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

New in Audio

In terms of Audio output, Apple TV software now supports AirTunes and Dolby Digital passthrough. The former means iTunes users can select the Apple TV as a speaker source for remote, wireless playback of music from any PC running iTunes just as if the box were an AirPort Express; the latter means that it can now output 5.1 digitally encoded audio directly to a Dolby Digital decoder for higher quality surround sound playback than the previous Dolby Surround available on SD iTunes movie downloads. Most HD movie rentals supply a full Dolby Digital soundtrack.

For users with a 5.1 channel audio system connected to their HDTV as a home theater, the ability to wirelessly stream iTunes music to the Apple TV is a great new feature. Just as with an AirPort Express, Apple TV pops up in iTunes automatically as an output source (below). Once selected, the Apple TV acts as the remote speakers for iTunes. This feature can also be password protected to limit who on the local network can send audio to the system from iTunes.

Apple TV 2.0

AirTunes doesn't require any manual intervention on the Apple TV itself. Simply select it as an output source, and iTunes connects and begins playing. The Apple TV displays the album art and playback timeline of the playing song, but doesn't allow the song to be skipped or fast forwarded from the Apple TV's remote; control remains with iTunes.

Apple TV continues to play iTunes music via AirTunes as you navigate menus on Apple TV, up to the point where you select any type of competing audio content. It then pauses iTunes' playback from the AirTunes connection and plays whatever you selected instead. Returning to the AirTunes playback requires hitting play on the remote iTunes computer.

This cool new feature means that any visitor can pull out their laptop and begin streaming their iTunes music to your home theater via Apple TV without any setup on the system at all; it's all Bonjour discovered magic that only requires selecting Apple TV from the iTunes popup. It also gives Apple TV a whole new segment of simple functionality in terms of adding value to users' home theater. So when will Apple add AirTunes streaming audio support to the iPhone and iPod Touch? And when will Mac OS X add AirTunes as an option for outputting general system audio so that any application can wirelessly deliver audio?

New in Photos

For photos, the system now includes support for viewing online albums using Apple's .Mac Web Galleries or Yahoo's Flickr albums, in addition to syncing with photos from a local iTunes computer. To access either type of online account, you have to navigate the alphabet using the remote, which isn't fun but isn't too difficult either. The username input screen displays both upper and lower case letters, but neither .Mac nor Flickr cared about case, so you can enter names without worrying about which set of letters you should use. However, the system doesn't normalize your case; it shows up the way you typed it in.

I don't know anyone who actually uses the .Mac Web Gallery yet, so I pulled up emily_parker, the demo Apple uses. Or in my case, EMILY_parker, because I entered the case oddly (below). This feature in itself really demonstrates how useful a .Mac account is. Perhaps that's the point. Create photo galleries, and share them with your remote friends and family on Apple TV. Even share your videos, and in HD quality with a soundtrack. Playing with the test account on Apple TV made me want to start using Web Gallery.

Apple TV 2.0

Using Flickr, once you painstakingly type in a user name, you can then pull up that user's linked network of contacts and view circles of interconnected albums of photos, making the need to manually type in users less of a problem. The simple interface also makes it easy to voyeuristically idle away time browsing the incredible photos taken by people worldwide and uploaded to Flickr. As with iPhoto albums, Apple TV will attach your songs to create watchable slideshows of anything using the Ken Burns effect.

Apple TV 2.0

New in System Settings

The system now supports menus in English, Danish, Spanish, Korean, Portuguese, simplified and standard Chinese, Finnish, French, Dutch, Russian, Swedish, Norwegian, Italian, German, and Japanese, indicating that Apple has worldwide plans for the device. However, not all content is yet supported from all of the worldwide music stores, as Apple still has to hammer out licensing agreements on movies and rentals outside the US.

Also new as in different: rather than configuring Sources for streaming and syncing, there is a Computers submenu in Settings that enables you to identify the main iTunes system to sync with, and configure five other machines to stream content from.

Apple TV 2.0

With Apple TV Take Two, Apple has radically redefined its set top box and given it lots of very practical features. Previously, it was difficult to articulate exactly why Apple TV was useful. Now, it has obvious and marketable uses as a movie rental system, a podcast viewer, a TV client for browsing web galleries, in addition to the previous iTunes content sync and YouTube capabilities. The new navigation menu, which still seems a little strange, do work as a fast launching pad for jumping between functions. Improvements to existing features, including the easier to control media playback, along with new features such as support for AirTunes makes Apple TV a lot more useful that it was. The unit's price drop to $229 also helps.

Continue on to part 2 of our Apple TV Take 2 review covering HD Movie comparisons.