Apple TV: What you need to know

Apple executives have frequently called the Apple TV a “hobby”—as much an acknowledgment of customers’ lackluster reaction to the set-top box as it is the amount of attention the company has devoted to the oft-overlooked product. But after Wednesday’s music-centric press event, Apple has begun to show signs of taking this particular hobby a little more seriously.

The AppleTV unveiled by Steve Jobs to cap off Wednesday’s event is a much different beast than the one stagnating in Apple’s product line the past four years. This smaller device fits in the palm of your hand, strips down the number of ports, and puts the emphasis on streaming content—not storing and syncing it.

Has Apple finally hit upon the magic formula for a living room companion? We won’t know for certain until the product actually ships. But we can answer a few common questions about the latest edition of the Apple TV. And if we don’t cover your question here, feel free to ask away in our Macworld.com forums.

When will the new Apple TV be available, and how much will it cost?

Steve Jobs said it would ship in “four weeks,” which puts the release tentatively at the end of September. The online Apple Store says the device begins shipping in September. Since thirty days hath September, check back when most of them are done. The price will be $99.

What’s hardware is inside the Apple TV?

Apple’s Apple TV specs page says the new model uses an A4 chip, just like the iPad. This should mean considerably better performance than we saw with the previous model, which ran on an Intel Pentium M processor.

So is the new Apple TV running OS X or iOS? Can I run apps on it?

Apple won’t say what operating system the Apple TV is running. Since it’s running on the same A4 processor as iOS devices, it’s probably running iOS—but its interface is nothing like other iOS devices, so it may be a distinction without a difference. You can’t run apps on it, in any event, though that’s always a possibility in the future. An Apple TV App Store could be cool… but it’s not a reality yet.

What are the terms of video rentals for the Apple TV? Do you still get only 24 hours to watch a rented video?

You have 30 days to start watching a movie or TV episode. Once you begin watching a rented movie on the Apple TV, you have 24 hours to finish. However, the “watching” period for a TV show is 48 hours.

How much does it cost to rent TV shows and movies?

With Apple TV, you’ll be able to rent TV shows for $1 directly from the iTunes Store.

It varies. For standard-definition movies, it’s $3 for a library (older) title and $4 for a new title; for high-definition titles, it’s $4 for a library title and $5 for new releases. TV shows, however, are $1 for rental, regardless of resolution.

Will I be able to watch the latest shows (say, the one I missed last night), or will these be older episodes?

Both. Apple claims that the iTunes Store has the largest library of new and old content. TV shows typically appear in the store within 24 hours of airing on TV—sometimes sooner.

Can you still buy TV shows?

Not directly on the Apple TV anymore, no. But you can still stream TV shows, movies, and any other content you buy in iTunes with a Mac or PC—which we’ll address further a little bit later in this article.

What if I live outside the U.S. Is all this goodness only for the U.S.?

Apple said there are six countries where it currently supports video rentals; in other places the Apple TV has much less value.

Will existing Apple TVs support the new features via a software update?

Unfortunately, no.

So the new Apple TV supports only renting, not purchasing, directly. What about iTunes? Can you still buy movies and TV shows in iTunes and then play them on the Apple TV? What about ripping your own movies and playing them from iTunes on your computer?

According to Apple’s Apple TV page, streaming content from your Mac should work just like it always has. If you can get it into iTunes, and it’s in a supported format, your Apple TV can stream it. However, with this Apple TV, it’s streaming only. Since there’s no internal storage, anything you want to play on your Apple TV has to be streamed—either from your computer or over the Internet.

So what are the supported streaming video formats?

The Apple TV supports H.264 video at up to 720p resolution and 30 frames per second, MPEG-4 video at 640 x 480 resolution and 30 frames per second, and motion JPEG (or M-JPEG) videos at 1280 x 720 resolution and 30 frames per second. (The old Apple TV could play 720p video only if was encoded at 24 frames per second, and often struggled even then.)

Can I stream video from Netflix?

Why, yes, you can, as long as you have a Netflix account—you can stream movies and TV shows from your Netflix Instant Queue and browse Netflix’s instant-watch library.

With the focus on streaming, does this mean I can stream video from Hulu or Amazon Video, or audio from Pandora?

Sorry, only Netflix or iTunes (for now, at least).

Can you connect an external hard drive to the Apple TV? How about a printer?

Unfortunately, just as with the previous Apple TV, the lone external USB port (now a micro-USB port) is locked down for only “service and support.” Products such as ATVFlash have been able to use the Apple TV’s USB port to allow for things like external hard drive storage and more media features, but these are unsupported additions that will likely take time to update for the new Apple TV version.

Steve Jobs shows off the ports on the back of the new Apple TV.

Is there any other way to stream content to the new Apple TV?

A new feature coming to the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad is AirPlay, an updated version of Apple’s existing AirTunes feature found in iTunes, the AirPort Express, and Apple TV. AirPlay will let these devices stream movies, TV shows, music, and photos to an Apple TV, making them a sort of external, wireless hard drive for your Apple TV. AirPlay arrives in next week’s iOS 4.1 update for iPhone and iPod touch users. The feature comes to the iPad with the iOS 4.2 update in November.

Does this mean I no longer need an Airport Express to stream music to my stereo?

Correct. Just as with the previous Apple TV, you can stream music directly from iTunes and play it through your stereo or home entertainment center. But now you can also stream music directly from an iPod touch, iPhone, or iPad.

Has the Apple TV’s remote been improved?

No, it’s still the same six-button, infrared model. However, you can continue to use Apple’s Remote application for iOS instead.

What happened to the component-video output?

The new Apple TV has only HDMI output for video and audio, and optical-digital output for audio.

Can the new Apple TV do 1080p, or is it still just 720p?

It supports a maximum resolution of 720p.

Is the ethernet port on the new Apple TV 10/100BASE-T ethernet or 10/100/1000BASE-T (Gigabit) ethernet?

It’s still 10/100BASE-T ethernet.

Will I still be able to mod my Apple TV with atvusb-creator, or install Boxee or one of the other Apple TV mods?

That remains to be seen, although we suspect the people behind these tools are anxious to get their hands on the new model to try. If the device is truly based on the iOS, the right question might be, “Will I be able to jailbreak my Apple TV?” The answer will probably be yes, eventually.

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