Apple TV untethers from Mac, price dropped

On Tuesday Apple revamped its Apple TV media-playback device, lowering its price and completely changing its interface and adding numerous new features, most notably the ability to rent movies and purchase music and TV shows directly via the device.

During his Macworld Expo keynote address, Apple CEO Steve Jobs said the new and improved Apple TV software will be available in about two weeks as a free update to existing Apple TV devices. The entry-level 40GB model had its price dropped to $229, while the 160GB version now costs $329, a $70 price reduction for both.

In presenting the new software, Jobs showed a remarkable amount of humility about the product's first iteration, though he did suggest that Apple is not alone in having failed to solve the issue of providing digital downloads to the living room.

"All of us have tried," Jobs said. "We've all tried to figure out how to do movies, and you know what? We've all missed. No one has succeeded yet. We tried with Apple TV. Apple TV was designed to be an accessory for iTunes and your computer. It's not what people wanted. We learned what people really wanted was movies, movies movies. And we weren't delivering that. So we're back with Apple TV, take two."

The upgraded Apple TV operates as a standalone device. While it will still synchronize content with your computer, no computer is required to operate it. Once it's connected to your television and your computer network, you can rent movies directly on your widescreen TV, using Apple's new iTunes Movie Rentals feature, navigating using the Apple TV's remote. iTunes Movie Rentals cost $4.99 for new high-definition releases, $3.99 for older high-definition films and new standard-definition releases, and $2.99 for older standard-definition releases.

Apple said the high-definition films play at 720p resolution with many (but not all) available with a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. According to Apple, more than 100 high-definition movies will be available at first, with more coming "quickly."

Standard-definition films purchased on the Apple TV are of "DVD quality," according to Apple VP Greg Joswiak, and will not play back on Macs, PCs, or iPods. However, the Apple TV is also able to play back rentals purchased on a Mac or PC, albeit at reduced "near-DVD quality."

The Apple TV can also now be used to directly purchase TV shows and music, which will also automatically sync back to a Mac or PC via iTunes. A new podcast browser allows users to browse Apple's podcast directory and pick certain podcasts as "favorites" for quick access at a later time.

In addition to adding features that don't require a computer, this new version of the Apple TV software attempts to simplify the playback of media that does reside on computers in your home. By default, the software eliminates the distinction between media stored on the Apple TV's hard drive and stored on remote systems. For example, a single "My TV Shows" menu item lists all the TV shows in your possession, be they stored locally or remotely. Though media can still be managed manually, by default the system intelligently evaluates what files are best stored on the Apple TV's built-in hard drive and what files are best streamed across your local network.

The Apple TV can also display photos from online photo-sharing site Flickr as well as Apple's .Mac photo-sharing site.

(Updated at 3:13 p.m. PT with more details about product from meeting with Apple executives.)

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