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.
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