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Apple TV's new hardware is building for the future (First Take)

The Apple TV's new user interface and 1080p support are more about paving the way for the future of the device, rather than making substantial improvements now.

Apple TV user interface
The Apple TV's new user interface. Apple

The newly refreshed Apple TV will be hitting stores on Friday, providing modest upgrades including 1080p support, a new single-core A5 processor, a redesigned user interface, and improved iCloud video support. While I haven't had any hands-on time with the device yet, I largely know what to expect, especially since the redesigned user interface is already available on existing Apple TV hardware.

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Given that the changes for the new Apple TV are so minor, my buying advice remains largely the same. The Apple TV is an excellent streaming-media box, especially for those who already own other iOS devices and are invested in the Apple ecosystem. AirPlay is still a killer feature, plus there's dead simple integration with other Apple services like iTunes Match, Photo Stream, and iCloud backup of your TV and movie purchases. However, the Roku LT remains a compelling alternative, offering significantly more content sources at half the price, especially if you won't take advantage of the Apple-centric features.

What's most interesting is what the Apple TV's changes hint at. The new interface makes your TV look a lot like a giant iPad, with large icons for each service, seemingly paving the way for a true app store to hit the Apple TV some day. And while 1080p output may not make a difference right away, it could play a bigger factor when full-screen AirPlay mirroring comes to Apple's new Mountain Lion operating system. If you already own the old Apple TV, there's not a compelling reason to immediately upgrade, but I wouldn't be surprised if the new Apple TV gets some major upgrades down the line.

Design: Same sleek black box
The look of the Apple TV's hasn't changed from the last incarnation, but it's still the best design around. It's just a simple, unobtrusive black box with a small white light on the front when it's in active use. Around back are just a handful of connections, including HDMI, optical audio output, Micro-USB (for service only), and Ethernet. There's also 802.11n Wi-Fi built-in for connecting to your home wireless network. Note that HDMI is the only video connection available, so if you have an older TV, you're out of luck.

Apple TV
This is a photo of the old Apple TV's ports, but the new model looks identical. Sarah Tew/CNET

Unlike most other streaming boxes, the Apple TV's power supply is built-in, so there's no wall-wart or bulky power adapter. It also gives the Apple TV a useful heft; Roku's boxes are so light that they can easily be "pulled" by the weight of an attached cable.

Apple TV remote
The included remote is as simple as it gets. Sarah Tew/CNET

The included remote is minimalist in a classic Apple way. It has just a navigation circle at the top, a Menu button (which doubles as a Back button), and a Play/Pause button. That may not seem like enough, but we never felt the need for additional controls. Skipping forward and backward is intuitively done with the navigation circle and although we thought we wanted a Mute button, Play/Pause worked just as well in every instance we ran into.

The Apple TV can also be controlled with an iPad or iPhone using Apple's Remote application, and it works well. You can remotely control music from your iTunes collection, and use swipe gestures to navigate menus. We did prefer using the actual remote for navigation, but if you already have your iPhone out, it's useful in a pinch. If you're playing music from your iOS handheld and the Apple TV is hooked to a separate audio amplifier, you won't need to have the TV on, either.

The Apple TV home page is new, but I can't say I prefer it to the old home page

User interface: New, but not necessarily better
If you're used to to the old Apple TV, the most noticeable difference is the new user interface. Gone are the old list-like menus, replaced with larger cover art at the top and square icons along the bottom for movies, TV shows, music, computers, and settings. Navigate farther down and there's a grid of icons for the Apple TV's other supported services; it looks a lot more like the screen of an iPad or iPhone than ever before. I'm not sold that the new home screen is better than the old design, but it's not a huge step in the wrong direction.

Apple TV user interface
The new menu bar along the top makes it easier to jump to useful sections like purchased content. Apple

Selecting movies or TV shows brings you to the updated iTunes interface, which is more of an improvement. There's now a menu bar along the top of the screen letting you jump to useful features likes your purchased content and content you'd added to your wish list. Below there's a carousel of promoted content, followed by cover art broken down by categories like "new releases" and genre. If you're willing to pay for content, iTunes is still the best place to do it.

iTunes Store: Movies, TV shows
The iTunes Store has been through many incarnations on the Apple TV, but it's the best state it's ever been in. TV shows are $3 for HD, $2 for SD (although increasingly rare to find the SD option); movies are $5 to rent in HD, and anywhere from between $10 to $20 to purchase. The selection of content is excellent, including some sources that don't show on competitors like Amazon Instant, such as Cartoon Network's Adult Swim content.

Apple TV interface
Purchased movies are stored in the cloud and can be rewatched as many times as you'd like. Sarah Tew/CNET

All of the content is streamed (rather than downloaded) and you can access almost all of your purchased movies and TV shows to rewatch as many times as you'd like. As of the iOS 5.1 update (March 2012), these same movie and TV show purchases can also be streamed to other Apple devices (iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch, and iTunes software running on PCs and Macs). Even more impressive, you can transfer purchased content to an iPhone or iPad to watch even when you don't have an Internet connection.

Overall, the iTunes Store is an experience that Roku or even Amazon can't match right now, combining a huge selection of content with a fantastic layout and the ability to watch that content on the go.

Other streaming services: Still limited
Once you get past the iTunes content, your options are more limited. Netflix is the most important, followed by other high-quality sources like MLB.TV, NBA, NHL, YouTube, and Vimeo. The podcast section also includes plenty of video content (which a lot of people don't realize), including TED Talks and CNET.

Apple TV
While the Apple TV supports Netflix, I prefer the standard interface included on competing products. Apple

That still leaves a lot of content sources missing, including heavy hitters like Hulu Plus, HBO Go, Pandora, and Rdio, plus the dozens of niche video sources that Roku supports. If you don't use those services, you won't be missing anything with the Apple TV, but digital video hounds expect more options in 2012.

The Apple TV is also still limited in its ability to play your personal digital media. The basic rule of thumb is that it will play anything that plays in iTunes, but that leaves out a lot file formats favored by (ahem) downloaders, such as MKV and DivX. If you're looking to play that kind of content, skip the Apple TV and check out competitors like the WD TV Live and the Boxee Box.

AirPlay: The Apple TV's killer feature
The Apple TV's lack of content sources is somewhat made up for by AirPlay. We've covered AirPlay plenty in the past, but it's a killer feature if you own other iOS devices. The idea is you can stream photos, music, and videos straight from another iOS device to the Apple TV. That includes many third-party apps, so while the Apple TV doesn't have a Pandora app, your iPhone does and can stream Pandora to your Apple TV using AirPlay. Notice we said many third-party apps, because not all of them support it, including Hulu Plus and HBO Go. So while AirPlay can substitute for some apps, it's not a panacea.

Airplay
With AirPlay, you can "push" music directly from your iPhone to an Apple TV. Matthew Moskovciak/CNET

AirPlay is also great for streaming your personal music collection. It works with any music you have stored on an iOS device and you can also stream your iTunes music collection from a computer. It's one of the easiest ways to listen to your digital music in your living room, although iTunes Match (which I'll get to shortly) makes it one step easier.

AirPlay has one more trick up its sleeve: mirroring. The idea with mirroring is whatever is displayed on your device is exactly what gets displayed on your Apple TV. Only the iPhone 4S, iPad 2 and the "new iPad" support mirroring so far, but Apple is including mirroring in its upcoming Mountain Lion operating system, due out later this summer. That should let you display anything you can play on your computer--possibly even regular Hulu.com--on your Apple TV. I haven't tested that functionality yet, but it could be yet another awesome AirPlay feature and will benefit from the Apple TV's 1080p support.

iTunes Match: Digital music made simple
Getting your digital music collection to your living room somehow still manages to be a pain in 2012, outside of pricey (but excellent) options like Sonos. iTunes Match gets rid of most of the frustrations, letting you store a copy of your digital music in the cloud and stream directly to the Apple TV, iOS devices, and iTunes on a PC. No dealing with hard-drive management or complex network settings. The downside is the service costs $25 a year, which stings a little considering that's a fee to listen to music you already own. (Plus Google and Amazon offers its own music storage options for free.) It can also take some work setting up, but the interface on the Apple TV is a pretty slick way to listen to your digital music if you're willing to pay.

Performance: Don't expect too much from 1080p
When I finally get the new Apple TV hardware in my hands, the first thing I'll test will be whether its 1080p support makes video look any better. 1080p output on its own won't make much of a difference for video content, but improved bit rate and compression on iTunes 1080p content could result in better picture quality. Any improvement will be marginal, though, as iTunes HD content already looked pretty good.

Roku LT vs. Apple TV
Still can't make up your mind between the two? Check out the direct comparison between the two boxes I did last week.