The new Apple TV: A true multimedia device

The recent update of the Apple TV fulfills its promise of easy home entertainment.

Although the Apple TV first shipped on March 21, 2007, it didn't get an overhaul for almost a year. During that year, the device, which promised to bring digital media (music, photos and video) from the computer to the living room, tried to establish itself in a marketplace rife with competitors. Systems such as Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Netgear's EVA series, not to mention TiVo, are all striving to dominate that elusive space.

Introduced at Macworld in January, this second iteration of Apple TV (which some call Apple TV Take 2) is a response to many of the initial criticisms of its predecessor as a media device that lacked direct access to online content. Users can now search and buy content from the iTunes Store directly on the Apple TV, including music, TV shows and movie rentals (which were introduced at Macworld).

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The upgraded Apple TV

In addition, it now allows users to browse Flickr and photo galleries from Apple's .Mac service just as easily.

In other words, the new-and-better Apple TV (a firmware/software update is free for existing owners) is designed to make the device an entertainment product in its own right rather than a computer accessory connected to a TV. The question is: At a cost of $229 for a model with 40GB of storage space and $329 for a 160GB model, does this new version of the Apple TV make the cut?

Improved interface

As with my first experience with the Apple TV, I found the menu structure and navigation to be almost brilliant in its simplicity. In Apple TV Take 2, the menu has been somewhat redesigned. Instead of maintaining an iPod-like navigation in which users must drill down through several options to locate a feature, the new two-column approach makes it faster and easier to switch from one facet of the device (say, music) to another (such as YouTube browsing).

Like the original Apple TV, Apple TV Take 2 includes and relies on Apple's standard remote, the same one that Apple ships with current Mac models. The remote carries through that ease-of-use theme: It features only six buttons (up, down, right, left, pause/play/select, and menu). Apple has certainly figured out how to limit the confusion often associated with remote control devices.

The one thing that I wish could be improved is the method Apple TV uses when you need to actually type in a search term or a site ID: You have to maneuver around an on-screen keyboard, picking out letters one at a time using the directional buttons on the remote. It works, but the process of entering even moderately long movie or song titles or search strings quickly becomes tedious.

Admittedly, there's really nothing that Apple can do about this, short of providing a remote with a keyboard on it — but at times it did feel like I spent more time typing with the on-screen keyboard via the remote than actually accessing content.

iTunes Store at your fingertips

One of the most exciting new features of the Apple TV Take 2 is its direct integration with the iTunes Store. This is one of the areas where the original Apple TV design failed to live up to its potential — you could use it with content that you owned, but adding to it required going to the computer, searching, buying and downloading, then syncing or streaming content to the Apple TV. All of this took you out of the TV/entertainment center experience that is the whole point of the Apple TV.

The iTunes Store integration now makes it effortless, for example, to buy yesterday's episode of The Daily Show after finding out that the guest had been, say, a certain senator running for the White House. It also makes it easy to add music to your library as you're watching or listening to something (during a commercial break in the middle of the Grammys, for example).

Combined with the iTunes preview feature, this integration is something that the Apple TV needed, and it works incredibly well. The fact that content becomes available while downloading and then automatically syncs to your computer with no effort at all makes it even easier than purchasing content from an iPhone or iPod Touch (although the only effort that they require is that you connect the device to the computer).

The one drawback to the iTunes Store on the Apple TV is that it may be too easy to use. I'm all too aware that the effortlessness of browsing and buying music, TV shows or movies could quickly become an expensive habit.

The integration of the iTunes Podcast directory is also well done. The Apple TV's new ability to not only browse and subscribe to podcasts directly from your television, but also to browse and listen to individual episodes without having to subscribe to the entire series, is a major boon. It reminds me of the way we browse on-demand cable content or YouTube. For anyone who has yet to become a podcast aficionado, the Apple TV Take 2 stands to change their mind by making podcasts more like other forms of entertainment — and less like a subscription-based service.

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