Cupertino has given the Apple TV a major overhaul - reducing the size and slashing the price to $AU129. This miraculous weight loss program comes at the expense of the internal hard drive, as Apple embraces "the cloud". Apple has also removed the component video outputs, so you can only use the tiny new Apple TV with a television that features HDMI inputs.
While Apple makes a big song and dance about embracing "the cloud", removing the hard drive doesn't actually make the Apple TV a better device. In fact it could be a major pain for many users.
One of Australia's best online movie rental devices
Until now the oft-maligned Apple TV has been one of Australia's best online movie rental devices - offering a slick interface and easy access to a wealth of online content. If you want on-demand access to a large range of both new release and old movies, the Apple TV offers far more choice than Foxtel or other online video rental services. Removing the Apple TV's hard drive certainly won't do end users any favours.
The waiting game
Most online movie rental devices - such as the old Apple TV, TiVo, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and T-Box - have one thing in common. They all make you wait for a few minutes before you can start watching a movie. During this time they're saving the start of the movie to the hard drive, keeping a few minutes in reserve, so when you start watching the movie you shouldn't experience buffering issues. Even then the movie might stop and start if other people in the house start downloading something while your movie is still downloading.
You can see the same effect if you're watching a YouTube clip - you'll see the red bar move across the screen faster than the clip plays. If you've got a slow connection (or someone else in the house is also downloading video), the clip might stop and start unless you pause the clip and wait for more to download.
The slower your broadband connection, the longer you need to wait and then more you need to buffer before you can start watching an online movie rental. If you've got a 1.5 Mbps connection, you'll still need to wait a few minutes for a standard-definition movie to buffer. If you're hiring high-definition movies, you might need to wait for half an hour or more. You'll need at least a 5 Mbps connection to get the buffering time under five minutes for high-def movies.
Without a hard drive, it would seem the new Apple TV loses its buffering capabilities, which would cripple it for many Australians. Apple is getting around the problem by including a limited amount of flash memory - hidden from the end user - for buffering movies. Exactly how much memory, and how it is utilised, remains to be seen. Of course there's the additional hassle that you can't store your music and movie library on the new Apple TV, or use it as a media server to stream music around the house. The new Apple TV will be useless unless you're got a computer in the background running iTunes.
If you're on a slow connection but want to watch high-definition movies, the Apple TV will need to buffer several gigabytes of video to ensure you get smooth playback. Previously you might have started a movie downloading when you got home, so you could start watching it after dinner, but this might not be possible on the new hard drive-less Apple TVs.
There are still plenty of Australians stuck on sub-5 Mbps connections. Telstra's entry level 2GB BigPond Turbo ADSL1 plans are still deliberately throttled at 1.5 Mbps. Even if you're on an ADSL1+ connection, with a theoretical speed of 8 Mbps, you'll be lucky to get 5 Mbps if you're more than 4 kms from your exchange - and that's as the copper runs, not as the crow flies.
Heaven forbid you're stuck on a mobile broadband connection, which some people see as a viable alternative to copper or fibre. The additional latency and capacity issues with wireless technologies will make it even harder to get smooth video playback without a large buffer.
When you start watching a movie, "the iTunes Store manages the seamless smooth playback of that title," according to Apple Australia spokeswoman Fiona Martin. This implies Apple might get around the buffering issues by using variable video quality depending on your download speed (as used by Sony's Bravia Internet Video service). This means that people on slow connections will be forced to watch low-grade video rather than opting to wait for a few minutes for a high-quality video to buffer. This would negate one of the Apple TV's key advantages over the disappointing video quality of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 Australian movie rental services.
To make matters worse, if you want to watch your movie more than once during your 48 hour rental window, you'll probably need to start downloading it again - chewing through even more of your monthly data allowance (unless you're with one of the few ISPs that offers unmetered access to the iTunes store).
More questions than answers
In such a multiple rental scenario the Apple TV will "manage the content so that you don't have to download it again," according to Apple Australia's Fiona Martin. So there must be a fair amount of onboard storage, you're just not allowed to use it. How very Apple.
You're really at the mercy of the capacity of the flash memory and how it is utilised - something Apple is reluctant to talk about in detail because it tends to shun such technical questions in favour of protecting Apple's "just works" reputation. When pushed for more details on the new Apple TV's streaming and buffering capabilities, Apple Australia's Fiona Martin replied; "It streams everything without frozen screens or stutters. Video looks crisp and clear. As we say, it just works."
In other the words, to quote the Wizard of Oz; ignore the man behind the curtain. Apple knows best - just sit back, stop asking questions, hand over your money and enjoy the show.