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The Apple TV has been around since 2007 but has been regarded as more of a hobby platform than a serious solution. In an attempt to enhance the public perception (and success) of the platform, Apple recently released a new and improved version of Apple TV based on the same operating system used in the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad. The big question is, did they succeed?

Apple TV box and remote control (lower front) let you stream digital media content to an HDTV.

What is Apple TV?

In its latest incarnation, Apple TV is a small set-top box that lets you stream digital media content from desktop Macs and PCs, or iOS devices to your TV.

The new version of Apple TV is an elegant, pint-sized device that connects to your TV’s HDMI port interface with your computer using either a 10/100 Ethernet cable or a Wi-Fi connection. Unlike the original version of the product, which included a 160 GB hard disk to store media content, the new Apple TV only has 8 GB of solid state memory, which is used to buffer media content streamed from various sources.

What can you watch with Apple TV?

Despite the name, you cannot watch live TV with the device. It doesn’t replace cable TV or do away with your DVR. What it does do is let you stream content from your Mac or PC running iTunes. You can view YouTube, Flickr, and MobileMe content, as well as downloadable Netflix titles and movies. You can also view TV shows you’ve rented via iTunes or purchased on I prefer Amazon; it offers better pricing and you own the content instead of renting it. In addition, a true computer-based home theater system offers a lot more functionality such as Web browsing.

Apple TV also supports the new iTunes AirPlay technology that will be incorporated into iOS version 4.2. This will allow you to stream content from your iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad through Apple TV to your TV. So, for example, you could launch a movie on your iPad and watch it on your TV with a group of friends. If you have to get up and go to the kitchen, you no longer have to annoy them by pausing the movie. You can leave it running, take your iPad with you, and not miss a thing. You can rent movies and TV shows directly from Apple TV or from iTunes on your desktop computer or iOS device. However, if you rent it from Apple TV, the content is « locked » to that device. You can’t share it with your iPad. Currently, it’s better to initiate the rental from your iPad.

Finally, existing iOS games could be updated to take advantage of AirPlay. Scrabble was one of the first iOS apps to allow players on multiple devices to participate in one game. For example, players can keep their tile racks private on their iPhone or iPod touch, and shared tiles can be displayed on a central iPad. With AirPlay integration, the shared tiles and the board itself could be displayed on a large TV. And I’d love to play Madden Football on such a system; players could select plays on the iPhone or iPad and everyone would see the action on the big screen.

Remote control options

The remote that ships with the Apple TV is the same small and elegant brushed aluminum controller that Apple offers for their Macs. In addition, you can use any spare remote control device to control Apple TV. The cool thing about this is that, instead of programming a spare remote to learn the Apple TV commands, Apple TV can actually « learn » the commands used by the spare remote. For example, my LG TV came with a universal remote that, by default, was programmed for an LG DVD. I told the Apple TV to « learn » the LG DVD commands for up, down, left, right, Menu, and Play. After it did, I could use my LG remote for TV and Apple TV control. In addition, I had Apple TV learn to use my Monster Cable Remote Control (an OEM’d device based on Logitech’s powerful Harmony family of remotes). This allows me to setup macros and control Apple TV and other A/V equipment from anywhere in the house. All I had to do next was tell that remote to use the LG DVD commands to control the Apple TV.

Finally, Apple has updated their Remote app (free, to work with Apple TV. The app, which has iPhone/iPod touch and iPad versions, takes some configuration. But once it’s set up, you can use swiping gestures to control the Apple TV. It’s not only a lot of fun, it’s very useful in some situations. For example, you actually have to enter text in some instances to use Apple TV (e.g., to search for videos on YouTube or Netflix). You can use a remote controller to do this, but it’s a pain. With Remote running on my iPad, I can use the on-screen keyboard to do this—it’s almost a pleasure.
Apple TV apps?

Apple TV apps?

Apple TV is a lot like an iPod touch without a screen. No, it doesn’t run apps, but the fact that it now uses iOS presents some intriguing possibilities. Samsung, LG, and Sony have already shipped TVs with built-in set-top boxes that run apps, allowing you to access Web news, weather, Twitter, Facebook and more from your TV.

It seems likely that the iOS-based Apple TV will be opened to apps sometime in the future, but Apple has been mum on the issue. If and when it is, developers will face the challenge of designing apps that take advantage of a TV’s larger screen and use a variety of interfaces. Perhaps they will use the iPhone’s remote control capability discussed in the previous section. Perhaps Apple or third parties will develop controller pads that interface with Apple TV. I have confidence that those hurdles can be overcome.

A game changer in the near future

Much of this review looks at the future potential of Apple TV, but it’s a pretty robust product as is. When AirPlay becomes available with the release of iOS 4.2, it will be a great companion product for the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. The $99 price tag is very reasonable, especially when you consider that includes a $19 remote control. As is, this latest version of Apple TV is a more serious platform that its predecessors and a potential game changer in the near future.