First Look: The Apple TV 2

The new Apple TV is out, and thanks to a friend of mine who works for Apple, I got my hands on one on Friday. Here’s the ceremonial unboxing, shot and uploaded to YouTube with my iPhone.

As you can see, the packaging is Apple’s typically spare yet arty approach to moving and presenting product, and Apple TV 2 is tiny. It’s about the same length as my iPhone, and maybe as thick as three of them stacked.

Just so you know where I’m coming from on the Apple vs. PC divide, I don’t care much about it. I’ve spent most of my career around video and graphics production, so I’ve worked with both Macs and PCs and I’ve worked with products like Avid and Photoshop that live on both. I’ve also spent enough time on Apple that I’ve been an Apple Certified Pro on DVD Studio Pro.  These days my main blogging computer is a Windows 7 HP dual monitor system, but I am an iPhone 3GS user and I also have a Macbook Pro. The machine I probably use more than any other for email etc. is the iPhone. I guess you could say that I like the freedom of Windows while I also appreciate the elegance and security of Apple. I never went for the original Apple TV, so this is really my first look at this product.

Simply put, the Apple TV is a very nice and useful piece of hardware. One of the first things you’ll notice is that it’s about half the size of the original Apple TV, and that unlike most of Apple’s brushed metal family, it’s black. This box was meant to be set up and not seen – only a tiny blue-white LED on the front even tells you that it’s powered on. Setting it up consists of a) getting it out of the box, and b) plugging it in. I used the HDMI interface, and within a couple of minutes I had it logged into my wireless network and accessing YouTube on my main home LCD TV. About a minute after that, I had iTunes fired up on my Win 7 PC, and Apple TV was soon showing me my full music and video library on my downstairs TV. The remote, a tiny brushed metal number that’s about as long as your hand, comes with the familiar spare Apple look and feel, and the Apple TV’s interface is the typical clean and solid Apple navigation. Right out of the box, the whole experience just works. With Apple TV and iTunes with Home Sharing turned on, you can watch your iTunes compatible videos, listen to your music, rent movies and TV shows from the iTunes store, check out any photos you’ve elected to share, check out your iTunes, MobileMe and flickr content and listen to thousands of streaming radio stations worldwide. It seamlessly accesses content on multiple computers without regard to their operating systems, as long as they’re running iTunes. It instantly plays any podcast you can find on iTunes, so if you’re a podcaster, Apple TV opens the living room audience up to your content. And after doing a couple of additional things, it gets even better.

Netflix is built into the Apple TV, but I didn’t have an account so I set one up. And with that, the Apple TV gives you instant streaming access to thousands of movies and TV shows. Netflix streams at 720p, and for the Apple TV, its online interface goes away in favor of the cleaner Apple experience (likewise YouTube). The quality is to a large extent dependent on the quality of the original source material, but I found that shows like Firefly look and sound outstanding. We had a movie night on Saturday night, and watched Up and G.I. Joe (quick reviews: Up is great, G.I. Joe is weak). My cable internet plus 802.11n router stood up to the streaming demands just fine, and the Apple TV never faltered for a frame. The Apple TV box is just rock solid.

Using the Apple TV really turns fun when you install the free Remote app on your iPhone. That app gives you total control of the Apple TV from your phone. Finger swipes on the phone’s screen let you move around the Apple TV menu, and when you’re somewhere that involves typing such as searching out a video on YouTube, the iPhone’s keyboard becomes the Apple TV’s keyboard. Sweet.

Apple is promising that in the near future, you’ll be able to stream content directly from the iPhone, iPod, or iPad directly to your video output through the Apple TV. That will happen when the AirPlay software hits the streets, and when it does we will have arrived at a streaming content Golden Age. You’ll have your full entertainment library plus images (think PowerPoint presentation control, storage, and delivery) at the ready wherever you happen to be without needing to lug a laptop around. And of course, there are apps that let you build presentations and edit video right on the phone right now.

Speaking of apps, a look inside the Apple TV 2 gives a hint of where Apple may take their toy next. There’s 8 gigs of flash memory built into the box, and there’s a slot for yet another flash memory card. Assuming that the box’s iOS and caching live on the flash memory card that’s in there, 8 gigs is still overkill: Apple TV doesn’t store any content locally.  So what’s all that memory for?

My friend who works for Apple got a twinkle in his eye when I asked that question. “Apps” was his reply. Now, keep in mind that my friend isn’t in the engineering side of the house so this isn’t coming from deep inside Apple Future.  Nevertheless, I think he’s on to something.  Apple TV runs on the A4 chip, which is what’s powering the iPad and iPhone 4, and it’s apparently running the iPad’s version of iOS4. Apple’s app culture is peerless. Just using apps that already exist, I can use my iPhone to control my Windows Media Center to set up DVR recordings, convert those recordings into iTunes-compatible files, and stream them to my TV using the Apple TV, which is also controlled from the phone. Imagine being able to do all that, plus have a picture-in-picture on your TV of Sunday NFL action and your facebook or twitter app, controlled from your multi-tasking iPhone or iPad.  Or being able to play quiz and party apps like QRank or games like Mirror’s Edge directly on your TV. Good-bye console gaming, hello mobile gaming on steroids.  Solo gaming and entertainment activities on the mobile platforms become social games or big screen experiences.  If Apple TV goes in the app direction, the Apple TV becomes the center of the home entertainment universe, and the iPad, iPod and iPhone start competing not just with the Nintendo DS and PSP, but also with the Xbox, Wii and Playstation.  At $99, the Apple TV is a very cost-effective competitor and it’s much more portable.  Note that I’m not talking about the hard core gamer set, but casual gamers.  Their numbers are growing, and the iPhone/Pod/Pad is already a growing game platform.  Thanks to the Retina display and whatever will follow it, the graphics should hold up on the big screen well enough, and they’ll only get better.

I have but two complaints about the Apple TV, and both will soon be rendered obsolete.  I wish that its mini USB jack enabled local mass storage (it’s only there for “diagnostics,” says Apple), and I wish its internet access wasn’t so locked down to block access to streaming sites like hulu, blip.tv, etc. There is a software solution on the way to solve both, which will open up the entire internet so you’ll be able to check email and truly surf via the Apple TV, and let you attach a hard drive to keep all your media where you don’t have to run your computer to access it.  But even without the hacks, these aren’t deal breakers.

Bottom line: The Apple TV 2 is very cool and proves its usefulness within the first five minutes of getting it out of the box.  It’s extremely easy to set up and its image quality is outstanding.  Its hardware is beyond solid and its interface couldn’t be easier to navigate. Via Netflix and iTunes, Apple TV puts thousands and thousands of entertainment options at your fingertips, and its ease of use alongside your Media Center PCs and laptops helps it earn a place at the center of your home entertainment network. If it goes in the app direction, Apple TV just might be the next big game changer.