Apple TV: A simpler interface, easier access to media through iCloud

Apple announced some enhancements to its Apple TV device on Wednesday. The Associated Press reports:

Apple is making it easier for people who buy movies through iTunes to play them on the various devices they own.

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Apple said Wednesday that customers can now save some movies on its iCloud remote storage service. That system lets devices such as the iPad and the iPhone retrieve content wirelessly. Before, if you bought a movie on one device to play on another, you needed to connect both to a personal computer with a physical cord. ICloud does away with that.

The change also means people will be able to watch purchased movies on an improved Apple TV set-top box going on sale next week.

That development should allay frustration consumers have had with digital purchases of movies, which could be bought on iPads and iPhones, but couldn’t be stored on the Apple TV device because it has no hard drive. Apple TV owners had been limited to renting movies until now.

“iCloud now supports movies, starting today,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said at a packed presentation in San Francisco.

Previously, Apple’s iCloud saved only users’ songs, photos and documents on its computer servers.

Sarah Halzack offers further explanation of what’s new with this iteration of Apple TV:

The new iPad may be the product that’s grabbing the most headlines after Apple’s Wednesday media event in San Francisco. But it wasn’t the only announcement that the Cupertino, Calif.-based company made.

Apple also unveiled a new version of Apple TV, which will hit stores March 16 at a price of $99. The device will feature high-definition video, which is known in geek speak as “1080p.”

This version of the product has a simpler, icon-based interface that Apple says makes it easier to use than ever before.

Another noteworthy change is that the device will allow customers to purchase movies and television shows on iTunes, and, with the help of iCloud, stream them and watch them instantly on their HD TV sets. Content can also be streamed from Netflix, Vimeo and other providers.

Like its predecessor, the new Apple TV will incorporate AirPlay, a mechanism that allows for wireless streaming from an iPhone, iPad or iTouch to Apple TV.

For those who already own the previous version of the Apple TV, the new interface is easy to obtain. All it requires is a free software download, which is available beginning today, March 7. However, these users will have to purchase a new device to take advantage of the high-definition video.

Venture Beat offered its early impressions of the upgraded device:

After downloading the updated software to my existing Apple TV device and imagining the speedier media playback with better picture quality, I’ll admit that the overall device is coming into its own. But most of what’s new about the Apple TV’s new version is purely cosmetic and shouldn’t have taken over a year to see the light of day.

For instance, the ability to watch videos in 1080p is hardly a new concept for set-top boxes. Many competitors — such as the Boxee Box, Roku, Playstation 3, Western Digital WD Live, and Logitech’s Google TV Revue — already offer the high quality video. And since you can purchase 1080p HD movies and TV shows from the iTunes store, Apple fans were increasingly annoyed that those purchases weren’t available (in 1080p) on the Apple TV. It’s also worth noting that it was discovered in September 2010 that you can play 1080p quality videos on Apple TV, but the output resolution remains 720. That said, this seems like a minor upgrade.

The reason Apple held off so long on enabling the 1080p playback probably had something to do with the notion that the old Apple TV’s hardware wasn’t good enough to support the high quality video without affecting the user experience. With the new version of the device, Apple has replaced the A4 chip with the faster single-core A5 chip. And while Apple hasn’t indicated that it’s upgraded the device’s RAM, I’d expect some kind of improvement over the 256MB offered in the old model.

When it comes to the updated UI, there’s really no reason Apple couldn’t have pushed it out sooner. The old UI was mostly a columns of text-based options you could scroll through that sat underneath pretty cover-style artwork along the top of the screen. At best I would describe this as acceptable for 2010, but not at all for any stretch of time in 2012. By comparison, the new interface is much more focused on images that I can easily identify from across the room. It’s similar to what I’ve come to love when using my Roku box. This doesn’t change the fact that Apple could have offered a sleeker, more TV-friendly UI at least six months ago.

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