Original Link: http://www.anandtech.com/show/5687/apple-tv-3-2012-mini-review



The iPad (3) took front row during the recent launch extravaganza, however Apple also refreshed their Apple TV with a new model sporting a single core A5 SoC and some other noteworthy tweaks. We've spent some time with the new model since its launch, and have found a few interesting new things lurking inside. In addition to decoding 1080p iTunes content as well as YouTube and Netflix streams, the new Apple TV also includes a second WiFi antenna with better gain, which translates to improved reception and network throughput.  

Quick, from the photo above, can you tell which Apple TV is the third generation device? Externally, the Apple TV 3rd generation is virtually indistinguishable from the Apple TV 2nd generation. The new device keeps the exact same dimensions and mass, in fact, during my testing the only way to tell the two apart was to compare the model number at the bottom. This is pretty unsurprising for an Apple product cycle, where you see successive generations inherit the same external design even as internals evolve or change dramatically. On the box, the new Apple TV 3 now includes both a 1080p marking and an Energy Star logo, something the previous model didn't.

Ports on the backside are unsurprisingly identical as well, as are the material choices. I've managed to leave quite a few scratches in the back of my Apple TV 2 over time, and the same glossy (if somewhat scratch-prone) plastic rings the device. No doubt that plastic choice was made originally both for RF propagation characteristics (low density, probably low carbon) and also so that IR works in the front. The real change again is that the Apple TV 3 now supports 1080p50 and 1080p60 over HDMI, where the previous Apple TV 2 only supported 720p50 and 720p60 at maximum over HDMI. Ethernet is still 10/100, there's still a microUSB port for restoring and flashing, and full size optical TOSLINK. 

At the risk of sounding redundant, the accessories and remote inside are the same as the Apple TV 2 as well, namely an aluminum IR remote and the same length power cable. I don't think Apple's neat little aluminum remote needed any changing, nor did the power cable, but it's worth noting. The obvious upside is that if you're upgrading, everything about the current setup (power cable, HDMI, and space required) has stayed the same. If you're as obsessive about having a neatly wired home theater cabinet or stand as I am, this is definitely an upside. 



While most of the attention this previous week has been focused on Apple's A5X SoC inside the iPad (3rd Gen), the other Apple-SoC news is that of the S5L8942 or A5 revision 2 inside the Apple TV 3, and iPad2,4. In the case of the Apple TV 3, this A5 consists of a single core ARM Cortex A9, and likely the same PowerVR SGX543 GPU, though Apple hasn't stated how many GPU cores are enabled on this particular variant. We originally speculated that this might be a harvested die with an ARM core or SGX 543 core disabled, and until someone X-rays the package it's hard to know for sure. At this point we also don't know anything about what clocks the A5R2 inside Apple TV 3 is running.

In an attempt to figure this out, I decided to disassemble the Apple TV 3 I purchased to see what's different. Taking the Apple TV 3 apart is the same procedure as the last model. The bottom rubberized plastic cup pops off easily enough with a spudger, then there are some Torx bits securing a metal heatspreader to the PCB. Remove this, disconnect the power supply, and you're basically done. Interestingly enough, nearly every package and EMI can has a thermal pad on top and bottom in the Apple TV 3. I haven't found that the new revision gets warm at all (in fact, just like the previous revision it barely gets warm to the touch), but clearly thermals were a consideration here. 

 

Inside the Apple TV 3 things are arranged the same way as the previous model, with one big PCB sitting next to the power supply. With the EMI cans off, you can see that the second unused NAND pads and area have been removed, and in its place is one Toshiba 8 GB NAND device. To the left of it is the device's WLAN + BT 4.0 combo device, whose EMI cans are soldered on. iFixit has since disassembled an Apple TV 3 as well, and found BCM4330 inside, a choice which isn't surprising at all considering Apple's affinity for Broadcom combo chips. Note that there are two RF chains coming from the device, and two antennas, as opposed to the Apple TV 2's one. 

Below that we get the new A5, its PMIC to the left, marked 338S1040-A5, and to the right another Apple-branded package marked 343S0479 which previously was on the other side of the PCB in the Apple TV 2. The markings on top of the A5 (we're looking at the DRAM PoP here, actually) indicate a single Hynix 32-bit 512 MB LPDDR2 device, up from the 256 MB of LPDDR2 in the Apple TV 2. 

A5 Comparisons
SoC X Y Aspect Ratio (long/short) Marking
A5R1 (S5L8940) 14.3 mm 16.7 mm 1.17 APL0498
A5R2 (S5L8942) 13.02 mm 14.02 mm 1.07 APL2498

If you've had to stare at the A5 in the iPad 2 or iPhone 4S as much as I have, what should strike you immediately is that its aspect ratio is changed - it's more square than the A5 we've seen before. I measured this package and found that aspect ratio change to be the case. Interestingly enough the A5 in Apple TV 3 is slightly smaller than the iPad 2 / iPhone 4S A5, at 13.02 mm x 14.02 mm. This is as opposed to a package size of 16.7 x 14.3 mm for the A5 we've seen before. Package size alone isn't enough to draw conclusions from about whether this is an entirely new design - it's entirely possible that Apple has simply removed unused pads/balls and repackaged the A5. 

One of our readers put together photos of the new A5 based on our package photo (and also put together awesome images of the A4 and A5) for Wikipedia, which really illustrates just how changed the aspect ratio is. I put together a to-scale side by side with the two A5 packages above.

The reverse side of the PCB is less interesting. Here we see the SMSC9730 HSIC USB 2.0 to 10/100 Ethernet controller, Delta Electronics magnetics for the Ethernet jack, and another package whose markings I couldn't make out but seems to have been present on Apple TV 2. There's also the same 30-pin dock port pads in the same place. 

Finally, the Apple TV 3 contains the same 3.4V, 1.75A (~6 W) power supply as the previous model. In actual use, I've never seen either the Apple TV 2 or 3 use more than 3 watts while decoding 720p or 1080p video. The corresponding bump in output resolution, SoC, and WLAN stack doesn't seem to have changed power draw at all, or at least not enough that I can measure it on the Kill-A-Watt P4460 which only reports down to 1 watt of precision.



I touched on the fact that the Apple TV 3 now has two WiFi antennas printed on its PCB. The first appears to be of similar design to the Apple TV 2, and it's obvious from visual inspection that this is the case. The second is adjacent and shares the same ground plane / metal layer.


Antenna 1 (Encircled in blue), Antenna 2 (Encircled in red)

In addition, the Apple TV 3 also moves from Broadcom's BCM4329 802.11a/b/g/n and BT 2.0+EDR combo chip to BCM4330 802.11a/b/g/n and BT 4.0 combo chip which we've seen in the iPad 3, iPhone 4S, and countless other mobile devices. Seeing two RF chains, you might be led to think that the Apple TV 3 has 2x2:2, however this is not the case as the device still will only connect at 65 Mbps - single spatial stream, 20 MHz wide channels with the long guard interval. The maximum PHY rate and presence of 2.4 and 5 GHz band support is unchanged from Apple TV 2. 


BCM4330 - Courtesy iFixit

One of the main complaints that I read online of the Apple TV 2 was its performance on 2.4 GHz. If you're living in the Apple ecosystem with an Airport Extreme or have a 5 GHz AP, this previously is something you could've not noticed entirely. In addition, multimedia streaming seems to be the ideal use case for 5 GHz WLAN thanks to both the ability to run 40 MHz channels and deal with less congestion. However, for users with 2.4 GHz networks, gain on that band is important. 

It's obvious that the inclusion of a second WLAN chain and antenna is an attempt to improve RF performance further, even though the jump from 720p to 1080p for iTunes content doesn't increase bitrate very much at all (more later). To show just how much things have changed, I turned to the FCC documents for both Apple TV models which spell out antenna gain. Interestingly enough, the FCC also had internal photos up and posted the day the Apple TV 3 went on sale, which could've saved everyone some teardown time. 

Apple TV 2 and 3 - Antenna Gain
Antenna Apple TV 3 (A5) (BCGA1427) Apple TV 2 (A4) (BCGA1378)
Band (MHz) Ant 1 (dBi) Ant 2 (dBi) Ant 1 (dBi)
2400-2483.5 3.7 - 0.49
5150-5120 4.5 2.4 2.76
5250-5350 4.1 - 2.95
5470-5725 4.5 - 4.09
5745-5850 4.6 - 1.42

The table above contains the antenna gains for both models, and you can immediately see just how little gain there was previously for the Apple TV 2 on 2.4 GHz. Gain is now majorly improved on the 2.4 GHz band, and also improved on other parts of the 5 GHz band. You'll notice that antenna 2 on the Apple TV 3 only gets used (at least for transmit) on the 5.2 GHz band - channels 36 to 48. This is the small band below the DFS-enabled 5 GHz band (52-140). Remember that the "best" 5 GHz channels in the USA are the traditional 802.11a channels 149-165 since you can run with higher power. BCM4330 supports optional external antenna diversity - it's entirely possible this is also being used on the receive side. 

So what does this translate to in terms of actual RF performance now? To find out, I tested the Apple TV at three places in my house where I ran the previous model. Downstairs in my home theater shelf, a location which is awful for WiFi (I've run powerline here), downstairs in the bedroom (ironically on a 720p TV), and upstairs in my office on another TV right next to the AP for a baseline. 

Location 1 corresponds to the office environment right next to the AP, location 2 is the bedroom TV, and location 3 is the main TV cabinet. I setup the Apple TV 2 and 3 in all three locations like I normally would and fired up the Netflix example short test videos to ensure constant network traffic. I then watched the received signal strength and noise metrics reported from an Airport Extreme 5th gen. 

Apple TV 2 and 3 - Antenna Gain
Antenna Apple TV 3 (A5) (BCGA1427) Apple TV 2 (A4) (BCGA1378)
Location Signal (dBm) Noise (dB) Rate (Mbps) Band (GHz) Signal (dBm) Noise (dB) Rate (Mbps) Band (GHz)
1 - Office -47 -87 65 5 -50 -90 65 5
2 - Bedroom -71 -90 65 2.4 -78 -90 58 5
3 - Living Room -69 -85 65 2.4 -80 -90 52 5

I have my network setup with one SSID for both 2.4 and 5 GHz networks, and let devices choose which band. The Apple TV 3 seems to have a higher affinity for 2.4 GHz in the more difficult downstairs propagation environments, no doubt which comes from it being able to negotiate a higher PHY rate on 2.4 GHz as opposed to 5 GHz. In all three places, it latches onto the single spatial stream 20 MHz channel long guard interval 65 Mbps rate, where the Apple TV 2 previously selected lower MCS categories on 5 GHz. 

The takeaway is that the new Apple TV 3 gets better WiFi reception on both bands and thus can be placed further from the AP. This is something which no doubt will be much appreciated by users who have challenging home theater locations. Part of the reason is also no doubt to accommodate 1080p versus 720p content, though for iTunes content bitrate only changes from ~4 Mbps to ~5 Mbps. The other big new bandwidth consumer is of course iTunes Match. Obviously it goes without saying that Apple's media streamer device needs to have good connectivity to do its job, and the WiFi improvement makes a dramatic difference if you don't already have ethernet wherever you've located your TV.



Apple's two goals with the Apple TV 3 refresh seem to be - improved wireless connectivity, and of course support for 1080p content. We've touched on the first one, and the second one we touched on with the single core A5. Going from the single core Cortex A8 A4 to a single core Cortex A9 in the A5R2 might not seem to make much sense superficially, 20% increase in IPC aside, until you realize there are other things inside an SoC than CPU and GPU. I'm talking about the video decode blocks, which no doubt the primary reason for the change in SoC. Both the A4 and A5 use Imagination's PowerVR VXD (D for Decode, VXE is E for encode) family of encoders and decoders. The A4 used a PowerVR VXD375, and the A5 uses a more powerful VXD decoder. 

That difference in SoC allows the Apple TV 3 to decode 1080p30 H.264 at a higher profile than the A4-based Apple TV 2. Apple outlines their H.264 decode capabilities as shown in the table below: 

Apple TV 2 and 3 - Decode
  Apple TV 3 (A5) (BCGA1427) Apple TV 2 (A4) (BCGA1378)
Format Max Decode Parameters
H.264 H.264 video up to 1080p, 30 frames per second, High or Main Profile level 4.0 or lower, Baseline profile level 3.0 or lower with AAC-LC audio up to 160 Kbps per channel, 48kHz, stereo audio in .m4v, .mp4, and .mov file formats H.264 video up to 720p, 30 frames per second, Main Profile level 3.1 with AAC-LC audio up to 160 Kbps per channel, 48kHz, stereo audio in .m4v, .mp4, and .mov file formats
MPEG-4 MPEG-4 video up to 2.5 Mbps, 640 by 480 pixels, 30 frames per second, Simple Profile with AAC-LC audio up to 160 Kbps, 48kHz, stereo audio in .m4v, .mp4, and .mov file formats MPEG-4 video, up to 2.5 Mbps, 640 by 480 pixels, 30 frames per second, Simple Profile with AAC-LC audio up to 160 Kbps, 48kHz, stereo audio in .m4v, .mp4, and .mov file formats
MJPEG Motion JPEG (M-JPEG) up to 35 Mbps, 1280 by 720 pixels, 30 frames per second, audio in ulaw, PCM stereo audio in .avi file format Motion JPEG (M-JPEG) up to 35 Mbps, 1280 by 720 pixels, 30 frames per second, audio in ulaw, PCM stereo audio in .avi file format

Unsurprisingly these decode parameters are very close to the iPad 2 / iPhone 4S which carry A5R1 (H.264 High Profile up to Level 4.1), so we can know for sure that A5R2 inherits a similar decode block at least. Moving to a better decoder allows the device to decode video which has been encoded with more H.264 features as well, and thus achieve higher encoder efficiency.

I've touched on this before but bitrate and file size doesn't grow much between the 720p and 1080p encodes of the same media for iTunes content. I fired up MediaInfo and took a look at the 720p and 1080p copies of the same episode of Dexter freshly downloaded from iTunes. 


iTunes 720p30 - 4 Mbps H.264 High@L3.1 with 2 Reference frames


iTunes 1080p30 - 5 Mbps H.264 High@L4.0 with CABAC and 4 Reference frames

Unsurprisingly the 1080p30 iTunes video uses the maximum encode parameters for the A5 SoC with H.264 Level 4.0. They've also gone for CABAC and 4 reference frames, which makes these 1080p encodes much more efficient in terms of quality / bit than the 720p encodes. 5 Mbps is still a bit low even with these encode parameters for 1080p where the typical guidance is around 10 Mbps. No doubt the bitrate of your lowest common denominator cable ISP is the limitation here, and unfortunately Apple currently lacks the infrastructure to stream different 1080p bitrates and encodes. 

While the bump up to H.264 high profile and inclusion of CABAC and 5 reference frames makes iTunes' 1080p encodes eerily similar to Blu-ray in features, the lower bitrate results in quality which simply isn't close. Videophiles will definitely be able to tell the difference between Apple's 1080p content and Blu-ray.

Apparently the 25% larger file size isn't enough to warrant additional NAND either, as again the Apple TV 2 and 3 still include 8 GB for caching iCloud Photo Stream content and iTunes media locally.

Just like before, the only video output option is HDMI, where the Apple TV 3 lets you go up to 1080p at 50 or 60 Hz. Audio output continues to be over HDMI or a full size TOSLINK. Apple TV continues to also output Dolby Digital 5.1 if the source content offers it. 

I don't remember there being SXGA, XGA, and SVGA options in the previous builds of Apple TV, but as of the latest 5.0 (Build 4099) update these options are also now available for selection if you're interested in running the device with a non 16:9 aspect ratio display. 

It goes without saying that running the Apple TV 3 at its native resolution on a 1080p display results in much better looking everything (UI, navigation, and media) than it did with the 720p model. Obviously upscaling 720p on a 1080p display resulted in a less than satisfactory experience, but made Apple TV 2 very suited to smaller 720p displays. 

The Apple TV 3 doesn't seem strained drawing the UI at 1920x1080, in fact the 2.25x increase in pixel count doesn't seem to have slowed down the interface at all. There were a few areas that always seemed to drop frames on Apple TV 2 (namely the album art flip on the currently playing screen, one which continually nagged me every time it happened) which simply don't drop frames anymore, thank goodness. The only place I ever encounter lag is the related video YouTube picker which appears at the end of a video, where both the Apple TV 2 and 3 stutter, and a few edge cases. For example, trying to do much of anything the first time you enable iTunes Match seems to particularly strain the single core A9 in the A5R2. Outside that however, Apple TV 3 seems pretty performant, and doesn't disappoint when actually playing back media. 



The Apple TV 3 announcement coincided with the release of iOS 5.1 for iDevices, but also included an iOS update for the Apple TV 2 which bumped it to 5.0, build 4099. This update includes a new UI which seems to have received polarized reviews from existing Apple TV 2 users. In the case of the Apple TV 3, this revision is the earliest possible revision of the software. 

Chief among changes is a new main UI which uses a 4x5 matrix of tiles for its navigation paradigm. The previous Apple TV UI used a sliding media bar arrangement similar in principle to Sony's XMB interface. I can see why Apple changed things around, as over time certain categories (namely Internet) in the original Apple TV 2 interface started getting very long as more services were added.

The new interface consolidates all of Apple's first-party media options, and the settings tab, into the top row, where they're accompanied by a preview.

Scrolling down into the second or lower rows in the grid eliminates the preview but exposes all of the tiles. The UI options further inside the respective applications for the most part is the same as it was before. Inside the settings application things are nicely consolidated as well - options which previously were drop downs are now just part of the drill down UI inside settings. 

In addition to Apple's own iTunes shows, music, and movie content, I tested 1080p content from Netflix (the example videos), YouTube and Vimeo on the Apple TV 3, which it tackled just fine. I primarily used the Apple TV 2 as a Netflix and YouTube player and occasional AirPlay endpoint, so there ended up being the things I've tested the most in the past few days.

Netflix

Netflix support has gotten gradually better with each Apple TV software update, and the platform now appears to immediately start playing the SD quality stream until either the 720p or 1080p HD stream is done buffering and ready to play. You can catch this quality jump at the very beginning of a stream if you're careful, and you can see it in the rollovers below.

Netflix SD Netflix 1080p
original original

While originally the Netflix behavior of the initial Apple TV 2 wasn't that great, things have come a long way with each respective software update, to the point where Apple TV 2 and 3 are now very competent Netflix streamers. Note that Netflix 1080p video is still H.264 video at 4.8 Mbps with 384 kbps audio (unknown H.264 features or profile). The Apple TV 3 also plays back Dolby Digital 5.1 on the few Netflix videos which have it enabled. 

What's still lacking are indicators for what things you've already watched (or how much you've watched) - the resume or play over dialog which lets you know whether you're watching the same episode again only appears after you've selected and started playback. There are other things as well which could be fleshed out a bit more, but the glaring things (selecting the most optimal stream, closed captioning support, thumbnails while seeking, etc.) have been addressed during the Apple TV 2's lifespan and are thus inherited into the Apple TV 3. I'd still also like to have playback quality indicators (the PS3's stream quality and audio quality indicators remain the best out there) but doubt that those would jive with Apple's minimalist UI design philosophy. 

iTunes Video, Match, Photo Stream

One of the other new things is iTunes Match support. If you've subscribed, you can quickly enable this and stream matched media directly from iCloud. There's a buffer period before each song starts while the song is downloaded (the n+1 song is also buffered) but other than that if your internet connection is fast enough there's not much of a problem streaming everything over the internet at all. The initial library download process did take a while on my 22k song library, however after that initial sync things seem to be decently speedy. 

When it comes to purchased TV Shows and Videos, the same applies. You can select from any of the media you have previously purchased, which buffers for a short period and then becomes available to play. Subsequent playback of iTunes video seems to happen instantaneously if it's still in the 8 GB cache, whereas music seems to result in the Apple TV going back out to the internet every time. Under settings, iTunes store, you can also change the video resolution between SD, 720p, and 1080p as well. 

Photo stream was introduced in one of the previous Apple TV software updates, and it (along with most of the other features) seem to be inherited in their previous form into the "5.0" Apple TV software release. The only frustrations here are lack of multiple Apple ID account support for photo streams and iTunes accounts, though I suppose you can always sign out and log in again, tedious as that is. 

WiFi display on the Apple TV 3 appears to happen at the same resolution as the previous model, or at least from my iPhone 4S. That is to say that it isn't quite native but rather downsampled on the device, encoded, then shipped over to the Apple TV. I haven't had a chance to try the Apple TV 3 with a Mountain Lion install or with the iPad 3, but with Mountain Lion and AirPlay you can stream additional media sources over AirPlay as well.

Final Thoughts

The downsides with Apple TV continue to be what they were in the previous version. There's no support for some of the other up and coming video streaming services like Vudu (who offers up to 9 Mbps 1080p streaming) or Hulu or countless others. In addition there's no easy way to simply play back things from an AFP network share, and probably never will be. Apple hasn't crafted a pirate-friendly box with Apple TV, and until the Apple TV 3 gets jailbroken and XMBC port, it just isn't a fit for that crowd at all. It also remains to be seen how much the combination of 512 MB of LPDDR2, single core A5, and SGX543MP+ graphics help that particular application out. 

The Apple TV 3 really is an obvious evolution of the Apple TV 2 design - that much should be clear at this point. The new model adds 1080p support to all the included media sources without getting sluggish, and adds support for more efficient H.264 by leveraging the A5's newer video decoder. 2.4 and 5 GHz WiFi reception is correspondingly better as well thanks to the combination of both a newer WiFi+BT combo chip, and the addition of one more antenna. Meanwhile, power draw has stayed exactly the same. The rest of the package is really unchanged, and the update doesn't do anything to fundamentally change the way that Apple TV fits into the home theater picture. If you didn't find the Apple TV 2 appealing for reasons other than being limited to 720p, there's really little chance that you'll find the Apple TV 3 any different. 

If you're squarely entrenched in the Apple ecosystem, there's really no reason to not have an Apple TV. AirPlay mirroring (essentially WiFi Display) and AirPlay for audio (which is ALAC at around 1 Mbps) continues to be a big selling point. In addition iCloud support for all your purchased iTunes store content is an additional plus. On the other hand, if you've been holding out for a 1080p Netflix streamer, AirPlay endpoint, and iCloud box, the Apple TV 3 isn't bad.

 

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