Review: Apple TV Take 2 (40GB/160GB)
Pros: An iTunes format movie and music player for high-definition televisions, capable of acquiring content on its own from the Internet or accessing a computer’s iTunes library. Supports playback of high-resolution (720p) rented or user-created videos, as well as streamed or synchronized YouTube, music, photo, and podcast content, using a relatively straightforward interface and 802.11b/g/n wireless networking gear. Runs quiet, consumes little space, and includes Apple Remote; works with iTunes software to let you move certain purchased content back and forth from the device. Now functions as an AirTunes client to stream audio content wirelessly from an iTunes-equipped computer, even simultaneously with other AirTunes devices. Available in 40GB or 160GB versions, more reasonably priced than prior models.
Cons: You’ll have to create, convert, or buy compatible content, based on Apple-limited video format support; YouTube, iPod-formatted, and previously purchased iTunes Store videos can look downright bad on larger HDTVs. Does not include video or audio cables of any sort, and may not be compatible with certain TVs that it can physically connect to. Wireless hard disk synchronization can take a very long time to fill over standard wireless connection, such that 802.11n is strongly recommended. Doesn’t connect wirelessly to other Apple TVs or network storage devices, and integrated USB port does not allow connection of useful accessories such as a keyboard or additional storage. Music playback and photo features are acceptable but not mindblowing; could still benefit from simple tweaks. Small glitches and omissions in certain Store, video and audio features detract from overall experience.
Based somewhat upon the look of classic iPods, the original version of Apple TV used a straightforward interface that was divided into two halves: moving images on the left, and scrolling text menus on the right. With Apple’s included Infrared Apple Remote control in hand, you could typically use the up, down, play and menu buttons to navigate through all of your options; only rarely were the left and right buttons necessary.
With Apple TV 2.0, the interface has changed—and it’s a bit more complex. The main menu now contains a two-paned list of choices, with seven left-side “main menu” choices that replace the eight found in version 1.1 of the Apple TV software, and the right side with spots for seven contextual choices that change based on what you select on the left. Apple has kept the Movies, TV Shows, YouTube, Music, Podcasts, Photos, and Settings choices from before, and hidden a revamped version of the Sources option within Settings. It has also rearranged the menu to move YouTube way down the old list, and added a wide array of new second-level, contextual choices to the interface, largely to provide access to many iTunes Store features that were added in this version of the software.
The only new visual trick in the Apple TV 2.0 interface is a zoom effect that makes the two-pane menu appear to transparently pop out of the screen when you’ve made a contextual selection, and into the screen whenever you hit the Apple Remote’s Menu button. Other, scrolling menus merely fade in and out, and look exactly like the ones in prior versions of the Apple TV’s software. The twin-pane display overlaps and darkens whatever else is already on the screen whenever you press the Menu button.
Though we have mixed feelings about the look of the new Apple TV interface, and initially found it off-putting, there’s no denying that it renders the device easier to use after a short period of acclimation. Because of the new, screen overlapping main menu, you don’t have the need to repeatedly hit the remote’s Menu button over and over again to get back to the main list of choices, and you also don’t need to dive down two or three menus to find commonly used features. It’s definitely a net positive change.
Aesthetics aside, our only real issue with the new interface is a carryover from the past software: its increasing reliance on a slow-moving, poorly laid out on-screen keyboard for text input. Entering your iTunes account information, password, photo contact information and network settings is unnecessarily laborious, as you peck letter by letter through an interface that requires you to move slowly from one side of the screen to the other. A newer on-screen keyboard, used by Apple TV 2.0 for iTunes Store and YouTube searches, is smaller and easier to use, bolstered further by automatic key-by-key search results gleaned from the Internet. Had a slightly modified version of this keyboard been used for everything on Apple TV, we wouldn’t be wishing for a real keyboard as an alternate input device.