Apple may or may not release a television someday. In the meantime, it offers a tiny $99 streaming box called the Apple TV.
The Apple TV has never felt like a revolutionary product, but consistent updates have transformed it from a glorified Netflix player into a solid streaming-video box. Apple's beefed up its channel selection, adding Hulu Plus, HBO Go, Watch ESPN and Sky News, in addition to stalwarts like Netflix, MLB.TV, and YouTube. The Apple TV remains deeply integrated with iTunes, allowing you to stream purchased and rented movies and TV shows, plus with iTunes Match you can get access to your entire digital music collection -- if you're a subscriber.
AirPlay remains the Apple TV's secret weapon, letting you push videos, music, and photos from an iPhone or iPad, including content from most third-party apps. And if you've got a newer Mac, you can even pull off full-fledged screen-mirroring in Mountain Lion -- yes, that means you can stream free Hulu right to your TV.
Yet, the Apple TV can't be considered the premier living room box. That honor goes to the Roku 3, which offers up more content options (including Amazon Instant, Pandora, Spotify, and Rdio), excellent cross-platform search, and a nifty remote with a headphone jack for private listening.
If you're deeply invested in the Apple ecosystem, especially iTunes, the Apple TV is a polished streaming-video box that's well worth its $100 price tag. But most buyers are better off with the plucky Roku 3 -- even if it doesn't stream YouTube.
Editors' note: The Apple TV was originally reviewed on March 16, 2012, but has been updated to reflect recently added apps and changes in the competitive marketplace.
Design: Same sleek, black box
The Apple TV still has the best design of any streaming video box. It's a simple, unobtrusive black box with a small white light on the front that illuminates when it's in active use. Around back are a handful of connections, including HDMI, optical audio output, Micro-USB (for service only), and Ethernet. There's also built-in 802.11n Wi-Fi for connecting to your home wireless network, with support for dual-band Wi-Fi. Note that HDMI is the only video connection available, so if you have an older TV, you're out of luck.
Unlike most other streaming boxes, the Apple TV's power supply is built-in, so there's no separate AC adapter. It also gives the Apple TV a useful heft that keeps it planted even with a heavy HDMI cable hanging out the back.
The included remote is minimalist in a classic Apple way. It has just a navigation circle at the top, a Menu button (which doubles as a Back button), and a Play/Pause button. The simplicity makes it easy for anybody to pick it up and get the hang of it, and for the most part its simple controls are enough for everyday use. On the other hand, it can't compete with the Roku 3's delightful remote that adds a built-in headphone jack, Wi-Fi direct control, and a few handy additional buttons like "skip back."
The Apple TV can also be controlled with an iPad or iPhone using Apple's Remote app. Like most smartphone control apps, there's an onscreen "remote" that you can use and the ability to navigate menus via gestures. For most uses, it's not all the useful, especially since you can't actually browse streaming content on your iPad a la Google's Chromecast. What is cool is the remote apps lets you remotely control music from your iTunes collection on a PC, which can be easier than using the remote. And if you're controlling your music collection using the Remote app and the Apple TV is hooked to a separate audio amplifier, you won't need to have the TV on, either.
User interface: Paving the way for an app store?
The Apple TV user interface got an overhaul in 2012, adopting a more app-centric design that kind of makes your TV look like a giant iPad. Apple's own services are pinned to the top, including rotating cover art for top TV shows and movies. Below are all your other apps and you can rearrange the order so your favorites are toward the top. The icon-driven design works well enough, but it does beg for a true "app store" for the Apple TV.
Selecting movies or TV shows brings you to the iTunes interface. There's a menu bar along the top of the screen by which you can jump to useful features like your purchased content and content you've 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 genres. Selecting a title brings up a synopsis, Rotten Tomatoes ratings, cast info, and more. The layout is excellent for browsing content. While I personally use Amazon Instant for most of my video content purchases, I'm always impressed by how nice the iTunes Store experience is when I use the Apple TV.
iTunes Store: Movies, TV shows
The iTunes Store has been through many incarnations on the Apple TV, but it's in the best state it's ever been in. TV shows are $3 for HD, $2 for SD (although it's increasingly rare to find the SD option); movies are $5 to rent in HD, and anywhere between $10 and $20 to purchase.
All of the content is streamed (rather than downloaded) and you can access your purchased movies and TV shows to rewatch as many times as you'd like. Your movie and TV show purchases can also be streamed or downloaded to other Apple devices, including the iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch, Macs, and PCs running iTunes.