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.
The TV Shows menu has been re-designed with six contextual choices, a big jump from the Apple TV 1.0 and 1.1 system. Again, the focus here is on pushing you to the iTunes Store to make purchases, so the list begins with Favorites, Top TV Shows, Genres, TV Networks, and Search features to help you locate popular programs to preview and buy. My TV Shows brings you to the old Apple TV’s TV Shows menu, minus the iTunes TV Top TV Episodes option, which was relocated.
Favorites is a new feature that provides shortcuts to TV shows you’ve already found and tagged as “favorites” using the Apple TV’s iTunes Store interface. Shows are identified as favorites by season, so if you like a Season 4 episode of Lost, your favorite brings you to the top of the Season 4 list for additional episodes. Selecting a season lets you easily locate previous seasons of the series, assuming that they’re available on iTunes, for later purchase. There’s no Season Pass purchasing feature for current seasons of TV shows.
As with the Movies section of the interface, it’s obvious that Apple has struggled with how to let you navigate through the hundreds of different iTunes Store TV shows using nothing more than the simple Apple Remote controller. Top TV Shows mimics Top Movies in presenting scrollable lists of numerically ranked covers, replacing Great Westerns with a random genre (misspelled Cops & Robberts when we tested the Store).
Just as with Movies, Genres and TV Networks present text-style lists of genres or content providers before cutting to a collection of iconic covers, but here, most shows also have text labels even if you haven’t highlighted them. You can search the TV Shows with an on-screen keyboard, which has the same simple layout and predictive text features of the Movies keyboard.
Apple TV’s new Music interface is much like the old one, only with iTunes Store-searching features comprising the first four contextual choices before you get to My Music, the prior iPod-styled organization of your music library.
Top Music, Music Videos, and Genres provide pre-organized, black background visual searches of the store, while Search provides an on-screen keyboard like the TV Shows and Movie search features. Again, the store’s Music sections benefit from on-screen text to help you figure out what the cover art is for.
Unlike the Movies section, both TV Shows and Music let you make purchases—mass purchases—directly from the Apple TV. You can buy individual songs, music videos, or TV episodes, or full albums, or full TV show seasons. A price is presented clearly on the screen, along with information on the format of the content and the devices it will play on.
Interestingly, Apple TV describes all music and videos as being in the “iTunes format,” and that they’ll “also play on iPods and iPhones.” It doesn’t distinguish between iTunes Plus songs—though you are alerted to iTunes Plus status on an album’s or song’s information screen—or tell you which iPods a video will or won’t play on.
Apple TV’s new Podcasts menu is like the TV Shows menu, offering choices of Favorites, Top Podcasts, Genres, Providers, and Search before letting you access My Podcasts, the library screen from the prior Apple TV interface. As with TV Shows, you can add any podcast to your list of Favorites to let you revisit the page for later content, but there’s no subscription feature—somewhat of a surprise given that podcasts are free, and unlike TV Shows, Apple has nothing to lose if a podcast stops abruptly without sending out additional episodes. It’s possible that subscription features just required too much hard disk space or management for the Apple TV, or that Apple will add them later. In any case, you do have the ability to instantly watch or fully download free podcasts from the iTunes Store, using an interface that’s very straightforward.
The only interesting addition to the Podcasts menu is Providers, which now highlights popular podcasting networks in the same way that TV Shows lists TV networks. Cover art for the providers flows on the left side of the screen here, just as it does in all other single text-pane parts of the Apple TV interface.
Overall, Apple TV’s TV Shows, Music, and Podcasts features work well—better than the Movies section thanks to some better iTunes Store fine-tuning on Apple’s side, and the ability to purchase content rather than just renting it. While the iTunes Store could benefit from additional Apple TV interface overhauls, including ways to search for iTunes Plus content, make purchases with gift cards, and the ability to purchase Audiobooks, the current system works pretty well to support the majority of things users will want to do with the Apple TV.