iTunes Store at your fingertips
One of the most exciting new features of the Apple TV Take 2 is its direct integration with the iTunes Store. This is one of the areas where the original Apple TV design failed to live up to its potential -- you could use it with content that you owned, but adding to it required going to the computer, searching, buying and downloading, then syncing or streaming content to the Apple TV. All of this took you out of the TV/entertainment center experience that is the whole point of the Apple TV.
The iTunes Store integration now makes it effortless, for example, to buy yesterday's episode of The Daily Show after finding out that the guest had been, say, a certain senator running for the White House. It also makes it easy to add music to your library as you're watching or listening to something (during a commercial break in the middle of the Grammys, for example).
Combined with the iTunes preview feature, this integration is something that the Apple TV needed, and it works incredibly well. The fact that content becomes available while downloading and then automatically syncs to your computer with no effort at all makes it even easier than purchasing content from an iPhone or iPod Touch (although the only effort that they require is that you connect the device to the computer).
The one drawback to the iTunes Store on the Apple TV is that it may be too easy to use. I'm all too aware that the effortlessness of browsing and buying music, TV shows or movies could quickly become an expensive habit.
The integration of the iTunes Podcast directory is also well done. The Apple TV's new ability to not only browse and subscribe to podcasts directly from your television, but also to browse and listen to individual episodes without having to subscribe to the entire series, is a major boon. It reminds me of the way we browse on-demand cable content or YouTube. For anyone who has yet to become a podcast aficionado, the Apple TV Take 2 stands to change their mind by making podcasts more like other forms of entertainment -- and less like a subscription-based service.
Renting movies: Good but not great
With deals in place with all major movie studios and the promise of HD and standard-content options, Apple seemed poised to deliver a user-friendly device that could be used to rent high-quality movies over the Internet and deliver them to a TV rather than to a computer.
That promise has still not been realized. Despite a commitment of 1,000 movie titles as rentals by the end of February in Steve Jobs' Macworld keynote, a recent inventory conducted by Christopher Breen indicated that fewer than 400 were actually available. Many of those are not available in HD, and according to a recent AppleInsider report, those that are available in HD include a number of legacy titles that cannot make full use of the HD format because they were shot before modern film-making technologies and processes existed. Some movies also don't appear to include support for Dolby 5.1 surround sound -- a major component of a home theater experience -- even though they are recent enough to support it.
For those movies that are offered in HD, the quality is rather good, as is the Dolby surround sound support. It may not quite reach the level of Blu-ray, but it does come close enough that most viewers won't see a noticeable difference. It also tends to exceed the quality of many HD video offerings from cable providers. (iLounge has an excellent side-by-side comparison of Blu-ray, DVD, cable, HD and standard Apple TV formats.)
While there might not yet be that much in the way of selection of movie rentals through iTunes, the mechanism for renting and watching movies from the Apple TV is as simple as everything else about the device. It is, in fact, easier than most cable on-demand services and features similar pricing and time limits. Of the choice between an iTunes rental over the Apple TV and video on demand from my cable company, I would choose Apple TV.