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AppleTV - Take 2 Print E-mail
Saturday, 01 November 2008
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AppleTV - Take 2
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In all my years of reviewing audio equipment, no product has graced my system that I’ve despised more than the original release of Apple’s AppleTV.  The first incarnation of the wireless media extender/server for Apple users was so fatally flawed that it begged the question, “Why bother?”  I wasn’t alone in my feelings for the AppleTV.  Sales were abysmal (which is uncommon for many upstart Apple products) and consumers either returned them in record numbers or voided their warranties by cracking them open and making them do the things we all hoped they could.

Personally, I bought three more and, with the help of some third-party software, managed to make the AppleTV what I wanted it to be with little effort.  Minus the fact that it still didn’t support multi-channel audio, 1080p video or high-definition, all was well.  I didn’t buy iTunes content.  Instead, I ripped my own music and movies in formats that ensured proper sound and picture quality and stored them on a local server instead of utilizing the meaningless hard drives in the AppleTVs themselves. 

Well, it seems that Apple has wised up and, instead of discontinuing the flawed AppleTV, they decided to re launch it.  Introducing the AppleTV, uh-um, Take 2?  It looks exactly like the old AppleTV.  It is the old AppleTV, same size, shape, connections, heat problems, remote, etc.  They beefed up the internal hard drives, offering both 40GB and 160GB versions, while lowering the prices from $299 (40GB) to $229 and $329 (160GB) down from $399.  The price decrease is a good thing, for I felt the original AppleTV was needlessly expensive for what you were getting.  Truthfully, physically and hardware-wise, there is little to differentiate the old AppleTV from the new AppleTV.  You can even upgrade your original AppleTV to Take 2 for free by simply downloading the firmware ***if your AppleTV has done already automatically. (done WHAT already automatically? – Please fix)*** All of the changes and improvements come at the software and interface level, which, I’m happy to say, is brilliant.

The old AppleTV interface was okay and about the only aspect of the AppleTV that was, indeed, HD.  The new interface is more iTunes meets Kaleidescape then Apple’s old Front Row.  The interface is so slick and easy to use that many manufacturers at this year’s CEDIA show in Denver took to ripping it off for their own benefit (expect news of hefty lawsuits to come).  AppleTV Take 2 is now a real HD product, provided you’re okay with 720p HD downloads and 5.1 Dolby Digital surround.  While the AppleTV Take 2 supports 1080p and seemingly every resolution below that, don’t expect to watch any 1080p native content (maybe minus trailers) any time soon.  However, the addition of multi-channel audio support and at least 720p video is a huge step up from the crappy, overly-compressed and pixilated video that seemed standard with the old AppleTV.  Take 2 adds the ability to buy and rent movies, as well as purchase music directly from iTunes without the need for a home computer.  The bought files are stored on the AppleTV itself and can be later transferred to a home computer (sorry, still no external hard drive support) to free up space on the AppleTV’s internal hard drive.  The past version of the AppleTV could only view content downloaded from iTunes on a home computer, then streamed or synched to the AppleTV.  This simple fix is huge for the AppleTV, because it means users no longer have to have a Mac to utilize the AppleTV.  This said, it makes the AppleTV a cheap gateway product for consumers to discover and eventually become Mac users. So, if all things are pretty much the same under the hood, what does the beefed-up AppleTV service get you?  Like I said, you can rent and/or purchase new and old films from the library, which grows daily and carries with it full support from every major studio.  You can rent movies (old and new releases) in either standard-definition or in HD (720p) for between $2.99 and $4.99, respectively.  One caveat is that, while most new releases hit AppleTV on Tuesday, they are not always for rent or purchase.  It always seems the films you’d rather rent are for purchase only and vice-versa.  You cannot yet purchase HD movies with 5.1 audio; those are rental only.  Purchased films come in the 480i format with a stereo audio track.   The purchase price of SD video through iTunes and the AppleTV ranges from $9.99 to $14.99, depending on the studio and whether or not the film is a new release.  iTunes and AppleTV do feature cheaper downloads and purchases on a weekly basis, usually classic films and/or hugely popular blockbusters that can afford to cut the consumer a break.  These titles rent for 99 cents and some can be purchased for seven dollars or so.  The rental policy has not changed since the last version and is still good for 30 days, but the rental expires 24 hours after you press play.  Within that 24-hour window, you can watch the film as many times as you’d like, but once it’s gone, it’s gone.

TV shows work much the same as movies on AppleTV, but they are for purchase only and, unlike movies, can now be purchased in HD.  This is huge for consumers, since TV season DVD sales have exploded as of late and Blu-ray disc versions of your favorite shows are starting to hit shelves at alarming rates.  The HD television episodes are relatively new, but nevertheless are available and give a glimpse of what’s to come for the movie side of things.  HD television shows retail for $2.99 per episode, whereas non-HD episodes retail for $1.99.  I hope you like hour-long shows vs. half-hour sitcoms, for the price is the same regardless of length, making HBO, Showtime and other long-format shows a better value.  Again, like their motion picture counterparts, iTunes and AppleTV often have “specials” or lower pricing on shows and/or seasons, some of which are completely free.

Music downloads remain relatively unaffected by the AppleTV Take 2 update and, like past iTunes purchases, still suck a little.  The bit rate is way too low.  iTunes Plus material helps, but it is far from a Music Giants or even Amazon-quality download.  You can now purchase and download music videos from AppleTV and iTunes, though I can’t imagine why, since they are the worst value in the entire iTunes arsenal.  $1.99 for what is usually a two- to three-minute clip of bright lights and booty shaking is absurd.  There are videos for 99 cents, but they usually feature artists you couldn’t care less about, singing songs you can’t stomach anyway. 

AppleTV Take 2 also adds YouTube and Internet photo browsing support, which at first glance doesn’t seem all that great, but once you utilize it, it’s rather cool.  YouTube on the AppleTV works and looks the same as it does on your computer, which is good and very bad for those of us with large HD sets.  Still, it didn’t stop many guests from cuing up some poor sucker getting cracked in the family jewels by random objects as I readied dinner.  As far as photos go, the AppleTV works with your computer’s iPhoto.  It can also access photos from sites such as Flickr, which is really useful.  Lastly, you can enjoy audio and video podcasts via your AppleTV, which is becoming a very popular and entertaining way for consumers to keep up on current events and/or areas of interest.

Setup was a snap, since all of my AppleTVs were already installed in every room in my house and set to stream from my home computer in my office.  I updated each one to Take 2 by accessing the AppleTV’s settings and hitting update.  The process took about 15-20 minutes per AppleTV but, once done, they were ready to rock and roll.  While the new interface and usability is drastically different then the old, there is zero learning curve to the new format and features.  The remote still sucks for searching by keywords and for YouTube and Flickr photo searches but, oh, well, Apple’s going to do what Apple wants to do, I suppose.

I put the AppleTV Take 2 through its paces in a variety of systems, from my reference theater to my bedroom LCD TV, all of which feature 1080p video capabilities, as well as 5.1 surround sound via in-wall speakers of various price points.  Needless to say, being an Apple loyalist and a convergence freak, the AppleTV is my kind of product and, with the new update, may just be the coolest and most useful piece of gear in my entire house.


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