Apple TV Take 2: A Review

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The Apple TV update has been released within the last week, and I have finally had plenty of time to play with it, so here is my review.

Declaration of Bias
First off, I want to let you know my bias with regard to all things Apple. Yes, I love Apple products, but not because they are from Apple. It's because I like the functionality that they give, the simplicity in their setup, and the power of UNIX at the core. So, now that you know my bias, on with the review!

The Interface
I've heard a lot of complaints about the interface, some from a "design" aspect, some in regard to the blatant iTunes marketing. But to tell you the truth, it's just plain easy to use. It's not fluid, but because of the new features they offer in the upgrade it doesn't seem possible to make it fluid.

The only real difference from the UI in Take 2 from the original is the box that shows up. I actually prefer the two column box because menu options come up while your music plays, and doesn't stop it like before. So in that aspect, it's a better interface.

Is there anything that I don't like about the interface? Just entering text. It's awkward using the Apple remote to enter text, and as such takes too long to do any real searching. Would I want a bigger and more cumbersome remote with a built in keyboard? Absolutely not! It would then be too difficult to use, and too confusing for new users. And I know what you are thinking: if they don't want to learn how to do it, why should you cater to them? Because those people have money to buy the product. Simplicity is what makes the Apple TV a joy to use.

One thing that I don't think people understand about the potential of iTunes is the potential to cater to the cult classics that you can't get anywhere else. Want to watch "Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine"? It's there. It's all about the rare, and getting that rare to those that would buy it.

With that in mind, let's look at rental. It's a great idea, and I really like it. There are a lot of movies that we purchase and only watch once or twice... That's $30 down the drain, when instead we can rent it from iTunes and watch it to our hearts content (once or twice within a 24 hour period), and only pay $2.99 to $3.99. Do I care about HD? Not really, because I only have an Standard Definition TV. I've heard reviews and seen screen shots that compare the quality of the Apple TV to HD Cable shows, and it's been favorable with the Apple TV. But again, it's dependent on services and the TV you are using.

Browsing shared movies is similar to the original Apple TV, if only vaguely. It's actually easier, because you can browse to them from the Movies menu instead of having to go to Sources to find the source. In fact the navigation let's you get to other sources easier than before.

Renting is simple, though there isn't a lot out there to rent. But what is there is a fairly diverse genre spread that would make most people interested at least. If you download a movie, it will sync automatically with your main source machine. If you don't have a main source machine, it stays on your Apple TV. ^_^ That I really like. Once you are done renting (i.e., 1 month of not watching, or within 24 hours of when you started to watch the movie), it automatically deletes itself from your Apple TV/iTunes.

TV Shows
This was the only annoyance I had with the update. By default, it displays your TV shows by show, time stamp, and then alphabetically. There looked to be a way to organize the display, but no simple way to be seen to organize it. I was doomed to deal with my TV shows out of order, until I tried to just hit the right skip button on the remote. It then organized the TV shows by show, which was what I had before the upgrade.

One welcome addition to this view was the division by season, and then give the numbers of each episode. It makes it easier to see if you have all the episodes, and make sure they are in order. Needless to say, the one major complaint I had against the Take 2 upgrade was resolved.

I don't listen to a lot of music, but my wife does. One thing that is a great improvement is the Air Tunes option, where someone can play their music from their mac on the Apple TV. I like it, because I can leave the TV off to get to the music, and it gives more space on the Apple TV for movies and TV shows (soon to no longer be an issue, if I can talk my wife into the hard drive upgrade for the Apple TV).

Other than that, it's pretty much like movies or TV shows, with sharing very easy to navigate, and a huge emphasis on iTunes.

I love podcasts. I listen to several, mostly from NPR. The search isn't the best (see complaint about entering text), but sharing is great and easy to navigate. One great thing is the video podcasts for movie trailers. Because our wireless broadband network is, well, rather unreliable at times (anytime UTOPIA becomes ready, I'm dumping it), downloading to the Apple TV to watch a preview can take quite a bit of time. So, I would rather download the podcasts for the movies at work, and then bring them home to watch.

Photos are not often used on our machine, other than as a screensaver, but the Apple TV does allow for connecting to Flickr and the .Mac repository that my wife would have had access to (but never used, thank goodness for trial accounts!). They are easy to set up, the settings are in the same menu (no more hunting), and you can also view shared photos from machines. WIll it be a good move? Well, only if I find a use for browsing through Flickr files on a regular basis. Until then, it's really a non-issue for me.

I just recently got my wife interested in YouTube, and created an account for us to use on YouTube. Now I connect at work, find interesting movies, and I can bring them home and have my wife watch them on the main TV. The only drawback is the broadband network we are on, and the problems we seem to have with bandwidth. Ah, well, perhaps one day it will be a good tool to use. In any case, other than search, the Apple TV is a really good tool to watch YouTube on a big screen.

The settings were pretty much the same, though they had an added option to add your iTunes account to the Apple TV directly. It's time consuming, but keeps it on file and not in RAM. Good thing, because occasionally my son likes to play with the power strip into witch it is plugged. Other than that, it's pretty much the same.

Final Thoughts
The main drawback to the Apple TV is the hard drive size. The good news is that it's fairly easy to upgrade the hard drive (out of warranty, of course), and will cost just a little more to upgrade an Apple TV 40 GB to 250 GB than buying an Apple TV 160 GB.

Also, there are a number of hacks that can be loaded to the Apple TV, one of which is the Safari HD plugin, allowing someone to use Safari on the Apple TV without having to install a full version of OS X. They have a version for the new Take 2 update, so once I can talk my wife into letting me upgrade the hard drive, I'm going to look into it. You can also enable SSH, which makes upgrading the Apple TV that much easier.

So, is the Apple TV worth it? With the hacks, most definitely. Without the hacks, it is very usable, simple in it's navigation, and therefore a definite keeper. Can you build and configure a more expandable device? Sure, if you want to go through all the work, time, effort, etc. Frankly, I like the fact that the Apple TV is just so simple to use. I can rip my DVD's with Handbrake, add them to iTunes, and as such they are viewable on the Apple TV.

And finally, of course, it saves my DVD's from my son's fingers, and the fingers of his cousins.