Click to viewEver since our Apple TV 1.0 review decided that Apple's thrust into the living room wasn't pantsworthy, we've been waiting for them to step up and make a revision that was. Apple TV 2.0 is their answer. (Let's stop calling it Take 2, please!) It's everything Apple TV should have been when it launched, complete with audio and video podcasts, Flickr and .Mac integration and—most importantly—movie rentals without a computer. At $229, it's an essential part of any iTunes user's living room arsenal.
The New UI:
Gone is the right side text, left side image menu system of the first-gen Apple TV. It's now a two-column affair, with the major categories on the left and subcategories for the selected entry on the right. It may not be quite intuitive at first, but you'll get the hang of it in about 30 seconds. Simple and easy to use is the name of the game in the end, which is more than fine for the 10-foot living room experience, since Apple TV doesn't really have all THAT many functions once you break it down. But the good news is, all of them behave the way they're supposed to.
This is going to be the core of your Apple TV experience. Browsing for movies is a fairly easy task, with a Top Movies section listing the most popular movies available right now, along with a genre browser and a search function. Typing in your Apple login and password with the remote is arduous, and you'll want to let the Apple TV remember your password for future sessions (unless you're worried about security, then you'll have to go through the fun of re-typing in your password every time you rent/buy anything). After you accept the EULA, your Apple TV buffers for about a minute before you can start watching; longer if your connection sucks.
It's $3.99 for an SD rental and $4.99 for an HD, then you have 30 days to start watching it and 24 hours to finish watching it once you've started. That's competitive with Blockbuster, Netflix and other VOD services.
There's a limited selection of content right now, despite the fact that Apple has the full blessing of all the major studios, which means that Netflix is still your best bet for the time being in terms of most content for your buck. This is especially true when you account for their streaming Watch Now program, which can now be used directly on your TV via a Media Center PC. If you're talking just HD content, your selection gets narrowed down even further.
Not that it really matters that much in the end, since the HD you're streaming doesn't look nearly as good as an actual Blu-ray or HD DVD disc. But it's still better than SD. If we had to scale the HD movie picture quality of HD on a scale where Blu-ray is a 10, HD cable is a 7 and VHS is a 1, this would be about a 5. It's better than DVD, but it's not "true" HD. Oh, and their 5.1 audio doesn't sound as good either. It's good enough to watch and think you're watching HD, but it's not quite good enough for true HD movie fans.
Podcasts and Movie Trailers
Browsing Podcasts is almost exactly like browsing movies for rentals. You scroll around, find a video (Collegehumor's Street Fighter: The Later Years for example), and hit play or download. Depending on how the podcast you're watching is encoded, you can either make out that Blanka's makeup is splotchy around the neck and beard, or barely be able to tell the difference between Mike Birbiglia and Jim Gaffigan on Comedy Central's two-minute clips. It's usually watchable at the very least, plus it's free, so there's little to complain about. You can also subscribe to your favorite podcasts, which will be downloaded to your Apple TV when you go to your "My Podcasts" screen and click on them.
Movie trailers are pretty much the same as before. Browse around, pick a trailer, then watch it. Incidentally, it's very distracting trying to write a review when the thing you're reviewing throws up stuff like the Dark Knight trailer in your face.
.Mac and Flickr galleries look fantastic, with slick transitions and soundtrack support. It definitely works better than it did back at Macworld (after which Steve Jobs choked an engineer backstage), and is fairly easy to set up once you go through the one-time process of typing in a contact's name using the Apple remote. I hooked it up to Adam Frucci's Flickr gallery, and boy does his crotch look huge in HD. You can still view your iTunes-synced photos as well, if you're feeling frisky.
TV Shows, Music
Browsing TV shows and Music is essentially the same as what you get on the computer, except clumsier since you have to do everything with the remote. Once you find something you like, you can purchase it directly onto your Apple TV without going to your machine.
It's the same as before. Browse YouTube like you would on your iPhone or your computer. Watch amateurs make amateur-grade video.
In case you cared, it took about four minutes for me to download the update, and another 10 minutes to install it.
Just like Apple TV 1.0, it's a fantastic way for people to get their iTunes-purchased movies, music and TV shows from their computers onto their living room TVs. What's even better—the "mass appeal," if you like—about version 2.0 is that it doesn't require a computer to function. People can plop down an Apple TV into their homes and rent movies, listen to iTunes music, sync up with their grandchildren's Flickr or .Mac streams, or just waste an hour surfing YouTube.
The only question you have to ask yourself to justify this purchase is whether or not you have faith in Apple to back up their fancy piece of hardware with content—both on the Movie and TV side—in order to provide you something to watch for years to come. It may take a while, and things might not go entirely smoothly (see NBC's iTunes departure for example) but I think they'll get there. And for the new, lowered price of $229, it's not even an expensive gamble. [Apple]