Apple TV, 'Ping' and iTunes -- what it means

Forget the new iPods; it's the other things that point to where Apple wants to go

There were a lot of rumors and expectations ahead of Apple's much-hyped music event yesterday. As expected, Apple unveiled a new touch-based iPod Nano, and an iPod Touch sporting the company's A4 processor, its super-high-resolution Retina display, and front and rear cameras offering HD video recording and video chat via FaceTime. There was also a new iPod Shuffle, which thankfully returns to the previous iteration's design with on-device buttons and a clip to make it wearable.

Apple TV
Redesigned Apple TV includes built-in HDMI, Wi-Fi and Ethernet and is one-fourth the size of earlier models.

While the iPods and Apple's upcoming updates for iOS 4 -- next week for the iPhone and iPod Touch, November for the iPad -- were big announcements, Apple CEO Steve Jobs also introduced a revamped Apple TV and iTunes 10 featuring Apple's new "Ping" social network for music. Both represent major moves for Apple that point to where it hopes to go in the years ahead.

Apple TV

I reviewed the original Apple TV three years ago, when it was first introduced. I was immediately a fan -- and I still am, particularly given the improvements Apple has made to the user interface over the years.

As many had speculated, the latest Apple TV, due out by the end of the month, relies on streaming content and has no internal hard drive like the first version. As Jobs said: "People won't want to manage storage. And they don't want to sync to their computer.... It's too complicated." And it's not an iOS device. So much for the talk that it would run something akin to the operating system in the iPhone 4 and iPad. As the Apple rumor mill predicted, though, it's much smaller than the original -- a quarter the size -- and hits the $99 price point that tends to be the "sweet spot" for set-top boxes.

There seems to be a lot to like about the $99 Apple TV beyond the new, lower price, including Netflix integration and the AirPlay feature. There's also a move toward simplicity, with a reduced number of ports. This is a mixed blessing. Sure, a lot of consumers are perplexed by the options offered by their HDTV sets and surround-sound home theater receivers. (There's a reasons Best Buy's Geek Squad and similar services seem to be thriving.) For many people, each new device they add to their entertainment system creates more confusion. Apple's decision to offer just HDMI and TOSLink outputs is a plus.

But there's a downside. While modern televisions and receivers come with an array of input ports, they generally have, at best, two of each. My own TV has two HDMI ports. My cable box takes up one of them. If I have any other HDMI device (a TiVo, the cable/satellite box or a game system, for instance), I'll have no way to hook up my the new Apple TV. Likewise, my receiver has only two TOSLink inputs. I might be able to devise a solution to this problem fairly easily, but my father and a large number of my friends won't be able to.

Another design aspect bothers me, too: the tiny size and weight. I appreciate Apple's less-is-more minimalist design, but there's something to be said for hardware with a bit of heft -- something that can't be easily knocked behind the entertainment cabinet or pulled onto the floor by heavy cables connecting it to other devices. I can easily envision the new lightweight Apple TV -- it weighs just over half a pound -- being pulled behind the TV and onto the floor, where the cat would be more than happy to consider it a toy.

Beyond the hardware, Apple offered a stylish design update with the device. Eliminating the need to sync it with a computer should reduce confusion for technophobic users. And, let's face it, with the limited storage available on previous models, most people ended up streaming a lot of content anyway. (Some amount of local music storage might've been a good idea -- at least until Apple manages to get media companies to agree to the idea of cloud-based iTunes storage.)

While the rental pricing scheme Apple negotiated for movies and TV shows from just two networks isn't likely to improve Apple's bottom line, the addition of Netflix streaming is a big deal, and it stands to give the Apple TV a serious presence in many homes. Combined with the price points -- HD movies start at $3.99 and HD TV shows go for 99 cents -- plus a well-designed interface, and built-in access to YouTube, Flickr and Internet radio, the new Apple TV should become a serious contender against similar offerings, like the one from Roku. With the right marketing, Apple could make this the premier Netflix streaming device.

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