First Look: Apple TV 3.0
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.
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.