Version 1.0 of Apple TV wasn’t a success. And version 1.1, a free software update that added a YouTube browser to the prior interface, didn’t gain Apple any traction. So the company is preparing to release version 2.0—also called Apple TV Take 2—as another free upgrade to try and increase interest in the 40GB and 160GB living room media players. Announced in mid-January and originally scheduled for release this week, the enhanced software was today declared unfinished by Apple, and delayed until mid-February, but we still know pretty much what to expect from it. Here, in photos, video, and text, is the complete story.
A New Main Menu
Apple TV 1.0 and Apple TV 1.1 shared “Back Row,” an on-TV interface that improved upon the “Front Row” media navigation interface first seen in Apple’s Mac OS X 10.4. When Apple updated Mac OS X to 10.5, Back Row replaced Front Row, and Apple’s programmers went to work on a new interface for Apple TV Take 2. You can see a six-minute walkthrough of the new interface here.
Unusual by Apple standards, the new two-paned interface initially looks more complex and daunting than the one it replaces. On the left are seven “main” choices that replace the eight found in version 1.1 of the Apple TV software, while the right has 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. We’ll look through each of them in turn below.
The only new visual trick in the Apple TV 2.0 interface is a zoom effect that makes the two-pane display 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 versions 1.0 and 1.1 of the software. The twin-pane display overlaps and darkens whatever else is already on the screen whenever you press the Menu button.
The Movies menu consists of seven options, shown above: Trailers, Rented Movies, Top Movies, Genres, All HD, Search, and My Movies. It’s obvious that Apple has spent more time working on the Movies menu than any other part of Apple TV 2.0’s feature set, which now enables you to rent standard-definition and high-definition films from iTunes, as well as purchase movies from iTunes without the use of a computer. Most of the new options here are geared towards helping you rent and purchase content.
Trailers is the first of the seven options. Initially, you can select from a list of all of the trailers currently available on iTunes, or pick an HD Trailers option to see only high-definition trailers. As before, these trailers are basically there to keep you informed about what’s currently in the movie theaters, and you can’t make any purchases from this section of the Apple TV interface. Trailers briefly cache before beginning to play, and look just like the ones you’ve seen on Apple TV and your computer in the past.
Rented Movies is where Apple TV 2.0 has changed the most. This menu shows large cover art for each of the movies you have already rented from iTunes, along with the current status of the rental—either a countdown timer in hours for a movie you’ve already started to watch, or in days for a movie you’ve downloaded but not yet started to play. You have 30 days to start watching a rental, and roughly 24 hours to finish it once you’ve started. Apple TV also makes recommendations for other rentals based on the films you have selected, as shown at the bottom of the screen.
The rented movie information screen has a large play button, as well as film-specific details and a MPAA rating (in the United States).
Perhaps the most odd part of the Apple TV 2.0 interface is its attempt to shave down the iTunes Store for display on a TV. In Top Movies and Genres, you’re presented with a collection of iTunes Store promo banners at the top, along with a set of covers below—there are no text names for the individual films unless you highlight them.
Once selected, the individual title’s details are presented on screen, along with large preview and rental buttons, and “also rented” suggestions based on what other viewers have picked.
Apple TV’s All HD movies menu shows you only the high-definition movies that are available in the Store. Once again, the presentation is extremely threadbare, with a grid of largely unmarked covers presented against a black background. Only when you highlight a cover does its title appear.
If browsing through covers isn’t your idea of a fun shopping experience, you can cut straight to the Search menu, which lets you type letters to locate the movie you want to rent.
Finally, the My Movies contextual menu shows you the movies you own, in their own separate collection apart from the rentals. The interface here is basically the same as it was in Apple TV 1.0 and 1.1, minus the top-of-screen options for iTunes Top Movies and Theatrical Trailers, which have obviously gone elsewhere.
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.
Apple has obviously 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. Again, it tries to divide the Store into ways people would naturally think to search it, but ultimately presents shows as cover icons that are only named when you highlight them.
Just as with Movies, you can search the TV Shows with an on-screen keyboard if cover icons and the other options don’t work for your needs.
The 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.
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. The only interesting addition here is Providers, which now highlights popular podcasting networks in the same way that TV Shows lists TV networks.
Our screenshot doesn’t show it, but 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.
Apple has thoroughly rethought the Photos section of Apple TV. Since it’s not trying to sell you anything here, My Photos—your organized, synchronized collection—is the first option under this menu, with .Mac and Flickr browsing access, plus a Settings menu, underneath.
Most interesting is the Flickr browser, which starts by letting you add Flickr contacts using an on-screen keyboard, then displays current photos from stored contacts by downloading them from the Internet.
Once you’re inside a contact’s gallery, you can easily navigate to 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.
The revised 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.
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 on on-screen TV 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 in your account.
The Settings menu has received a pretty major overhaul. Apple now combines the one big Settings menu and Sources into a Settings heading with six options: General, Screen Saver, Audio, Video, Computers, and Downloads.
General includes most of the options found in the prior menu system, including network and iTunes Store settings, plus dramatically expanded Parental Controls.
You can now sign in and out of your iTunes Store account from the Apple TV, which simultaneously lets you use the device to make purchases without using a computer, and synchronize purchased content back to your computer when you want to back it up.
Apple TV’s new Parental Controls now encompass much more than just a YouTube on and off feature—parents can now independently disable viewing of Internet-downloaded photos, YouTube, Podcasts, and the Purchase/Rental features, as well as restrict movies, TV shows, music and podcasts based on their explicit content or ratings.
As before, the Controls are locked and unlocked with a four-digit passcode.
The screensaver hasn’t changed much, though the Apple logo screensaver has disappeared from the list. A little too boring, perhaps?
A new Audio Settings menu includes the Repeat Music, Sound Check, and Sound Effects features of past Apple TV software, but now adds Dolby Digital Out as an option for 5.1-channel optical audio output in properly encoded videos. An AirTunes feature also lets you play back streamed iTunes audio through the Apple TV with attached speakers, akin to an AirPort Express.
A Video Settings menu now permits you to access Closed Captioning on properly encoded videos, as well as switch the TV Resolution—even up to 1080p—and change the HDMI Output automatically, or manually to RGB or YCbCr color modes, and also adjust HDMI RGB brightness.
Sources has been renamed, interestingly, to Computers, enabling you to synchronize to and from one machine, as well as to stream from one or more iTunes libraries. The only surprise is that the new name seems to exclude Time Capsules or other wireless storage devices as sources for Apple TV.
Finally, there’s the Downloads option. This lets you know if Apple TV has downloads in progress, and lets you check to see if any downloads from iTunes may be awaiting initiation.
When Apple announced that the release of the Apple TV 2.0 software had been delayed, it explained that the update was “not quite finished,” which could mean any or all of a number of things: the high-definition rental service might not be ready to roll out, the rough spots in the new iTunes Store interface might be getting ironed out, or behind-the-scenes technical glitches might be preventing the release. As such, the details above are subject to change, and we’ll only know for sure how the final version of Apple TV Take 2 works when it’s released in mid-February. Stay tuned until then; we’ll be covering all the developments as they happen.