Apple TV Take 2: Even Better than the First?

Apple recently released a major upgrade to its Apple TV software that sports a new interface as well as additional features; the most significant of which is movie rentals. They're offered in both standard definition and, in some cases, high definition.

I didn't jump on the upgrade bandwagon immediately; over the last year I've been using my Apple TV primarily to watch videos stored on my NAS in non-Quicktime format, and I didn't want to lose that capability. So, I decided to wait and make sure that the various hacks which allowed me to do that were going to be updated to support the Take 2. They are all in various states of beta testing at this point, so last week I did the upgrade and began playing with the new release. So far, here are my thoughts:

The AppleTV Take 2's New Interface

At first, I didn't really like the new menu layout as much as the original. I can't completely say why, but it just looked a little less pleasant, and the buttons were a little less than standardized. In the old Back Row, the select command always took you forward, and menu always took you back, just like an iPod. Take 2 uses left and right in some cases, and menu/select in others. After about 2 minutes, you can easily guess which combo to use in each screen, and the change is fairly logical - but it's a slightly different pattern nonetheless. After using it for about 5 minutes, I decided I like the new menus better than the old because of the overall structure, if not the first glance appearance.

The best part of the interface redesign is that there is Apple TV Take 2 Interface now a clear hierarchy based on content types, not content location. That is to say that before, you had to choose if the media you wanted to play was local to the Apple TV, or on a remote iTunes library. After that selection, you would then select the media type (movie, tv, audio), and then finally get to the media itself. Take 2 simply lets you start with the media type on the main screen, and then you select which library to go to. This is a much better organization style, and it's a lot easier to find things with this context.

The new iTunes movie/tv/podcast browser screens are a little odd, but they work well. Essentially, you get a screen full of horizontally scrolling rows, with each row being dedicated to things like "top rentals," "staff favorites," "new releases," and the like. The screens are very busy, but they do give you lots of well organized options as they utilize all your available screen space.

The least pleasant thing about Back Row still exists in Take 2, and that's the "cursor inertia" phenomenon. When you start scrolling through any media list, or even through the arcade game-ish on-screen keyboards (for id/password entry and searches on iTunes, Flikr, and YouTube) the cursor starts to speed up the longer you press the directional button. When you let go of the button, the cursor goes a bit further before it actually stops. I personally find this very annoying and keep overshooting my targets because the inertia seems speed relative, and the speed increases the further you go. So, when scrolling through long lists, the further you go, the earlier you need to let go of the button. This seems very non-Apple, as they typically like to be consistent in interface behavior. The TiVo is smart enough to jump back a bit, for example, when you fast forward through commercials. And while the TiVo's jump-back behavior is also speed adaptive, it knows that the faster you are going, the more it needs to jump back to get to the right point. Apple TV's is essentially just the opposite, and it's annoying.

The New Features of AppleTV Take 2

Interface improvements and annoyances aside, the big dealis really the new feature set of the Apple TV Take 2.

First, movie rentals. I rented the HD version of Michael Clayton over the weekend, and was very happy with the overall experience as well as the quality of the picture & sound. The keyboard thing got on my nerves, but once the download started I was given the option to start watching the movie, after about 2 minutes of download time. I opted to go out for dinner first and watch the movie when I got back, however, so I can't say that the download was really far enough along to deal with potential network slowdowns. I'm unsure whether it would have let me catch up if I did start watching immediately or not, but a bit of mental math made me think it would have been ok.

Apple TV Take 2 Movie Rentals

The overall quality was better than HD on DirecTV (I'm still on the series 2 DirectTV Tivo with MPEG 2, not the Hughes MPEG 4 DVR.) I don't remember noticing any pixelation or other digital artifacts at all. While it's not the most action packed movie, it was still pretty good. The price of $4.99 for this film was a bit much compared to other available options, but I don't rent very much at all; $5 for HD still beats going out to a store to pick up a scratched DVD. I think, for my viewing habits, the only negative side of this device will be the content that is available.

Flikr and .mac picture viewing is also a new feature, and I tested the Flikr portion out with a few albums from my friends . Nice and simple, and high quality on a big screen, there's not much to say about this; it just works and would again add to the value of an Apple TV. It could be used as a digital picture frame for families and distant relatives. You can also set up the screen saver to use photos from these sources, which is a small but probably useful feature for some.

Apple TV now also functions as a remote iTunes speaker. It appears at the bottom of all iTunes instances on the same network, just like the Airport Express. I still, truly, don't understand why the iPhone/iTouch can't stream to these speakers, because it would be nice to go to someone's place and play out from one of those devices to their larger speakers. It really seems like such a simple feature, and even one aligned with simple functionality and non-sharing of music. I really hope a future iPhone / iTouch release adds this output ability.

The Current State of Take 2 Hacking

Last summer & fall when it appeared that Apple was leaving the Apple TV out in the cold, the 3rd party development slowed down quite a bit. Luckily, the core developer community ramped up again quite quickly, and the most useful of the hacks are already Take 2 compatible, or at least are getting there. I haven't broken out the Torx again, but intend to in the next week or so.

Girl Approving of Apple TV Take 2

Can I recommend the Take 2?

Even more now than ever before: YES! The rentals are a big plus, as is the Flikr and .mac photo viewing. Like I said, I don't rent much, so the convenience of this approach is more than good enough for me, and I suspect others that aren't hardcore NetFlix users. At the lower $230 price point, you can easily justify sending one of these over to the grandparent's place and keeping them up to date with all the family pictures through one of those services.

Missing Features from the Apple TV Take 2

  1. HDTV television show purchases are my first feature request. The iTunes Store, or rather, NBC/Universal, already dropped House, but there shouldn't be any reason that the shows they still carry can't be issued in HD. Ideally, this would be in an upgrade format like the lossless music last year. Pay a little more for the things you already have, and re-download them.
  2. iChat video support. It may not be a widely used feature, and in fact I've not seen anyone else mention it in the last year at all, but when you send a box to the remote relative, why can't you add in a low cost webcam and get a video chat device for your efforts?

Overall, it's worth the software upgrade for earlier adopters, and it's a bit better of a purchase these days for those who didn't buy one last year. The Apple TV isn't dead, let's hope the momentum keeps increasing and the content selection keeps expanding; then this could be a really viable little competitor to loads of other providers and services.


Connect With Techlore