New Apple TV focuses on 'what works'

Latest version is streamlined for streaming video -- but more content would be good

For more than three years now, Apple TV has been the one Apple product that buyers were uncertain about. Originally billed as an iPod for your TV, early versions carried a hefty price tag -- $299 initially -- and some annoyances, including synchronization errors and a sometimes unresponsive interface. While it wasn't a failure, Apple TV -- which Apple CEO Steve Jobs famously described as a "hobby" -- clearly wasn't going to be a big consumer hit without a major overhaul.

Apple has spent the past few years trying to figure out exactly how to bring the content of iTunes into the living room, and the new Apple TV unveiled Sept. 1 pretty much delivers on that goal. It's simpler to set up, smaller than before, easier to use -- and now only $99.

Essentially, the new Apple TV focuses on what worked with the previous models, while dropping the features that didn't. But until Apple works out more deals with content providers, its range of offerings is going to be somewhat limited compared with hardware from rivals like Roku and affordable content from services like Amazon Video On Demand. And, of course, there's the Google TV platform, which adds yet another rival to the mix and could shake up the market.

A streamlined player

At 3.9 x 3.9 in. and just under an inch high, the jet-black Apple TV -- which looks like a squared-off hockey puck -- is just a quarter of the previous model's size, sacrificing internal storage and the obligatory iPod-like syncing for a smaller footprint and a focus on streaming content.

The Apple TV's hook, as it were, may be better defined by what it can't do. There is no Blu-ray or DVD support, and you can't record programs a la DVR -- the 8GB of internal storage is used by its iOS-based system software and to buffer streaming content.

Its main reason for being is to stream content instantly to a hi-definition HDMI-equipped TV, and to do so from a variety of sources (though it doesn't support popular formats such as AVI or MKV files).

But what at first seem to be limitations are, in fact, Apple TV's main strength. As analyst Michael Gartenberg noted in his Entelligence column, the Apple TV vies for control over your TV's second, or even third, input rather than trying to replace your main input for digital content -- a spot that would demand a device with more functionality. As a secondary content-delivery system, Apple TV is a simple and straightforward way to bring your iTunes library and other Internet content to your TV.

Since it's so small, the Apple TV slips invisibly into most home entertainment setups; a nonslip rubber bottom is designed to make sure it stays put, even with a heavy HDMI cable connected. (An HDMI cable is not included; you'll need to buy one separately).

Besides HDMI, Apple TV features a 10/100BT Ethernet port, a micro USB jack, an optical audio connection and a plug for the power cable. Despite its minuscule size, there's no external power brick. For wireless connectivity, it has built-in Wi-Fi with 802.11a/b/g/n support.

The software makes it easy to connect with most wireless networks; that's especially convenient if your cable modem and/or router isn't near the TV.

Like other Apple products, Apple TV's setup is simple, if a bit tedious. If you use Ethernet to connect to your home network, Apple TV recognizes the network without any configuration. For those planning on wireless connectivity, setting up Wi-Fi is the first thing you do after turning on Apple TV. Basically, you select your Wi-Fi network and enter the appropriate password for access.

Entering usernames and passwords using the included remote is quite straightforward but tedious. You have to click around the letters and numbers displayed on the screen and select each one, one at a time, using the remote.

And you have to do this for more than just your Wi-Fi network. You'll have to do this for every feature you want to use: iTunes requires a user ID and password; so does Home Sharing, which you have to enable on your computer if you plan to stream iTunes content to the Apple TV. Netflix, Flickr and MobileMe all require usernames and passwords too.

In other words, you're going to be doing a lot of clicking the first time you set up your accounts. Fortunately, you need do this only once.

Enter the Remote App

There is a way to avoid this hassle, though, which is great news to iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad users. Once the Wi-Fi information is entered, it's possible to switch from the included physical remote to Apple's Remote App.

The Remote App, which you download and install on your iOS device, turns that device into, well, a remote. It's just been updated, giving users the ability to gesture and tap their way through the Apple TV interface. The best part? Anytime Apple TV pops up a keyboard interface, the iPhone or iPad in your hand vibrates to let you know that the password can be tapped onto the touch-screen device in your hand. This saves a ton of time during setup. Word to the wise: If you have an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch, download the Remote App before you set up the Apple TV.

Once the Apple TV is set up, you're presented with five main categories on the Apple TV home screen: Movies, TV Shows, Internet, Computers and Settings. Under these headings, the subcategories are self-explanatory:

* Under Movies, you'll find Top Movies, Genres, Search and In Theaters (all pointing to iTunes content that can be rented).

* In the TV Shows category, you'll find Top TV Shows, Genres, TV Networks, and Search (again, these point to iTunes content available for rental).

* Under Internet, you get Netflix access, YouTube, Podcasts, MobileMe, Flickr and Radio.

* The Computer menu offers access to any Mac or PC on your network with iTunes Home Sharing enabled, making it easy to view music, movies, TV shows, podcasts and photos from any computer in the house.

* The Settings menu is where you configure various features, like slideshows and device sleep.

Above the main categories is a "shelf" that displays cover art for movies, albums and TV shows, depending on what main category you've highlighted. The shelf is also where Apple TV stores content that's been rented.

ITunes rentals are as straightforward as everything else, but with a few caveats. Content rentals are all handled through iTunes: You have 24 hours to watch a movie, and 48 hours to watch a TV show. (This seems backwards, I know.) TV show rentals are 99 cents each; HD movies are $4.99 for recent titles, and $3.99 for older ones. You can hold on to unwatched content for 30 days, but the 24-/48-hour timer starts the moment you press Play.

You should be aware that titles you rent and purchase using iTunes on your Mac or PC can be copied over to the iPad or iPhone, as well as streamed to Apple TV, but content purchased directly from Apple TV can only play on Apple TV. Be mindful of this when choosing your rentals; if you wish to view the content on more than one device, your best bet is to download it through iTunes on your computer or iOS device.

More content needed

Another thing: Using iTunes on your computer to purchase or rent content gives you more options than doing so directly from Apple TV, and you can't purchase stuff from iTunes and then access it via the cloud on any of the Internet-enabled iOS devices. Thankfully, iTunes isn't the only place to find movies and TV shows. The Netflix integration is very well done and helps fill some of the content gaps in iTunes.

Netflix requires at least a $7.99-per-month subscription, but the instant-watch streaming-video plan comes with the DVD rental plans for free. Navigating through Netflix is similar to the way it's done online: You can browse your current movie/TV show queue, search, add content and watch streaming videos instantly.

While Apple worked out deals to offer content from News Corp. (Fox) and Disney (ABC), it hasn't yet reached agreements with other major production studios. Over time, I expect that to change, though it may take a while.

Unfortunately, video and audio quality is inconsistent, and it varies greatly depending on the source and bandwidth. Netflix fluctuates between very good (broadcast-quality HD in 720p) and merely so-so (pixelated, though better than most YouTube videos). YouTube videos are generally of low quality, though HD support is growing. The iTunes store movie and TV show rentals vary in quality as well. But the HD videos are generally as good, if not better than, broadcast-quality HD. One helpful tip: If you connect to your network over Ethernet, you're more likely to get a better picture with streaming content.

The good news is that you don't have to worry about skipping commercials with the content you can access now. And the audio can be surprisingly engrossing, depending on the source -- Apple TV outputs 5.1 surround sound when the option is available.

Photo slideshows are also well done, with a variety of options for transitions that really look great. There are times, however, when an image is blown up full screen due to the orientation of the shot, and the resulting image is a bit pixelated and soft. Other times, the focus of the shot is missed -- especially during the Ken Burns transition effects. But these are minor quibbles. Slideshows are a great way to display photos you've taken and put them on the big screen.

One more note: The best part about Apple TV hasn't even arrived yet. AirPlay, which will be available next month as part of the iOS 4.2 update, will allow you to stream content (photos, movies, TV shows) from an iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch directly to the Apple TV. The ability to flick content from one screen to another reminds me of Minority Report; the concept is that forward-thinking. I look forward to testing AirPlay as soon as it's publicly available.

Final thoughts

The new Apple TV addresses many of the issues that had made the previous version a niche product. Gone are any synchronization errors, since syncing content from a computer to the device is no longer necessary or even supported. Gone is a confusing set of menus and submenus that buried content that users had already bought -- but couldn't easily find later on.

The new Apple TV is all about streaming content from either an Internet source or your computer, instantly and without hassle. While its support for popular video formats is limited, the 160 million people already using the iTunes ecosystem will be able to use this little device with ease -- which is the point. True, the content selection isn't yet as full-featured as that offered by competitors, but I expect that to change as more studios come on board.

If you're not sold yet on Apple TV, there are alternatives. ITunes isn't the only place to get digital content. In fact, soon after Apple announced 99-cent TV show purchases, Amazon Video On Demand announced the same pricing. And Roku -- a maker of similarly capable hardware -- offers its product with access to content from Amazon, Hulu, Pandora and Major League Baseball, with a few more options not available on Apple TV (at least not yet). The trade-off with alternatives, however, is that you don't have full access to your iTunes library content.

As it stands, the new Apple TV is a well-executed and cost-effective way to bring iTunes content to your TV. At $99, it's a product that's easy to recommend if you're already a fan of Apple's ecosystem. Better yet, Apple TV is one of those products that will actually become better with time as Apple rolls out new features and adds content.

Michael deAgonia, a frequent contributor to Computerworld, is an award-winning writer, computer consultant and technologist who has been working on computers since 1993. Follow him on Twitter.

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