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Apple TV's Tune-Up

Today's column takes a look at Apple and Microsoft's new movie-rental download services.

I found a great deal to like in both services; even with their issues, I could see myself renting movies this way with my own money. That's much more than I can say for all of the other movie-download options I've tried before--even if I doubt I'd make a steady habit out of either service.

One reason why the offering by Apple, in particular, intrigues me is the Apple TV device. This book-shaped box doesn't just download, store and play rented movies; it also serves as a front-end for the iTunes Store, a YouTube receiver, Web-connected photo album and an extension of your own computer's digital-media library.

This second-generation version--"Apple TV Take 2," as Apple chief executive Steve Jobs described it at the product's unveiling at Macworld Expo last month--represents a considerable upgrade over the first release, which I thought needed work.

From me, the best upgrade in Apple TV Take 2 is that you finally can listen to Web radio--with the right setup. If you sync an iTunes library to an Apple TV, this box still seems to ignore MP3 streams from Web sites you'd saved in that library, but the Apple TV also now supports the "AirTunes" feature that lets iTunes send its output directly to another nearby device. That's not as convenient as being able to select a Web-radio station off the Apple TV's screen, but it's a start--and it opens up fascinating possibilities if third-party developers can figure out how to send audio from other applications directly to an Apple TV. (Update: Rogue Amoeba's AirFoil now does exactly that.)

I like the Apple TV's new photo-viewing modes as well. You're no longer confined to seeing your own iPhoto library; this device can now display photosets hosted on Yahoo's Flickr and albums parked at Apple's .Mac.

Some of my earlier critiques of the Apple TV, however, remain intact. It's still missing the iPod's on-the-go playlist creation and iTunes' "Party Shuffle" mode. And it's beyond silly that the plus and minus buttons on the remote don't control the volume of an Apple TV.

I hope that Apple keeps improving the Apple TV's software. Direct support for Web radio is overdue, and it'd be terrific if it provided some simple way to watch the TV networks' free Web streaming of their programs. But what I'd really like to see is Apple opening up the Apple TV to other developers. If Apple can invite programmers to write software for the iPhone and iPod touch--which, like the Apple TV, run OS X--why should it shut them out here?

During a phone interview Tuesday afternoon, I asked Apple marketing vice-president Greg Jozwiak about the prospect of letting other developers write new applications for the Apple TV. "No, we certainly haven't made any announcements about that," he said. "We think of this more as an appliance.... We don't want this to be geeky." (And yet: Apple routinely describes the iPhone and iPod as non-geeky appliances.)

What else would you like to know about the Apple TV? Post your questions in the comments--or quiz me directly during my Web chat today. It starts at 2 p.m., but as usual you can submit a question in advance.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  February 21, 2008; 12:49 PM ET
Categories:  Mac , Music , Video  
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Comments

An overlooked feature of AppleTV 2.0: HD video podcasting - the first practical implementation of IPTV.

Posted by: kgdave | February 21, 2008 3:44 PM | Report abuse

Is it possible with Apple TV to get subtitles for us spanish speaking viewers?

Posted by: Hector Alonso | February 22, 2008 1:26 PM | Report abuse

It would be nice if the AppleTV would be able to work with streamin video from servers like WiZD (Open Source), so that I do not have to hold several versions of a movie/recording (one DivX/XviD version for my older media extenders, and one H.264 version for my AppleTV), or run 2 server services (WiZD, and iTUnes - the latter work crappy with video anyway).

How come a IO-Data Avellink Player 2 ($99) ca out perform a $228 AppleTV with easy, with less impressive hardware????

Posted by: Hans | February 22, 2008 1:58 PM | Report abuse

I am in the middle of a redo of my A/V system, and I just installed an Apple TV two days ago. It is fun to watch the YouTube content, etc. on the big screen TV, but the reason I got it was for the music side - with lots and lots of music in my iTunes library, I needed a way to integrate it into my A/V system so I could use the expensive speakers in my living room rather than the dinky speakers in my study. Up until now, I have had an Airport Express connected to the back of my receiver, and just streamed it from the computer, but this has been a lame half-solution - no ability to pause, skip, etc. w/o running from room to room. The Apple TV syncs wirelessly with my iTunes library, and gives me full access to thousands of songs. In the A/V world, the alternatives that do that cost multiple times what the Apple TV costs, and would require me to re-rip all those CDs. So for me, the "TV" portion is a nice add-on, but the much-less-advertised music side of the box is a tremendous advance for me.

Posted by: Tom in LA | February 22, 2008 2:24 PM | Report abuse

What about VUDU? Except for one two-faced, foaming-at-the-mouth troll who has been banished to his spittle-flecked blog, it seems from the public reaction that people are pretty happy with it.

Posted by: The Cosmic Avenger | February 26, 2008 3:28 PM | Report abuse

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