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Wednesday, February 13, 2008, 07:00 am PT (10:00 am ET)

Apple TV Take 2: an in-depth review (part 1): what's new


New in iTunes Integration

The most obvious new feature in Apple TV Take Two is its direct integration with the iTunes Store. Whereas the original software was designed to work like an iPod that wirelessly synced with another computer's iTunes library, the new system now acts as an iTunes client itself. It doesn't even require any accompanying PC to use, expanding the market for Apple TV into one similar to a game console or Tivo, rather than just an expansion box for iTunes users.

If your system is already synced with iTunes on a PC, it should import your iTunes Store account settings automatically, allowing you to begin purchasing content right off the bat. If you set up the box new or use it without an iTunes PC, you just need to enter your iTunes account email and password. Once linked, you can connect to iTunes to download movies, music and other content directly.

The Settings menu also now presents a Downloads option to check for pending downloads that have been ordered but not yet obtained.

New in Podcasts

In addition to the highly touted HD movie rentals, iTunes TV, music, and music videos that can be purchased directly, iTunes integration also means you can directly download podcast content on demand for free, in addition to existing free YouTube and movie trailers (with a new selection now offered in HD) that the previous software supported.

Apple TV's migration from an "iPod for your TV" wirelessly tethered to iTunes to being a standalone Internet content browser changes everything in regards to podcasts. While users could already select podcasts in iTunes on their PC and manually set up rules to sync episodes to their Apple TV, the unit now acts as an on demand browser for podcasts, making Apple's vast podcast directory in iTunes even more useful.

Rather than being a way to subscribe to content feeds — a model that makes sense for audio podcasts listened to from an iPod — Apple TV's new podcast interface makes it easy to look up video content based on a whim of interest, with no preliminary setup required. This serves to make Apple TV an Internet version of TV; rather than needing to use a DVR to pan for gold from the river of channels offered by cable providers, Apple TV acts as a Google for podcasts, enabling new audiences to find and immediately jump to the programing they're interested in.

The rest of the industry is working to deliver IPTV, which adds some interactivity and menus to regular cable. Apple TV is essentially offering TVoIP, where users surf for content provided by any podcaster. Unlike YouTube, podcast content isn't restricted in length or content or quality, because the podcasters themselves host whatever they want to host. They can deliver HD versions of their content on any subject, and users can find it and download it at anytime without needing to schedule a Tivo-like recording for later playback.

Even more interesting is that Apple's podcasting efforts have encouraged open and interoperable formats that allow all the content submitted to iTunes to also work with other devices and systems. The future of podcasting seems to have the same wild potential as the open web had a decade ago in the mid 90s, when media giants were attempting to build and maintain their own proprietary online systems such as CompuServe, AOL, and MSN. Media giants are now working to remain in control of broadcast content and delivery; podcasting should similarly revolutionize TV, and Apple is leading that business in the living room with Apple TV.

New in Video

Outside of the new direct access to iTunes paid content and podcasts, Apple TV now offers output in the aforementioned 1080p format, in addition to the previous options of 720p and 1080i HD, standard 480p and 480i, the 50Hz equivalents for PAL users overseas, and the direct 1280x800 option for using the unit with a DVI monitor, as noted in Apple TV: Turn DVI into HDTV.

Apple TV also presents new options to turn on Closed Captioning for iTunes content that supports it, and to manually adjust its HDMI output. It's set by default to HDMI Auto but presents YCbCr, RGB High, and RGB Low as manually selectable options.

The other obvious new features in video are the ability to download HD movie trailers and rent HD movies. It can also present HD podcasts as long as they are published in a standard format the system can play. As noted above, the apparent quality advantage of HD involves more than a resolution setting; it is also dependent upon the amount and sophistication of the compression used. HD content from iTunes uses the highly efficient H.264 codec to deliver HD resolution in a reasonable file size that can be downloaded.

Even with ideal compression, HD still requires a lot of bits. On a relatively slow 1.5 Mb DSL broadband connection, downloading a two minute HD movie trailer took far longer than downloading the standard version, and playback usually didn't begin until the entire clip was downloaded. Unsurprisingly, downloading an HD or SD trailer from Apple TV looks the same and takes the same amount of time as doing so directly from from iTunes. Download times are directly proportional to the speed of your Internet connection. For example, the SD version of Casandras Dream, a 2:16 trailer, started fairly quickly over 1.5Mb DSL, taking 29 seconds from selecting it to it beginning playback. However, the HD version of the same trailer loaded for 4:38 before playing. That's a long time to wait for a movie trailer.

Even though the HD trailers appeared to download entirely before beginning playback, they were still likely to pause momentarily near the two minute mark on first playback. The SD version not only downloaded in less than a tenth of the time, but it also played through without any pauses. Using DSL, downloading HD video took long enough to be somewhat impractical. A faster connection makes a huge impact on wait times. SD content is very fast to begin watching, but HD movie downloads take about a minute with a fast 6Mb cable Internet connection and far longer with DSL, as long as a couple hours. If you plan on using Apple TV for HD, you'll need to have an appropriately fast connection to the Internet.

In terms of quality, the standard versions of movie trailers were watchable, but occasionally displayed the digital jitter artifacts common to iTunes videos. The picture compares well to digital cable, with areas of gradient color sometimes muted together resulting in a watercolor look, and some dark regions of the screen left looking noisy or with a jittery shiver. The sharpest details — particularly white on black titles — ranged from slightly noisy to distractingly muted. If you've watched iTunes video, you know what to expect because its the same thing.

In HD, the same clips had much less discernible jitters or noise, and were significantly more enjoyable to watch. The quality of encoding varied between movies (and studios) and the type of content presented. The affects of digital compression are most visible and irritating when the picture is changing rapidly. Some trailers with lots of rapid motion — such as the jerky clips of constant panning around through explosions in Cloverfield — resulted in difficult to watch video with obvious smearing and posterization, particularly in shadowed areas of dark gradients. Other Paramount movie trailers seemed to have similarly poor encoding, notably the dark Star Trek teaser.

At the same time, fast action sequences in the new Warner Bros. Batman movie, the Dark Knight, looked great even when paused and viewed critically up close. Thin black diagonal lines on a white background were clean and sharp (below top), close up scenes of Heath Ledger's Joker revealed sweaty curls of individual hairs and crumbling lines in his makeup (below bottom), and balls of fire in explosions were sharply defined. It is difficult to accurately represent the screen detail in photographs because of the moire effect. Preparing these screen photos for web publication also distorts the representation.

Apple TV 2.0


Apple TV 2.0


When paused and viewed up close, there were areas of the screen that appeared slightly noisy with some degree of mixed down looking compression in colors. When viewed from a normal viewing distance, the HD picture in most iTunes trailers was nearly always excellent.

Universal's Doomsday trailer looked fine, although it doesn't tempt in terms of content. Disney's WALL•E also looked great, with high quality detail in fast action scenes and minimal banding even in troublesome areas of dark gradients. It appears that the level of quality in iTunes HD content is directly related to the efforts put into encoding. The best examples hold out a lot of promise for the overall potential of Apple TV, and the worst examples provide a warning of the limitations of downloadable media. We'll take a closer look at how Apple TV's HD content stacks up in the second installment of our Apple TV Take 2 review.

On page 3 of 3:New in Audio; New in Photos; and New in System Settings.