Review: Apple Inc. 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.
When Apple TV was released last year, we were impressed by its simplicity, but disappointed by its video compatibility limitations, storage space, and value for the dollar—it was obvious to everyone back then that Apple could have created a hugely popular, QuickTime- or iTunes-like multi-format media player, but held back from what consumers wanted in an attempt to sell more content through the iTunes Store. The release of the device was thus seen by some as misguided and Sony-like, and others as greedy and short-sighted. With Apple TV 2.0, the company has barely changed from that position: the new interface is now heavily focused on selling iTunes Store content, and its biggest added feature is the ability to rent, rather than purchase, high-definition movies. This isn’t “1,000 songs in your pocket” or “a 21st Century DVD player;” rather, it’s “some of our store in your living room, ready for instant gratification.”
At least, for now. Far more than the Apple TV 1.1 software upgrade, which added a YouTube feature no one was asking for, resulting in little to no added interest in the device, Apple TV 2.0’s standard- and high-definition video rentals actually bring obvious benefits to mainstream users: now this device can let you watch some DVD- and better-than-DVD quality content on your high-definition television, with a relatively straightforward interface, and quickly, without having to go to a video store to get or return it. Moreover, the device’s new Flickr and .Mac photo features offer the tantalizing prospect of easier-than-Internet-based access to interesting content, short of what you’d get with a dedicated Internet browser on your TV, but easier for grandparents and kids alike to use regardless of their computer skills. Based on Apple TV’s new $229 or $329 prices, we think that today’s offering is surely better than last year’s, and worthy of a slightly higher overall rating.
We stop short, however, of describing Apple TV as a highly recommendable product—the sort of device we would recommend with few or no caveats to any of our readers. Potential buyers still must deal with the fact that Apple hasn’t made the device any friendlier to the scores of unconverted video files that its users possess, continues to require the separate purchase of audio and video cables that add a minimum of $20 to each unit’s base price, and doesn’t permit Apple TV to connect to various types of USB devices that could easily expand its functionality and user-friendliness. In addition, new rough edges in Apple TV’s implementation of the iTunes Store, and small bugs in its video and audio functionality, take away from new features that would otherwise increase its appeal. Two years ago, we wouldn’t have expected such things from version 2.0 of one of its most-hyped products; now, like you, we’ll just sit back and hope that things get better in version 2.1.