After a long wait, the HBO GO app has finally come to Apple TV. Best of all, the Apple TV HBO GO app streams at 1080P. HBO confirmed to Tech of the Hub that all of their connected TV apps are now streaming HD video at 1080P with the exception of the Xbox which is at 720P.
Besides that, the Apple TV app is fairly straight forward. Its interface and navigation is similar to other Apple TV apps such as iTunes Movies and TV Shows. The app also supports Dolby Digital surround sound like other HBO GO connected TV apps including the ones on the Roku and Samsung . Unlike the Roku HBO GO app, the Apple TV version also includes support for closed captions as does the Samsung and Xbox versions.
Despite 1080P being sent to both devices, I was surprised to find a noticeable difference in HBO GO video quality on my Roku 2 versus my Apple TV 3. The difference was best illustrated during the opening scene of “Blackwater” from season 2 of Game of Thrones which takes places at night on ships at sea. As an example, when you see the fleet of ships, the night sky is displayed as black blocky pixel patches on the Roku. Apple TV doesn’t suffer from these video artifacts. However, when I watch a well-lit scene, it’s hard to see a difference between the two devices.
Why the difference in video quality? According to the Verge, HBO re-encoded their entire library to optimize video quality for Apple TV. So, it could be that a Apple TV has access to a better set of encodes. However, I also own a digital copy of Game of Thrones season 2. Streaming via VUDU on the Roku, I once again saw the same artifacts during the opening of Blackwater. It’s unclear to me if its the encodes or a device specific issue. The best streaming copy of Game of Thrones I could find was the iTunes Digital Copy on Apple TV which was just slightly better than the HBO GO Apple TV version. Of course, if you’re looking for the best image quality, reach for the Blu-ray.
It should be noted that the Apple TV app lacks HBO GO’s interactive features present on the Xbox, web and iOS apps. Alternatively, you can get a similar experience on Apple TV by running the HBO GO iOS app on an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch and streaming it via Airplay to Apple TV. Also, some of the content is available as stand alone videos on the service (via “Related Content” at the bottom of the screen). While HBO did not comment on whether or not interactive features were coming to the Apple TV, I bet it’s likely we’ll see it in a future version. The same Verge article stated that this was the first HBO GO app that HBO built in house.
To finish up, I’m glad to finally see HBO GO as a native Apple TV app. Since I have a TiVo instead of regular cable box, I don’t have access to the HBO On-Demand. Given it’s better video quality, Apple TV will be my preferred way to watch HBO GO.