First Look: iTV: What you need to know

It’s not every day that Apple gives us a preview of a piece of hardware that’s not going to arrive for at least three months, and maybe as long as six. But the release of the new iTunes Store, including the sale of full-length motion pictures, wouldn’t have had as much impact if Apple didn’t also announce a way to watch those movies on your TV set.

That’s where iTV, Apple’s new, tiny, set-top box, comes in. Although we don’t expect to get our hands on a real iTV—or whatever Apple ends up calling it—for months, here’s a look at the most common questions about iTV and some cold, hard facts—as well as plenty of educated guesses—about our favorite new product of 2007.

What does the iTV do, and what would I use it for?

Apple began touting the “digital hub” concept six years ago, and its iLife software and iPod hardware have made us masters of creating and consuming digital media at our desks and on the go. But a whole lot of us spend a huge amount of leisure time in our living rooms, sitting on couches or in easy chairs in close proximity to a television and a stereo.

Right now, when it comes to enjoying your digital media in your living room, your options are pretty limited. You can plug in an AirPort Express and play iTunes music on your stereo, but you must use a computer running iTunes in order to pick songs or playlists and get the music playing. And to enjoy the fruits of your iMovie labors, you must burn a DVD using iDVD and then stick that DVD in your DVD player. You can burn your iPhoto slide shows to DVD, too, but all your images will be reduced to the relatively low resolution supported by standard-definition television. And if you want to watch videos (be they movies, TV shows, or music videos) downloaded from the iTunes Store, you’re out of luck unless you want to connect your fifth-generation iPod to your TV set and play the videos straight off that iPod.

There is an alternative to all this right now—you can attach a Mac mini to a digital TV and use Apple’s Front Row software. But the mere act of getting Mac video to display properly on a digital television is more of a black art than a science, and although the Mac mini does come with an Apple Remote, it still requires you to use a keyboard or mouse (or both) to get it up and running and to manage your content. That makes it less than ideal as a plug-it-and-forget-it set-top box.

Enter the iTV, which connects to your television and stereo and provides the remote-control-driven interface of Front Row without the keyboard-and-mouse issues of a full-fledged computer. Once it’s hooked up, the iTV connects to the network in your house and displays, right on your TV, a menu of options, all geared toward letting you play back digital content—stored on a computer in your house or somewhere out on the Internet—while sitting in your living room. That content includes movies, TV shows, and music downloaded from the iTunes store; other audio and video content you’ve loaded into iTunes; movie trailers from Apple.com; and perhaps other kinds of stuff that Apple hasn’t talked about yet.

iTV images
Is the iTV a glorified AirPort Express for video, or a hardware version of Front Row?

It’s actually a little bit of both. Like the AirPort Express, iTV lets you stream media from iTunes (running on a Mac or Windows PC) to a home entertainment system, and includes Ethernet and USB ports. But the iTV has a bit more intelligence than the AirPort Express, which plays only what a remote Mac tells it to: In addition to playing back audio, the iTV also displays video and provides an onscreen menu system that gives you the ability to choose what you want to watch or listen to without having to use a computer in another room. Instead, you can use an Apple Remote to browse all your media options via an onscreen menu that looks very much like the Front Row multimedia management software Apple includes on most current Macs.

What’s with the name? Isn’t there already an iTV?

More than one, actually. There’s Elgato’s eyeTV, which is a digital TV receiver. There’s ITV, the British TV network. The Apple Store even sells the Monster iTV Link, a set of cables that connect TV-compatible iPods and PowerBooks to TV sets.

That’s why iTV probably isn’t the final name of the product we’re all calling iTV. Steve Jobs called it an internal code name. We won’t know the real name of the product until it’s released.

When can I buy one, and what will it cost?

Unlike most Apple products, which tend to ship soon after they’re announced, this product isn’t going to arrive for at least three months. Jobs said that it’s due out during the first three months of 2007, which means it could be at Macworld Conference and Expo, or it could ship the day before April Fool’s, or anywhere in between.

According to Jobs, the iTV will cost $299.

What does it look like?

If you were to take a Mac mini and chop it in half, horizontally, the resulting top section—minus the optical drive slot—would look suspiciously like the iTV. Fans of home-theater equipment may find this design somewhat annoying, since it doesn’t exactly match the footprint of existing stereo components.

Will the iTV be limited to playing back videos I bought on the iTunes Store?

Probably not. Our prediction is that, at the very least, the iTV will be able to play back MPEG-4- and H.264-encoded videos you add to the iTunes library on a Mac or PC on your home network. It’s possible, but not as likely, that iTV will play back other video formats, such as Divx, or even the MPEG-2 format used by DVDs. But at the very least, you should be able to convert DVDs and other video files using a tool such as Handbrake or Visual Hub, add the resulting files to iTunes, and get them to be detected and played back by the iTV.

What can’t the iTV do?

Well, it can’t cluck like a chicken or bark like a dog. It also doesn’t seem to be able to record television broadcasts like a TiVo—although you could connect a recording device, such as the EyeTV products made by Elgato, to your Mac and have it add the resulting recordings to iTunes, where they’d be available for playback. The iTV doesn’t have a built-in optical drive, so it can’t play DVDs, and it doesn’t appear to have a built-in hard drive, so it probably can’t store movies itself—it will rely on computers in your home for media storage.

It’s also not a Mac, so you shouldn’t expect to be able to plug a keyboard and mouse into it so that you can surf the Web.

Apple’s demonstration last week also suggested that you won’t be able to actually buy videos or music directly from the iTV. We think that would be an interesting (and convenient) direction for the product to evolve toward, but it’s unlikely to be there when it’s first released.

What ports does it have?

The back of the iTV—at least the prototype version Apple displayed at last week’s special event—provides ports for power (the power supply itself is internal, so there’s no bulky brick); Ethernet; HDMI (a single connector that outputs digital audio and video, common on many HD televisions); component video (video divided into three components, a connection common on many recent televisions); analog stereo audio (left and right RCA connectors); Toslink digital-audio; and USB 2.0.

Can I connect a drive or iPod to the iTV’s USB port?

The reason for the included USB port is one of the iTV’s great mysteries. Our first guesses are that it either serves the same purpose as the USB port on the current AirPort Express or that it’s for connecting your iPod, instantly giving you access to all the movies, TV shows, podcasts, and music stored there.

Other theories we have seem more in the realm of wishful thinking than likely answers. Perhaps the iTV will optionally accept an external USB hard drive, and play back media stored on the drive? Or if a new, high-speed wireless networking technology arrives on the scene after the iTV’s release, could the iTV gain support for that technology via a USB-based network adapter? Could you plug in a USB-based Webcam and turn the iTV into a standalone box for videoconferencing?

Okay, that last one’s pretty far fetched.

What kind of wireless technology will the iTV use?

In addition to its wired connection options, the iTV will also include wireless technology—in fact, the ability to stream media wirelessly from your computer to your home entertainment system is one of the iTV’s most compelling features. However, what isn’t yet clear is which wireless technology will be included: Steve Jobs just called it “802.11.” That covers a lot of ground: although it could be referring to just the current 802.11g standard found in Apple’s AirPort Extreme hardware, we suspect Apple is aiming for the as-yet-unratified 802.11n, which offers, in theory, 10 times the bandwidth of 802.11g.

Although the current 802.11g standard is certainly capable of streaming the standard-definition video files offered on today’s iTunes Store, in real-world use even today’s video pushes the technology to its limits. Assuming that Apple eventually offers higher-resolution, and possibly high-definition, video on the music store, and that users may want to use their own higher-resolution video with the iTV, 802.11n—or whatever the next generation of 802.11 ends up being labeled—would appear to be a more suitable technology.

What kind of TVs and Stereos can I connect it to?

You should be able to connect the iTV to any TV with an HDMI port (or an HDMI-compliant DVI port) or component-video inputs. Just about every stereo should be able to connect, since the iTV has both the common analog audio-output jacks and an industry-standard Toslink digital optical output.

The big issue with the iTV is going to be whether or not your TV has enough inputs to handle all the shiny new devices that you’re buying for it. Many digital TVs offer only a single HDMI or DVI connector and a single set of component inputs. Let’s say you’ve got a DVD player, high-definition DVR or receiver, and an iTV. That’s three devices with high-quality outputs—but if your TV’s only got two inputs, you’re either going to need to plug one of them via a lower-quality input source such as S-Video, or you’re going to need to cross your fingers and hope there’s an affordable switcher box available.

My TV doesn’t have an HDMI port or component-video connectors. Am I out of luck?

Not out of luck, but not in a great position, either. Apple definitely intends the iTV to be a device for the digital TV era. There are some devices in existence that will convert component video to S-Video, but we’re not confident that such devices would be an acceptable solution. If you really, really want iTV, you might want to give a cold, hard look at your current TV set and decide if it’s time for a new model.

Does the iTV spell the end of music streamers like Slim Devices’ Squeezebox and Roku’s Soundbridge ?

We don’t think so. One of the most important features of those devices is that, unlike the iTV, they can be operated without having a TV set turned on. Not only is that good for rooms without TVs, but it’s good for people who don’t really want to leave their TV set on when they listen to music. And of course, those devices offer nitty-gritty audio features that iTV probably won’t match.

That said, some people will find the iTV a perfectly good way to play their iTunes music back in their living rooms. And Apple may make it a more visually appealing experience by jazzing up the iTV’s “Now Playing” screen. But music streamers like those from Slim Devices and Roku should still continue to have an enthusiastic fan base.

[ Jason Snell is Macworld ’s editorial director; Dan Frakes is senior reviews editor at Playlist. ]

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