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The Mysterious Black Box that is the Apple TV: The 2nd Generation


By Louis Trapani - Posted on 22 September 2010

AppleTV2ndGen.jpg

Three weeks ago Apple unveiled the new Apple TV. It is now housed in a mysterious black box, as opposed to the silver of the previous Apple TV. It's much smaller and without a hard disk spinning inside plus a more efficient processor, it runs much cooler.

A black mysterious box is most fitting for this product because there's still so much about it that we don't know yet.

We know the basics. It is now using the same A4 processor of the iPad and iPhone 4. We now know that it's been (unofficially) confirmed that it is running on iOS 4. Like the original Apple TV, it supports podcasts, photos, video, YouTube, etc. Now Netflix (affiliate link) has been added to the mix. I think this may be a key ingredient in the new Apple TV along AirPlay.

Oh yeah, there is the whole thing about renting content now. It should be noted that I got the first very first Apple TV on the first day of its release. In that time (circa four years now (?)), I can count how many times I purchased a movie or TV episode from iTunes on it on one hand and still have a few fingers left over. I don't believe I rented anything with it at all. It is simply not how I used Apple TV.

For me Apple TV has been essentially a big iPod for my TV. When it was first released, the OS did not allow for streaming. We were limited to the 40 GB on board storage. This was a big downfall for many of us, our media far exceeded that amount. Eventually Apple released a larger capacity unit (I believe it was 160 GB). Before we many us could upgrade to the larger capacity unit, Apple did something very interesting. It allowed for streaming to it. Suddenly, 40 GB was more than I needed because I simply stored a subset of my music and video on the device, all of my photographs, and the rest I would simply stream to it from the net itself or my computer running iTunes.

It should also be noted that I use the Apple TV probably more than any other media device at home (at least prior to the iPad). If I don't rent or buy content from iTunes for it, how do I use the Apple TV you might ask? I use it mostly for podcast consumption. Yes, a good deal of what I use the Apple TV for is playing podcasts, both audio and video. What is great about using Apple TV for video podcasts is that I can simply stream it from the net instead of managing the large files that video shows often produce. Often there is no need to sync the large video files up to other devices since I am going to watch them on the Apple TV anyway. Streaming video was a good solution.

So it is no surprise that the new Apple TV is a streaming only device. While I can appreciate this, I also feel there really should be some local user accessible storage on the device. Sure often my computer is running and I can easily stream to it, but there are also many times that I am playing content (especially audio) on the Apple TV with my computer off. This will no longer be possible with the new Apple TV.

Also it means that iTunes will have be running all the time. It pretty much is now anyway, but now it must if Apple TV is to stream from it, or does it? Will a server component be built into Mac OS or a component of iTunes running in the background that will allow for streaming of content to it without launching iTunes? There are already 3rd-party software solutions that do this for the iPad and iPhone such as the Air Video Server. The caveat is that it doesn't work with DRM content purchased through iTunes. Obviously this should not be an issue for the new Apple TV.

Podcasts on Apple TV

There are other questions that remain unanswered. Apple has unfortunately pushed podcasts under the rug so to speak by taking the category off the top level menu of Apple TV and put them in a sub-category under Internet now on it. We have to assume we will be able to stream podcasts directly from the net as we can with the existing Apple TV (1st gen). If so, will it keep track which has been seen/listened to and which has not when streamed from the net? The current Apple TV does not, unfortunately. Even though there is no information on this that can be found on the Apple site, from a screenshot of the new Apple TV user interface for podcasts and it looks like it does now track what you have played with the standard blue dot/circle graphic. Assuming this is indeed a screenshot of a podcasts streaming directly from the net and not your computer, this is a welcomed change. Although the existing Apple TV did it for podcasts that you synced from your iTunes on your computer, it did not do it for content streamed directly from the net.

As I said earlier, I am not that big on renting content. I never have been. I may do it from time to time. If it is content I really like though, most likely I will want it on Blu-ray (or DVD) anyway. For the one-off TV episode or movie that I may just want to see and not re-watch — perhaps. This is where Netflix comes in. For the cost of 2 first release HD movie rentals via iTunes, you can simply stream all the content you want in a month via Netflix.

The other big factor will be AirPlay. Streaming content to your Apple TV not only from iTunes, but from your iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, or other future iOS devices (we can assume). This will be sweet. Especially if it is unbound. By that I mean, if you can simply stream any audio/video content to your Apple TV from the iPad or iPhone, not just what is stored on the device. In other words, let's say you come across a YouTube video on your iOS device, if it allows you to stream to your Apple TV, that would be cool (sure Apple TV has YouTube built in, but you would have to search for the video you already have ready on your iOS device). I suspect AirPlay will only work on media you actually have your iOS device though. Also AirPlay will not be available through these iOS devices when Apple TV starts shipping as it requires iOS 4.2 which is not due until November 2010.

Apple TV in hand

Is the new generation Apple TV worth replacing your existing Apple TV? It may be for AirPlay and Netflix support (and a less buggy system software hopefully). Sure, Netflix is already on other media devices as well as the XBox 360, Wii, and I believe the PS3, these game consoles have their drawbacks. The XBox 360 and PS3 are very noisy machines with their fans running. While the Wii is certainly quieter, it doesn't support HD. The Apple TV is quiet. There is no hard disk in it spinning, and it runs cool in comparison.

If you need the onboard storage of the original Apple TV, you may want to hold off on the 2nd gen or perhaps keep both.

Some other factors to consider: Although Apple has not announced any apps being available for the new Apple TV, being that it is an iOS device, it is possible that Apple may introduce apps for it in the near future. There were no 3rd party apps available for the iPhone when it was first released either (aside from web apps). If Apple doesn't do it, I am sure it will probably be jail-broken allowing for others to develop apps for it.

The other factor is the existing Apple TV software hasn't been updated in some time now and still has a bunch of bugs in it which I suspect will never be addressed now that new Apple TV running completely new software which is not compatible with the older machines is coming. Apple has been quoted saying it will not be upgrading the software of the older Apple TV devices to support the features of the new one.

There is also the sticker price. $99 is a sweet spot for a device like this one. The remote it comes with sells separately for almost one-third that price! (CORRECTION: I was told they sold for $29 separately, I just checked the Apple Store, and they sell for $19, so it is not almost one-third the price. My apologies.) Perhaps people are already jumping on it with pre-orders. Apple said it would be available in four weeks at their announcement at the start of September. Which means it would be available by the end of September. The shipping dates for Apple TV orders now is mid-October. Perhaps they have been simply delayed or Apple is adjusting the dates due to demand.

There is much I did not cover here, such as other changes made to the new Apple TV such as limiting the output to HDMI now (understandable considering the size of the device). Oh, and all the brouhaha some made about it "no longer" supporting 1080p or 1080i... Well, although the original Apple TV allowed you to tell it that your HDTV is capable of displaying 1080p or 1080i and thus the menu displays may have been adjusted for it and perhaps it upscaled the media content to it as well, it never itself played native 1080p or 1080i video. 720p is fine for now. Again, for anything that matters that much to me, I will be getting the Blu-ray disc of it anyway which will be 1080p.

The Apple TV is mostly for consuming 'disposable' media via the net. 720p is fine for that purpose because you don't want deal with larger files that 1080p video would require to stream. For me, it is a device mostly for consuming new media on pulled from the net. That and a showcase for my photography as well.

Soon enough these questions will be answered. Stay tuned for further updates.

For more on the new Apple TV, visit the Apple web page here.

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