A closer look at Apple TV's software update and 1080p movies
The new main menu is the most noticeable change on tap here. In its current iteration, it's little more than an icon-based gateway to the user experience that the Apple TV has been offering for years. The icons make sense now, considering all the additional content that's been added to the Apple TV over the past years. In many cases, too, they eliminate some of the clicks required to find whatever it is you're looking for.
The bad news is that no matter how useless an icon may be to you (e.g., the one for the now-defunct MobileMe), you can't remove them. You also can't rearrange them to make your favorites more accessible. The other new addition is the ability to access more iCloud content -- including, most notably, digital copies of movies that came bundled with DVDs or Blu-ray discs. Not all of the movies you own as a digital copy are available via iCloud, but you can still stream them from your computer. Some of the iCloud streams are in 1080p with 5.1 sound, others are 720p, some in SD and others only have stereo sound -- it's all over the place with no obvious rhyme or reason. Even with the unpredictable quality, though, it's a nice feature that took us by surprise, considering movie studios' penchant for charging a different fee for every way you might want to enjoy a movie. The ability to buy or rent movies via the Apple TV instead of iTunes is finally a reality -- just sign in with your Apple ID and confirm you still know the security code from the credit card you have on file with Apple.
Apple TV software update
The real reason to get excited about the new Apple TV (and to read this overview, frankly) is to find out how Apple's 1080p content looks. We've been Blu-ray fanatics since the early days and for years have had a hard time enjoying non-disc movies owing to the constant distractions posed by bad picture quality. Vudu's HDX titles have always been the exception, along with Zune Video on the 360. So we're happy we now have another choice for high-quality, full HD video.
We rented a few 1080p movies and the one that really left an impression was Inglourious Basterds. Having watched it on Blu-ray more times than we care to admit, we didn't hesitate to rent it for $3.99 from Apple ($1 less than Vudu's HDX) and switch obsessively the HDMI inputs our Blu-ray player and Apple TV was connected to. Watching a number of familiar scenes on both and sitting unusually close to our 60-inch 1080p Pioneer Kuro, we were hard-pressed to spot any differences. Most impressive was the lack of noticeable compression artifacts in the background of dark scenes, or during, say, explosions.
This is no small feat for a 1080p h.264 stream that Apple claims requires at least an 8Mbps internet connection. Blu-ray can do it no problem, thanks to its 40Mbps of throughput, but keep in mind that both Apple and Blu-ray use very similar codecs. You will notice some compression artifacts from time to time, but not to the point of distraction. And while the video quality is comparable to Blu-ray, there is a noticeable lack of detail in certain scenes, as well as some judder during extreme pans, which we attribute to the movie being encoded at 1080p24 when the Apple TV only outputs 1080p at 60 frames per second -- do the math and then search for 3:2 pull-down.
Unfortunately not all the clips we sampled left us impressed. In fact we rented The Invention of Lying and every single scene was plagued with dancing backgrounds and compression artifacts everywhere else you can imagine. Hard to know who's to blame, Warner or Apple, but we have certainly never seen a movie on Blu-ray look that bad. This does give us pause when renting or buying a title, not knowing which level of quality we can expect, though.
Apple's store isn't the only source for 1080p, though -- you can also use AirPlay to stream 1080p video clips from your new iPad or iPhone 4S (mirroring is limited to 720p). In addition, we're sure it's only a matter of time before a 1080p profile is added to your favorite encoding software. We were able to use MKVTools to change the audio codec and container of a sample clip in the amount of time it takes to copy a file and found that, contrary to Apple's declared specs, the Apple TV easily handled 1080p H.264 High Profile 5.1.
There are some big missing features from the Apple TV and we're not talking about an App store, Siri or hand gestures. The biggest is the lack of HDMI-CEC, something almost every Blu-ray player features and that holds the promise of letting the Apple TV remote turn your television on and off, as well as adjust the volume. Content already available on other streamers is the other biggie, and while AirPlay does fill the gap, it doesn't allow us to watch live sports via WatchESPN in HD or access popular content on HBO Go or Hulu Plus. There are a few other notable misses like the lack of unified search, or content queue. What's more, we're not too keen on the fact that you have to use the remote to key in your iTunes account details before you can get rolling; we miss the original Apple TV that let us link up with a code as you would when pairing Bluetooth devices.
Apple TV (2012) hands-on!
Ultimately, we're happy Apple finally joined the 1080p party and has continued to develop what has become quite an appealing complement to iLife. We know a lot of folks call the Apple TV an accessory, and Apple itself calls it a hobby, but the reality is that if someone buys into the iTunes ecosystem, owns a HDTV and doesn't have an Apple TV, they are missing a big part of the experience. Between AirPlay, iCloud and the iTunes store, there isn't a better way to extend Apple's experience to the television. The addition of 1080p is appreciated, now, how about some HBO, eh?