Tagged: Apple TV

Hands-on Review: Roku Streaming Stick

roku-streaming-stick-review

Tons of features, good performance and an unbeatable price make the Roku Streaming Stick by far the best value in the increasingly busy Smart-TV add-on category.

If you already own a Smart TV—a WiFi-connected, app-enabled HDTV—you really don’t need to read this. That’s because the Roku family of devices (to which the Roku Streaming Stick is the latest addition) is for all of us poor shmoes stuck with TVs that have no way of talking to the internet and thus no way to access content providers like Netflix, Crackle, CrunchyRoll or YouTube unless we stretch a very long and trip-hazard-creating HDMI cable from our PC/laptop to our TV sets. Don’t laugh. People do that. For real.

There is obviously a better way. It took a few years for electronics companies to figure it out, but simple WiFi add-ons are finally here.

Roku’s Streaming Stick takes the best part of Roku’s earlier efforts, namely the amazing collection of hundreds of “channels” that give the Roku its ability to deliver streaming content, and pairs them up with a dead-simple receiver and an included remote control, all for the rock-bottom price of $59 CDN.

Read the full review on Canadian Reviewer

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Amazon’s Fire TV yet another set top box with compromises

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Amazon takes the proprietary route with its Fire TV set top box and gives consumers one more choice that won’t serve all of their needs.

I’ve always admired Amazon for their customer-centric view of the world. Their online shopping experience is second to none. Their customer service is superb. Their dedication to creating devices and services to meet the needs of their customers has always impressed me – especially given that the hardware space is so competitive (and littered with failures).

So I was really keen to find out what Amazon’s latest toy, the $99 Fire TV set-top box had to offer. Even though it isn’t available to Canadians currently, the U.S. version is likely a very strong indicator of what we’ll get when it arrives.

Sadly, what we’ll get is a series of compromises.

Continue reading the article on Canadian Reviewer

Apple debuts 'new iPad,' Apple TV update

 

If you’ve been waiting to buy an iPad, Apple had some good news for you today: their new model – which now simply goes by the handle “new iPad” (think New Beetle) – packs a bunch of upgrades over the previous two models without any bump in price. Yes, it looks like the iPad’s reign as king of the tablets will continue for the foreseeable future, even if there is nothing bleeding edge on offer. It’s – wait for it – “resolutionary” according to the Apple.com website homepage.

Here’s what was announced:

iPad 3rd generation ($519/$619/$719 CAD for 16/32/64GB WiFi only – add $120 per model for 3G/4G) Available March 16

  • Retina display
  • A5X quad-core GPU
  • iSight Camera in the Rear: 5MP, backside illuminated, 1080p video recording, Image stabilization
  • Voice dictation, but no Siri
  • 4G LTE, backward compatible with dual-band HSPA+
  • Personal Hotspot feature added
  • 10 hours of battery life, 9 if on a 4G LTE connection
  •  9.4mm thin, weighing 1.4lbs

From an exterior point of view, the new iPad is nearly indistinguishable from the iPad 2.

The New iPad (yup, that’s the official name) will be supported by all three major carriers (Bell, TELUS, Rogers) for those who want to grab the 4G LTE version.

We’re a little surprised that Apple chose not to give the new iPad the same photo capabilities as the iPhone 4S, which has an 8MP rear camera, and that the front-facing FaceTime camera remains the same as the previous model instead of being upgraded to the FaceTime HD standard that adorns all new iMacs.

In case you’re wondering, yes you can now pick up older iPad 2’s for $100 less than they were selling for yesterday. Apple will continue to make these.

Apple also treated us to an unexpected surprise: A version of the company’s extremely popular photo software for the iMac, iPhoto – built for the iPad. It has a suite of touch-based editing tools but perhaps the coolest feature is the ability to ‘beam’ photos between devices – presumably between iPhones, iPads, iPod Touches and iMacs. $4.99 is the price in the App store and you can download it today. GarageBand, iMovie and iWork apps have all been updated for the new iPad.

Also announced was an update to the Apple TV set-top box:

Apple TV (3rd Generation) $99 USD, $109 CAD, available March 16

  • 1080p streaming
  • new UI with cleaner look and feel

The new user interface for Apple TV. Available today as a free download for existing Apple TV 2nd Gen. owners.

Finally, today marks the release iOS 5.1, which mostly sports some minor enhancements such as Siri support for Japanese consumers. Also, iTunes in the cloud now has movie support.

 

 

 

 

Hands-on with Apple's AirPlay

airplay-the-good-and-the-badOf all the features that launched with last week’s iOS update to 4.2, the one I was most eagerly anticipating was AirPlay.

In case you haven’t been following along, AirPlay is the ability to wirelessly stream audio and video from a device like an iPad to your 2nd generation Apple TV. It’s essentially and enhancement on the existing AirTunes feature that already let you stream audio from iTunes to an AirPort Express router so that you could pipe your tunes directly into a connected receiver. AirPlay takes that framework and expands it to include video.

The system is dead-easy. Just make sure that your i-device and your Apple TV are on the same wireless network. Then choose your app: iPod for video or music, the Photos app for, well, photos and the YouTube app for, uh, you get the idea. Once your media is playing or your photo is displayed, simply tap the little rectangle pierced with a upwards-pointing triangle icon and choose “Apple TV” from the list that pops up.

When using the AirPlay menu from the native YouTube app on an iPhone, you get the option to stream video and audio to an Apple TV. (click for larger image)

When using the AirPlay menu from the native YouTube app on an iPhone, you get the option to stream video and audio to an Apple TV. (click for larger image)

The result is nothing short of spectacular. I tried AirPlay using my iPad as the source device and played back a high-quality version of How To Train Your Dragon. For the techies out there, the file specs are: 1280×544  in .m4v, @155kbps with 5.1 Dolby. In short, it’s a file that has been optimized for Apple TV. Once I had selected Apple TV from the AirPlay list, the movie started playing on my plasma TV within 2 seconds.

I didn’t watch the whole movie but I did let it run for several minutes during which there was no observable glitch in audio or video. Both were perfect. In fact, the video compared so well to the HD version we had rented via Bell TV’s on-demand service, I couldn’t tell the difference.

Sounds great right? Yes – it really does exactly what is promises. But (you knew there had to be one…) I’m extremely disappointed by the lack of AirPlay video support for 3rd party apps.

That’s right. As of right now, the *only* apps that can send video wirelessly via AirPlay to the Apple TV is the Video app on the iPad (iPod app on the iPhone/iPod Touch) and Apple’s own YouTube and Photos apps.

When using the AirPlay menu on an iPhone inside a 3rd party video app such as VLC Player, you only get the option to stream the audio to the Apple TV - note the little speaker icons instead of monitor icons. (Click for larger image)

When using the AirPlay menu on an iPhone inside a 3rd party video app such as VLC Player, you only get the option to stream the audio to the Apple TV - note the little speaker icons instead of monitor icons. (Click for larger image)

While 3rd party video apps such as the excellent VLC Media Player, CineXPlayer or even YouTube inside of Safari can stream the audio portion of their program to the Apple TV, none can stream video.

Here’s why this stinks: Apple TV is, out-of-the-box, able to stream any content that iTunes can play on your PC. It also has it’s own YouTube app. Lastly, it can present photos from your PC if you enable iTunes to stream that content too.

So what exactly has AirPlay done to extend Apple TV’s capabilities? Nothing. Well, almost nothing.

If you have content on your iPad or iPhone that you don’t have on your Mac/PC, then I suppose it’s handy to be able to stream that content to the Apple TV without the need of a middle-man device. But let’s think about this: If you bought an Apple TV, it’s fair to assume that you were already using your computer as your primary media repository and you were okay with managing that media via iTunes. Now I’m not suggesting that you would *never* use just your i-device to download new content – thereby skipping the iTunes-PC step, but I’m guessing it will be rare.

I real promise that AirPlay held for me, and I suspect many other Apple TV owners, was the ability to use all of the 3rd party apps that have popped up in the App Store that support all of the media file types that iTunes (and thus Apple TV) don’t support.

I was frustrated by Apple’s decision to limit Apple TV to just a few video formats when they announced the product, but I immediately thought “okay, no problem, Apple doesn’t want to support other formats, I can deal with that since it looks like AirPlay will enable other companies to take on that burden through 3rd party app development.” With AirPlay being limited to just Apple’s trio of native apps, what would have been an otherwise perfect compromise between what Apple was willing to do and what consumers wanted, is now almost superfluous. A neat trick of engineering that will rarely be used or needed.

For the sake of being optimistic, I hope that this limitation with AirPlay is merely temporary while 3rd party apps are updated by their developers to be compatible with the new feature… but I’m not very convinced this will happen. Some other blogs have pointed out that 3rd party video *was* working in the beta of 4.2 but was subsequently disabled in the final release. Apple, what say you to this?

Update: Apple got back to us rather sooner than we thought, or at least, MacRumours thinks Steve Jobs has gotten back to us. In an email reply reportedly sent to one of their site’s readers, who asked about Safari YouTube and 3rd party support, the iCEO himself said he “hopes to add these features to AirPlay in 2011.” I don’t know if we can bank on one as-yet unvalidated email, but here’s hoping!

Okay, your turn: Have you used AirPlay yet? If so, do you think it’s a feature you’ll be using on a regular basis? Let us know.

Apple TV: Hands-on review

The Good: Simple set up and operation, excellent user interface, great selection of movies, access to photos, video and music are a nice touch.
The Bad: Movies don’t start streaming instantly, photo access is limited to one sub-folder, Apple has failed to maximize the capabilities of their A4 chip.
Form & Design
It’s hard to critique Apple’s choices on the design of the Apple TV. Its tiny footprint, sleek black exterior, understated power/activity light and built-in power adapter make the device nearly invisible when placed in or around your home theatre gear. Our system is comprised of an ancient VHS player, a DVD-recorder, home theatre receiver, HD PVR and 5-disc CD player. They’re all black, all big and boxy and whether I place the Apple TV above or beside the rest of the components, it all but disappears. Kudos to Apple for realizing the living room is not the place to make your device stand out. That job should rest on the one device you’re supposed to look at: your HDTV. Everything else is merely playing a supporting role.
If there’s a weakness in the design of the Apple TV, it’s the minimal connectivity options. The back of the unit includes: HDMI, Optical Out, Ethernet, micro-USB and the power port. That’s it. So if your TV doesn’t have HDMI, or if your home theatre receiver doesn’t have a free optical input, you can’t use Apple TV. There’s a certain consistency here however with Apple design choice from the past. They were one of the first to eliminate the floppy disk drive when they debuted the original iMac, and they were also one of the first to make USB the only accessory port (except for FireWire) on their machines. So it makes sense that they have now declared non-digital video to be passé. I’ll address that micro-USB port a little later – Apple claims it is only intended for “service and support.”
Installation
This couldn’t be easier. Plug in the HDMI cable to your TV or home theatre receiver, plug in the optical cable if you need it, and plug in the power cable. You’re done.
User Interface
Turn everything on and you’re immediately greeted by the Apple TV home screen which is a simple horizontal menu system that sits roughly in the middle of your screen. Apple owes a design debt to Sony here, whose Xross Media Bar (XMB) pioneered this use of horizontal options followed by vertical sub-menus. However in Apple TV’s case, the sub-menus are more like drop-downs, in that they are only visible as options below the main category.  It’s pure Apple: dead-simple and very elegant. The layout and font choice emphasize readability and usability over flashy effects. Conspicuously absent here are icons of any kind. We’ve grown so used to having them in our UI’s – from our PC’s desktops to our smartphones – that having word-based options is both oddly retro and refreshing.
Remote
Navigating the menus with the included remote control is also a breeze. The main d-pad with centre selection button will be intuitive to everyone, while the menu button functions as a “back” key. The remote itself is beautiful; carved from a single chunk of aluminum, it feels smooth and light in your hand while giving the impression that it could withstand an enormous amount of abuse. It’s a little absurd in a world where we all need multi-function remotes to exert control over our myriad gadgets to spend so much time and presumably money on designing a single-device remote as Apple has done. Yet when you compare Apple TV to its competitors – media players from companies like Western Digital, Roku and others, it’s the remote that sets Apple TV apart. Its simplicity and elegance reminds you that this device was designed by people who value form as much – perhaps even more – than function.
Features
Apple TV’s primary goal is to turn your HDTV into the digital media viewer that so many of us have been using our computers for. Movies and TV shows, videos, music and photos. These four experiences form the core of the Apple TV experience.
Movies
Your choices are: Rentals from iTunes, a subscription with Netflix, or any iTunes-compatible movie in your PC or Mac’s library.
Renting a movie from iTunes is supposed to be an “instant” option – something you would consider doing as an alternative to on-demand choices from your cable or satellite provider. It’s an attractive choice: not only are movie titles as current as those in your local video store but they can be had in 720p HD with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound – and at $5.99, they’re a buck cheaper than the cable/satellite options. And there’s no question, the movies look and sound great. But is it “instant”? Not really.
We have a 5mb DSL connection at home which, I grant you, isn’t blazingly fast – but it’s comparable to the average broadband speed across Canada at the moment and it’s much faster than the average speed in the U.S. which ArsTechnica has pegged at 3.9mb [http://arstechnica.com/telecom/news/2010/01/us-broadband-still-lagging-in-speed-and-penetration.ars].  It’s more than sufficient for watching YouTube videos. But when my wife and I sat down last night to watch Iron Man 2, Apple TV informed us that we could start watching our rental in 184 minutes. 3 hours before I could watch my “instant” movie rental? Actually it wasn’t 184 minutes. That, as it turned out, was only the initial estimate. Within a few seconds, the time remaining had jumped to 360 minutes, before it finally settled on 234 minutes. How long did it actually take? I have no idea. We left Apple TV alone to complete that process and opted to watch a movie on the PVR instead.
Waiting to watch downloaded content is nothing new – in fact I’m used to it. So why am I put off by the heavy wait time? Because Apple has promised something quite different. Their Apple TV feature web page says:
“Once you find what you’re looking for, simply press Play, and in seconds, you’re watching the opening credits with theater-like Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound.”
Seconds huh?
There are any number of factors that could have affected our experience including: how many other processes were using our bandwidth (e.g. skype, BitTorrent, Windows Updates etc.), the time of day, the number of other Apple TV users trying to stream the same content, or even the strength of our Wi-Fi network. But I’d have to say our scenario was pretty typical. We wanted to watch a movie at 9:30 p.m. on a Friday night. Except that we couldn’t.
If it were not for this unfortunate delay of gratification, renting movies via Apple TV would be a joy. You can browse genres, search for specific titles, view trailers, read both professionally written critiques as well as those submitted by users and cross-reference actors and directors from one movie to any other iTunes rental that those people are associated with. There’s also an “In Theaters” section which lets you watch trailers for current theatrical releases. It’s a very well thought-out experience.
With Netflix, things should move along a bit better if only for two reasons: 1) most of their content is in standard definition which eats up much less bandwidth, and 2) their infrastructure might be more robust than Apple’s – after all Netflix has been in the on-demand streaming game for longer than Apple. But with Netflix your choices are limited to older titles and the Canadian catalog is still quite small compared to the U.S. offering.
Finally, the best option might just be streaming movies you’ve already downloaded to your PC over your home network. This has two advantages: Your streaming performance is limited only by the quality of your home network (and perhaps the PC that is running iTunes) and you can – in theory at least – source your movies from any service you like as long as you make sure they end up in the QuickTime video format that iTunes recognizes.
Videos
You can sum-up Apple TV’s video capability in one word: YouTube.
Given the enormous success YouTube has had in becoming the world’s video repository, having an easy way to enjoy YouTube on your TV is great. I’ve lost track of the number of times we’ve had guests over for a drink only to have the conversation turn to “this hilarious video on YouTube.” Usually this is followed by someone trying to describe the clip in question and depending on how good a story-teller they are, that can be enough. But it’s way better to flip on the TV, punch in a search query and actually see the clip. You can easily spend an hour or more just jumping from one favourite to another and somehow you still feel like you’re socializing even though you’re just watching videos.
It sure beats gathering around a 15” laptop.
Music
Naturally, being able to access your iTunes content via Apple TV means that your music library is now connected to the best speakers in your house – your home theatre speakers. For some people, this might be the first time they’ve listened to their MP3s on anything but their iPod. It’s a wonderful experience. Browsing your songs, loading up playlists and viewing album art are all reborn visually as well as sounding great. You also get the option to listen to Internet radio stations – they’re the same ones that you have access to via the Radio feature in iTunes.
Unfortunately Apple has decided to limit music activity on the Apple TV to just listening. There is no iTunes Store access for buying new music which I think is a huge wasted opportunity. I know the reason: Apple has designed the Apple TV to be a passive device – it doesn’t store anything locally except your account settings, preferences and the buffered portion of your rented movies. It has no place to store purchased content, be it video or audio. But this seems like a cop-out. If it’s smart enough to connect me to my iTunes account, and smart enough to connect to my PC, why can’t it act as the go-between for these two components and let me buy a song from iTunes and save it on my PC? Definitely an area for improvement.
Photos
If you haven’t viewed your digital photos on your HDTV, you are missing out. Your HDTV is bar-none the very best digital photo frame you could possibly buy. Even if you own an iMac or Apple Cinema Display – both of which are stunning to look at – a 50-inch plasma, even one running 720p, will put them to shame.
Which is why one of the best features of Apple TV is the ability to access the digital photos from your PC on your HDTV. It might even be worth the $119 price of admission on its own.
With the photos feature, Apple has applied many of the tricks from its iPhoto software to create a range of superb photo slideshow options including effects such as Origami and Ken Burns (that’s the slow zoom and pan technique used to such great effect on shows like Biography, named for its inventor Ken Burns). You can choose any song or playlist from your iTunes music library to accompany these slide shows, or let Apple TV choose them randomly.
But the photos feature is not without drawbacks. One in particular makes me crazy. Photo access on Apple TV is done via the Home Sharing function in iTunes. This feature lets you identify the location (note: singular, not plural) of your photos on your PC that you’d like Apple TV to access. So far, so good.  The way I’ve chosen to organize our photos – at least at a file level – is to create year folders with month sub-folders. Typically this looks like: My Pictures > 2010 > August. So naturally I’ve told iTunes that all my photos are located in “My Pictures”. The trouble comes when you try to navigate this file structure on Apple TV. It lets you choose the year folder e.g. “2010” from your list, but that’s it – there is no option to navigate a second (or third or fourth) sub-folder like “August”. It simply groups every photo from every sub-folder at the year level.
This is enormously frustrating because I prefer to do my entire event-based photo grouping as “albums” inside Google’s free Picasa photo tool, not in my computer’s file system. I suspect that if you use Picasa or iPhoto, you do the same thing.
This arrangement forces you to create separate folders at the top level of your photos directory for each event that you want to browse as a discrete selection of photos. Not fun. And it gets worse…
The other problem that surfaces at this point is file size. When I dump photos from my camera to my PC, I keep them at the highest resolution possible – 5MP for our point-and-shoot and 10MP for our dSLR. Many newer cameras produce even larger files. But this resolution is only needed for making prints – it’s a waste of information for HDTV’s which currently max out at 1920×1080 (roughly 2MP) and Apple TV can only display 720p – 1366×768 (just over 1MP). And the larger your image file is, the longer Apple TV takes to process it, create viewable thumbnails and then prep them for slideshow viewing. Some of my “year” folders contain well over 2,000 photos. Apple TV almost comes to a standstill trying to work through all of those 5 and 10MP files!
So in order to have a truly optimized photo viewing experience on Apple TV, you need to follow this process:
Open your favourite photo tool (Picasa, iPhoto etc.)
Group your photos into events, people, years – whatever makes sense to you from a slideshow perspective
Export these groups of photos at the lower resolution of 720p (in Picasa you can choose the export resolution) to a new sub-folder in the folder you have told iTunes contains your images
Now you should be able to view your photos quickly and easily on Apple TV.
But it shouldn’t have to be this hard and it’s unlike Apple to have made it so awkward. The good news is, I think most of this awkwardness can be fixed with a few tweaks to Apple TV’s firmware and enhancements to iTunes. Apple, if you’re listening, do what you do best: make this an effortless experience, not a tortuous one. I have faith you can do it 
The other options for Photos is Flickr or MobileMe. I’m a big Flickr fan and have been a pro user for a few years now. Apple TV lets me access all of my uploaded photos, shows me easy ways to get to my friends’ photos and of course I can simply browse the millions of publicly accessible images from the rest of the Flickr community. Really great.
But recently it was pointed out that Flickr has lost its crown as the world’s favourite place to share photos to social network behemoth Facebook. So it’s a little surprising that Apple, with all of its Facebook-friendly features on devices like the iPhone, has given Apple TV users zero options to view photos from this platform.  Flickr is great, but when it comes to seeing your friends’ shared photos, nothing comes even close to Facebook. Maybe this will be added with the next software update. Let’s hope so.
I’m not a MobileMe user, so I can’t really comment on this experience – readers, please chime in if you have some feedback for the group.
Extras
One of the benefits of being invested in Apple’s ecosystem is the compatibility of their devices. Case in point: remote control of Apple TV via your iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch.
This is also accomplished via the Home Sharing function in iTunes which allows the i-device in question (running Apple’s free app Remote) to discover each other. Once this is done, you can simulate all of the functions of Apple TV’s included remote with your touch screen. Swiping takes the place of clicking on the d-pad, while tapping replaces the centre Enter key. Dedicated button on the display give you the remaining Menu (back) and Play/Pause controls. The system works, but there can be some noticeable lag, because unlike using the aluminum remote which communicates with the Apple TV instantly via infra-red, the remote app uses Wi-Fi which can vary in its responsiveness depending on how good your home Wi-Fi network is.
Using the iPad or iPhone in this way is cool, but hardly a necessity. A much better reason to use these extra devices is that they give you a touch-screen keyboard. Text entry isn’t required a lot on Apple TV, but when it is needed, it’s a pain. That’s because you have to navigate an on-screen keyboard with the remote control, one character at a time. Got a long email address or password? Better be patient.
This brings up a minor flaw with the Apple TV. No Bluetooth. I know that with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth isn’t a necessity, but Apple’s own Wireless Keyboard (which uses Bluetooth, not Wi-Fi) would be an ideal companion for the Apple TV, but alas, never the twain shall pair, er, meet.
What’s Missing?
I realize that there’s only so much that can be packed into a $120 device and still have it remain profitable, and that Apple has very carefully chose which features should be a part of the Apple TV experience. Nevertheless I humbly submit to you that the following features should be a part of Apple TV either with a firmware update or on the next generation of hardware:
Bluetooth. As mentioned above, being able to use a wireless keyboard or other accessories would be great.
Web surfing. Apple TV is equipped with an A4 processor which we know from the iPad, iPod Touch and iPhone is more than able to handle the demands of a browser like the mobile version of Safari. On-board memory shouldn’t be an issue either – if it can buffer a hi-def movie, a few web pages should be easy. I know that pointing and clicking would be a little tricky using the included remote, but if they had included Bluetooth, they could easily sell an wireless keyboard/trackpad combo accessory that would handle the job handily
External media support. Apple has had a long history of preferring not to support various media codecs, instead asking their users to stick with one or two “standards”.  There are good reasons for this I’m sure. But the inability to plug a USB flash drive into Apple TV in order to playback photos/videos/music is frustrating given that this is table stakes for every other set-top-box and media streamer on the market – including a lot of the new DVD and Blu-ray players that have come out in recent months
Apps. I’m not the first one to observe that with the A4 chip and decent memory, a device like the Apple TV is a prime candidate for its own apps. Especially at a time when companies like Vizio, LG, Samsung, Sony  – just to name a few – are adding network connectivity and apps to their current batch of products, and when Google has just released their first Google TV appliance, it seems very odd that the driving force behind the app universe – Apple – has left their only dedicated TV device out of the game.
FaceTime. Apple just announced that they are adding support for FaceTime to all Macs that have a FaceTime (iSight) camera. There is a micro-USB port on the Apple TV. Skype is being integrated into various TV-connected devices and in some cases into the TV’s themselves. These facts support an obvious conclusion: Apple TV should be the device that brings FaceTime to the TV.
1080p. Yes, my Apple TV unit was hard pressed to deliver even a 720p stream in the “seconds” that it is supposed to be capable of, so obviously 1080p is out of the question for now. And yes, 720p looks damn good as it is. But that doesn’t mean that the Apple TV unit shouldn’t be capable of a higher HD resolution for all of the other tasks. Nearly every HDTV sold today is 1080p capable. Apple TV should be too.
Conclusion
Apple TV represents a good value for the money, but you need to be okay with the limitations Apple has imposed on the device and recognize that a decent broadband connection and home network are mandatory to make use of it.
But the real question you need to ask yourself when it comes to a product like Apple TV is: What does it do for me that I either could not do before, or could not do as conveniently. The answer is different for each consumer depending on what gadgets you own and which services you have access to.
If for instance, you own a PS3 and you subscribe to cable or satellite, then you can already do 90% of what Apple TV offers.
If you don’t own a Blu-ray player, your computer or laptop aren’t near your TV or don’t have HDMI connections and you don’t subscribe to movie networks or have pay-per-view options, Apple TV is an enticing product.
On the other hand, if you’re looking to simplify your media options and perhaps save some money, you might be able to replace your cable box and avoid the purchase of a Blu-ray player by going with Apple TV instead. The combination of iTunes movie rentals and a Netflix subscription might be all you need.
Something to keep in mind if you are planning to increase the amount of streamed media you consume: Check your bandwidth cap from your ISP if applicable. Ours stands at 25GB/month. That one download of Iron Man 2 consumed nearly 3GB of data. If we watched only 1 movie a week, we’re at 12GB and that’s before any other web activity. It should still be fine – we aren’t heavy web users. But our kids are still young so that will certainly change.
One thing’s for sure: despite Apple’s light-hearted reference to Apple TV as “hobby”, they are now taking the living room seriously. You may not be ready for Apple TV today, but if you want to see the future of television, keep watching this space.

Apple TV. Image courtesy of Apple. Click for larger image.

Apple TV. Image courtesy of Apple. Click for larger image.

The Good: Simple set up and operation, excellent user interface, great selection of movies, access to photos, video and music are a nice touch.

The Bad: Movies don’t start streaming instantly, photo access is limited to one sub-folder, Apple has failed to maximize the capabilities of their A4 chip.

Rear-view of Apple TV's connections. Image courtesy of Apple. Click for larger image.

Rear-view of Apple TV's connections. Image courtesy of Apple. Click for larger image.

Form & Design

It’s hard to critique Apple’s choices on the design of the Apple TV. Its tiny footprint, sleek black exterior, understated power/activity light and built-in power adapter make the device nearly invisible when placed in or around your home theatre gear. Our system is comprised of an ancient VHS player, a DVD-recorder, home theatre receiver, HD PVR and 5-disc CD player. They’re all black, all big and boxy and whether I place the Apple TV above or beside the rest of the components, it all but disappears. Kudos to Apple for realizing the living room is not the place to make your device stand out. That job should rest on the one device you’re supposed to look at: your HDTV. Everything else is merely playing a supporting role.

If there’s a weakness in the design of the Apple TV, it’s the minimal connectivity options. The back of the unit includes: HDMI, Optical Out, Ethernet, micro-USB and the power port. That’s it. So if your TV doesn’t have HDMI, or if your home theatre receiver doesn’t have a free optical input, you can’t use Apple TV. There’s a certain consistency here however with Apple design choice from the past. They were one of the first to eliminate the floppy disk drive when they debuted the original iMac, and they were also one of the first to make USB the only accessory port (except for FireWire) on their machines. So it makes sense that they have now declared non-digital video to be passé. I’ll address that micro-USB port a little later – Apple claims it is only intended for “service and support.”

Installation

This couldn’t be easier. Plug in the HDMI cable to your TV or home theatre receiver, plug in the optical cable if you need it, and plug in the power cable. You’re done.

Apple TV's main menu. Courtesy of Apple. Click for larger image.

Apple TV's main menu. Courtesy of Apple. Click for larger image.

User Interface

Turn everything on and you’re immediately greeted by the Apple TV home screen which is a simple horizontal menu system that sits roughly in the middle of your screen. Apple owes a design debt to Sony here, whose Xross Media Bar (XMB) pioneered this use of horizontal options followed by vertical sub-menus. However in Apple TV’s case, the sub-menus are more like drop-downs, in that they are only visible as options below the main category.  It’s pure Apple: dead-simple and very elegant. The layout and font choice emphasize readability and usability over flashy effects. Conspicuously absent here are icons of any kind. We’ve grown so used to having them in our UI’s – from our PC’s desktops to our smartphones – that having word-based options is both oddly retro and refreshing.

The Apple TV Remote. Image courtesy of Apple. Click for larger image.

The Apple TV Remote. Image courtesy of Apple. Click for larger image.

Remote

Navigating the menus with the included remote control is also a breeze. The main d-pad with centre selection button will be intuitive to everyone, while the menu button functions as a “back” key. The remote itself is beautiful; carved from a single chunk of aluminum, it feels smooth and light in your hand while giving the impression that it could withstand an enormous amount of abuse. It’s a little absurd in a world where we all need multi-function remotes to exert control over our myriad gadgets to spend so much time and presumably money on designing a single-device remote as Apple has done. Yet when you compare Apple TV to its competitors – media players from companies like Western Digital, Roku and others, it’s the remote that sets Apple TV apart. Its simplicity and elegance reminds you that this device was designed by people who value form as much – perhaps even more – than function.

Features

Apple TV’s primary goal is to turn your HDTV into the digital media viewer that so many of us have been using our computers for. Movies and TV shows, videos, music and photos. These four experiences form the core of the Apple TV experience.

Movies

Your choices are: Rentals from iTunes, a subscription with Netflix, or any iTunes-compatible movie in your PC or Mac’s library.

Renting a movie from iTunes is supposed to be an “instant” option – something you would consider doing as an alternative to on-demand choices from your cable or satellite provider. It’s an attractive choice: not only are movie titles as current as those in your local video store but they can be had in 720p HD with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound – and at $5.99, they’re a buck cheaper than the cable/satellite options. And there’s no question, the movies look and sound great. But is it “instant”? Not really.

We have a 5mb DSL connection at home which, I grant you, isn’t blazingly fast – but it’s comparable to the average broadband speed across Canada at the moment and it’s much faster than the average speed in the U.S. which Ars Technica has pegged at 3.9Mbps.  It’s more than sufficient for watching YouTube videos. But when my wife and I sat down on Friday to watch Iron Man 2, Apple TV informed us that we could start watching our rental in 184 minutes. 3 hours before I could watch my “instant” movie rental? Actually it wasn’t 184 minutes. That, as it turned out, was only the initial estimate. Within a few seconds, the time remaining had jumped to 360 minutes, before it finally settled on 234 minutes. How long did it actually take? I have no idea. We left Apple TV alone to complete that process and opted to watch a movie on the PVR instead.

Waiting to watch downloaded content is nothing new – in fact I’m used to it. So why am I put off by the heavy wait time? Because Apple has promised something quite different. Their Apple TV feature web page says:

“Once you find what you’re looking for, simply press Play, and in seconds, you’re watching the opening credits with theater-like Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound.”

Seconds huh?

There are any number of factors that could have affected our experience including: how many other processes were using our bandwidth (e.g. skype, BitTorrent, Windows Updates etc.), the time of day, the number of other Apple TV users trying to stream the same content, or even the strength of our Wi-Fi network. But I’d have to say our scenario was pretty typical. We wanted to watch a movie at 9:30 p.m. on a Friday night. Except that we couldn’t.

Once we finally got to the movie (the next evening), the results were amazing. Superb picture – certainly the equal to HD movies on Bell TV – and crystal-clear sound.

If it were not for the unfortunate delay of gratification, renting movies via Apple TV would be a joy. You can browse genres, search for specific titles, view trailers, read both professionally written critiques as well as those submitted by users and cross-reference actors and directors from one movie to any other iTunes rental that those people are associated with. There’s also an “In Theaters” section which lets you watch trailers for current theatrical releases. It’s a very well thought-out experience.

With Netflix, things should move along a bit better if only for two reasons: 1) most of their content is in standard definition which eats up much less bandwidth, and 2) their infrastructure might be more robust than Apple’s – after all Netflix has been in the on-demand streaming game for longer than Apple. But with Netflix your choices are limited to older titles and the Canadian catalog is still quite small compared to the U.S. offering.

Finally, the best option might just be streaming movies you’ve already downloaded to your PC over your home network. This has two advantages: Your streaming performance is limited only by the quality of your home network (and perhaps the PC that is running iTunes) and you can – in theory at least – source your movies from any service you like as long as you make sure they end up in the QuickTime video format that iTunes recognizes.

As a footnote, Apple TV in Canada doesn’t have any TV shows available for rent at the time of this review. Let’s hope this changes. TV shows can however be purchased on iTunes, saved to your PC and then streamed to the Apple TV.

Videos

You can sum-up Apple TV’s video capability in one word: YouTube.

Given the enormous success YouTube has had in becoming the world’s video repository, having an easy way to enjoy YouTube on your TV is great. I’ve lost track of the number of times we’ve had guests over for a drink only to have the conversation turn to “this hilarious video on YouTube.” Usually this is followed by someone trying to describe the clip in question and depending on how good a story-teller they are, that can be enough. But it’s way better to flip on the TV, punch in a search query and actually see the clip. You can easily spend an hour or more just jumping from one favourite to another and somehow you still feel like you’re socializing even though you’re just watching videos.

It sure beats gathering around a 15” laptop.

Music

Naturally, being able to access your iTunes content via Apple TV means that your music library is now connected to the best speakers in your house – your home theatre speakers. For some people, this might be the first time they’ve listened to their MP3s on anything but their iPod. It’s a wonderful experience. Browsing your songs, loading up playlists and viewing album art are all reborn visually as well as sounding great. You also get the option to listen to Internet radio stations – they’re the same ones that you have access to via the Radio feature in iTunes.

Unfortunately Apple has decided to limit music activity on the Apple TV to just listening. There is no iTunes Store access for buying new music which I think is a huge wasted opportunity. I know the reason: Apple has designed the Apple TV to be a passive device – it doesn’t store anything locally except your account settings, preferences and the buffered portion of your rented movies. It has no place to store purchased content, be it video or audio. But this seems like a cop-out. If it’s smart enough to connect me to my iTunes account, and smart enough to connect to my PC, why can’t it act as the go-between for these two components and let me buy a song from iTunes and save it on my PC? Definitely an area for improvement.

Photos

If you haven’t viewed your digital photos on your HDTV, you are missing out. Your HDTV is bar-none the very best digital photo frame you could possibly buy. Even if you own an iMac or Apple Cinema Display – both of which are stunning to look at – a 50-inch plasma, even one running 720p, will put them to shame.

Which is why one of the best features of Apple TV is the ability to access the digital photos from your PC on your HDTV. It might even be worth the $119 price of admission on its own.

With the photos feature, Apple has applied many of the tricks from its iPhoto software to create a range of superb photo slideshow options including effects such as Origami and Ken Burns (that’s the slow zoom and pan technique used to such great effect on shows like Biography, named for its inventor Ken Burns). You can choose any song or playlist from your iTunes music library to accompany these slide shows, or let Apple TV choose them randomly.

But the photos feature is not without drawbacks. One in particular makes me crazy. Photo access on Apple TV is done via the Home Sharing function in iTunes. This feature lets you identify the location (note: singular, not plural) of your photos on your PC that you’d like Apple TV to access. So far, so good.  The way I’ve chosen to organize our photos – at least at a file level – is to create year folders with month sub-folders. Typically this looks like: My Pictures > 2010 > August. So naturally I’ve told iTunes that all my photos are located in “My Pictures”. The trouble comes when you try to navigate this file structure on Apple TV. It lets you choose the year folder e.g. “2010” from your list, but that’s it – there is no option to navigate a second (or third or fourth) sub-folder like “August”. It simply groups every photo from every sub-folder at the year level.

This is enormously frustrating because I prefer to do my entire event-based photo grouping as “albums” inside Google’s free Picasa photo tool, not in my computer’s file system. I suspect that if you use Picasa or iPhoto, you do the same thing.

This arrangement forces you to create separate folders at the top level of your photos directory for each event that you want to browse as a discrete selection of photos. Not fun. And it gets worse…

The other problem that surfaces at this point is file size. When I dump photos from my camera to my PC, I keep them at the highest resolution possible – 5MP for our point-and-shoot and 10MP for our dSLR. Many newer cameras produce even larger files. But this resolution is only needed for making prints – it’s a waste of information for HDTV’s which currently max out at 1920×1080 (roughly 2MP) and Apple TV can only display 720p – 1366×768 (just over 1MP). And the larger your image file is, the longer Apple TV takes to process it, create viewable thumbnails and then prep them for slideshow viewing. Some of my “year” folders contain well over 2,000 photos. Apple TV almost comes to a standstill trying to work through all of those 5 and 10MP files!

So in order to have a truly optimized photo viewing experience on Apple TV, you need to follow this process:

Open your favourite photo tool (Picasa, iPhoto etc.)

Group your photos into events, people, years – whatever makes sense to you from a slideshow perspective

Export these groups of photos at the lower resolution of 720p (in Picasa you can choose the export resolution) to a new sub-folder in the folder you have told iTunes contains your images

Now you should be able to view your photos quickly and easily on Apple TV.

But it shouldn’t have to be this hard and it’s unlike Apple to have made it so awkward. The good news is, I think most of this awkwardness can be fixed with a few tweaks to Apple TV’s firmware and enhancements to iTunes. Apple, if you’re listening, do what you do best: make this an effortless experience, not a tortuous one. I have faith you can do it ;-)

The other options for Photos is Flickr or MobileMe. I’m a big Flickr fan and have been a pro user for a few years now. Apple TV lets me access all of my uploaded photos, shows me easy ways to get to my friends’ photos and of course I can simply browse the millions of publicly accessible images from the rest of the Flickr community. Really great.

But recently it was pointed out that Flickr has lost its crown as the world’s favourite place to share photos to social network behemoth Facebook. So it’s a little surprising that Apple, with all of its Facebook-friendly features on devices like the iPhone, has given Apple TV users zero options to view photos from this platform.  Flickr is great, but when it comes to seeing your friends’ shared photos, nothing comes even close to Facebook. Maybe this will be added with the next software update. Let’s hope so.

I’m not a MobileMe user, so I can’t really comment on this experience – readers, please chime in if you have some feedback for the group.

Extras

One of the benefits of being invested in Apple’s ecosystem is the compatibility of their devices. Case in point: remote control of Apple TV via your iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch.

This is also accomplished via the Home Sharing function in iTunes which allows the i-device in question (running Apple’s free app Remote) to discover each other. Once this is done, you can simulate all of the functions of Apple TV’s included remote with your touch screen. Swiping takes the place of clicking on the d-pad, while tapping replaces the centre Enter key. Dedicated button on the display give you the remaining Menu (back) and Play/Pause controls. The system works, but there can be some noticeable lag, because unlike using the aluminum remote which communicates with the Apple TV instantly via infra-red, the remote app uses Wi-Fi which can vary in its responsiveness depending on how good your home Wi-Fi network is.

Using the iPad or iPhone in this way is cool, but hardly a necessity. A much better reason to use these extra devices is that they give you a touch-screen keyboard. Text entry isn’t required a lot on Apple TV, but when it is needed, it’s a pain. That’s because you have to navigate an on-screen keyboard with the remote control, one character at a time. Got a long email address or password? Better be patient.

This brings up a minor flaw with the Apple TV. No Bluetooth. I know that with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth isn’t a necessity, but Apple’s own Wireless Keyboard (which uses Bluetooth, not Wi-Fi) would be an ideal companion for the Apple TV, but alas, never the twain shall pair, er, meet.

What’s Missing?

I realize that there’s only so much that can be packed into a $120 device and still have it remain profitable, and that Apple has very carefully chose which features should be a part of the Apple TV experience. Nevertheless I humbly submit to you that the following features should be a part of Apple TV either with a firmware update or on the next generation of hardware:

Bluetooth. As mentioned above, being able to use a wireless keyboard or other accessories would be great.

Web surfing. Apple TV is equipped with an A4 processor which we know from the iPad, iPod Touch and iPhone is more than able to handle the demands of a browser like the mobile version of Safari. On-board memory shouldn’t be an issue either – if it can buffer a hi-def movie, a few web pages should be easy. I know that pointing and clicking would be a little tricky using the included remote, but if they had included Bluetooth, they could easily sell an wireless keyboard/trackpad combo accessory that would handle the job handily

External media support. Apple has had a long history of preferring not to support various media codecs, instead asking their users to stick with one or two “standards”.  There are good reasons for this I’m sure. But the inability to plug a USB flash drive into Apple TV in order to playback photos/videos/music is frustrating given that this is table stakes for every other set-top-box and media streamer on the market – including a lot of the new DVD and Blu-ray players that have come out in recent months

Apps. I’m not the first one to observe that with the A4 chip and decent memory, a device like the Apple TV is a prime candidate for its own apps. Especially at a time when companies like Vizio, LG, Samsung, Sony  – just to name a few – are adding network connectivity and apps to their current batch of products, and when Google has just released their first Google TV appliance, it seems very odd that the driving force behind the app universe – Apple – has left their only dedicated TV device out of the game.

FaceTime. Apple just announced that they are adding support for FaceTime to all Macs that have a FaceTime (iSight) camera. There is a micro-USB port on the Apple TV. Skype is being integrated into various TV-connected devices and in some cases into the TV’s themselves. These facts support an obvious conclusion: Apple TV should be the device that brings FaceTime to the TV.

1080p. Yes, my Apple TV unit was hard pressed to deliver even a 720p stream in the “seconds” that it is supposed to be capable of, so obviously 1080p is out of the question for now. And yes, 720p looks damn good as it is. But that doesn’t mean that the Apple TV unit shouldn’t be capable of a higher HD resolution for all of the other tasks. Nearly every HDTV sold today is 1080p capable. Apple TV should be too.

Conclusion

Apple TV represents a good value for the money, but you need to be okay with the limitations Apple has imposed on the device and recognize that a decent broadband connection and home network are mandatory to make use of it.

But the real question you need to ask yourself when it comes to a product like Apple TV is: What does it do for me that I either could not do before, or could not do as conveniently. The answer is different for each consumer depending on what gadgets you own and which services you have access to.

If for instance, you own a PS3 and you subscribe to cable or satellite, then you can already do 90% of what Apple TV offers.

If you don’t own a Blu-ray player, your computer or laptop aren’t near your TV or don’t have HDMI connections and you don’t subscribe to movie networks or have pay-per-view options, Apple TV is an enticing product.

On the other hand, if you’re looking to simplify your media options and perhaps save some money, you might be able to replace your cable box and avoid the purchase of a Blu-ray player by going with Apple TV instead. The combination of iTunes movie rentals and a Netflix subscription might be all you need.

Something to keep in mind if you are planning to increase the amount of streamed media you consume: Check your bandwidth cap from your ISP if applicable. Ours stands at 25GB/month. That one download of Iron Man 2 consumed nearly 3GB of data. If we watched only 1 movie a week, we’re at 12GB and that’s before any other web activity. It should still be fine – we aren’t heavy web users. But our kids are still young so that will certainly change.

One thing’s for sure: despite Apple’s light-hearted reference to Apple TV as “hobby”, they are now taking the living room seriously. You may not be ready for Apple TV today, but if you want to see the future of television, keep watching this space.

Apple TV reviewers impressed but not blown away

Apple's re-boot of the Apple TV product. Click to enlarge.
Apple’s re-boot of the Apple TV product. Click to enlarge.

Overall, it’s a pretty good time to be Apple. Their tablet computer, the iPad, has been selling like hotcakes broken a record for the fastest selling gadget since it launched earlier this year. Despite initial concerns regarding the new iPhone 4’s antenna, it’s nearly impossible to find one in stock. And their new line-up of iPods has been met with enthusiasm, even if the form-factor choice for the iPod nano hasn’t exactly been met with unanimous praise.

To round out what has been a milestone year for the company, their second take on their Apple TV product – a tiny black box with no hard drive – has been reviewed by some of the leading tech sites south of the border and the sentiment is upbeat, if not ecstatic.

The bottom line, for those who don’t want to read all of the reviews, is this: Apple TV lives up to Apple’s reputation for slick user-interfaces, simplicity of design and interaction and flawless execution. The $99 price point ($129 119 CDN) makes it almost a no-brainer for those who already own a few Apple products. The available content, on the other hand, is the device’s Achilles Heel.

I’m not surprised by this reaction. The marketing gang at Apple positioned the Apple TV very specifically as the ultimate media-streaming machine – a perfect companion for your HDTV that gives you instant access to first-run movies on the same day they are released on DVD/Blu-ray and then throws in TV shows, YouTube, Netflix and some other goodies to round out the package. So when people discover that the movie selection isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, or that TV shows are almost non-existent, you can see why their excitement might be tempered a wee bit.

The silver lining in all this is that content can be improved – vastly if enough effort is invested. And it doesn’t rely on hardware or firmware upgrades. The reviewers all agree that Apple has gotten the basics right. Price, Features, Physical size/shape – they’re all good. So what’s a little missing content? The answer might be different depending on whether you live in the U.S. or here in Canada. If you think Apple TV’s tv show rental offerings in the U.S. aren’t sufficient (they only have ABC, FOX, Disney and BBC for now) you’ll be pretty bummed by the line-up for the Great White North: zip. zero. nada.

Okay, so the content isn’t there yet – my bet is that over time it will be, and it will be great when it comes. And perhaps it doesn’t even matter that much. Most of the reviewers have been quick to point out that if you already own an iPhone, iPad or the latest iPod Touch, you hold the key to unlocking a ton of content on the Apple TV that isn’t tied to what you can rent via iTunes. When iOS 4.2 comes on the scene next month, it brings with a feature called AirPlay. AirPlay will allow any of the devices I just listed to play audio or video content wirelessly on the Apple TV and thus your home theatre and HDTV.

I’ve already discovered plenty of ways to play just about every type of content on my iPad thanks to apps from 3rd party developers. Given the, ahem, prevalence of non-iTunes content out there on the net, it may just be that you never use Apple TV’s rental feature for TV shows. One great example is CityTV’s recently released iPad app. It lets you stream episodes of their shows e.g. The Event, on-demand. After iOS 4.2, that content will be one tap away from your HDTV if you have Apple TV.

Of course, if you *don’t* already own some i-devices, Apple TV loses some of its lustre. And that’s no accident. Apple’s price on the Apple TV isn’t just a function of the revenue-model created by the rental function; it’s a gateway device. It’s designed to get you hooked on the Apple ecosystem if you aren’t already.

Now, if you’re curious to get the deets straight from the herd of horses, here are the links:

CNET.com’s Apple TV Review: Balanced, focused on the technical benefits of the device compared to the Roku

Engadget’s Apple TV Review: Josh Topolsky engages in some constructive criticism

PCMag.com’s Apple TV Review: To-the-point, no-nonsense overview

Ars Technica’s Apple TV Review: More in-depth than the others and somewhat more tongue-in-cheek

Got that? Now, what’s your take? When Apple TV hits Canadian shelves in a few weeks will you be first in line or will you pass in favour of other devices (or none at all?)

Apple's Music Event: Some hits, some misses

As is typical before any Apple event, there was plenty of buzz in the rumour mill around what Steve Jobs would be presenting. Wireless syncing with iTunes, an Apple HDTV, even a cloud-based model for music subscriptions. None of these predictions materialised but that doesn’t mean there weren’t a few surprises…

Apple iOS 4

Apple iOS 4

Product: Update of iOS to 4.1

Price: Free to owners of iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad

Launch date: Week of September 6th

What’s new: Upload of HD video to YouTube via WiFi, HDR (High Dynamic Range) Photos, GameCenter, iTunes TV Show Rentals*, iTunes Ping

What We Think: Obviously more features on an OS is a great thing as long as it doesn’t come at a cost (either in $$ or performance) and iOS 4.1 hits on both counts. Gamers will love GameCenter’s ability to match them up with other players in real-time similar to Xbox Live or the PlayStation Network. Shutterbugs will appreciate the addition of HDR capability – it’s a clever trick that makes photos look better by combining three different exposures into one image. Typically this is something that had to be done on a computer using programs like Photoshop, so having it built-in is a great feature. But be wary – HDR photos can often look unnatural so some experimentation will likely be needed. Thankfully the OS keeps a copy of the non-HDR image too in case you prefer it. We’ll get to the iTunes features in a moment.

Apple iOS 4

Apple iOS 4

Product: Update of iOS to 4.2

Price: Free (we think) to owners of iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad

Launch date: Later this year

What’s new: Print Center, AirPlay

What We Think: While we really wish that WiFi Sync to iTunes had made it into this release, being able to print wirelessly from the iPad etc, makes a ton of sense, especially given the number of printers that are being sold with built-in Wi-Fi connectivity. AirPlay is the new name for AirTunes – Apple’s feature that lets you stream your music wirelessly across your network from an iTunes-equipped PC or Mac. The new name reflects the fact that now you can stream more than just music: Photos and videos have been added and this will tie-in nicely with the new Apple TV (see more on this later). While some third party apps e.g. AirVideo let you stream from your computer to any device that has the client installed (even over the net), getting that content onto a TV hasn’t been especially easy or intuitive. We’re curious to see if Apple encounters any legal hassles around the name AirPlay as it is already in use by another software company.

iPod Shuffle 4th Generation (click for larger image)

iPod Shuffle 4th Generation (click for larger image)

Product: iPod Shuffle (4th gen) 2GB

Price: $59 CDN

Launch date: Week of September 6th

What’s new: External buttons, dedicated VoiceOver button, support for Genius mixes

What We Think: When Apple launched the 3rd generation of the iPod Shuffle last year, they proved just how small you could make a portable music player. Turns out the tiny, button-less form factor may have been a little too small for some people. The 4th gen Shuffle grows in the size department, but brings back the circular button layout from the 2nd generation without going back to the 2nd’s  dimensions. You don’t often see Apple acknowledge that they made a poor design choice, but it’s clear from this new (old) design that that’s exactly what happened a year ago. On the good side, Apple hasn’t brought back the awkward charging/syncing cradle that came with the 2nd gen Shuffle, instead opting for the 3rd gen’s simple USB-to-minijack cable. On the bad side, the Shuffle no longer ships with remote-control earbuds from the 3rd gen version. As someone who uses the 3rd gen regularly, I’ve become addicted to simply reaching for my remote to change tracks and volume. I’m sad to see this return to optional accessory status.

iPod nano 6th Generation (click for larger image)

iPod nano 6th Generation (click for larger image)

Product: iPod nano (6th gen) 8GB and 16GB models

Price: $159 CDN (8GB) / $189 CDN (16GB)

Launch date: Week of September 6th

What’s new: Tiny form factor, built-in clip, multi-touch display, top-mounted buttons for sleep/wake and volume.

What We Think: The latest nano is a drastic departure from the previous generations of this much loved music player. Gone are the iconic circular controls, replaced by a touch-sensitive screen. Gone is the built-in VGA camera. Gone (presumably) are any iPod games that required a click-wheel. Could this be a case of Apple’s designers ignoring the old adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?”  I’m a big fan of multi-touch – it works spectacularly on the iPod Touch, iPhone and iPad – all of which are devices intended to run multiple apps, surf the web and handle tasks like email. So which of these abilities come with multi-touch on the nano? None. Getting rid of the click wheel means that there is no way to navigate forward and backward through your tracks without looking at the screen. I always keep my iPod in my pocket when working out, and being able to press on the sides of the clickwheel through the fabric of my pants is something I don’t want to give up. Though there is bound to be an initial wow factor to this design choice, and the built-in clip is going to appeal to folks who don’t like stowing their iPod in their pocket, I’m not convinced that enough has been gained through these tweaks to justify doing away with the click-wheel. My advice: Unless you value a small size over features, look for lower prices on any remaining 5th gen nanos – you’ll be getting way more bang for your portable player buck.

iPod Touch 3rd Generation (click for larger image)

iPod Touch 3rd Generation (click for larger image)

Product: iPod Touch (3rd gen) 8/16/32 GB

Price: $249/$319/$429 CDN

Launch date: Week of September 6th

What’s new: Retina display, front and rear-facing cameras, A4 chip, slimmer design, 3-axis gyro, Wi-Fi geo-tagging of photos and video, FaceTime

What We Think: The iPod Touch just keeps getting better. The iPhone 4-inspired dual cameras turn the already super-versatile device into an HD camcorder while the new internal gyroscope will extend what game designers are able to do with the Touch as a gaming platform. What perplexes us is the choice to put a low resolution sensor in the rear-facing camera. The iPhone 4 has a 5-megapixel sensor which is the digital camera sweet-spot: enough resolution for high-quality prints and even some enlarging and cropping. The new iPod Touch maxes out at 960×720 for still photos – good for Facebook sharing, but that’s about it. It’s hard to understand what the rationale was for this decision. Were they concerned that a better camera would eat into iPhone 4 sales? Unlikely. Despite their similarities, the two devices are still very different. Was it cost? Again, it seems unlikely given how inexpensive camera sensors have become. Perhaps Apple was merely content to give companies like Cisco (with their popular Flip Video camcorders) some competition. With the inclusion of Wi-Fi uploading to YouTube in iOS 4.1, and built-in clip trimming, the new iPod Touch leaps ahead of the Flip in terms of on-board capabilities. The inclusion of FaceTime is a natural choice as it expands the video-calling feature to a much larger audience than it would have with the iPhone 4 alone. The real question is: when will Apple expand FaceTime to all computers with webcams? I’ll be looking for this in the next release of iTunes or QuickTime.

iTunes 10

iTunes 10

Product: iTunes 10

Price: Free

Launch Date: Available now

What’s new: Updated interface, Ping social network, a new icon, new pricing on movies and TV shows.

What We Think: iTunes is a love or hate proposition for a lot of folks. While it runs well on newer computers, older machines – especially PCs – are slowed to a crawl by the program’s massive footprint and accessory processes that it installs (including QuickTime, Apple’s proprietary video software). But if you own an i-thing, it’s probably installed on your machine and you probably use it for managing your digital library and syncing to your device, even if you don’t use it to buy music. This latest version of iTunes may not offer any performance improvements, but it does include Apple’s first and very bold move into the world of social networking. iTunes Ping is the name they’ve given to a service that lets iTunes users share their favourite music and concerts with friends. If this sounds familiar, it’s because Microsoft executed this exact strategy with their Zune players…. Remember “Welcome to the Social”? Yup. That’s pretty much what iTunes Ping is all about. You can use Ping from within iTunes on your computer, or on your iPhone or iPod Touch. Apple claims that security and privacy will be very effective and simple to use (which was a bit of a dig at Facebook’s famously complex privacy scheme). While I’m not convinced that Ping is going to take off (how many social networks do we really need?) I’ve been wrong about theses things before :-)

A much more significant announcement in my opinion is the new pricing structure on HD movies and TV shows. $5.99 CDN is the price of 48 hour rental of a movie. The bad news here is that there are still no TV show options for Canadians. Americans get shows from ABC and FOX for $.99 USD an episode.

Apple TV 2nd Generation (click for larger image)

Apple TV 2nd Generation (click for larger image)

Product: Apple TV (2nd Gen)

Price: $119 CDN

Launch date: Late September, pre-order today

What’s new: Tiny footprint, black colour scheme, no hard-drive, new UI, streaming of content from any iTunes computer, or from the iTunes store, or from Netflix, YouTube, Internet Radio, Flickr, MobileMe.

What We Think: Most people agree: Apple’s first kick at the can in the living room sphere was mediocre at best. Apple TV was a good idea, but not especially attractive given the price, the competition and the limitations. This time around they’ve gone back to the drawing board and completely reinvented the “hobby” device from the ground up. The new Apple TV is tiny – not much bigger than a couple of packs of playing cards. It runs silently (no fan) and sips power – two things that customers said they valued. This little black box is effectively a media-streamer, but as is typical of Apple, a media-streamer that only plays nicely with Apple-approved content formats.

These formats are:

Audio: MP3, AIFF, WAV and AAC audio (the music format used by the iTunes store)

Photo: JPEG, GIF, TIFF

Video: H.264, MPEG4, MotionJPEG

To really get a sense of what this new version of Apple TV is all about, you need to understand what it can and can’t do, because it might make the difference between buying it, and waiting for something else to come along.

What it can do:

Apple TV is the ultimate iTunes companion. Any content you have within your iTunes library on your Mac or PC can streamed to Apple TV over Wi-Fi or Ethernet.

It can track your favourite TV shows and let you know if you’ve missed any episodes and then let you rent them (but not in Canada yet).

You can rent HD  movies directly from the iTunes Store. You get 30 days to start watching and then as many plays as you like within 24 hours of starting the movie.

You get direct access to Netflix (which is launching in Canada this fall) so if you plan to become a Netflix member, Apple TV is probably a must-have purchase. In fact, Netflix, if you’re reading this, you should consider offering members a free Apple TV if they sign a three-year contract, just like the mobile carriers underwrite the cost of cellphones.

Instant access to photos on Flickr (and hopefully Picasa one day) makes it the biggest photoframe in your house. Access to YouTube means no longer having to gather around the laptop – this will be great for get-togethers (you know the kind where everyone seems to know of at least one clip that “you’ve got to see”).

You can remotely control your Apple TV from an iPod Touch, iPad or iPhone.

Swiping, pinching, un-pinching are all valid ways to control Apple TV, and will probably be more fun that using the included remote. Better yet, with the upcoming release of iOS 4.2 (and the previously mentioned AirPlay update) you can stream any content from your iPod Touch, iPad or iPhone directly to AppleTV.

What it can’t do:

Though Apple TV can stream every file that iTunes recognizes, there are still plenty of files that iTunes doesn’t recognize including WMV, MKV, DivX, xvid and other AVI formats. Likewise for lesser-known audio formats such as FLAC, OggVorbis, and RealAudio. If you’ve never strayed far from iTunes as your primary way of discovering, organizing and buying audio and video, this isn’t going to bother you at all. But if you’ve already spent considerable time and money building a library of content in these non-Apple-endorsed formats (Bittorrent people, I’m looking at you), Apple TV comes as a big disappointment.

Apple TV can’t access USB drives, disc-based media, Network Attached Storage (NAS) or content on your Mac/PC that isn’t recognized by iTunes. The only exception to this might be Apple’s own NAS product – Time Capsule. As of the writing of this post, I couldn’t find any information on this on either the Apple TV or Time Capsule product pages.

Apple TV is powered by Apple’s incredible A4 chip – the same brains that now control most of Apple’s products with the exception of their Mac computers and the lower-end iPods. So that means it is more than capable of running iOS. But no mention has been made of Apple TV running this platform. Given the enormous success that Apple has had turning the iPod Touch and iPhone into gaming platforms, why have they neglected to include Apple TV, the one device built specifically to connect to an HDTV, in this potentially massive gaming ecosystem? One might guess that they are merely waiting to gauge excitement levels (and adoption levels) of this new product before updating it with iOS, but if that were so, why didn’t Apple include Bluetooth on the Apple TV? Infra-red is useless for all but basic remote commands, while Wi-Fi seems an odd choice of interface when all 3 of the major game consoles use Bluetooth (or a related technology) for their remote controllers. And yet, as we mentioned before, the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch can all operate the Apple TV via Wi-Fi, so maybe there’s hope yet. At $119, Apple TV would be the least expensive way for people to add a gaming system to their TV.

So that’s what was announced, and you know where we stand. What was your take on Apple’s latest round of gadget goodies? Can’t wait to buy or disappointed by what was revealed? Let us know…