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Apple TV Second Generation

At a Glance
Product Apple TV 2010 / Second Generation (A1378)
Summary Inexpensive HD media player for rental-based content and Netflix
Pros • Gorgeous user interface
• Relatively inexpensive
• Silent (no fan, no hard drive)
• Connects to dual-band 802.11n or Ethernet network
• Intelligent stream buffering for trouble-free playback
Cons • Limited video format support
• Does not play from DLNA servers or network shares
• Can't add apps without jailbreaking
• No content purchase option
• Very little free video content

Yesterday's Apple TV Second Generation preview turned out to say most of what I can contribute to the dozens of Apple TV Second Generation (ATV2) reviews you've probably already read. So I'll just fill in some additional details and offer my take on observations made in other reviews I've read.

First, iFixit posted its ATV2 teardown after I posted my piece. They ID'd all the components, including the 802.11n radio. The radio is on a Panasonic-made module that uses a Broadcom BCM4329XKUBG 802.11n Wi-Fi/Bluetooth/FM chip, which iFixit observes is the same device found on the iPad.

Apple TV 2 opened up
Click to enlarge image

Apple TV 2 opened up, again

There has been a good deal of speculation on the possible uses for the 8 GB of flash memory (there is only 256 MB of RAM) iFixit found. Some say it's there to hold apps, once Apple decides to open that door, while others say it's for video buffering. I tend to believe the former, since I would think flash is too slow for HD video buffering, even 720p.

Engadget, among others, seems to be hung up on the AVT2's inability to support 1080p playback. I don't think that's really a big deal for a product that's primarily made to play streamed-from-the-Internet video. As I showed in HD Streaming Smackdown: The Rematch, going from 720p to 1080p just about doubles the streaming bandwidth requirements, while offering nowhere near a doubling of quality.

If you're accustomed to watching all Blu-ray video on a larger than 50" screen, then maybe you'll miss 1080p. But I'm perfectly happy with the more picture quality and more trouble-free playback I get with 720p.

Speaking of video quality, Engadget compared HD video from Amazon On Demand on the Roku XD|S vs. an unnamed source on the ATV2 and gave the edge to Apple. I ran my own experiment, playing a 30 Rock HD episode from Netflix on both boxes and I found the Roku had a much cleaner, easier-on-the-eye picture. The ATV2's picture was on the grainy side and tended toward blockiness in some scenes.

On the other hand, free HD trailers from the Movies "In Theaters" menu (Ha! Bet you thought you were going to be able to rent the really latest stuff there, eh?) were as crisp and clear as you could ask for. But you need to wait until what looks like a good 30 seconds loaded into the buffer before play starts. I prefer Roku's Netflix buffering / loading display, which shows both percentage done and streaming quality level. The ATV2, on the other hand, shows only a rotating circle thingy.

I mentioned in the preview that the ATV2 couldn't see the same iTunes library that the computer running iTunes (that the ATV2 was linked to via Home Sharing) saw. I tried this again today and got the same result. I think the problem is caused by the iTunes music library sitting on a networked NAS (QNAP TS-109 Pro) share and not physically on the machine running iTunes. Note that I am not using the iTunes server on the QNAP NAS itself. I'm just using a folder on it for the iTunes library storage.

I downloaded the latest Apple Remote app onto a 4th Gen iPod Touch and successfully used it to control both iTunes running on Windows and the ATV2 itself. I wasn't able to try AirPlay for sharing music because I don't have access to the iOS 4.2 beta that is currently the only way to get it. So I wasn't able to see if the ATV2 could access the iPod Touch's music. I did notice that there was no way in the Apple Remote app to sync the music playing on the iTunes Windows machine and the ATV2, however.

There's already plenty of teeth gnashing and garment rending in the blogosphere about how little Apple has moved the ball forward with the second generation Apple TV. But, after all, did we really expect Apple to let us escape from its controlled little universe and freely cruise the cloud, playing whatever content we may find?

Movies for rent, not sale

Movies for rent, not sale

The biggest surprise is that, at least for now, there are no options to purchase content and no TV show season subscriptions. The former is the bigger surprise, since purchase was the only option on ATV 1 and it's surprising that the content owners wanted to give that up. I guess Apple doesn't have anyone besides Disney / ABC wrapped around its corporate finger or, more likely, the right amount of money hasn't been promised yet.

The bottom line is that if you're trying to choose between the Apple TV 2010 and the new (or even old) Rokus, it's really a name your poison choice.

If you're looking for a way to get Netflix onto your old standard def set, you have to choose the Roku, since it's the only one with analog composite output. If you have an HDMI-equipped display or TV, then either can work.

Both play Netflix very nicely, with a slight edge to Apple for navigation and to Roku for picture quality. Both provide access to other content, but the edge here definitely goes to Roku for its app-centric approach and paid subscription offerings. I don't find myself venturing very often into anything other than the Netflix "channel" on the Roku. But others may find the Roku's Amazon Video On-Demand, MLB.tv and UFC (Ultimate Fighting Channel) pay channels tempting, as well as the audio choices of Pandora, Last.fm, Radio Paradise, Sirius and more. And don't forget that Hulu Plus will be on the Roku by the end of the year to nudge you even more in their direction.

The ATV2's main strength lies in the yet-to-be-shipped AirPlay feature which, unlike the why-did-they-ever-ship-that iPad VGA connector, will let you wirelessly beam audio and video content from any iOS device to a big screen near you. It would be kind of ironic if the ATV2's main strength turns out to be as a wireless video dock for iPads, Touches and Phones, no? But, truth be told, that's the main way I'm planning on using it (in addition to playing Netflix, of course).

There's always the chance that Apple could enable apps on the ATV2 (you gotta believe the code is in there somewhere, waiting for the magic bit to be flipped on), giving Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft agida about yet another dent in their game console revenues. The jailbreakers will get there first, of course. But not everyone wants that hassle or to sacrifice their warranty.

So with the low-rent media player "reveals" out of the way for this holiday buying season, the stage is now set for D-Link and Boxee (finally) and Google to justify why anyone would want to spend $200 and $300, respectively on their media streamers. Both will have an uphill battle, though, if they don't ship with content partners who aren't playing cat-and-mouse with them to block free access to their wares.

The safe money would be on Google, with its much deeper pockets. But they are so used to people paying them for stuff, that they might find the whole idea of paying content owners so... bourgeois, mais non?

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