The New Apple TV: Almost There
When it comes to price, OS, design and integration with other services, the new Apple TV is simply better than its predecessor. However, the new Apple TV is limited to streaming content -- it's not built to store anything. It can still play anything from the iTunes store, but to get movies and shows that can't be rented, you'll have to schlep over to your computer.
I've been playing with the new Apple TV, and as an old Apple TV owner, I've got mixed feelings about the sexy new black box.
On the whole, it's an excellent new product with new features, a new operating system, as well as the foundation to let it be upgraded in November to offer the amazing ability to stream content from your iPhone, iPad or iPod touch directly to your big-screen TV.
And yet, there are a couple of pesky downsides.
First, the Fantastic
As always, the Apple TV looks great -- lithe and black, it's so small it can fit pretty much anywhere around your HDTV. In fact, if you want to slip it into a tight spot, you'll have more trouble with the stiff end of an HDMI cable than you will with the unit itself. The old Apple TV was large enough to be noticed, and guests would ask what it was, turning me into an instant Apple TV salesperson. The new one is downright unobtrusive.
The functionality, however, remains sweet. The interface is slightly different than the older generation, and it reflects a new key reality in our computing landscape: streaming content. There's no spinning hard-disk drive in the new Apple TV, and that means you access content only by streaming it from either Apple's servers in the sky; from affiliated servers in the sky like YouTube, Flickr, or Netflix; or from your own PC or Mac.
You need a broadband Internet connection, of course, which you connect to most easily via WiFi (but there is an Ethernet port). You also need an iTunes Store account, which lets you rent movies and TV shows. Through a feature called "Home Sharing," your iTunes account also provides the link between the content stored in iTunes on your Mac or PC with the new Apple TV.
At first glance, once I connected to my MacBook, I couldn't figure out where my movies were -- they were under the Computers menu item rather than integrated under the Movies menu item. It was confusing at first, but it makes sense upon inspection: In the new streaming device model, your Apple TV will be able to stream content from multiple sources, and Computers will help you identify where the content is coming from. And as I mentioned, when Apple delivers an AirPlay upgrade in November, you'll be able to stream content from a mobile Apple device.
With some selected network television partners, Apple TV owners can now rent 720p HD TV shows for just 99 US cents. It you're the kind of person who is at all willing to pay for content, this is a sweet deal, especially for hour-long dramas that skip the commercials and give you 45 minutes of show time. Ninety-nine cents for 45 minutes of entertainment without interruption? That's generally a recipe I like. You can also rent movies, usually on the same day that you can rent them elsewhere or buy the DVD. "Iron Man 2," however, is a recent exception to the rule. For some reason -- likely driven by the studio that holds the distribution rights -- customers using iTunes or Apple TV could not immediately rent the movie until some days after it was first available for sale.
What Else Rocks?
The new $99 price point is perfect and competitive; in fact, it might be the least expensive Apple product to contain a processing "brain" in the history of the company. I know that when I was trying to find a unit to test by calling around to the various Apple Retail Stores in the Seattle area, it was flying out of stock before I could get into my vehicle and drive to the store that had received a shipment. It took me several days to be in the right place at the right time to snag one. I predict that this holiday season, Apple's so-called "hobby" device will sell surprisingly well at the $99 price.
With the new Apple TV, the company in Cupertino included the ability to stream Netflix movies on demand. While Netflix's on-demand library is paltry in terms of new, high-profile releases and packed with old movies of dubious quality, it's a growing library that is slowly getting better. If you're a Netflix customer, this is a welcome addition.
The operating system is based on Apple's mobile iOS, while the old Apple TV was based on a version of Mac OS X. This new iOS-based Apple TV gives it a new potential to be integrated with Apple's mobile juggernaut iPad, iPhone and iPod touch efforts, which include the App Store and the hundreds of thousands of apps ready for consumers worldwide. Obviously, the Apple TV is not a touch-based device, but by using iOS, it's not a big leap to imagine mobile apps streaming content to your HDTV. In fact, I can't think of any tech guy who thinks Apple isn't going to offer this sometime soon (especially since Google TV plans to offer Android apps on its fledgling television efforts).
Right now, you can use Apple's free Remote app with your iPhone, iPod touch or iPad to control your Apple TV, but in the future, you'll be certainly be able to use it to show and share other content -- games, weather, sports, news.
As for video and audio, I didn't get to test the audio in home theater setup, but it's delivered via your HDMI cable to your HDTV or through an optical digital audio port, and the unit supports Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound.
You can also stream photos from your computers, giving you superb slide shows, as well as listen to music from your iTunes library. If you or your family uses MobileMe, you can view and stream slideshows of MobileMe galleries, and if you like Flickr, you can browse that site's world of photos or even do a search on something like "cows" and generate a slide show with photos of cows from around the world. Nice.
Back to the Here and Now
So what sucks? Well, you can't buy TV shows or movies from your Apple TV. That sucks, no doubt about it. For instance, remember "Iron Man 2?" If you wanted to buy it from your couch via your new Apple TV, you could not. You would have to go to your computer, launch iTunes, visit the iTunes Store, and buy it from there.
Because not all television networks are willing to play nice with Apple's $.99 television show rental model, a consumer might think that some shows simply don't exist within Apple's iTunes ecosystem. Case in point is the new FX show "Terriers." When I searched for it from my new Apple TV, I couldn't find it at all. But when I did the search on my MacBook, I found the show for sale in the iTunes Store. To watch "Terriers" from the new Apple TV, you've got to buy the show on your computer first, then stream it from your computer. That's a serious irritation for happy Apple customers who are simply trying to be good media consumers.
Will more networks eventually come on board? Hopefully, but it's not a given.
Minor annoyances aside, the new Apple TV retains most of the functionality of the older version, plus adds new rental features and offers up a foundation that can be wildly upgraded by Apple with possible (and likely) app functionality. If you're willing to pay for content on an a la carte bases, especially when you consider the $99 price point, you just can't go wrong with a new Apple TV -- especially if you're willing to buy or rent from your computer first, instead of fusing your backside to your couch.