Apple TV 3.0

Apple TV 3.0 (or Apple TV 3, or Apple TV Take 3) is the just-released third version of Apple's and Steve Jobs' "hobby". And, for good or for ill, its latest feature-set seems designed to keep iTunes' living room gateway as niche as ever. That's not to say it isn't good, because it is (though it does have problems we'll get into below), but it's certainly not great. Not yet. And we're beginning to wonder if Apple (now or ever) even wants it to be?

Preamble 1

Yes, this is an iPhone blog, but just as other SPE Network sites like WMExperts will touch on the big Microsoft picture and Android Central will keep its electric eyes on Google, TiPb tries to include everything Apple that connects to the iPhone ecosystem. So you won't find a review of the latest Mac Pro, you will find one of the pocketable iPhone's big screen cousin, the Apple TV. If your interests lie elsewhere, just skip on to the next post. If you are interested, however, follow on after the jump for more!

Preamble 2

I've had an Apple TV since version 1.x and I use it every day. For me it's part of the Apple/iPhone ecosystem and it "just works" to let me use the same music and video on my iPhone and on my TV (and in iTunes on my PC). My living room setup is a 1080p LCD with 7.1 surround (which I put together as cheaply as possible -- check out this forum post for more), which I use Apple's Remote app to control the Apple TV with my iPhone or iPod touch.

Long ago, I ripped every DVD I owned to iTunes format, and whenever I find a movie or TV series I love on sale at Amazon or elsewhere, I buy it, rip it to a Drobo, and box ye old physical media as backup. I also buy via iTunes, especially when they have their sales. I'm exploring going all in on PVR'ing content as well, but I'll save the rant on how Canada has no consumer protection when it comes to telecommunications, and Canadians have no access to CableCard, mandated unencrypted OTA broadcast signals, etc.

All this by way of saying I have a lot of content and I watch it via my Apple TV a lot, and so the Apple TV 3.0 update is something I take seriously. Apple... well, we'll see...

Software not Hardware

Apple TV 3.0 is, sadly, a software only update. There's no new Apple TV gear to go buy. No better chips, no bigger capacity, no added features like TV tuners or 1080p out. If you haven't bought one before, it's cheaper than it was a few months ago, but it's not better. That's a far bigger problem at this point than the software.

New Look, Tweaked Feel

The user interface for Apple TV 3.0 has been refreshed -- at least on the top level. Now, instead of just two vertical menus, a horizontal menu cuts across the top showing off poster/album art for your content. The spots on the left are, refreshingly, reserved for your own media -- your most recently added movies, TV shows, music, podcasts, etc. I count 5 spots on mine. The spots on the right show stuff Apple would like you to buy from the iTunes Store. Yeah, it's like that -- Apple TV remains a hard-sell for purchases and rentals. It's not as bad as it used to be -- they've even moved your content above store content in the menus, but it's still the overall purpose of the device. Then again, online rentals seem to be the future of the set-top box, so fair enough...

LP and Extras

One of the major reasons cited for the Apple TV 3.0 update was to add compatibility for iTunes LP and iTunes Extras. If you already have either or both, iTunes will download new versions of the content (?!), but once done, they look great. Extras present similarly to DVD extras, however the interface for the one we tested -- Wall-E -- was very un-Apple. It wasn't clear where to click or when. Choosing one option left that option highlighted when, in order to actually use it, we had to navigate over to the artwork, and then notice the dots beneath the artwork denoting a number of different elements to that content. Apple usually nails this stuff, but we'll test a few more and hope very hard it was an isolated accident.

Note: there aren't very many iTunes LP and iTunes Extra offerings yet, barely a dozen of each, but expanding it to the Apple TV is a good sign Apple is making at least another "hobby" out of it. We'll see how well it plays out.

Also note: Are we waiting on iPhone 3.2 so we can get those extras on the mobile screen as well? Sure would be nice to have them if we got them...

Final Thoughts

Apple TV Take 3 it certainly isn't. Only its elegance, simplicity, and seamless integration for iTunes users makes it a valid alternative against Windows 7 Media Center or competing set-top boxes that offer Netflix (for those in the US) or XVID/DIVX/MKV (for those who get their content... elsewhere).

That, however, is exactly how Apple has positioned it. Want a DVD option? get a Mac Mini. Want portability, get the AV cables with an iPhone or iPod touch. Want to take iTunes content and splash it on your big screen, there's an Apple TV for that. For now. But "hobbies" only last for so long. If Apple doesn't make a serious run at "business" with a proper 3.0 (or 4.0 we guess) and updated hardware, we're guessing it will dwindle into "canceled" before long. And that would be a shame.

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