What could the tiny, set-top box really offer beyond cajoling me to fork over more of my hard-earned cash to a giant company that already had way more money than it could spend?
After all, the unit required users to tether it to a PC or Mac in order to stream or sync content to it. In other words, it was little more than an accessory to your computer allowing you to consume iTunes content on your TV that you must purchase through Apple. Even though I’m an Apple devotee, I took a pass.
Steve Jobs and his design team quickly realized this was a loser. So over the next few years Apple TV evolved into a stand-alone device with apps that allow you to stream external content. Of course, if you also want to use the device in the manner for which it was originally intended and view content purchased and downloaded from Apple (or browse your images in iPhoto), you can still do that.
Unlike my colleague Susan Bigelow, who recently purchased a rival Roku unit for $50, I was not looking to replace my premium cable TV or satellite feed (my wife would kill me if I did that). I just wanted to augment my cable package with additional on-demand content. And Apple TV fit that bill perfectly.
At $99, it’s twice the price of a comparable Roku unit. But if you’re a part of the Apple ecosystem—and I have been since buying my first Mac in 1988—it’s well worth the extra expense. Unlike Roku, Apple TV allows you to display directly on your TV whatever’s on your iPad (second generation or higher) or iPhone (4S or above) via your home’s wifi network using something called AirPlay. Indeed, you’ll be using your wifi network a lot with Apple TV since it’s a cloud-based device and not really a repository for viewing downloaded content.
And with Apple’s Remote app, you can use either your iPad or iPhone as a remote control. That’s especially useful when you need a keyboard to type in search criteria. It also comes in handy if you lose the remote that comes with Apple TV. That little thing is so slender that it could easily fall between the sofa cushions. And if you have a Mac running Mountain Lion (alas, I do not), you can even view your Mac’s desktop on your TV, which allows you to watch programs on the free ad-supported web version of Hulu.
There are apps for the paid Hulu Plus and Netflix, as well as the free YouTube and Vimeo video services. You can browse your photos or those of your contacts using the Flickr app. And if you’re a sports junkie like Susan, you can stream games and programming from the premium apps offered by the NFL, the NHL and MLB.
From where I sit, by far the most useful feature of Apple TV has been the Netflix app. I purchased my Apple TV earlier this year just as the outstanding House of Cards was set to be released. House of Cards, a dark Washington-based drama about political intrigue and backstabbing starring the great Kevin Spacey, is the first original series to be shown exclusively on Netflix, which up to now was just a streaming service for previously released programming. I’m an inveterate political junkie, so House of Cards was a must-watch for me.
I was amazed by the quality of the streaming Netflix video on my 41-inch Sanyo LCD. House of Cards is not quite as dazzling as I imagine it would be on an HD cable channel, but the resolution is very easy on the eye and it rarely ever stops to rebuffer, thanks to my 30-megabit Xfinity connection. Even older shows from the 70s such as the Rockford Files look remarkably vivid.
The downside is that the Netflix movie collection available for streaming is quite limited. For an extensive catalogue, you have to use the company’s CD-by-mail service. With apologies to the United States Postal Service, I can’t imagine going back to that.
Apple TV was remarkably easy to set up. Take it out of the box, plug in the power source and connect it to your TV using an HDMI cable. But you have to purchase the HDMI cable separately and, running in the $20-$30 range for anything more than 6 inches long, they can be pricey. And you’ll probably find the unit will insist on a software update for the Apple TV OS right away. I’d say the whole setup took about 15 minutes total.
Yes, the money I shelled out for Apple TV was the best hundred bucks I ever spent. Now, if I could only find that damn clicker …