New Apple TV focuses on 'what works'

Latest version is streamlined for streaming video -- but more content would be good

For more than three years now, Apple TV has been the one Apple product that buyers were uncertain about. Originally billed as an iPod for your TV, early versions carried a hefty price tag -- $299 initially -- and some annoyances, including synchronization errors and a sometimes unresponsive interface. While it wasn't a failure, Apple TV -- which Apple CEO Steve Jobs famously described as a "hobby" -- clearly wasn't going to be a big consumer hit without a major overhaul.

Apple TV unboxed
The Apple TV comes with a power cord, unibody-style remote and not much else.

Apple has spent the past few years trying to figure out exactly how to bring the content of iTunes into the living room, and the new Apple TV unveiled Sept. 1 pretty much delivers on that goal. It's simpler to set up, smaller than before, easier to use -- and now only $99.

Essentially, the new Apple TV focuses on what worked with the previous models, while dropping the features that didn't. But until Apple works out more deals with content providers, its range of offerings is going to be somewhat limited compared with hardware from rivals like Roku and affordable content from services like Amazon Video On Demand. And, of course, there's the Google TV platform, which adds yet another rival to the mix and could shake up the market.

A streamlined player

At 3.9 x 3.9 in. and just under an inch high, the jet-black Apple TV -- which looks like a squared-off hockey puck -- is just a quarter of the previous model's size, sacrificing internal storage and the obligatory iPod-like syncing for a smaller footprint and a focus on streaming content.

The Apple TV's hook, as it were, may be better defined by what it can't do. There is no Blu-ray or DVD support, and you can't record programs a la DVR -- the 8GB of internal storage is used by its iOS-based system software and to buffer streaming content.

Its main reason for being is to stream content instantly to a hi-definition HDMI-equipped TV, and to do so from a variety of sources (though it doesn't support popular formats such as AVI or MKV files).

But what at first seem to be limitations are, in fact, Apple TV's main strength. As analyst Michael Gartenberg noted in his Entelligence column, the Apple TV vies for control over your TV's second, or even third, input rather than trying to replace your main input for digital content -- a spot that would demand a device with more functionality. As a secondary content-delivery system, Apple TV is a simple and straightforward way to bring your iTunes library and other Internet content to your TV.

Since it's so small, the Apple TV slips invisibly into most home entertainment setups; a nonslip rubber bottom is designed to make sure it stays put, even with a heavy HDMI cable connected. (An HDMI cable is not included; you'll need to buy one separately).

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