As you may have heard, Apple pushed out something like six dozen software updates today. And, fortunately, the second generation Apple TV ($100) was shown some love. Version 4.4, seemingly sharing iOS 5.0 DNA, includes a small but notable number of software and content enhancements. Most promising, for those who own an iPad 2 or iPhone 4s, is “AirPlay Mirroring” — essentially anything playing on your compatible iPad or iPhone is beamed to your television via Apple TV. So while some content providers have selectively blocked HDMI output, it’s my understanding that they’ll have no say in the matter as far as wireless AirPlay Mirroring is concerned. (*Apps can opt-out.) Of course, it remains to be seen how well these devices can pass decent quality video. But it could become an extremely significant feature.
In addition to its previously existing (and competent) photo capabilities, Apple TV now syncs up with one’s iCloud Photo Stream. As this is also a brand new Apple service, it probably deserves a quick overview. New photos shot with iOS devices or imported onto your computer are automagically replicated onto your other linked devices. Unfortunately, Apple won’t host and push an infinite amount of data and they currently limit access to your last 30 days of snapshots with a 1000 pic limit. On Apple TV, those photos are available for viewing – to browse or enjoy as a screensaver or slideshow. And they do show up in the stream nearly instantaneously, with zero intervention required.
On the streaming content front, bundled with the Apple TV update are NHL and Wall Street Journal Live apps. NHL is what you’d expect — the subscription-based Game Center Live (currently $160) broadcasting up to 40 games a week, with DVR transport controls, in addition to various video clips and similar to what’s found on the Roku or PS3. The WSJ Live offering is a bit of an odd duck, but suggests a broadening of Apple TV content categories and presentation. But as Apple continues to take on partners, they’ll need to come up with better methods for managing “channels” – unless they finally go the app store route.
Lastly, the Apple TV 4.4 update includes a few other small tweaks. Slideshows now have three more styles to choose amongst, improved movie trailer presentation, and Netflix received closed captioning (which probably isn’t a ‘small tweak’ for those who need it).
Despite Apple’s solid update, our buying advice remains the same. Those seeking the broadest selection of Internet streaming providers or those merely looking for Netflix Instant on the cheap should look to the $60 Roku 2 HD. Whereas folks who equally prioritize local media playback (DLNA, USB, NAS) might appreciate the new WDTV Live ($100) that also kindly includes decent core streaming apps such as Netflix and Pandora. But anyone remotely tied into Apple’s ecosystem should check out Apple TV — not only can you stream video, music, and pictures from an iPhone but you can use it as a virtual remote to overcome its minimlistic aluminum counterpart. And many seem to find enjoyment beaming iTunes from computer-to-TV.