March 15, 2008
Apple recently released a major upgrade to its Apple TV software that sports a new interface as well as additional features; the most significant of which is movie rentals. They’re offered in both standard definition and, in some cases, high definition.
I didn’t jump on the upgrade bandwagon immediately; over the last year I’ve been using my Apple TV primarily to watch videos stored on my NAS in non-Quicktime format, and I didn’t want to lose that capability. So, I decided to wait and make sure that the various hacks which allowed me to do that were going to be updated to support the Take 2. They are all in various states of beta testing at this point, so last week I did the upgrade and began playing with the new release. So far, here are my thoughts:
A New Interface
At first, I didn’t really like the new menu layout as much as the original. I can’t completely say why, but it just looked a little less pleasant, and the buttons were a little less than standardized. In the old Back Row, the select command always took you forward, and menu always took you back, just like an iPod. Take 2 uses left and right in some cases, and menu/select in others. After about 2 minutes, you can easily guess which combo to use in each screen, and the change is fairly logical - but it’s a slightly different pattern nonetheless. After using it for about 5 minutes, I decided I like the new menus better than the old because of the overall structure, if not the first glance appearance.
The best part of the interface redesign is that there is now a clear hierarchy based on content types, not content location. That is to say that before, you had to choose if the media you wanted to play was local to the Apple TV, or on a remote iTunes library. After that selection, you would then select the media type (movie, tv, audio), and then finally get to the media itself. Take 2 simply lets you start with the media type on the main screen, and then you select which library to go to. This is a much better organizational style, and it’s a lot easier to find things with this context.
The new iTunes movie/tv/podcast browser screens are a little odd, but they work well. Essentially, you get a screen full of horizontally scrolling rows, with each row being dedicated to things like “top rentals,” “staff favorites,” “new releases,” and the like. The screens are very busy, but they do give you lots of well organized options as they utilize all your available screen space.
The least pleasant thing about Back Row still exists in Take 2, and that’s the “cursor inertia” phenomenon. When you start scrolling through any media list, or even through the arcade game-ish on-screen keyboards (for id/password entry and searches on iTunes, Flikr, and YouTube) the cursor starts to speed up the longer you press the directional button. When you let go of the button, the cursor goes a bit further before it actually stops. I personally find this very annoying and keep overshooting my targets because the inertia seems speed relative, and the speed increases the further you go. So, when scrolling through long lists, the further you go, the earlier you need to let go of the button. This seems very non-Apple, as they typically like to be consistent in interface behavior. The TiVo is smart enough to jump back a bit, for example, when you fast forward through commercials. And while the TiVo’s jump-back behavior is also speed adaptive, it knows that the faster you are going, the more it needs to jump back to get to the right point. Apple TV’s is essentially just the opposite, and it’s annoying.
Interface improvements and annoyances aside, the big deal is really the new feature set of the Apple TV Take 2.
First, movie rentals. I rented the HD version of Michael Clayton over the weekend, and was very happy with the overall experience as well as the quality of the picture & sound. The keyboard thing got on my nerves, but once the download started I was given the option to start watching the movie, after about 2 minutes of download time. I opted to go out for dinner first and watch the movie when I got back, however, so I can’t say that the download was really far enough along to deal with potential network slowdowns. I’m unsure whether it would have let me catch up if I did start watching immediately or not, but a bit of mental math made me think it would have been ok.