March 29 (Bloomberg) -- All but lost amid the hoopla of its latest iPad, Apple also released a new version of Apple TV, the $99 streaming-video set-top box that the late Steve Jobs used to call “a hobby.”
While a marked improvement over its predecessor, its chief significance may be what it suggests about the much-rumored plans to deliver, sometime this year, a “real” Apple TV -- the kind with its own screen.
I’ve long agreed with those who say Apple must invade the TV market to maintain its phenomenal growth. Jobs may have as well: Walter Isaacson, in his best-selling biography, quoted him saying he had “finally cracked” the challenge of creating “an integrated television set that is completely easy to use.”
The company has already pretty much nailed the set-up part. The new Apple TV, a black square roughly the size of a hockey puck, has just two wires to worry about: the power cord, and a cable connecting it to a high-definition port on your television. (It also has optional ports for a hard-wired Internet link and for connecting the unit to a home-theater audio system.)
Just seven minutes after I removed the shrink-wrap, I was watching a video. It would have been faster if I had shorter log-ins for my ITunes Store account and Wi-Fi network.
The box sports a revamped user interface, which has drawn criticism from some Apple purists, but I found it useful for browsing through the thousands of movies and TV episodes on the iTunes Store.
I could quickly scroll by category and genre, and selections began playing within moments. (How quickly, of course, depends on the speed of your Internet connection.) I also had instant access to all the content I previously purchased on other Apple devices.
My main beef with the interface, one that will have to be solved in any fully integrated Apple set, was the painful search process when using the included three-button remote control.
It required me to laboriously enter my search term by scrolling through a grid of letters, choosing one at a time, until what I was looking for showed up on an ever-changing list of possible matches.
The process is much easier if you have an iPhone, iPad or iPod touch and download Apple’s free Remote app, which lets you simply type your query on your device. But not every viewer of an Apple-branded set might have an Apple mobile device -- or have it handy.
More for Siri
What if you could simply tell your TV what you wanted to watch, and it understood and fetched it? The technology already exists in Siri, the iPhone 4S virtual assistant. Implementing it in a future Apple-branded television would eliminate the current complications without the need for a full-scale keyboard, which was one of the things that sunk Logitech’s Google-based adapter.
The new Apple TV’s biggest change from the previous model is a boost in video quality to 1080p from 720p. As a practical matter, this means it’s now approaching the quality of a Blu-ray player -- without, of course, the hassle of managing Blu-ray discs. A Wallace & Gromit film downloaded from iTunes looked spectacular on my 1080p TV, as did photos streamed from my computer and movies from Netflix.
Apple as Gatekeeper
Speaking of which, you can now sign up for, access and pay for a Netflix account using your Apple ID. That doesn’t sound important, but it could be another indicator of Apple’s approach to building a full-scale television: setting itself up as the gatekeeper, just as it does on its iOS devices. After all, almost the entire appeal of Amazon.com’s Kindle Fire tablet is in how much content is available seamlessly with a single Amazon log-in.
There are many ways to access Internet video these days. Most new TVs offer ways to connect, though some require an extra-cost adapter and suffer from jumbled interfaces. Game consoles like Microsoft’s Xbox have morphed into home-entertainment portals. And, most notably, the Roku 2 XD offers Apple-like simplicity and video quality, plus many more content sources and a lower ($80) price.
But if you’re already committed to the Apple universe of devices and content -- or want to get ready for the integrated set that might be coming -- the little Apple TV is a good choice.
(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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