The Apple TV is a strange beast. Steve Jobs famously referred to his company's media-playback box as "a hobby." In early 2008 Apple released a major software update, Apple TV 2.0, that revamped its interface and added movie rentals to the mix. Yet in a world increasingly full of Internet-connected TV boxes, Apple's "hobby" has remained strangely static.
Thursday's release of Apple TV 3.0 software doesn't do a lot to change that, but for the unknown number of people who have bought an Apple TV box over the past two and a half years, it seems to be a pleasant improvement that addresses some lingering interface issues while adding whole new levels of mystery about exactly what (if anything) Apple is going to do with the product.
Revamped Main Menu
The highlight of the Apple TV 3.0 software update is its revamped main menu. Gone is the two-column grid introduced as a part of Apple TV "take two." Instead, there's a new interface that takes full advantage of widescreen TVs.
Spread out across the screen is a row with seven columns which forms the backbone of the new menu system: Movies, TV Shows, Music, Podcasts, Photos, Internet, and Settings. Clicking right or left determines which one of the columns is highlighted. When an item in that row is selected, the Apple TV displays a column of menu items beneath it. Spatially, this layout seems to makes a lot more sense than the old Apple TV menu.
Within the individual stacks of menu options, Apple has addressed the interface feature of Apple TV 2.0 that I disliked the most: the placement of all iTunes Store-related items at the top, with the menu item containing your own media placed all the way at the bottom. Now your media-movies, TV shows, music, and more-can always be found behind the top item of each column. It makes the whole experience feel a bit friendlier and a bit less like the entire device was created as a vehicle for Apple to sell you more stuff.
Above the menu items, in the top third of the screen, is a strip of tiles similar to the ones used in Apple TV 2.0's iTunes Store interface. But even here, Apple's has showed restraint when it comes to commerce. The first few items of the strip all feature your content-unwatched movies or TV shows, Genius mixes and recently-added albums (as well as the currently playing track, if there is one), unplayed podcasts, photos, and the like. For some media types, such as movies and TV shows, there's also integration with the iTunes store: keep moving to the right, past your recently unwatched movies, and you'll find top movies on iTunes. But it's handled with the right emphasis. More than that, the appearance of the media tiles atop the menu items makes the entire main menu seem more vibrant and interesting.
(Font fans will be happy to know that the Apple TV interface is now drawn with famous, comforting, star-of-a-major-motion-picture Helvetica. It looks nice. Even non-font geeks may notice, though they won't be able to put their finger on just what's different. However, one of our editors reported that the lighter-weight font causes flickering on his older HDTV set.)
Apple's New Packages
Main menu aside, the major new feature addition in Apple TV 3.0 is support for the new expanded-feature formats Apple introduced to the iTunes store back in September, iTunes LP and iTunes Extras. Since these formats bring a DVD-menu-style interface to music collections and movies, respectively, it was a natural that they'd end up on the Apple TV. And now they have.
I think iTunes Extras is a fantastic idea. It allows Apple to bundle together the bonus content previously seen only on DVDs, and make it available as a part of an iTunes download. It closes the gap between iTunes downloads and DVDs in a compelling way, and I expect that it will be come the new standard for how movies are sold on iTunes.
On the Apple TV, iTunes Extras work pretty much as you expect. I navigated to My Movies and chose Iron Man, which has a small icon of a stack of items off to its right to indicate that it's a film containing iTunes Extras. When I click, Apple TV brings me to the Iron Man main menu, rather than just playing the movie. At that point, it's essentially a DVD experience-I can play the movie, navigate through a list of chapters, see special features, and even see a page of ads for other stuff the movie studio wants to promote. (Let's hope the format doesn't allow for mandatory trailers and an FBI warning every time you want to play an iTunes Extras file!)