Review: The New Apple TV -- A Work In Progress

Apple's much-touted Apple TV media device is now on the shelves. Is it really the Next Big Thing -- or not quite ready for prime time?

May 5, 2007

7 Min Read
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Ask anyone who owns an iPod: a three-minute song eats up 2.9 Mbytes of storage, while a one-hour television show (42 minutes, actually) takes 483 Mbytes. A couple of movies here, the entire collection of your favorite singer there, and you can find yourself short on storage space.

Enter the Apple TV.

The Apple TV stores media on its hard drive and organizes it for you in way that is both friendly and familiar to Apple enthusiasts and their iPod-toting pals. This device turns your TV into an iPod with a larger display and a sound system. Forget the iPod nano. Thanks to the Apple TV, you can now have an iPod Panasonic.

Like a personal video recorder, Apple TV stores and displays prerecorded movies and television episodes. Unlike a PVR, it cannot record, and it only displays media (movies, music, TV shows, and podcasts) downloaded from iTunes. However, for media junkies like me, this collection of media can be substantial.It's a storage device. It streams media from computers on your home network. It's a more impressive way to watch iTunes. But will the $299 Apple TV be as successful as its portable cousin?

Maybe.

Set Up
As with other Apple products, the Apple TV is a joy to hold and behold. Less than 2.5 pounds and wider than a Mac mini, but only half as high, its silver-rimmed white exterior gives even the Lacie Porsche external drive an inferiority complex.

The Apple TV's box contents are as minimalist as its design. It comes with remote, a small manual, and a power cord, but no connector cables (it's up to you to know which cables your television accepts). For video, Apple TV supports HDMI, DVI (via an HDMI-to-DVI adapter), and component video. Audio is analog RCA stereo or optical. High-definition resolutions include 720p, 1080i, 480p, and 575p.

Interestingly, there is a USB port on the back of the Apple TV, alongside the media connectors that seems to have no apparent function. According to the manual, this is just for service and diagnostics. Certainly, plugging an external hard drive into this port does nothing at all -- which is a pity as it would solve one of the Apple TV's major shortcomings: the unit's 40-Gbyte hard drive is half the capacity of a video iPod and not nearly enough to store any quantity of high-definition videos.You connect the Apple TV to a network (wired or wireless) on which you have a PC or Mac running iTunes (7.1 or later). After that, getting the Apple TV to work requires following the on-screen instructions on your TV, typing a passcode with the Apple Remote, and little else. You can set up the Apple TV to either sync with your iTunes library or stream from it. I opted to sync, but found I could immediately start streaming music on my Apple TV while I was waiting for content to transfer.

Navigating The AppleTV
The Apple Remote is based on the first-generation iPod Shuffle: small, white, and comfortable in the hand. Unfortunately, the remote does not control volume, so listening to your music collection requires two remotes. Worse, the Play/Pause button is also the Select button, which takes some getting used to. To speed things up, you hold down the "+" or "-" buttons -- elegant, but still tedious compared with the iPod's scroll wheel.

The Apple TV's menus, displayed on your TV screen, are backed with an eye-catching visual theme, a custom version of Apple's Front Row software. It has a cool screensaver and even has a version of iTunes' Coverflow thrown in for good measure.

Not every step of navigation is intuitive. After you've selected a song, you can exit the selection into the main Music menu, and the song continues to play. Leave the Music menu, and the song stops. You can continue where you left off, however, by returning to the Music menu and selecting "Now Playing."

To my surprise, the first time I played a movie on Apple TV, it gave me two options: "resume playing" or "start from beginning." In other words, Apple TV knew the position where I had left off watching this movie on my iPod. What a clever touch.

Elegant But Disappointing
Apple TV synchronizes all media found on iTunes, if you have room for them on the device's 40-Gbyte internal drive. If you don't, Apple will sync movies and TV shows first, then music, podcasts, and photos. Podcasts and photos don't sync by default; like the iPod, you have to enable this in iTunes.Although Apple TV can only sync from one computer at a time, it can stream media (except for photos) from up to five others. Although I synced from my Mac, I streamed from the iTunes I installed on a Windows PC. Through Apple TV's "Sources" menu, you can choose the libraries of different computers on your network.

It seems elegant, but it's actually very disappointing. What Apple TV should do, but doesn't, is merge the content of your computers into one set of menus so you don't have to switch between libraries to view all of your content. (ITunes doesn't do this either, but then it's easier to switch between libraries in iTunes' side pane.)

Quantity Without Quality
Played back on an HDTV, the majority of video content provided by iTunes looks fuzzy and indistinct. According to a staffer in New York City's Fifth Avenue Apple store, iTunes gets its content directly from the film/television studios, which have so far only provided low-quality video. This was fine for an iPod, but on our 40-inch television, it looks like third-generation videotape.

Product Info

Apple TVApple

www.apple.comPrice: $299Summary: Apple's stylish and interesting new device will be more useful once problems in software and content are ironed out.

As a result, Apple TV has been criticized about movie and TV quality. I think this criticism is misplaced -- like producing a YouTube player and condemning it for the shoddy quality of videos produced by its members. But the upshot is that, although the Apple TV works as a media storage device, it isn't ready for prime time in terms of video quality.

Presumably, when the iTunes Music Store starts to deliver high-definition video (and Apple is no doubt working feverishly into the night to make it so), the Apple TV will be able to offer a more palatable diet. Until then, the entire purpose of the Apple TV -- to provide a better alternative to watching downloaded shows and movies on your computer -- is thwarted.Another question for Apple to ponder: The Apple TV streams addictive theatrical trailers which, according to an Apple representative, will be replenished over the user's Internet connection. Which begs the question: If Apple TV streams trailers, why can't it download music and movies directly without needing to connect to a Mac?

Conclusion

The Apple TV is a product with enormous potential, currently hindered by a lack of easily available HD content and with elegant, but limited, software. Apple has said it will provide updates to tweak and improve the wrinkles in its interface. This capable little machine has the potential to go a long, long way.

But should you buy one now?

Well, if you can afford to pay $599 (rather than the Apple TV's $299 price tag), you can opt instead for a Mac Mini with a comparatively whopping 60-Gbyte hard drive, get your own Apple Remote, and install Apple's media software, Front Row. Voila: You have a media storage device and a computer. With a video encoder plugged into its USB port, the Mac Mini can even record TV.

Apple TV will certainly appeal to Apple addicts, design enthusiasts, and hackers (some of whom have already managed to enable that USB port). But the rest of us will be waiting to see what happens next before we plunk down our cash.0

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