You can now buy a $100 box that streams a large catalog of available-to-anyone video that's nearly as high-fidelity as Blu-ray. The Apple TV is not the first blow to video on discs, but it definitely hit a vein.
Why It Matters
In terms of an overall, pants-on-couch experience, the Apple TV is still the best streaming box you can plug into your tube—followed by a Roku. The status quo remains. But Apple, long overdue, is now beaming movies at the highest possible HD quality: 1080p. For the first time, this means the Apple TV isn't just the gold standard of streaming movies, but a contender against the King of All Physical Media, the Blu-ray. The disc has been doomed to obsolescence since its audio forbears gave up the ghost, but this newest iteration from Apple could mean a hurried jog to the graveyard.
The Apple TV is still the exact same minimalist masterwork—deserving of a spot at the MoMA someday. It's unchanged from its prior form, and just as easy to set up: plug in the juice, hook up the HDMI, and you're in business. The equally minimalist remote, a clarion amid A/V control congestion, is back too. Good.
Facile form means it's easy to hop right into the meat and gristle here: The new 1080p video resolution, possible thanks to an upgraded processor and crafty compression from Apple, is fabulous.
The difference will vary from show to show and film to film, but there's an undeniably sharp uptick in fidelity. Facial hair, creases, and pores pop out of faces; fine lines and texture appear on surfaces, and text in every world is much sharper. More pixels means more detail. In terms of clarity this is most of the way to a Blu-ray disc, approaching the best possible picture anywhere at all, without having to actually touch one of those clunky archaic plastic circle things—everything you ever buy from iTunes will be dangling from the cloud, forever.
Most of the way ain't all of the way. Streaming a file the size of a full Blu-ray movie just isn't feasible with today's internet speeds, unless you're using the WiFi at Los Alamos or sleeping with the cable guy or something. Apple has to cut corners using software tricks in order to deliver flicks: Blu-ray flicks are tens and tens of gigabytes in size. iTunes 1080p streams are only a few gigs. 1080p is like kosher—the certified hot dogs are better, but some brands are tastier than others.
While watching iTunes' version of Drive—a movie with brilliant brights, color, and deep, speeding night scenes—those cut corners were evident. Compression. Like a bad JPEG, the streaming version of the film exhibited some visual smearing and distortion, particularly during fast motion and darkness. Drive is full of both. So while the iTunes copy faithfully rendered Gosling's iron jaw and all its stubbly ornament, unpleasant color banding persisted across the LA skyline, through dust clouds, and around street lights. Even in well lit scenes, details like patterned walls and forest blurred, a smear of colors.
The only haze in the Blu-ray version (viewed on a PS3) was the city's actual smog—virtually no visible artifacts or compression jumble. It's not constant, and it's most noticeable when you're looking for it, but it's there.
Oh, and the new menus. They're not exclusive to the new model (you can download a software update for your old Apple TV), but boy are they dumb. Apple, clearly mimicking your iPhone's home screen, has replaced its elegant text-heavy UI with gaudy chiclet icons. They look tacky, but more unfortunately, they're hard to navigate—and some can't even be removed. I don't want to have to slide over a bunch of options I don't give a damn about just to get to Netflix—particularly not with the we-couldn't-possibly-remove-any-more-buttons-from-this remote. Apple clearly did this to make room for Roku-style channels, but in the meantime, it's a minor aesthetic and functional shin-kick.
Should I Buy This
Despite its ugly new interface, the Apple TV is still the best of its breed. But thanks to its newfound stellar video quality, it now straddles two categories—sure, it's the best streaming box, but it might actually give you a reason to avoid (or ditch) a Blu-ray player. The video quality is that fantastic, and the ease of selecting from a catalog (thin as it might be) from your couch, letting it quickly buffer, and then playing it in splendidly clear fashion is just terrific.
If you care more about living the future, live it here—at this point, discs are just for purists. If the notion of literally the best possible quality resonates, this isn't for you—Blu-ray is on top, but you might want to ask yourself how much you care. Are you still listening to CDs, or were you happy to sacrifice some fidelity for the convenience of MP3? The new Apple TV represents a similar decision point.
Apple TV 2012
• Dimensions: 0.9 x 3.9 x 3.9 inches
• Weight: 0.6 pounds
• Processor: Apple A5 (Single Core)
• Memory: 512 MB
• Video: HDMI, up to 1080p
• Audio: HDMI, Optical
• Connectivity Ethernet, WiFi (a/b/g/n)
• Gizrank: 4 stars
• Price: $100