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Tuesday, January 15, 2008, 06:00 pm PT (09:00 pm ET)

First Look: Apple TV 2.0 and iTunes Movie Rentals (photos, video)

After suffering a year of media mockery and consumer indifference, Apple TV is poised to leverage its tight integration with iTunes to jump to the front of the line in living room media rentals. The best news: existing early adopters will gain all the new features via a software update without needing to replace or upgrade their existing hardware.

Steve Jobs originally floated Apple TV under the temporary moniker iTV back in the fall of 2006. In many ways, the device seemed to be a placeholder designed to inspire confidence in the company's ability to maintain parity with competitors' online movie sales. In parallel with the announcement, Apple upgraded iTunes video to "near DVD" quality, added Dolby Surround sound, and started into the movie sales business initially with only Disney as a partner.

After its official release following last years' Macworld Expo, Jobs described Apple TV as a hobby and later as a 'fourth leg' that he hoped would help hold up the company's platforms. Jobs told USA Today, "We have the Mac business, which is a $10 billion business, and music — our iPod and iTunes business — which is $10 billion. We hope the iPhone is the third leg on our chair, and maybe one day, Apple TV will be the fourth leg."

While the iPhone quickly established itself as a powerful force in the mobile industry, Apple TV didn't seem to get much attention at all. After appearing briefly in a TV ad showing a user moving iTunes video from his computer to an iPod to the living room TV, the device seemed to slip from Apple's radar and spent the better part of 2007 collecting dust in conspicuously low trafficked corners of Apple's otherwise busy retail stores.

What's New in Apple TV: Movies

The new software updates promise to solve a lot of the problems associated with consumers' lack of enthusiasm for Apple TV. For starters, there are now rental movies offered in both standard def and high-definition formats. Apple's movie studio support in iTunes has also expanded over the last year from one studio to all of the major movie studios, meaning there's far more content to choose from.

Even more importantly, Apple has upgraded the unit's software to both enhance the user interface and to make it far more powerful. The initial version of the software left it acting like a repeater for a desktop computer's iTunes library. Now, users can rent and buy movies, as well as buy music, music videos, and TV programs directly from the iTunes Store using the simple remote control. While music and video purchases can be synced back to a desktop iTunes library, just like the new WiFi Store on the iPod Touch and iPhone, video rentals ordered on Apple TV can't.

You can rent movies directly from iTunes for playback on iPods, but those can't be synced to the Apple TV. Therefore, you have to choose whether a rental you order is something you want to watch on TV or anywhere else, before you actually rent it. Given that rentals are $3.99 and $4.99, that decision isn't as deeply ponderous as it might initially seem to be.

A new menu system (below) presents Apple TV features in two columns: the first lists Movies, TV Shows, Music, Podcasts, Photos, YouTube, and Settings. Under Movies, it presents downloadable Trailers, your Rented Movies, a listing of Top Movies, Genres, and All HD titles, a Search, and a selection of My Movies.

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Within any of the submenus, the movie title selection and browsing interface (below) is almost entirely graphical, with rows of title art that spin past similar to Cover Flow. The difference is that rather than only featuring one item from a selection as the Cover Flow does in iTunes or the Finder, Apple TV presents more than a half dozen options at once in each row, and quickly zips through additional titles when you scroll to the right. Families of content or genres of titles appear at the top.

Navigating the menus of movies is easy and fast.

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A simple search feature (below) allows you to quickly find what you're looking for by typing just a letter or two, similar to the search features on iPods.



After selecting your movie (below), you can watch a preview trailer, or rent it in SD for $3.99 or in 720p HD quality, usually with 5.1 Dolby Digital audio, for a dollar more. The currently selected movie also presents recommendations of other related films you might want to consider. Once downloaded, a rental movie can be kept on file for a month. Once you start watching it, the title can be played any number of times within 24 hours before it expires.

The Apple TV's new HD playback delivers impressive video quality. Presented on what appeared to be a 50" Pioneer display, SD rentals looked very decent and the HD content was very good. Fast forwarding and pausing movies was smooth and crystal clear. The only obvious flaw seemed to be a snapping sound that would occasionally be played when video playback was exited for the menus.

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What's New in Apple TV: Playback Enhancements

In addition to adding movie rentals, Apple TV also sports similar content search and direct download features for free YouTube and Podcasts, and purchased iTunes content including music, music videos, and TV shows. Downloading TV is so easy that the new software finally makes Apple TV a truly viable replacement for cable TV for users who only watch a handful of shows.

Playback controls are also significantly enhanced. In AppleInsider's earlier reviews of Apple TV, Some time spent with Apple TV — an in-depth review, we counted its touchy remote playback control as an annoying flaw. Based on limited testing on the show floor, it appears the software update will dramatically improve things in that regard.

Pausing playback with the simple IR Apple Remote was instantaneous, and fast forward or review responded quickly and accurately, rather than suffering the current delays that make it difficult to review or skip through content without unintentionally overshooting the target. When playing a movie, the playback indicator now displays the chapter title, another nice bonus.

On page 2 of 2: What's New in Apple TV: Audio; What's New in Apple TV: Other Features; How Apple TV Compares; Apple TV Versus Vudu; Apple TV Versus Blu-Ray.