Once I had everything synced, it was time to check it out. Figure 5 shows the Music submenu.
Figure 5: Music Submenu
It's slick. If you've seen Apple's Cover Flow feature, you'll recognize the animation here. As you move through the music menus, your album art smoothly flips by in a 3D fashion as if you were thumbing through physical albums. As the animation progresses, a reflection of the cover is shown as if it were moving over a shiny surface. When the music starts, the album art is shown on-screen with a progress bar. The top two items in this menu both link to the online iTunes store, where you can view and listen to snippets, but for whatever reason, you can't make purchases. All purchases have to be made from your linked computer.
Once annoyance I turned up while exploring the Music capabilities was the Apple TV remote. For some reason, Apple declined to support volume control from the remote. Fortunately it's just an IR remote, so I'll be using a universal remote to control my TV, my receiver, and my Apple TV. This remote is also the same remote that comes with most Apple computers these days. Before I figured out how to lock it out, the Apple TV remote was controlling my MacBook Pro, which made things a bit confusing. Along with your music, you can also listen to iTunes-subscribed Podcasts on the Apple TV. Figure 6 shows the Podcast menu.
Figure 6: Podcast menu
Since syncing is bi-directional, your iTunes application will know when you've finished listening to a podcast on your Apple TV. The same is true for Music play counts. They'll reflect you combined usage on the Apple TV, iPod—and, I assume, iPhone. All of your playlists from iTunes will be synced to the Apple TV as well. iTunes has powerful playlist generation features such as "all top rated songs of type Alternative not played in the last two weeks," and these carry over to the Apple TV fine.
Figure 7 shows the photo-display menu where you can select albums or individual photos for display.
Figure 7: Photo selection menu
Like the Music menu, this menu also uses the Cover Flow animation. And if you pause on one of your photo albums, you get a mini-slideshow right in the menu as every photo is cycled through. Cool. Settings are available for specifying how long to display each picture, whether to repeat, whether to randomize photos, etc. There are also a number of very slick effects that you can specify for photo transition. Transitions for 3D flip, dissolve, fade, mosaic, and more are all available. And of course, you can select music from your library to accompany your slideshow.
These settings are nice, but a bit restrictive, since they apply to all your slideshows. When you need more control, a better option is to define the parameters for your slideshow inside of iPhoto (or Adobe under Windows, I assume). This way, you can customize the music, transitions, etc. for each specific show. Once you've set up a slideshow externally, it gets synced and shows up in the menu just like everything else. The slideshow capabilities of the Apple TV are far-and-away the best I've seen on any of the network-attached multimedia devices that I've worked with.