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Apple is a household name thanks to its immensely popular computers and phones, but with Apple TV (MSRP $99.00), it looks like the Cupertino-based company wants to dominate your living room too. In case you aren't familiar with this little streaming box, Apple TV provides a user interface to access content like Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBO GO, YouTube, and other services.
The third generation Apple TV offers a huge improvement over its predecessors: full 1080p streaming. Yes, if you own a first or second generation Apple TV, you aren't streaming in full HD. This may not matter if you use a 32-inch budget display, but for those who own a 50-inch-plus television, you'll notice an improvement with Apple's latest offering.
Apple's little black box offers five ports on its backside: power, HDMI, ethernet, micro-USB, and optical audio. The first three—power, HDMI, and ethernet—are self-explanatory. The micro-USB port is used for servicing the Apple TV, so you probably won't use it unless problems arise. The optical audio port is useful for connecting the Apple TV to a sound bar or other home audio system. If your TV already has an optical audio port—most mid-range and high-end televisions do—then this feature is redundant; your TV receives the Apple TV's audio signal via HDMI, and then transmits that signal from its optical audio port to your favorite audio device.
After hooking up and powering on the Apple TV, the next step is to connect to a wireless network, or plug in an ethernet cable. If you opt to go wireless, be prepared to spend some time punching in your password with the Apple TV's remote. It's not incredibly ideal for typing, but is better overall than the average TV remote.
Apple's controller is maybe the most unique remote I've ever seen. While most remotes try to pack in as many features as possible—look at the Roku 3's headphone jack or Samsung's touchpad on its Smart Touch remote—this controller is strictly minimalist. There's a directional pad, a select button, a menu button, and a play/pause button. That's it. Those four control options only take up the top third of the remote—the rest is just smooth metal. The result is a stylish and comfortable remote. What more could you ask for? OK, maybe a QWERTY keyboard. And a dedicated search button.
You're now ready to explore Apple's vision of living room entertainment and its collection of apps. Just make sure to apply the latest update in the Settings menu for optimal performance.
Apple TV gets to the point right away: content. Depending on what app you select—Movies, TV Shows, Music, Computers—the top portion of the screen will show newly added content. Clicking on Movies gives you the option to preview, rent, or buy a selected film. Also, you can view the actors and director, the movie's Rotten Tomatoes' score, and related films. It's a shame this section doesn't cater to subscription services like Netflix and Hulu Plus.
At least Apple TV has some of the big players present. Of course Netflix is there, and it benefits from a polished and—you guessed it—minimalist interface on this platform. Film genres, TV shows, and more can be selected, all against a sleek black backdrop. The current generation Apple TV also benefits from an A5 processor, which ensures speedy and fluid navigation. The only downfall is searching Netflix: The option to do so is only available on the main menu. In other words, if you're browsing horror movies and want to search for something specific, you need to navigate your way back to the initial Netflix menu. Please add a search button to your next remote, Apple.
The lack of a search feature isn't just a problem with Netflix. The platform's biggest downfall is the lack of a universal search. Roku has this feature, and it's an incredible way to bring content from the major services together. The fact that you can only search for movies while in a specific app hurts Apple TV. Wouldn't it be nice if Apple let you search for Jackie Chan movies across iTunes, Netflix, and HBO GO?
Another problem is the lack of additional apps. There is no App Store on Apple TV—what you see is what you get. Apple does update the platform from time to time, giving it new apps in the process, but you can't download any other content-streaming apps. Services beyond the mainstream apps may have content with questionable quality (see Crackle or Popcornflix), but more content was never a bad thing. At least Apple TV covers most of the basics, although Amazon Instant Video is absent.
The biggest benefit of Apple TV is streaming your own content. By logging into the device with your Apple ID, and having a computer with iTunes using the same Apple ID, you can stream your personal movie and music files to your TV. It's really that easy. If you have a big collection of digital media, or if you only use iTunes for downloading movies, this feature is the biggest draw for Apple TV. Your videos need to be either MP4, MOV, or M4V files in order to stream, but with the help of file conversion software, this shouldn't be a problem for most.
Make no bones about it: Apple TV is a great product. With its minimalist interface, fluid navigation, and mostly excellent remote, perusing this platform is a joy. Everything that Apple TV does, it does well. Unfortunately, the things it doesn't do lead to frustration.
Apple TV would be so much better if it had a universal search feature—something that would look through iTunes, Netflix, Hulu, and more. If you want to search for content, though, you need to do that within each app. Also, there isn't an app store for the Apple TV, so the limited content you see is exactly what you get.
Not everything is gloom and doom, though. If you have a huge collection of digital media, the Apple TV is for you—streaming files from a computer has never been easier. If you want the most content available, though, Roku 3 wins that battle.
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