Apple TV is a small device (digital media receiver) that uses a cable to connect to your television. It uses wifi to connect to your home network and the internet. Its purpose is to stream media content from the iTunes Store, Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube, Flickr, iCloud, MLB.tv, NBA League Pass, NHL GameCenter, or any Mac OS X or Windows computer running iTunes on an enhanced-definition or high-definition widescreen television.
In September 2010, Apple announced a second-generation version of the Apple TV. About one-quarter of the size and one-third of the price of the original Apple TV, the new device could stream rented content from iTunes and video from computers or iOS devices via AirPlay. The new version no longer has the hard drive; however, it does have an undocumented internal 8 GB flash storage, speculated to be used for smoother playback of streamed media. All content is drawn from online or locally connected sources. A third generation of the device was introduced at an Apple event on March 7, 2012, with new features such as higher resolution and a new user interface.
Apple TV can only stream music or movies stored in a computer's iTunes library. It does not see videos or other music stored in folders on your computers. This is both good news and bad news. The good news is that Apple TV works seamlessly with Mac computers and PCs running iTunes. The bad news is that you cannot access movies saved outside an iTunes library. If you are an iTunes or iPhone user, Apple TV might be right for you. If you have a number of computers in your home network, or a network attached storage (NAS) device, you may want to choose another type of network media player.
Notable competitors include Western Digital Media Center, Roku, Boxee, YouView, Google TV, and Chromecast, as well as Smart TVs from companies such as Samsung, Sony, and LG.
The Apple TV lets you stream all the video content in the iTunes Store to your HDTV, with purchases stored in the cloud. Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBO Go, MLB.TV, and a handful of other online media services are available, plus music, videos, and photos can be streamed from iOS devices using AirPlay. AirPlay Mirroring lets you stream any Web video to the Apple TV, if you have a newer Mac running Mountain Lion. And the Apple TV's user interface is one of the best there is.
The competing Roku 3 offers more content sources (including Amazon Instant), cross-platform search, and a remote with a headphone jack. The Apple TV is less of a standout streamer box if you don't own other Apple devices.
The Bottom Line
While it's still a step behind the Roku 3, the Apple TV is an excellent streaming box, especially for those invested in the Apple ecosystem.