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Apple TV 3.0

Apple this week released a long-overdue software update to its Apple TV product, adding a new home screen and support for recent iTunes technologies like iTunes LP and iTunes Extras. Any change to Apple TV is welcome. After all, the last update, Apple TV Take 2, occurred almost two years ago. But for something that is billed as a major update, the new Apple TV software is a surprisingly lackluster and minor change, and it does nothing to incorporate increasingly popular non-Apple sources of video like Netflix and Hulu.

For fans of the Apple TV--and I count myself among this crowd--this is disappointing. The device offers a wonderful HDTV/living room experience, and while the Take 2 version of the software put too much emphasis on iTunes content, adding too many clicks to access your own content, it was still a refined and highly usable product.

But two years is two years, and while Apple has remained largely mum about the Apple TV, I and many other Apple TV fans have grown worried that the company was losing interest. When I saw that Apple had delivered a free Apple TV 3.0 update, I was initially excited, mostly because the version number suggested there were big changes. That, sadly, is not the case. So as with Take 2, I find myself still enjoying the device, but it's one that could easily be much, much better.

Here's what's changed.

New home screen

Apple has completely redesigned the Apple TV home screen, but as with Take 2, I'm not too impressed. And as with the last two versions of Windows Media Center (in Windows Vista and 7, respectively), the redesign is only skin-deep. Once you click just one level into the interface, the newness goes away, replaced by the now-familiar UI we've been using for years. That's just disappointing.

As for the home screen itself, the new layout lets Apple take better advantage of widescreen displays, much like Microsoft started doing years ago in Media Center. Rather than the two-column, vertical presentation of Take 2, we now get a mix of horizontal and vertical navigation. Come to think of it, this is actually quite similar to the crossbar UI that Microsoft pioneered in its Portable Media Center system, and then ported to Media Center and Zune. (So yes, once again, Apple TV copies earlier Microsoft work.)

The choices are fairly obvious, with Movies, TV Shows, Music, Podcasts, Photos, Internet, and Settings choices running from left to right. Under each choice is a vertical sub-menu of content-specific choices. For example, the first, Movies, menu has a sub-menu with My Movies, Top Movies, Genres, All HD, Search and Trailers choices. Only the first choice has anything to do with your content. The others are all about buying more content online.

The weirdest part of the new UI occurs above the main, horizontal menu. Here, you get three graphical slots (box art, usually) for your own recent content (such as recently added TV shows or movies) and three for iTunes content. But if you scroll to the right, there's a lot more iTunes content to be had; only your own content is actually limited to three items. So Apple is still over-emphasizing stuff for you to buy and deemphasizing the stuff you already own. Once you realize that this is, in fact, the point of the whole presentation, you start to feel a bit had.

Worse still, the new UI is literally only available on this once screen. If you click on anything, you're brought to a screen that is identical to previous versions of the software. Didn't we just rail against Microsoft for doing something like this in Windows Mobile 6.5? I think we did.

Apple TV 3.0
The new Apple TV 3.0 home screen: Beauty is only one screen deep, in this case.

iTunes LP and iTunes Extras support

Apple added two semi-interesting features in iTunes 9 that are aimed mostly at keeping people stuck in its digital media ecosystem. The first, iTunes LP, provides a digital version of the old LP album experience, offering liner notes, supplemental videos, band photos, and other content to select albums sold in iTunes Store. The second, iTunes Extras, does the same for movies, providing a DVD-like experience, with extra features such as documentaries, behind-the-scenes videos, and so on.

Both features are now supported on Apple TV, as they are on the PC, in iTunes. Nothing dramatic, and certainly something Apple could have and should have added to Apple TV when it first announced this features almost two months ago.

Other changes

Apple added a new Radio interface to the Internet menu, which, as its name suggests, provides access to Internet-based radio stations of varying quality.

There's a new pop-up menu that appears only on the Now Playing screen for music when you hold down the Play/Pause button on the minimalistic Apple Remote. The menu has five options: Start Genius, Add to On The Go, Browse Artist, Browse Album, and Cancel. The first item lets you create a Genius playlist that's based on the currently-playing song.

Speaking of Genius, you also get access to your collection's Genius Mixes, but only on a connected PC. The presentation is similar to that of the PC version of iTunes, but you can only see one Genius Mix icon at a time instead of a grid of icons.

And ... that's about all I've noticed. There just isn't much going on in this release.

Final thoughts

I wish Apple would stop ignoring one of its best products and make some truly substantive changes. There are all kinds of ways in which Apple TV could be better, including the addition of a DVD/Blu-Ray drive, integration with online video services, and an extensibility model that would let developers extend the device's capabilities much in the same way that iPhone developers do for Apple's smart phone. As it is, Apple TV is still a wonderful and refined product, and I use it fairly regularly. But it needs to be updated more frequently, and inline with the company's related products. Right now, it just feels like an afterthought.

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