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Monday, October 04, 2010, 09:00 am PT (12:00 pm ET)

Review: Apple's second-generation Apple TV (2010)


The promise of what's to come

AirPlay and streaming from iOS devices is likely only the beginning for the new Apple TV. Since the new hardware runs the same iOS and A4 processor as the iPad, iPhone and iPod touch, some think it's an inevitability that the Apple TV will get its own App Store, allowing for unique content and other applications, like games, in the living room.

Will it actually happen? At this point only Apple can say. But hackers already have successfully "jailbroken" the Apple TV software, meaning they have exploited it to run unauthorized code. And hacks of the previous-generation Apple TV added a great deal of functionality that wasn't available out of the box.

Apple could lessen the desire for most people to jailbreak by creating a new Apple TV App Store. The release of the iPhone App Store in 2008, allowing third-party software on the company's smartphones, negated the need for many to jailbreak their device.

Even if an official App Store doesn't materialize, the promise of AirPlay alone is likely enough to sell many home theater enthusiasts and casual users alike. AirPlay promises to allow instant streaming of content on an iPad or iPhone to an Apple TV, including Internet-based content like YouTube.

If the promise of AirPlay is realized, YouTube will likely be just the beginning. Imagine shooting video clips on your iPhone 4, editing it with iMovie on the phone itself, and then instantly, wirelessly streaming the product to an Apple TV for the whole family to see in 720P.

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While AirPlay is exciting (and unlike a hypothetical App Store, we know it's actually coming), it's not here yet. Because we couldn't properly test the incomplete feature, its benefits cannot be reflected in rating the Apple TV.

Conclusion

After the new Apple TV was announced, many were understandably disappointed, as rumors swirled that the new hardware would support its own App Store, allowing developers to create third-party applications. Some had dreams of games, media streaming solutions and other iPhone- and iPad-type apps on their TV. That may still come to pass, but it's not here yet.

What's most interesting about the Apple TV is that despite a major overhaul in the hardware, the software looks and feels similar to its predecessor. Apple's FrontRow interface remains largely unchanged, and though familiar, it is somewhat stale.

Days before the new Apple TV was announced, Bloomberg claimed that Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs wasn't convinced that the set-top box upgrade would become a mainstream hit. Having now spent time with it, it's easy to understand why: Aside from a smaller form factor and a new focus on renting and streaming, there's not a lot new here.

Apple is clearly employing a slow-and-steady approach to the living room, with Jobs convinced that the cable companies and their cable box rental model make it near impossible to find great success at this point.

The company may have also been interested in beating a rival product — Google TV — to market. The search giant's Android-powered platform is set to arrive this fall, and employs a very different approach that looks to integrate all of a user's home theater hardware under one umbrella.

For someone who have a number of devices connected to their TV, connected to different inputs and with different user interfaces (with varying degrees of quality), the promise of cleaning up the mess that is the living room experience is undoubtedly appealing. It's also an overly ambitious goal that, like Android for mobile phones, likely will not succeed in the first try.

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Still, with the launch of products with Google TV around the corner, and AirPlay not fit for public consumption until November, the best approach would likely be to wait for a few months and see how things shake out. The Apple TV is the best in its class at the moment, but big things — from both Google and Apple — remain right around the corner.

For those who already own a previous-generation Apple TV, it's hard to recommend an upgrade, even at the low $99 price point — yet. Once features like AirPlay video streaming are unleashed, that will likely change.

But if you're looking to get a simple and easy media player for your TV and don't want to deal with the hassle of hooking up a full-fledged home theater PC to your entertainment center, you'll have a hard time finding a product that offers more than the Apple TV. The selection of iTunes content is strong, interacting with the device is intuitive, and at $99, the price is right.

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Rating: 3.5/5
2.5 Stars


Positives:
  • New, small, sleek hardware
  • Painless to set up and extremely easy to use
  • Fast and responsive, HD streams begin quickly and with high quality
  • Access to a large library of content in the iTunes Store


Negatives:
  • Hardware/software potential not yet fully realized
  • Limited video codec support for non-iTunes content
  • Studio support of 99-cent rentals and new releases needs improvement
  • Maximum resolution of 720P means Blu-ray is still the 1080P HD king


Where to Buy
Apple TV
Apple TV
Amazon MacMall B&H Photo & Video OnSale.com macconnection
Discount
Apple TV 2 $102.49 $94.99 $92.95 $92.99 $95.99 $6.05