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

Apple is keeping itself busy. Along with the 10.5.2 update to Mac OS X Leopard and a new reference release of Aperture 2.0, the company quietly made available the free new "Take Two" software upgrade for Apple TV on Tuesday. Here's a look at how Apple TV compares as a living room media player and source of HDTV content, what's new in the software upgrade, and how well the device achieves its goal of bringing iTunes media to home theaters in its second try at inventing itself.

From a non-blazing 1.5 Mb DSL connection, the software update download takes about twenty minutes, and then takes another ten minutes to install. The update actually includes three software upgrades:
  • An EFI firmware update.
  • A firmware update for the Apple TV's HDMI video hardware that enables 1080p output through upconversion.
  • The new Take Two menus and interface with support for HD downloads, rentals, AirTunes and more.

HD: 720p vs 1080p

Apple TV is essentially a low end Mac with a video card supporting 1280x800 resolution. The existing hardware will never be able to decode or output 1080p video in full native resolution. However, the new Take Two software enables 1080p output in the unit's HDMI subsystem to scale up its 720p content and deliver it as a 1080p signal to TV sets that support 1080p display.

This is similar to what upconverting DVD players do, although Apple TV can start with higher resolution content; Upconverting DVD players deliver the standard definition content on DVDs to HDTV sets as an HD signal. This doesn't invent new detail in the picture, but does deliver the best possible picture DVD can produce because it maintains a high quality signal to the set rather than delivering one that must be scaled up within the TV itself.

Apple TV plays back iTunes HD content, HD home videos, and HD podcasts all at 720p internally, but can deliver either a standard 720p signal or an upconverted signal to the HDTV set as 1080p. How noticeable this difference is in the picture displayed depends upon the quality of the video circuity in the TV being used. Many consumer oriented HDTV sets use cheap picture scaling and conversion hardware that will result in the Apple TV's new 1080p mode serving as a nice feature, as the TV won't have to handle the conversion itself.

Using a high quality HDTV set, we couldn't see any visible difference in using 1080p over 720p from Apple TV, even when looking up close and trying to find differences in the static frames of movies or in the unit's own menu titles. However, some cheaper HDTV sets might deliver a better picture using the 1080p signal setting. Rather than being excessively concerned about 720p versus 1080p, the main value added by Apple TV is its low cost delivery of easy to access HD content, both for rent and for free.

Apple TV 2.0

Apple TV versus HD Broadcast and Disc

HDTV and HD disc vendors are working hard to convince users that 1080p is the Only Real HD, and that 720p is far inferior, but for owners of sets smaller than about 50" the difference won't even be visible to anyone watching from ten feet away. Additionally, there is no 1080p content being broadcast. Broadcast HD often looks the best. Cable, satellite, and over the air providers, however, all deliver 720p or 1080i that often looks the least impressive because the providers employ strong data compression to shove as many channels of HD as possible through their pipes. Regardless of the nominal resolution used, high compression can result in blocky screen artifacts.

All HD broadcasts are not alike either; many sports events are broadcast using a higher quality signal with less compression, which makes for a very impressive picture, while other HD channels are heavily compressed to the point where their HD resolution becomes overshadowed by a compression artifacts. While pundits like to compare simple numbers, the real factor in enjoyable HD content is how well content providers balance their resolution format with compression settings that deliver a detailed, smooth, high quality picture. Every link of the HD pipeline--from the capturing camera to the transmission delivery, receiving set top box, and TV circuitry--has to be strong enough to deliver a picture that stands up to what the new HDTVs can produce.

Ignoring all those realities to obsess over the nominal resolution of a video signal does nothing to improve the picture users actually see. The HD disc market faces fewer problems than broadcasters because formats like Blu-Ray have a huge capacity and movies are mastered and optimized for picture quality rather than delivery efficiency. So far however, as noted in Why Low Def is the New HD, the market has demonstrated that most users are more interested in a wide screen display and a sharp picture at a reasonable price than in specification number details. Apple TV targets the current market demands to offer a product intended to deliver usable functionality rather than specification bragging rights.

HD vs Non-HD

While videophiles like to obsess over the numbers that make "real HD," the reality is that most TV watchers are so used to poor quality standard definition programming and that any improvement in picture quality is a dramatic change. Analog broadcast TV has long used a nearly square aspect ratio that is stretched out by non-square pixels that results in everyone on TV looking ten pounds heavier. It also has poor color and poor effective resolution, delivering an interlaced picture with roughly 200 to 400 lines of resolution.

Enhanced definition, 480p EDTVs presented improved picture processing and widescreen aspect ratios, and the current crop of HDTVs greatly improve the overall picture quality through an improved picture resolution of 720p or 1080p. Paired with iTunes' "near DVD" quality movies, the original Apple TV software delivered a decent picture on wide screen EDTV and HDTV sets, although its limited resolution 480p movies were no match for the new HD disc formats.

However, consumers haven't been buying the new HD disc formats, much to the chagrin of the companies working so hard to push them. In part, that's because of the format war between Sony's BluRay and Microsoft's HD-DVD, but the main reason why both formats have barely sold a million standalone units a year is the cost involved. Rather than investing in either new HD disc format, consumers have instead been buying upconverting DVD players, which allow them to watch their existing DVDs, as well as the wider variety of DVDs on sale and for rent, on their new widescreen HDTV sets without a significant enough difference in quality to push them toward getting an HD disc player.

Consumers' preference for spending their money on upconverted DVDs is good news for Apple's strategy with iTunes and Apple TV, which aims at delivering easier access to high quality HD content at a low price and without any subscription fees. How well has Apple done in delivering upon this premise?

Apple TV Reborn

In its first incarnation, Apple TV acted as a standard definition iPod appliance that could sync media from an iTunes PC on the same network, and upconvert the signal to widescreen EDTV and HDTV sets. Consumers had a number of reasons to pass on the product:
  • While the device had the inherent capacity to play HD quality video, Apple didn't provide any sources of HD content within iTunes.
  • While it also had the hardware to deliver digitally encoded surround sound audio, the software didn't make it easy to coax out, and iTunes content only supported simpler Dolby Surround audio.
  • The interface provided rough playback control using the IR remote, making it hard to accurately fast forward though a scene.
  • All content on the device had to be selected and set up from iTunes on another computer and then synced over.

The new Take Two software solves issues with Apple TV's untapped hardware, greatly improves the overall interface usability, integrates the system directly with the iTunes Store for living room access to both purchased and free content, and adds a number of other new features. The new software transforms the unit to the point where its almost hard to talk specifically about new features; nearly everything is new. This really demonstrates the power of software to dramatically enhance the features of hardware; existing Apple TV users will be happy to find that their existing device not only sings with the new update, but that it also costs nothing to upgrade.

Apple TV's New Interface

The previous Apple TV interface borrowed heavily from Front Row, presenting menus of different kinds of content or functionality, each associated with a big icon: Movies, TV, Music, Podcasts, Photos, YouTube, and Settings. The new version presents a simplified navigation launch screen using a two column menu (below). The first column lists major feature categories, and the second column lists a submenu of related options.

After selecting a submenu option from the second column, the two column menu zooms out and drops you in a specialized interface customized to what you've selected to do. This seems confusing at first, because each submenu has its own interface style. It also seems like you are alternating between the old and new Apple TV interface menu styles, because the plainly textual launch menu shares little resemblance with the four other more graphically-oriented menu screens.

Apple TV 2.0

Submenus that present lots of options to browse from (such as the Settings menu or My Movies, Genres, and Trailers in the Movies menu) bring up a listing familiar to veteran Apple TV users, with a single long column of items to the right of a detail area that shows cover art, a synopsis and other details. Some of these menus present additional submenus in same style as the previous software version.

Apple TV 2.0

A second, new graphical selection menu screen style is presented for displaying live content from iTunes. Selecting Top Movies or All HD from the Movies menu (or selecting a listing from the Genres submenu) brings up a screen full of artwork graphics that can be used to rapidly browse and select items to bring up a full screen display of their related details and download options. Items in rows cycle in from the right similar to Cover Flow.

Apple TV 2.0

A third submenu style relates to searching. Movies, Podcasts, Music from iTunes can all be directly searched for using an alphabetical listing targeted by the remote as if entering your initials for a high score in Pac Man. Search results bring up smart listings that identify any word in the name of a movie, making it easy to find a title even if you can't remember the entire name (below).

Apple TV 2.0

Other submenus bring up specialized menus for setting up and using .Mac Web Galleries, Flickr albums, YouTube videos.

None of this is too difficult to figure out, but it does seems to result in a complex system of navigation menus, particularly for an Apple product. The two column quick launcher contrasting with the more conventional menus also seems a bit strange. However, Apple TV does a lot of different things, and it would seem difficult to simplify its menus further without also paring away some of those features. The quick launcher seems a bit faster than the old main menu with its large graphics, and clarifies the overall features well, making it easy to explore the device without needing to consult a manual on its new features.

On page 2 of 3:New in iTunes Integration; New in Podcasts; and New in Video.