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.
In an effort to make Apple TV more of an Internet-focused device than one dependent on a wirelessly tethered local computer, Apple has thoroughly rethought the Photos section of Apple TV. Since it’s not trying to sell you anything here, My Photos—your organized, computer-synchronized collection—is the first option under this menu. But two new options, .Mac and Flickr browsing access, have been added to a Settings menu underneath.
Unless you’re a Mac user or know someone with an annual subscription to Apple’s .Mac service, the .Mac feature will likely strike you as a niche addition to the interface. Here, you can use the unfortunately large on-screen keyboard to enter a .Mac user’s name, and see all of that person’s public .Mac albums.
Each album is shown as a separate selectable item with a representative thumbnail and the number of photos inside. Select an album and Apple TV will put on a slideshow of its contents, streaming them directly from the Internet to your television set.
Much more interesting is the Flickr browser, which starts by letting you add Flickr contacts using the large on-screen keyboard, then displays a list of each contact with a thumbnail image. Click on any name, and the browser acts just like the .Mac one, presenting a list of galleries with thumbnails and numbers, then downloading and displaying your selections from the Internet.
Unlike .Mac, the Flickr browser lets you easily navigate from one person’s library over to those of that person’s contacts, letting you see images from friends, friends of friends, and so on. Albums are presented on a scrolling list for ease of browsing. In an odd omission, you can’t add the contact automatically to your own list of contacts; you again need to use the on-screen keyboard for this.
Apple TV 2.0’s revised Photo Settings menu looks basically identical to the one found on Apple TV 1.1, with the same options, in the same order as before, and the same transition effects. The only difference is that this menu is now contextually selected from the main menu, rather than at the top of your photos library.
With the addition of Flickr browsing, and to a lesser extent .Mac browsing, Apple TV’s Photos feature becomes a lot more compelling than it was before—not only do you get the benefit of realtime access to photos from friends, family, and their contacts, but you also get to view those photos on a high-definition television set rather than a small computer monitor. Keyboard issues aside, the only failings of this feature are a couple of weird limitations of its interface: you can’t search Flickr, so if you don’t know a contact’s name, or it doesn’t work for some reason when you enter it, you’re out of luck. And once you’re in a library, you don’t have thumbnail-style access to all of the pictures in it, as you would on the iPhone or any photo-ready iPod. Instead, you need to skip through the photos in a slideshow, which isn’t much fun. Photos could be even better via Apple TV if Apple just brings these simple features into the interface.
Apple TV 2.0’s YouTube feature is basically the same as it was before. The seven YouTube contextual options offer the same features found in version 1.1 of the Apple TV software, in the same order, except for My Account. You can see Featured, Most Viewed, Most Recent, and Top Rated videos, plus your video viewing History, and access an on-screen keyboard for Search. Previously, the seventh option let you Log In or Log Out of your account, which resulted in the addition of a Favorites item to the seven standard menu options. Now, because of the “only seven choices” limitations of the pane, Favorites are stored under My Account. You can stop any video and choose its Options to rate the video, save it to your favorites, or flag it as inappropriate. There’s also a Subscriptions option for content provider subscriptions.
We’re still not huge fans of the YouTube feature of Apple TV, as video quality varies dramatically from video to video in content, resolution, and frame rate, and the feature seems far better suited to Apple’s portable devices than something connected to a high-definition display. That said, the feature doesn’t hurt Apple TV’s appeal, and as YouTube continues to improve the standards for its video imports, the feature may well pick up additional steam even for HDTV users.