AppleTV Take 2: Belmore Review
As you may have heard, the 2.0 update for the AppleTV came out today, and I couldn’t get wait to get home and give it a test run. Chris Breen over at MacWorld has already written a great walkthrough, so I’ll spare the minute details and give you more of my opinion of things.
The update itself takes about 10 minutes. I didn’t bother to pay attention, as I’d read about this, so I watched some college basketball on ESPN while I waited for the blinking yellow light to turn back to white.
Once it was fully updated, I switched over to start playing. I love the new interface, as it is much easier to navigate and a hell of a lot faster. The update also ties in to the latest version of iTunes, giving it some new features. The first that I noticed (and also immediately turned on) was the ability for iTunes/AppleTV to auto-sync the device. No user input needed, and the most relevant items are synced to the AppleTV (I have to assume this means the newest and/or least played items). I have yet to test it without having iTunes open, so I can’t determine what is actually being synced (another new feature of AppleTV 2.0 is that all of your media from the synced library, whether synced or streamed, is in one list, so you don’t have to switch between the two options to play items).
As I looked at the new options in iTunes, I noticed that my computer was now seeing an AirTunes device. That’s right, this update also turns the AppleTV into an AirTunes, letting your $229 device do the same thing as a $129 device! I’ve been wanting this control ever since I first used my AppleTV, and it works as expected. I can control playback from iTunes on my computer, making it a much nicer experience when I’m working at my computer (as opposed to reading on my couch). You can’t skip songs using the remote (I have a PowerBook G4, so I’m referring to the remote connected to the AppleTV…not the remote that comes with those newfangeled Intel Macs), but you can still navigate through your AppleTV and look at all of the other categories. If you don’t mess with the AppleTV and just go about your business on the computer, the standard screensaver comes up with the music information in the lower left like before. The AirTunes mode is also instant, unlike the actual AirTunes. No waiting for a half second before seeing/hearing changes you’ve just made to your playback.
Another thing that’s nice is the ability to look at Flickr accounts on the AppleTV. It operates very similarly to the regular photography slideshows. You click to display a username’s account, and voila, you have access to everything. The one giant problem is the user input…the keyboard that pops up takes forever to enter in usernames (for instance, I Am Paul’s Typing Fingers took me about three minutes). They need to either make the keyboard speedier (the real problem is how long it takes to move between letters, even when holding down the forward button), or allow you to login to the URL’s (my URL is Belmore, which would have taken me a fraction of the time.
Okay, now to the bread and butter: HD rentals. I was really anxious to check this out, so I logged in and rented Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (as Paul Thurrott notes, the selection is very odd…the other Star Trek movies are only available in standard definition). I had read online (sorry, can’t find the source) that audio was a tad bit problematic on the HD movies if you tried to play the file before it was done downloading, so I allowed it to finish (which took over two hours) before I started. The AppleTV popped up a message after 3% was done that I could begin watching it, but I decided against that due to the aforementioned information. Also, I should mention that the HD rental was only $3.99, unlike what Chris Breen said. It appears that new releases are $4.99, but older movies are a buck cheaper (similarly, standard definition movies are $3.99 for new releases and $2.99 for older movies).
The good? The movie looks great. Even for a 25 year old film, the quality is pretty damn good. It’s not perfect, but for an old film scan you can’t complain about it. The encoding looks beautiful, I have not noticed any artifacts. There are some gradient problems, but nothing to complain about. Bit rates have to far exceed the capabilities of the AppleTV before known digital problems like gradients go away. Playback is also much improved. Even on this much higher bit rate file, it stops and starts without pause, unlike before where there was always a few second delay.
This brings us to the bad. Why am I starting and stopping it? Well, this may just be a bad encode (although I highly doubt it), but the audio becomes unsynced after about 10 minutes. Stopping and starting the movie fixes the problem, but this is a problem we should not be having in the 21st century. I’m going to avoid stopping and starting for the rest of the movie (I have over an hour left) and see if it gets progressively better, or if it’s just a small delay due to the hardware (for those that don’t know, the AppleTV was hacked as soon as it came out and was found to have a 1 GHz generic Intel processor with 256 MB of RAM and an NVIDIA GeForce Go 7300 with 64 MB of VRAM, so it’s amazing it can do HD video at all). I’ll keep you posted if I can find out for sure. UPDATE: It appears to have either been a temporary problem, or just a problem related to the dated quality of the movie. I never noticed the movie getting progressively less synced the longer I left it on without pausing it, and it never seemed to be more than 1/10th of a second off. I’ll chalk it up to my eyes and ears playing tricks on me and leave it at that.
Long story short (and I mean damn, that was a long “opinion”!), the AppleTV 2.0 upgrade makes the AppleTV do what it should have been able to do the first time around. Rent movies from your couch. Use it as an AirTunes. And be much more dynamic with web-based applications. Not to mention the things that don’t appeal to me, such as buying music from the iTunes store with your remote (which it can also now do). And with the recent price drop, this is a great addition to your home entertainment center. If you have an HDTV and are fed up with your cable company (as I am), go the AppleTV route. Heck, if you have more than a few GBs of video in your iTunes library, you’re crazy for not having this easy method of watching them on your TV.