Free and cheap alternatives to cable and satellite TV

Review: Is Apple TV Right for You?
June 2016 By Brian Shim

I've owned an Apple TV for some time now.  I bought it to see how far it could go to replace cable TV programming.  My conclusion: It doesn't replace cable - it plays video that you can purchase from the iTunes store, Netflix, Hulu, and other online services.  If you want to rent videos and you have other Apple devices and iTunes content, Apple TV might be right for you. If you don't have iTunes content, then check out the Roku 3 or Amazon Fire TV, which have the latest features.

First let me explain what Apple TV is: On the one hand, it allows you to rent or purchase video from the iTunes store and watch it on your TV on demand. In that respect, it's like having a video rental store in your home. In addition, it lets you stream other video from your computer, iPad, or iPhone to your TV.

An HDMI input is required on your TV, so it won’t work on old tube TVs.  If you want to watch video that you already have on your computer, there are severe limitations to the file types that it will play, as I will outline below.  Also, it won’t show live TV like cable TV does. It only shows pre-recorded material for the most part.

Physically, Apple TV is a small black box that hooks to your TV via an HDMI cable, and to the Internet via Wi-Fi or Ethernet cable. Hook up is very easy as long as you know your Wi-Fi password.

Apple TV
Apple TV with remote

The first question I had was, “what programming can I watch right out of the box without paying for anything?” Well, there is some stuff.  My favorite free video service on there is YouTube. There’s another service called Vimeo that is similar to YouTube. You can also watch movie trailers for free and there is a Wall Street Week app with videos as well. Apple TV launched with just a handful of channels, but now they have almost four pages filled with apps for you to explore:

Apple TV home screen

Apple TV home screen 2

Apple TV home screen 3

Apple TV home screen 4

If you want a selection of top movies and TV to watch, you’ll have to either subscribe to Netflix or purchase shows and movies from the iTunes store (top-release moves are around $4.99, compared to $3.99 on Amazon). If you don't already have purchased movies on iTunes, then Amazon with Roku is a better choice, since the movies are cheaper. But personally, I am a free TV purist.  I refuse to pay any fees to watch TV with commercials.  So what does Apple TV do for cheapos like me who don't want to pay anything?

The new Apple TV will also offer Sling TV, a $20-per-month service that offers ESPN, AMC, and other cable channels. This is not available on older Apple TV's though.

Where Apple TV really shines its ability to connect to your Mac computer and your iPhone/iPad.  Let’s start with the computer first.  Your computer will need to be on the same network as your Apple TV, and it needs to have iTunes running.  Once you enter your Apple ID and password on your Apple TV, it will be able to “see” the music, video, and photos (if you enable that) in your iTunes library on your computer.  So now we have a few cool things here.  Apple TV can act as your music jukebox and play songs from your computer on your TV’s sound system, with album artwork displayed on the screen.  This is great if your TV is attached to a kickass sound system.  It can also be your photo slide show player.

Even more exciting (at least initially), Apple TV can play videos on your computer that you have imported into iTunes.  This would be super cool except for one huge problem:  Apple TV can only play .mp4/.mv4 and some .mov video formats. If you previously bought a bunch of movies on iTunes, or filmed a bunch of videos on your iPhone, it will play those.  However, most videos from the Internet are not in these formats.  Let’s say you recorded a bunch of TV on your computer using Windows Media Center.  None of those will play on Apple TV unless you convert them, which is a lengthy process.  I had bunch of old VHS videotapes that I ripped to my computer in the .mpg format.  Those don’t play either.  So in the end, this feature isn’t as nearly cool as it originally seemed.

But, Apple TV has one more trick up its sleeve.  Through the use of a wireless technology called Airplay Mirroring, Apple TV can display whatever is on your iPad 2 or later or iPhone screen onto your TV.  So basically, you have the ability to view any iPad app on your TV! 

Airplay Mirroring with with my iPad

Above is my 42" flatscreen TV mirroring my iPad screen while using the NBC iPad App. Note that I had to use my TV's zoom feature to make the picture fill the whole screen, but picture quality was still good.

So, while the Apple TV itself doesn't have the hundreds of channels that Roku does, it basically allows you to view any app that will run on your iPad, which kind of makes up for the lack of native Apple TV channels. See my favorite iPad apps that offer video here.

Those of you who own Macs bought in mid 2011 or later can use Airplay Mirroring as well. Since that is a real computer (and not a tablet), it won't be handicapped by not being able to play Flash content. This is an awesome feature if your Mac supports it!!

One workaround for all of these file format problems is an iPad app called Air Video which allows your iPad to play a file of almost any video format that is on your Wi-Fi network. You'll need to download software for your PC or Mac to act as the server. You'll be able to watch almost any video on your computer using your iPad, and then on your TV using Airplay and Apple TV. Sounds complicated but it's really not in practice. I tried it and it works, though the picture quality is around VHS quality (or slightly worse) since the conversion is happening in real time. There is a free version that you can try to see if you like it. The full version is only $2.99.

Verdict:  I can recommend Apple TV if you already have, or want to purchase, video from the iTunes store to watch on your TV, or if you want to watch YouTube on your TV, or if you want to watch iPad apps on your TV. If you don't use iTunes or YouTube or have other Apple devices, I would recommend Roku instead if you want a way to rent video over the Internet to watch on your TV. If you want true unfetttered access to the Internet on your TV, skip these boxes and instead attach your computer to your TV.

Here the links below to find Apple TV at Best Buy:

Apple TV 32GB Black

Apple TV 64GB Black

Hope this has been helpful! - Brian

Note, this is a professional review site that receives compensation from the retailer or manufacturer when you purchase through the affiliate links such as the ones below. I test and/or research each product or service thoroughly before endorsing it. This site is independently owned and the opinions expressed here are my own.

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