Apple TV (2nd generation, late 2010) full review

iTunes rentals

In the US the Apple TV is limited to movie and TV show rentals so its view of the iTunes Store is now decidedly different. If something’s not for rent (or not contained on a shared computer) it’s not there as far as the Apple TV is concerned.

The selection of HDTV shows is somewhat limited in the US, but there’s a complete absence in the UK, which is a shame. As is the lack of Netflix. And, of course, we could mention iPlayer and other services such as 4oD or ITV Player.

This is one of those cases where the deals Apple makes with content providers – and not the hardware or the software – have the biggest impact on the user experience. If Apple fails to make rental deals with major networks (and statements from NBC in the US indicate an uphill battle) or agrees to delay rentals of certain movies for 30 days after DVD release (for example, you can buy Iron Man 2 right now, but not rent it), that will make the Apple TV’s selection poorer.

Although the Apple TV doesn’t have the storage to archive purchased content permanently, we have to wonder if there might not be some way to allow Apple TV users to buy videos that are available only for purchase and somehow queue up a download on a linked Mac or PC. It does seem a bit silly that you can rent a movie but not buy one. Instead, if you want to purchase content on iTunes, you need to do it from your Mac or PC.

Streaming content

As before, you can still stream content stored in an iTunes library on your network to the Apple TV. The new model changes how the process works, however. In the past, you’d go to Settings > Computers > Add Shared iTunes Library and enter a five-digit code in iTunes to link up your library and your Apple TV. Once you linked to an iTunes library, its contents would display in the My Movies, My TV Shows, and My Music sub-menus of the Movies, TV Shows, and Music menus.

Now you use iTunes’ Home Sharing feature to link to your iTunes library. In iTunes, select Advanced > Turn On Home Sharing and you’re prompted to enter your iTunes Store ID and password. Once Home Sharing is turned on, you can select the contents of a synced computer’s iTunes library by choosing that computer by name from the Apple TV’s new Computers menu.

In many ways, this setup process is easier. But in order to see each other, your Apple TV and any iTunes libraries with Home Sharing enabled must be using the same iTunes Store account. So if you have more than one account in your house, you won’t be able to stream all your content without some extra hassle.

And how you stream is very important, because, as we’ve mentioned, there’s no longer any concept of syncing content to the Apple TV. With only a small amount of on-board storage – which is reserved mainly for buffering streaming content – the new Apple TV doesn’t let you transfer files to it from an iTunes library. Everything is either streaming over the internet (from iTunes, YouTube, Flickr, MobileMe, and the like) or from a Mac or PC.

An informal survey of Macworld staff revealed that most of us gave up on syncing the Apple TV with our iTunes libraries, due to the slowness of the syncing and the functionality of media streaming. But we admit, if you’re the kind of person who regularly filled the hard drive on the original Apple TV and wished that the drive was larger, you may be disappointed with the new Apple TV’s affinity for streaming and lack of storage.

But wait, is there more?

We already know that the new Apple TV is using the same processor as the iPad, is running iOS, and has at least some internal storage. And that opens the door for the possibility of the Apple TV one day being able to run third-party apps that could expand its capabilities. If the Apple TV could stream live sports games, play back iPlayer or SeeSaw (www.seesaw.com) or stream films and shows from Blinkbox (www.blinkbox.com), for example, that could make it an even more interesting product that appeals to more users. (Those services may work via AirPlay, but it would seem much more efficient to offer them directly on the device.)

Netflix is the perfect example for third-party developers wanting to add features to the Apple TV. If Netflix support is any indication, Apple is no longer afraid to offer Apple TV owners alternatives to the company’s own iTunes Store.

Then there’s the question of whether the Apple TV’s iOS base could mean that it becomes a new gaming platform. There are certainly lots of iOS games out there, and if they could be adapted to the big screen (with iOS devices like the iPod touch and iPhone as Wii-like controllers, complete with gyroscopes and accelerometers) there might be a lot of potential there. Still, it’s hard to gauge how likely this scenario is. We certainly don’t advise anyone to buy an Apple TV in the hope that it will become a games console – but it’s an interesting possibility to consider.

Also intriguing is news that the Apple TV can be jailbroken in the same way as the iPhone or iPad. It will be interesting to see what hackers can do with a jailbroken Apple TV. At present, various how-to websites show users how to add a multitude of apps and programs such as Sapphire and Boxee to the old Apple TV. With the jailbreak options readily available for the newbie, (as well as the Apple TV’s mini-USB port at your disposal to add external storage), there’s no reason to think that hackers can’t come up with some interesting customisations.

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