New Apple TV offers swift and simple access to online multimedia content

Although the Apple TV first shipped on March 21, 2007, it didn’t get an overhaul for almost a year. During that year, the device, which promised to bring digital media (music, photos and video) from the computer to the living room, tried to establish itself in a marketplace rife with competitors. Systems such as Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Netgear’s EVA series, not to mention TiVo, are all striving to dominate that elusive space.

Introduced at Macworld in January, this second iteration of Apple TV (which some call Apple TV Take 2) is a response to many of the initial criticisms of its predecessor as a media device that lacked direct access to online content. Users can now search and buy content from the iTunes Store directly on the Apple TV, including music, TV shows and movie rentals (which were introduced at Macworld).

In addition, it now allows users to browse Flickr and photo galleries from Apple’s .Mac service just as easily.

In other words, the new-and-better Apple TV (a firmware/software update is free for existing owners) is designed to make the device an entertainment product in its own right rather than a computer accessory connected to a TV. The question is: At a cost of US$229 for a model with 40GB of storage space and $329 for a 160GB model, does this new version of the Apple TV make the cut?

Improved interfaceAs with my first experience with the Apple TV , I found the menu structure and navigation to be almost brilliant in its simplicity. In Apple TV Take 2, the menu has been somewhat redesigned. Instead of maintaining an iPod-like navigation in which users must drill down through several options to locate a feature, the new two-column approach makes it faster and easier to switch from one facet of the device (say, music) to another (such as YouTube browsing).

Like the original Apple TV, Apple TV Take 2 includes and relies on Apple’s standard remote, the same one that Apple ships with current Mac models. The remote carries through that ease-of-use theme: It features only six buttons (up, down, right, left, pause/play/select, and menu). Apple has certainly figured out how to limit the confusion often associated with remote control devices.

The one thing that I wish could be improved is the method Apple TV uses when you need to actually type in a search term or a site ID: You have to maneuver around an on-screen keyboard, picking out letters one at a time using the directional buttons on the remote. It works, but the process of entering even moderately long movie or song titles or search strings quickly becomes tedious.

Admittedly, there’s really nothing that Apple can do about this, short of providing a remote with a keyboard on it — but at times it did feel like I spent more time typing with the on-screen keyboard via the remote than actually accessing content.

iTunes Store at your fingertipsOne of the most exciting new features of the Apple TV Take 2 is its direct integration with the iTunes Store. This is one of the areas where the original Apple TV design failed to live up to its potential — you could use it with content that you owned, but adding to it required going to the computer, searching, buying and downloading, then syncing or streaming content to the Apple TV. All of this took you out of the TV/entertainment center experience that is the whole point of the Apple TV.

The iTunes Store integration now makes it effortless, for example, to buy yesterday’s episode of The Daily Show after finding out that the guest had been, say, a certain senator running for the White House. It also makes it easy to add music to your library as you’re watching or listening to something (during a commercial break in the middle of the Grammys, for example).

Combined with the iTunes preview feature, this integration is something that the Apple TV needed, and it works incredibly well. The fact that content becomes available while downloading and then automatically syncs to your computer with no effort at all makes it even easier than purchasing content from an iPhone or iPod Touch (although the only effort that they require is that you connect the device to the computer).

The one drawback to the iTunes Store on the Apple TV is that it may be too easy to use. I’m all too aware that the effortlessness of browsing and buying music, TV shows or movies could quickly become an expensive habit.

The integration of the iTunes Podcast directory is also well done. The Apple TV’s new ability to not only browse and subscribe to podcasts directly from your television, but also to browse and listen to individual episodes without having to subscribe to the entire series, is a major boon. It reminds me of the way we browse on-demand cable content or YouTube. For anyone who has yet to become a podcast aficionado, the Apple TV Take 2 stands to change their mind by making podcasts more like other forms of entertainment — and less like a subscription-based service.

Renting movies: Good but not greatWith deals in place with all major movie studios and the promise of HD and standard-content options, Apple seemed poised to deliver a user-friendly device that could be used to rent high-quality movies over the Internet and deliver them to a TV rather than to a computer.

That promise has still not been realized. Despite a commitment of 1,000 movie titles as rentals by the end of February in Steve Jobs’ Macworld keynote , a recent inventory conducted by Christopher Breen at Macworld indicated that fewer than 400 were actually available. Many of those are not available in HD, and according to a recent AppleInsider report , those that are available in HD include a number of legacy titles that cannot make full use of the HD format because they were shot before modern film-making technologies and processes existed. Some movies also don’t appear to include support for Dolby 5.1 surround sound — a major component of a home theater experience — even though they are recent enough to support it.

For those movies that are offered in HD, the quality is rather good, as is the Dolby surround sound support. It may not quite reach the level of Blu-ray, but it does come close enough that most viewers won’t see a noticeable difference. It also tends to exceed the quality of many HD video offerings from cable providers. (iLounge has an excellent side-by-side comparison of Blu-ray, DVD, cable, HD and standard Apple TV formats.) While there might not yet be that much in the way of selection of movie rentals through iTunes, the mechanism for renting and watching movies from the Apple TV is as simple as everything else about the device. It is, in fact, easier than most cable on-demand services and features similar pricing and time limits. Of the choice between an iTunes rental over the Apple TV and video on demand from my cable company, I would choose Apple TV.

A glorified photo frameWhile most of the focus on the Apple TV Take 2 has been on iTunes content, it isn’t the only new source of content. The Apple TV had previously only allowed viewing of photos synced from a computer. Now it allows browsing of Flickr and .Mac Web galleries. If you have family and friends who use either service, this is a nice feature that has been almost lost amid the other advances.

The process of finding galleries works very much like YouTube browsing and allows Apple TV users to navigate through not only their own photos on Flickr, but also the photos of any Flickr contacts. This not only harnesses the power of sharing photos that Flickr offers but also the social networking aspects of Flickr. Likewise, photo sharing through multiple .Mac Web galleries allows easy access to photos from all your family members (including those added directly from an iPhone or similar phone/device).

The Apple TV screensaver also allows you to set Flickr and .Mac Web galleries as a source for photos — making your TV the world’s coolest digital picture frame (and far bigger than the ones you see in department stores).

ConclusionsI’ve been a fan of the Apple TV since its initial release. The addition of YouTube to its repertoire of features last summer became a major part of my home theater experience. (YouTube direct from the TV is still one of my favorite features of the Apple TV).

If I have one real criticism, it would be that the Apple TV needs more storage capacity. This is a device for multimedia content of all kinds and from sources ranging from purchases and rentals from iTunes to home photos and movies. Many people will quickly outgrow 40GB, and even 160GB can quickly get small. Although it is possible to stream content from one or more computers, with Apple positioning the Apple TV as a repository for directly purchased content, the ability to stream will probably be overwhelmed by the need to sync/store content on the device itself.

After renting movies, buying music and TV shows, picking through podcasts, and browsing photos of friends and friends of friends, I have to say that the new Apple TV has more than lived up to my early expectations and truly blew away my previous experiences. The iTunes Store integration (even with its small selection of movies) has brought Apple TV where it should have been from the get-go and has transformed it into both a spectacular entertainment device in its own right as well as an even better nexus of technology and entertainment.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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