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.
Though many companies would be thrilled to sell even a B-level product, Apple Inc. has repeatedly acknowledged shortcomings in the original, $299 version of its HDTV-tethered movie, music, and photo player Apple TV, first downplaying the once-hyped product as a “hobby,” and later conceding that it wasn’t what people wanted. So Apple is trying again with Apple TV Take 2 ($229/40GB, $329/160GB), a revised version of the device with a lower price tag and enhanced software. While preserving the same form factor, hardware, pack-ins, and media playback features as its predecessor, the enhanced Apple TV now includes three key new features: computerless iTunes Store access, the ability to play high-definition movie rentals, and enhanced photo browsing capabilities.
The good news for Apple TV is that today’s version 2.0 offering is generally a substantial improvement over last year’s 1.0 and 1.1 versions; both its new feature set and its recently lowered price tag will enhance its appeal to serious fans of Apple’s iTunes software, as well as fans of Internet-based video- and photo-sharing services. However, the majority of Apple TV’s past issues—most notably, its inability to play non-iTunes videos, and its do-it-yourself approach to video conversion and cabling—still exist, and continue to hold the device back from more widespread appeal.
Rather than rehashing the entirety of last year’s review, which is still available here, our updated review of Apple TV takes a brief look at the device’s hardware and history before focusing on the new advantages of its version 2.0 software. Our comprehensive review, complete with numerous photographs and a walkthrough video, continues on the separate pages linked above and below. You can also see a six-minute walkthrough of the device’s new interface here, and a detailed comparison of Apple TV’s HD video rental quality versus DVD, Blu-Ray Disc, and HD on-demand cable, here.
Apple TV at 11 Months Old
Originally announced under the tentative name “iTV,” the 7.7-inch-square, 1.1-inch-tall Apple TV received its final name in January 2007, and after a brief delay was released on March 21, 2007 as a “DVD player for the 21st century.” Apple explained that the device was designed to let you enjoy your iTunes-equipped computer’s video, audio, and photo content on a widescreen TV, offering higher-resolution output capabilities than an iPod, with both a lower price and a more TV-ready interface than a Macintosh computer. There were limitations—Apple TV didn’t have an actual DVD player, TV tuner, or recording capabilities built in—but like an iPod, the company initially suggested that playback of iTunes-formatted content was a compelling reason for users to buy it.
Similar in design to Apple’s previously released Mac mini computer, Apple TV surrounded a glossy plastic top and rubberized bottom shell with a rounded square of aluminum, replacing the Mac mini’s rear computer monitor- and accessory-friendly ports with ones designed to connect to high-definition televisions and audio receivers. Gone was the traditional Mac keyboard and mouse combination, replaced by a simpler, packed-in white plastic Apple Remote control, and the only other plastic item in the box was a power cord. You supplied the audio and video cables for your own TV and speaker setup, typically at a cost of $20-40, depending on the connections you wanted to make. But you didn’t have to supply a networking cable; Apple included an 802.11b/g/n wireless card that you load the device with content using your existing home network.
On a positive note, version 1.0 of Apple TV basically worked as promised right out of the box, assuming you had both the HDTV and cables to hook it up. An enhanced version of Front Row—Apple software developed to let Mac users navigate their iTunes collections from afar—was the Apple TV’s widely liked interface, making it easy to wirelessly transfer and enjoy MPEG-4 or H.264 movies, similarly formatted TV shows, MP3, AAC, or Apple Lossless-formatted music, podcasts, and photos originally stored on a nearby computer with iTunes. The problem was that too few people were interested in picking the box up to give it a try.
Though Apple rolled out expensive in-store displays and TV commercials for the device, it was obvious from the start that Apple TV wasn’t appealing to the masses. Early on, Apple Store visitors frequently commented that videos didn’t look very good on the demo units; Apple TV virtually required a high-definition television set, yet Apple didn’t have any HD content to offer. The company tried to negotiate iTunes Store deals with leading film studios, but met with considerable resistance, so it turned to YouTube to provide free but low-quality streaming video content for the device, and tried to spotlight certain podcasts as examples of compelling high-definition content. Not surprisingly, these initiatives didn’t help Apple TV’s fortunes.
There were other issues. Users who bought the 40GB device found that its 33 usable Gigabytes of hard disk space weren’t enough to hold a lot of their video content, and though wireless re-synchronization wasn’t painful, it was time-consuming. Actually creating Apple TV-friendly videos was a pain, too: Apple initially provided no free Apple TV-specific video encoding tools, and for legal reasons, ignored users’ requests for a DVD-to-Apple TV conversion feature. Only in June 2007, after releasing a more expensive, higher-capacity 160GB Apple TV, did the company add a “Convert Selection for Apple TV” feature into iTunes, but even then, the software wouldn’t convert DVDs, and ran slowly when it was given files it could process. Even the hardest-core fans of Apple TV were forced to concede that it wasn’t right for everyone; for months, stories of adventurous people hacking the Apple TV outnumbered stories about people using it as intended.
Apple TV Version 2.0: The Interface
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.
Movies: Rentals, Trailers, and Your Library
In versions 1.0 and 1.1 of the Apple TV interface, the focus was on letting you enjoy your existing content, combined with limited Internet-based access to movie trailers, short iTunes Store previews, and YouTube content. With Apple TV 2.0, Apple has changed the focus: now the interface is heavily slanted towards helping you to preview and pay for new content from the iTunes Store, with viewing theatrical trailers a distant second, and access to your existing library third.
Apple TV 2.0’s movie rental mechanism is somewhat intuitive. The new Movies option from its main menu initially presents you with six options—Top Movies, Genres, All HD, Search, Trailers, and My Movies—the first four of which are designed to help you find movies to rent from a stripped-down version of the iTunes Store. Standard-definition (480p at best) and high-definition (720p) films are only available to rent, not to buy, based on what we found in the Apple TV version of the Store; you can still buy standard-definition films using your computer and transfer them to Apple TV.
Enter Top Movies and you’ll be shown a set of five promotional banners, 25 Top Rentals, 28 Just Added films, 18 Staff Favorites, and 17 additional genre films, currently “Great Westerns.” You’ll only see the name of a movie in text form if you highlight it with your cursor, otherwise, you’ll have to guess at the content from the box art.
Once you’ve selected a title, you’ll be presented with a scrollable on-screen summary of its content, actors, director(s), and producers, plus the option to watch a preview or rent the title in standard or HD formats. Prices range from $2.99 (SD) to $3.99 (HD) for older movies, $3.99 (SD) to $4.99 (HD) for new releases, and previews we tried were all in unimpressive standard-definition regardless of whether the title was SD or HD. “Also rented” suggestions are also included, and based on what other viewers of the currently displayed film have picked.
If you choose to rent a title, you go through a couple of confirmation screens before arriving at a new Movies sub-option, Rented Movies. This screen shows you all of the rented movies that are sitting on your Apple TV, as well as how much rental time remains. Each film stays on your Apple TV for 30 days from the time it’s downloaded, unless you start playing the film, in which case you have 24 hours to finish watching it. In an effort to encourage further rentals, Apple presents you with a changing, clickable list of other titles people have rented when you highlight one of the movies currently in your library.
There are other ways to browse movies in the iTunes Store. A new Genres menu initially opens with a text-based list of popular movie genres, plus the ability to see all G- or PG-rated films at once. Select any genre from the list and you’ll be taken to a 7×3 grid of box covers, which scrolls down to reveal more covers, displaying the currently selected box’s title as you go.
An option called All HD lets you skip directly to a grid full of box covers for high-definition movie rentals.
Search lets you search the iTunes Store’s movie collection. It uses a small, predictive text keyboard that we found easy to use and efficient at locating iTunes Store rental content. When it’s done finding matching film titles, it searches for the same characters in the names of actors and directors, presenting them under the film titles without forcing you to do any additional work. This system is smart—arguably a lot smarter than showing a bunch of box covers on a black background and having people scroll through them.
Trailers is the next option. 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.
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.
We would describe the new Movies functionality of Apple TV 2.0 to be generally good, but not great. The best news is that Apple TV is a potentially strong video playback device, with an Apple-provided high-definition video download infrastructure that has the ability to deliver a better audiovisual experience than on-demand HD cable box pay-per-view services (heavily compressed 1080i) and standard-definition DVD players (480p), though the 720p-capped videos sold through Apple TV fall noticeably short of the higher-definition 1080p optical discs sold by competing Blu-Ray and HD-DVD camps. More detailed comparisons of the video and audio you can expect from these options are available here.
Our concerns over Apple TV’s performance with movie rentals were small, but not forgettable ones. During our testing of the HD movie rental feature, we found the transaction component relatively simple, especially once we’d fully entered our iTunes Store account information for storage on the Apple TV—an unnecessary, keyboard-requiring step that iTunes could and should have made simpler. Downloading and playback were also straightforward, except with a couple of hiccups: Apple TV told us that our first test HD rental, “I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry,” was ready to play after downloading 2% of its content, then kept stopping mid-way through the movie to load more video. After three stops and starts, we paused the video and went to get something to eat; after a while, we returned and were able to let it play straight through. Since we’re using a very high-speed broadband connection, it’s our impression that the problem was iTunes’s server speed or Apple TV’s desire to make people think that they can start watching even HD content right away; in practice, extra caching time would have improved our experience, and we likely wouldn’t have experienced an issue with standard-definition video.
The single most glaring issue with Apple TV 2.0’s approach to movies is its as-yet-unfinished alternative presentation of the iTunes Store’s interface. From the flat banner graphics to the awkward, title-less cover artwork to the lack of purchasable movies, the Movies interface seems rushed and nowhere near as polished as it could be. While there’s an obvious reason to maintain separate device-specific versions of the iTunes Store for computers, iPhone/iPod touch portable devices and the Apple TV, Apple’s best implementation is still the one on Macs and PCs, and the other devices have a lot of catching up to do—Apple TV especially. It’s obvious that Apple will fix this, but as readers too often have asked us in recent months, the real question is “when?”
TV Shows, Music, and Podcasts
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.
Photos and YouTube
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.
Settings: 1080p, AirTunes, Screen Savers, and Sources
Though many readers will be inclined to skip over it, the Settings menu has received a pretty major overhaul. Apple now combines Apple TV 1.0 and 1.1’s big Settings and Sources features into a Settings heading with six options: General, Screen Saver, Audio, Video, Computers, and Downloads. Then, it disperses some of Sources’ features into other areas of the interface.
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. Sixteen languages are also available for the Apple TV’s interface.
At first glance, it appears that the screensaver hasn’t changed much—the Apple logo screensaver has disappeared from the list. But there’s a surprise: select Photos or Slideshow and you’ll be able to choose from Apple’s built-in photos, a Flickr album, a .Mac album, or synchronized photos. Photos presents a cascade of falling images, Slideshow the same sort of slideshow you’d see when displaying any content from Apple TV’s full-fledged Photos menu. Obviously, pictures don’t need to be synchronized from iTunes to your Apple TV for this feature to work—virtually anything on Flickr or in a .Mac gallery can become your screensaver.
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. In a new twist, iTunes now shoots over the song plus its album art, which displays on your TV screen while the song is playing. We found that the feature worked unpredictably; the music always played back, but the album art didn’t always show up automatically on our TV. Going into the My Music > Now Playing menu fixed this, though—the correct album art was always visible there.
We also heard some weeks ago that this feature would include an unusual new benefit: it’s supposed to let you use the Apple Remote’s playback and track controls to control what’s coming over from iTunes, and we’ve heard reader reports that it works. This sort of control isn’t possible with the AirPort Express because it lacks a remote control, and since iTunes can stream music to multiple wireless devices at once, Apple TV adds a new twist—the ability to control everything from a TV. Sort of, at least: we initially* couldn’t get the remote control feature to work on either of our in-house Apple TVs.
Updated February 15, 2008: Following a reader tip, it turns out that Apple for some reason disables this AirTunes remote control feature by default, requiring you to go to iTunes Preferences, under Advanced, then General, then “Allow iTunes control from remote speakers.” Once you select it and hit OK, you can control AirTunes playback with your Apple TV and Apple Remote. The feature is initially a little on the slow side, but becomes more responsive and does work.
Back on the Apple TV, 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.
The 1080p option only appears on TVs that Apple TV identifies as 1080p-ready, and in our testing, it sometimes screwed up when making that identification, and worked only when we forced it to re-check by turning off the TV or unplugging the HDMI cable.
More significant was the fact that 1080p video looked no better than 720p—in fact, text and menus looked a little softer rather than appearing sharper and more detailed. Videos didn’t improve, either, a sign that Apple TV is really capped at a resolution lower than 1080p, and offers the option only for people who want to try it; we found that our 1080p sets were flakier in synchronizing with Apple TV when this option was turned on.
In one unusual experience, the Apple TV insisted that it wasn’t able to play back a rented HD video because our TV wasn’t HDCP (high definition copy protection) compliant, even though the TV was, and the video had been playing back on it only hours earlier. Again, we think faulty handshaking between Apple TV and the HDTV is to blame.
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 big surprise is that the new name seems to exclude Time Capsules or other wireless storage devices as sources for Apple TV. Another surprise: two Apple TVs in the same house don’t appear to see each other as sources for sharing downloaded videos and music. Both of these surprises are unwelcome. But in a final, positive surprise, Apple has changed the way that the prior Sources menu worked.
Previously, when you selected a source other than your Apple TV, you were placed in a series of menus to browse its local contents, and had to switch out of them when you wanted to go back to your Apple TV. Now, you pick a source, and its own libraries get integrated as contextual options in your main menu: Shared Movies, TV Shows, Music, Podcasts, and Photos options appear beneath the others as long as the sharing connection remains intact. This simplifies your access to another library—another improvement on the past Apple TV interface, made possible by the two-pane interface.
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. Though current music downloads generally proceed in the order they were purchased, video downloads are given higher priority, such that an album download will interrupt after completing a song to let a more recently purchased video transfer first. You can also pause any download in progress, which will cause another download to start instead.
In summary, though the Apple TV 2.0 settings menus appear familiar, they hide a few major improvements in screensaver functionality, sharing with iTunes and AirTunes, and parental controls, as well as a couple of disappointments that we’d attribute more to bugs than bigger flaws in the device. Again, additional polish would help make Apple TV 2.1’s highest-resolution video output and wireless AirTunes control functionality more intuitive, impressive and reliable.
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.
Company and Price
Company: Apple Computer
Model: Apple TV
Price: $229/40GB, $329/160GB