First Look: Apple TV, take two

Lately I’ve promoted the notion of an updated Apple TV as one of this young year’s most significant products. But I can understand how those who’d never used the thing might have been less-than-enamored of the device. After all, it apparently didn’t support 5.1 audio, its storage space was limited, there was the general (and incorrect) perception that it couldn’t play HD content, and, most confounding of all, it depended on a computer for its care and feeding.

My, how things have changed.

Should Steve Jobs’ presentation have blotted the functionality of the “original” Apple TV from your memory, allow me to compare and contrast that original device with the “Take Two” update announced during Jobs’ address.

Price: Okay, easily done. The 40GB Apple TV sold for $299 and yesterday Apple shaved $70 from the price tag. The 160GB Apple TV, which those of us who preferred to stream our content thought bore more storage than necessary, moved from $399 to $329; another $70 price drop. (People who invested in the early days of the Apple TV will be rewarded not by a $70 rebate but by receiving the new "Take Two" software update as a free download in two weeks.)

Content: For the most part, you had to move content to the original Apple TV from your computer (streaming YouTube videos and previews from the iTunes Store being the exception). So, if you wanted to play music in your iTunes library, you either copied or streamed it from a computer on the network. Likewise with TV shows and movies purchased from the iTunes Store.

Speaking of content, the selection of movies you could purchase from the iTunes Store was pretty slim. The major studios simply didn’t take to the iTunes Store the way Apple had hoped. Rentals, on the other hand, are another matter. The iTunes Store will have movies for rent from all the major motion picture companies, a refreshing change after a year of offerings largely from Disney and its subsidiaries.

The unnecessary umbilical: With the updated Apple TV and enhanced iTunes Store, Apple has cut the cord. In a couple of week you will be able to sit on your couch and, with Apple remote control in hand, rent a movie or purchase a TV episode or hunk of music from the iTunes Store.

5.1 audio: The original Apple TV supposedly didn’t support 5.1 surround sound, but that wasn’t quite true. If you encoded a video’s audio track in exactly the right way, you could get the Apple TV to output 5.1 audio. However, Apple explained that it didn’t pass Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound—and audio standard routinely used in commercial movies—through the Apple TV. It now does.

With the updated Apple TV, you can string an optical audio cable between your Apple TV and a digital audio input on your 5.1 AV receiver and videos that include 5.1 soundtracks will play in all their surround-sound glory.

HD: There was also some debate over the original Apple TV’s ability to play HD content. If you could find such content and get it onto the Apple TV—an high-def podcast, for example—it would play in a form that fell within the HD specification.

The Take Two Apple TV has the same video specifications. So what’s changed? The availability of content. Unlike in the past, the iTunes Store will brim with HD content in the form of rental movies and high-definition video podcasts. Although the Apple TV is limited to displaying 720p HD video at 24 frames per second, guess what? Movies play at 24 frames per second.

Steaming Internet media: Shortly after the Apple TV’s release, Apple updated the device so it could stream YouTube content. The updated Apple TV not only continues to stream YouTube videos but can now also stream pictures from a .Mac or Flickr account.

Streaming local media: While you could store media on the Apple TV’s hard drive, the device’s ability to stream music and audio quickly over a fast broadband or Ethernet connection was impressive enough that savvier Apple TV owners kept their media on their computers and simply streamed it to the Apple TV connected to their television. If you wanted to play media directly from the Apple TV’s hard drive, you still had the option by switching sources.

The Apple TV continues to offer the ability to stream media or play it from the device’s hard drive, but the updated interface discards the distinction between local and remote storage. Your media is your media—My Movies, for example—and the Apple TV doesn’t force you to choose a source. You select what you need and Apple TV plays it—either streaming content stored on a computer or media stored on the Apple TV’s drive. Better yet, it can automatically determine which media will work better when stored on the Apple TV’s hard drive and sync your media accordingly.

Getting it: Those with strong opinions about the Apple TV fell into two categories—those who had one and loved it, and those who had never laid hands on the thing and didn’t understand its appeal. The Take Two Apple TV, with its ability to obtain great looking and sounding content, from the comfort of the couch, is likely to draw many of those from the latter group into the former.

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