First Look: Apple TV

The new Apple TV is just a fourth of the size of the older version, and you won’t hear any hard drive hum because it doesn’t have a hard drive. It’s got some Flash memory inside to buffer the video stream, but Apple’s friendly rep wouldn’t tell us how much–it’s not about the memory, after all. The power supply is built in now, no more unwieldy brick. It’s got an A4 processor, one HDMI-out port, optical audio out, Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, and a USB port that’s still just for service purposes. The whole thing is smaller than a Big Mac container, dare we say portable, especially with its simple setup.

The menus aren’t much different than the current device running the Apple TV 3.0 software. You navigate it with a silver remote that has the same buttons as the old Apple Remote, slightly reconfigured, but the remote itself is larger. It feels great in the hand and will be less likely to get lost in couch cushions–like our tiny white Apple Remote always is.

It’s still an IR remote, so you need a line of sight to the Apple TV, but if you’d rather lock the Apple TV away behind a media cabinet door, the Remote app for iPhone and iPod touch can control the Apple TV too. It’s also easier to search for content with the Remote app since it’s got a keyboard. Searching with the actual remote requires a lot of button presses, since you’re selecting letters on the onscreen display.

Netflix is now an option in the Internet menu. You have to be a Netflix subscriber to use it; those plans start at .99 per month for one DVD at a time (through the mail) and unlimited Instant Watch. The Instant Watch library is smaller than the DVD library, but you can browse and search the selections right from your Apple TV, add movies and TV series to your Instant Watch queue, and stream the video in 720p (when available — some Instant Watch titles are in standard def only). The interface for Netflix looks gorgeous and very Apple-like, head and shoulders above using Netflix on a TiVo HD or Roku box.

The other big change is no more purchasing content on your Apple TV. It doesn’t have a hard drive, so nothing is stored there permanently, and no longer syncs content from your Mac or PC. Instead, you can rent movies and TV shows directly from the Apple TV. If you’d rather purchase (including Season Passes of TV shows), you can do that in iTunes on your Mac or PC, and then stream that content to your Apple TV. Currently, the computer has to be on and running iTunes for streaming, so we assume that’s how streaming will work to the new Apple TV as well. The Apple TVs in the demo room had multiple computers listed under the Computers menu ready to stream content, a nice change from the current model of syncing to one computer and streaming from others.

Movie rentals are the same price: .99 for first-run releases in HD, .99 in SD, with prices decreasing over time. TV show rentals are 99 cents per episode for HD, and you can choose standard-def for the same price if you’d prefer that (less taxing on your network, for example). Once you rent a video, you get 30 days to begin watching it, and then once you start playback you get 24 hours to finish a movie, and 48 hours to finish a TV show.

Let’s compare the pricing between buying and renting TV shows: Gossip Girl Season 3 has 22 episodes. So if you rented those one at a time over your Apple TV, you’d spend roughly . Purchasing the full 22-episode season in the iTunes Store on your Mac will set you back .99 for HD and .99 in SD, but you own them and can watch as many times as you like. (Of course, you’ve got to store them too.)

Steve Jobs claimed in his talk that most consumers don’t want to worry about storage, but if you’re not one of those people you can still keep your videos safely stored on your Mac and just stream ’em. A Season Pass for the current fourth season of Mad Men is .99 in HD for 13 episodes. So you could rent those instead of buying and pay only about . The important thing to remember is that you get a choice whether to rent or buy.

And it should be pointed out that Amazon currently sells HD and SD episodes of TV shows for 99 cents, which you can watch on your TV through your Roku box, TiVo, or other compatible Internet-connected HDTVs and Blu-ray players. So be sure to shop around before deciding which store to use.

Oh, and one more thing: Apple TV can play content from your iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad as well as from your computer or from the Internet. iOS 4.2 (coming this November to the iPod touch, iPhone, and iPad) will include a feature called AirPlay that lets you start a video on your iDevice, then tap one button to send the video over to your Apple TV. This works with photos and music too. AirPlay is a new name for AirTunes, which already let you stream iTunes music to AirPort Express-connected stereos and Apple TVs on the same network, so it’ll still do that too.

The new Apple TV is , and Apple’s taking preorders now to ship the devices in about 4 weeks. The big unanswered question is: What about the current Apple TV owners? Will we get a software update that brings Netflix playback, AirPlay, and TV show rentals to our older Apple TVs? We asked Apple and are waiting to hear back. Any more questions? Sound off in the comments below.

Follow this article’s author, Susie Ochs, on Twitter.

 

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