Hands On With Apple TV 3.0

I was excited about iTunes LP, too, but after having used it on the Apple TV I'm less convinced it's a good idea. Unlike iTunes Extras, iTunes LP files just show up within an album's track listings-you have to select the iTunes LP file and click on it to launch the menu-driven interface. That's probably a fine interface choice, since it's more likely that you'd just want to pick a track than thumb through a set of virtual liner notes.

But I was still disappointed once I entered the iTunes LP interface. When you choose Play Album, the interface drops away and you're left with the standard Apple TV Now Playing screen. The same thing happens if you pick a track from an iTunes LP's Song List menu, go to the page that features song lyrics and artwork, and click Play Song.

I own a handful of DVD Audio discs, and one of the fun things those discs tend to do is display the lyrics pages for the songs as they play, along with playback controls. But iTunes LP doesn't work like that. Yes, if you want to read lyrics while a song is playing, you can click the menu button to re-enter the iTunes LP interface. But there's no way to simply start playing an album and then sit back and watch as the album art advances as each track plays.

iTunes LP pages can also be quite long, scrolling things-at least that was the case with the iTunes LP I tried, Paramore's "Brand New Eyes." (Peppy punk-pop. I like it.) The scrolling interface on the Apple TV is smooth, but I completely missed the faint scroll bar in the corner that indicates that I could press the down button on my remote to scroll down and see more of the lyrics pages.

Then there's the matter of Apple's boner when it came to both these formats, which the company only released last month. People who have bought iTunes LPs and iTunes Extras in the past 50 days will discover that their files aren't yet compatible with the Apple TV. Apple will have to push out an update via iTunes to the libraries of every single person who has purchased this content. Sure, in a couple of weeks this will be nothing more than a hazy memory, but it shows a remarkable lack of planning on Apple's part.

Other New Stuff

Great news, everyone: Apple has finally added streaming Internet content sources to the Apple TV! Hooray! Dance the happy dance!

No, wait a second. You're dancing because you think Apple added support for Netflix or Hulu or Vimeo or MLB.tv or something, right? Well, stop dancing. Because Apple's addition to Apple TV is a whole lot more modest than that: Internet Radio.

Yes, it's hard to believe that the Apple TV hasn't officially supported Internet Radio before now, but it hasn't. (You could work around this issue by adding a radio-station stream to a playlist.) Now, at last, you can choose from a large directory of sources and add favorite stations. It's great to see this feature, but honestly, it's embarrassing that it's taken this long.

The other major audio addition in Apple TV 3.0 is support for the Genius Mix feature that was rolled out with iTunes 9 back in September. This is the feature that looks at your music library and creates endless playlists of related songs and artists in various categories. Looking at my library, I ended up with a pop mix, an indie pop mix, the Coldplay/Radiohead/Oasis mix, an embarrassing pop mix, a punk/grunge mix, a power pop mix, a '70s rock list, an '80s rock list, and a collection of children's music. Okay.

The Photos section of Apple TV has been upgraded as well. If you sync your photos to the Apple TV, you'll find support for iPhoto events and the ability to browse photos by face, courtesy of iPhoto's Faces feature.

On the iTunes side, Apple TV syncing has been greatly improved. You can now select individual shows and individual episodes to sync, echoing the iPhone- and iPod-syncing improvements introduced with iTunes 9.

So, Now What?

As far as I can tell, the Apple TV 3.0 software update improves the Apple TV I bought in 2007, and I'm grateful for that. The new features are welcome, and I think that iTunes Extras has the potential to drain all remaining enthusiasm Apple TV owners might have had for buying DVDs.

And yet...

It's impossible to talk about the Apple TV without asking the big question: Where is this relationship going?

With the exception of price cuts and storage improvements, the base Apple TV hardware hasn't been improved since it was released. It's running a 1GHz Pentium M processor and has a measly 256MB of RAM. It can't play video of any resolution higher than 720p at 24 frames per second, and I've actually seen it struggle and drop frames consistently even on those "supported" HD video files.

The $229 Apple TV is increasingly surrounded by competitors, from Roku's $100 Player that streams Netflix and Amazon Video on Demand to media extenders for the Playstation 3 and XBox 360. Right now the biggest advantage of Apple's box is simply that it's the only one that can play videos purchased from iTunes. But it remains woefully ignorant of the rest of the Internet-the addition of Internet Radio at this late date proving the point.

Then there's the Mac Mini, which has turned into a powerful, competent device that works well as a home-media server. But the Mac Mini doesn't have the plug-it-and-forget-it ease of use of the Apple TV, and Front Row lacks some of the best features of Apple TV (namely its ability to seamlessly meld the contents of a remote iTunes computer and its own iTunes library). Front Row replacements such as Boxee and Plex are promising, but not exactly friendly to less geeky users. Not yet, at least.

Perhaps Apple is content with Apple TV never being anything more than a front-end for the iTunes store. Or perhaps Apple is well aware of its device's limitations and is hard at work on a new version with upgraded hardware and improved support for the rest of the stuff that's out there on the Net.

Steve Jobs said, "The reason I call [Apple TV] a hobby is, a lot of people have tried and failed to make it a business. And it's a hard problem. So we're trying. I think if we work on it and improve things over the next year, 18 months, we can crack that."

That was 29 months ago. Apple still hasn't cracked it. Apple TV 3.0 is a nice, mild update to an outdated piece of hardware that's still not nearly as capable as it should be. The real question is, what's next for Apple's hobby? If Steve Jobs knows the answer, he's not talking.

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