If there's one Apple product that lives outside the Reality Distortion Field, it's Apple TV. But hey wait, 3.0 is out, doesn't that change everything? Well, considering Apple rolled it out on a Thursday afternoon with no fanfare, whattaya think?
1. New Home Screen and Tweaked UI
The old home screen had a grid of categories, including Movies, TV, Music, Settings, etc. Now the home screen is horizontal, with all of those same categories running across. Besides mere orientation, the major difference is subtle: Apple TV anticipates what files you're going to want fastest, and puts them above the category in Cover Flow. Click the up arrow to get to the speed rack. The rest of the "new user interface" doesn't seem very new at all. Buffed a bit, shinier in places, but honestly, it's not full revision's worth of new user experience.
2. Genius DJ Playlists
My wife is a huge fan of the Genius option, because she doesn't want to spend an hour making a playlist, but she also doesn't want any of my unexpectedly angsty rock messing up her Beth Orton-fueled revery. Apple TV finally gets what a lot of Apple products have had for a while. Yippee.
3. Movie Extras and LP Compatibility
If you are so devoted to Apple's music and movie retail operation that you care about Extras and LP, visual portals that lead to the main content plus some token extra stuff, then you probably already are excited that Apple TV has this. As much as I am not into it myself, I do admit LP and Extras look much cooler on a TV than they do on a computer.
4. Improved Syncing
iTunes 9 means that, like the iPhone and iPod, there's more refined sync features—you could select particular movies before, but now you can select individual artists, specific TV episodes and iPhoto events as well as albums. This is closer to full manual control, but it's not full manual control.
5. Photos Still Require a Sync
I don't quite understand this quirk of Apple TV: While music and movies I don't sync to the local drive still appear as long as they're in iTunes on my Mac, the photos that live on that same Mac are off limits unless I physically sync them. The alternative is to share them via MobileMe, but that's not the same thing. This highlights an ongoing weirdness between iTunes and iPhoto that may never be resolved.
6. No DivX
"This file was not transferred because it is unable to be played on Apple TV." Steve Jobs once said that only 4% of music on iPods came from iTunes. A lot of movies that would be nice to play on Apple TV simply don't, while H.264 is an option on Handbrake and other personal-use DVD-encoding software, it's not the only game in town.
7. Not NAS Friendly
Assuming I play by the rules and rip all of my personal DVD in H.264 format, I still have to leave them on my laptop, or transfer them to the Apple TV's puny hard drive. Can I stick them on my 1TB NAS, or point the Apple TV to that same NAS to look for other compatible movies? Nope, I cannot.
8. USB Jack Still Unused
Speaking of terabytes, what the hell is that USB 2.0 drive for? It certainly isn't for USB drives, because whenever I connect one, nothing happens. Laptop users don't keep all their movies on their local drives, and many Apple TV drives are too damn small. I don't honestly see how a USB slot could be used for anything evil, and yet three generations of ATV OS have passed without firing it up.
9. Hardware Sluggish and Hot
Even when doing nothing, the Apple TV is still remarkably warm to the touch—the 3.0 update doesn't help that. What I did notice, though, was that the remote was sticky—I'd hear the little "bonk" when I'd push a button, but on many occasions, that was followed by a pause before the thing did anything. This led to several accidental double-taps. And that ain't right.
10. No Netflix or Pandora
Or any other cool third-party services for that matter. YouTube is still there, along with MobileMe and Flickr. And I can understand the conflict of interest in embedding Amazon VOD or CinemaNow or Rhapsody or Napster. But why can't we get some Netflix love? Or Pandora?
11. Too Much Emphasis on Spending Money
I have always felt that Apple TV's insistence on paying for content was crass, given the fact that it is supposed to be the extension of your music and movies on your TV. Don't get me wrong, I actually like that there's a movie rental option on it (and it's my understanding that many people who are drawn to Apple TV are excited because they don't have as much media of their own). But on your computer, you make a deliberate choice to enter the iTunes Store. On Apple TV, you're basically inside the store from the start.
12. Still Best for a 1:1 iTunes-to-TV Connection
I don't use Apple TV regularly. I tried, I swear I did. But the shortcomings I mentioned above eventually drove me from it screaming. There are other simpler and cheaper devices that do what I want in a way that may not be as pretty, but is actually more functional. Returning to Apple TV now, though, I recognize something Brian and I were chatting about earlier: If all you want is your iTunes experience quickly replicated on a TV, it's the perfect device.
As you can see, Apple TV 3.0 isn't some miracle that will suddenly make Apple TV more relevant. It's really a 2.5 if you think about what it does to improve functionality. We asked Apple for a briefing today, in hopes we'd get some idea of what makes this revision special, and no one was available to chat. Guess we'll have to wait for 3.0.1.