The newly refreshed Apple TV will be hitting stores on Friday, providing modest upgrades including 1080p support, a new single-core A5 processor, a redesigned user interface, and improved iCloud video support. While I haven't had any hands-on time with the device yet, I largely know what to expect, especially since the redesigned user interface is already available on existing Apple TV hardware.
Apple TV's new user interface: Hands-on
Given that the changes for the new Apple TV are so minor, my buying advice remains largely the same. The Apple TV is an excellent streaming-media box, especially for those who already own other iOS devices and are invested in the Apple ecosystem. AirPlay is still a killer feature, plus there's dead simple integration with other Apple services like iTunes Match, Photo Stream, and iCloud backup of your TV and movie purchases. However, the Roku LT remains a compelling alternative, offering significantly more content sources at half the price, especially if you won't take advantage of the Apple-centric features.
What's most interesting is what the Apple TV's changes hint at. The new interface makes your TV look a lot like a giant iPad, with large icons for each service, seemingly paving the way for a true app store to hit the Apple TV some day. And while 1080p output may not make a difference right away, it could play a bigger factor when full-screen AirPlay mirroring comes to Apple's new Mountain Lion operating system. If you already own the old Apple TV, there's not a compelling reason to immediately upgrade, but I wouldn't be surprised if the new Apple TV gets some major upgrades down the line.
Design: Same sleek black box
The look of the Apple TV's hasn't changed from the last incarnation, but it's still the best design around. It's just a simple, unobtrusive black box with a small white light on the front when it's in active use. Around back are just a handful of connections, including HDMI, optical audio output, Micro-USB (for service only), and Ethernet. There's also 802.11n Wi-Fi built-in for connecting to your home wireless network. Note that HDMI is the only video connection available, so if you have an older TV, you're out of luck.
The Apple TV can also be controlled with an iPad or iPhone using Apple's Remote application, and it works well. You can remotely control music from your iTunes collection, and use swipe gestures to navigate menus. We did prefer using the actual remote for navigation, but if you already have your iPhone out, it's useful in a pinch. If you're playing music from your iOS handheld and the Apple TV is hooked to a separate audio amplifier, you won't need to have the TV on, either.
User interface: New, but not necessarily better
If you're used to to the old Apple TV, the most noticeable difference is the new user interface. Gone are the old list-like menus, replaced with larger cover art at the top and square icons along the bottom for movies, TV shows, music, computers, and settings. Navigate farther down and there's a grid of icons for the Apple TV's other supported services; it looks a lot more like the screen of an iPad or iPhone than ever before. I'm not sold that the new home screen is better than the old design, but it's not a huge step in the wrong direction.
Selecting movies or TV shows brings you to the updated iTunes interface, which is more of an improvement. There's now a menu bar along the top of the screen letting you jump to useful features likes your purchased content and content you'd added to your wish list. Below there's a carousel of promoted content, followed by cover art broken down by categories like "new releases" and genre. If you're willing to pay for content, iTunes is still the best place to do it.
iTunes Store: Movies, TV shows
The iTunes Store has been through many incarnations on the Apple TV, but it's the best state it's ever been in. TV shows are $3 for HD, $2 for SD (although increasingly rare to find the SD option); movies are $5 to rent in HD, and anywhere from between $10 to $20 to purchase. The selection of content is excellent, including some sources that don't show on competitors like Amazon Instant, such as Cartoon Network's Adult Swim content.
Overall, the iTunes Store is an experience that Roku or even Amazon can't match right now, combining a huge selection of content with a fantastic layout and the ability to watch that content on the go.
Other streaming services: Still limited
Once you get past the iTunes content, your options are more limited. Netflix is the most important, followed by other high-quality sources like MLB.TV, NBA, NHL, YouTube, and Vimeo. The podcast section also includes plenty of video content (which a lot of people don't realize), including TED Talks and CNET.
The Apple TV is also still limited in its ability to play your personal digital media. The basic rule of thumb is that it will play anything that plays in iTunes, but that leaves out a lot file formats favored by (ahem) downloaders, such as MKV and DivX. If you're looking to play that kind of content, skip the Apple TV and check out competitors like the WD TV Live and the Boxee Box.
AirPlay: The Apple TV's killer feature
The Apple TV's lack of content sources is somewhat made up for by AirPlay. We've covered AirPlay plenty in the past, but it's a killer feature if you own other iOS devices. The idea is you can stream photos, music, and videos straight from another iOS device to the Apple TV. That includes many third-party apps, so while the Apple TV doesn't have a Pandora app, your iPhone does and can stream Pandora to your Apple TV using AirPlay. Notice we said many third-party apps, because not all of them support it, including Hulu Plus and HBO Go. So while AirPlay can substitute for some apps, it's not a panacea.
AirPlay has one more trick up its sleeve: mirroring. The idea with mirroring is whatever is displayed on your device is exactly what gets displayed on your Apple TV. Only the iPhone 4S, iPad 2 and the "new iPad" support mirroring so far, but Apple is including mirroring in its upcoming Mountain Lion operating system, due out later this summer. That should let you display anything you can play on your computer--possibly even regular Hulu.com--on your Apple TV. I haven't tested that functionality yet, but it could be yet another awesome AirPlay feature and will benefit from the Apple TV's 1080p support.
iTunes Match: Digital music made simple
Getting your digital music collection to your living room somehow still manages to be a pain in 2012, outside of pricey (but excellent) options like Sonos. iTunes Match gets rid of most of the frustrations, letting you store a copy of your digital music in the cloud and stream directly to the Apple TV, iOS devices, and iTunes on a PC. No dealing with hard-drive management or complex network settings. The downside is the service costs $25 a year, which stings a little considering that's a fee to listen to music you already own. (Plus Google and Amazon offers its own music storage options for free.) It can also take some work setting up, but the interface on the Apple TV is a pretty slick way to listen to your digital music if you're willing to pay.
Performance: Don't expect too much from 1080p
When I finally get the new Apple TV hardware in my hands, the first thing I'll test will be whether its 1080p support makes video look any better. 1080p output on its own won't make much of a difference for video content, but improved bit rate and compression on iTunes 1080p content could result in better picture quality. Any improvement will be marginal, though, as iTunes HD content already looked pretty good.
Roku LT vs. Apple TV
Still can't make up your mind between the two? Check out the direct comparison between the two boxes I did last week.