Apple TV

After months of anticipation, Apple’s $299 Apple TV, a set-top box for syncing and streaming iTunes content between a Mac or Windows PC and a television, has finally seen the light of day. Designed to provide the missing link between the media files in your iTunes library and today’s modern televisions (and their accompanying audio-visual components), the Apple TV nicely simplifies the occasionally daunting process of viewing computer-based content on a television. While limited in significant ways, the Apple TV is a solid first step in what I hope is a long line of increasingly capable Apple-branded AV peripherals.

Inside and out

About the size of a personal-size pizza (7.75 inches square, and just over an inch tall), the Apple TV ships with the bare necessities. Inside the box you’ll find the unit itself, an Apple Remote (the same one that ships with many of Apple’s computers), a power cable (with no power brick, thanks to the device’s internal power supply), and some documentation. While the Apple TV supports component and HDMI (High Definition Multimedia Interface) video output and analog and Toslink digital audio, you’ll find no cables in the box to help you make these connections. You must purchase video and audio cables separately. (Given that Apple would have to bundle five cables to satisfy the most common connections—HDMI to HDMI, DVI to HDMI, component, analog audio, and Toslink digital audio—this omission doesn’t surprise me.) The back of the Apple TV also sports a 10/100Base-T Ethernet connector and a USB 2.0 port. Currently, that USB port is termed a service port by Apple—one the company says is intended for diagnostic purposes only. I expect that with a software update this port will eventually be useful to users as well (you can’t currently connect an iPod or hard drive to it).

Inside the Apple TV is a 40GB hard drive—33GB of which you can use to store video, audio, and still images. Apple says that the Apple TV’s hard drive will hold as many as 50 hours of video (based on 1.5 Mbps H.264-encoded video at a resolution of 640 by 480 with 128 Kbps stereo audio), up to 9,000 audio tracks (with an average of four minutes per song and AAC encoded at 128 Kbps), or up to 25,000 pictures (JPEG, BMP, GIF, TIFF, and PNG images are supported, but not Raw). The Apple TV can play video encoded as MPEG-4 and H.264 and supports the same audio formats iTunes does (AIFF, WAV, MP3, AAC, and Apple Lossless). Powered by an Intel processor and an Nvidia graphics card, the Apple TV also carries a wireless card that’s capable of using 802.11b, 802.11g, or 802.11n networking protocols. The Apple TV will output video to your TV at 1080i 60/50Hz, 720p 60/50Hz, 576p 50Hz (PAL format), 480p 60Hz, or, though not listed among Apple’s specifications, 480i, so it will work with standard definition televisions that sport component connectors. (For more comprehensive definitions of these terms, check out our HDTV glossary.)

A firm handshake

The Apple TV makes it easy to couple your iTunes library with your television. Simply make the proper cable connections—string an HDMI cable between the Apple TV and your television, for example—and plug in the Apple TV’s power cord. After a short delay, you’ll see the Apple logo, and you’ll be cued to select a language. The Apple TV then checks for a network connection. If you’ve attached an Ethernet cable, the Apple TV attempts to use it before looking for a wireless connection. If there is no Ethernet cable, it lists every wireless access point it can find. Use the remote to select the one you want and then press the play/pause button—you’re nearly ready to go. (You’ll also see an Other entry in the list of wireless access points. Select this and you can configure wireless devices that are hidden from public discovery by entering the name of the access point with the on-screen keyboard.)

If you assign IP addresses to your networked devices via DHCP, choose Using DHCP in the Network Setup screen, press the play/pause button, and it will establish a connection. Should you need to enter an IP and subnet address manually, choose that option and a screen for doing so via the Apple Remote and an on-screen keyboard will appear. Likewise, if your network is secure, you’ll be prompted to choose the type of security your wireless network uses and then asked to enter your password—again, via the remote and the on-screen keyboard.

Once connected to the network, the Apple TV projects a five-digit PIN number on your TV screen. Meander over to the computer you want to sync your data from, launch iTunes 7.1 or later, select the Apple TV icon that appears in iTunes’ Source list, and enter that PIN number. Name your Apple TV when prompted, register it with Apple (or not), and then select the media files you want to sync to the device. This setup takes no more than a couple of minutes.

Select and sync

iTunes serves as the gateway for syncing or streaming media files to the Apple TV. You can sync content from only one computer at a time, and you can’t add content manually—by dragging it from your iTunes library to the Apple TV icon on iTunes’ Source list. Should you choose to sync with a different computer, all the data on the Apple TV will be removed and replaced with the data from that new computer. When you’ve established this syncing relationship between your computer and the Apple TV, you’ll encounter an interface within iTunes very much like the one you see when you attach a 5G iPod to your computer. The Apple TV pane within iTunes holds six tabs—Summary, Movies, TV Shows, Music, Podcasts, and Photos. Within these tabs you decide which content you want to sync to the Apple TV. Content is prioritized so movies sync first. Then, if space remains, TV shows, music, podcasts, and, finally, photos.

To help manage your media files, iTunes provides shortcuts for choosing subsets of them. For example, you can choose to sync no movies and just TV shows, or request that only the most recent one, three, five, or ten unwatched movies or TV shows sync with the device. In such a scenario, once the movie or show has played through, it’s bumped off the list and deleted from the Apple TV, and then iTunes adds the next unwatched video. Because the Apple TV and iTunes are in constant communication, there’s no need to press a sync button to make this happen. As long as iTunes is open, your network is functioning, and a computer isn’t streaming something to the Apple TV, iTunes will update the device’s content.

Syncing can be slow, particularly over a wireless 802.11b or 802.11g network. If you have a lot of content that you want to sync to the Apple TV, it makes sense to start the sync before you go to bed. When you wake the next morning, the job will be done. Or, because syncing over Ethernet is faster than wireless, make that first connection a wired one.

Gently down the stream

If you have a moderate-to-large iTunes library, you’ll find the Apple TV’s hard drive too cramped to hold much of your content. (See Chris Breen’s video on Exploring Apple TV.) This would be a serious drawback if the device’s streaming capabilities weren’t as good as they are. It can stream video and audio from up to five computers—from both Macs and Windows PCs. Setting up streaming works similarly to syncing. On the Apple TV, choose Sources, and select Connect To New iTunes. A new PIN number will appear. On your computer, enter that number into iTunes by selecting the Apple TV in the iTunes Source list, and you’re connected. Choose that computer as the source within the Source screen on your TV, and you can access the video and audio content in its iTunes library. Note that it can take several minutes for a streamed computer’s content to appear if that computer’s iTunes library contains a lot of media files. For example, the iTunes library on my Mac Pro holds 217GB of data, and it took around three minutes for it to be accessible on the Apple TV over a wireless 802.11n network.

Photos cannot be streamed. Instead, on the computer synced with the Apple TV, iTunes formats the pictures you select (from iPhoto albums or a folder of your choosing) and copies them to the Apple TV’s hard drive. Once on the Apple TV, you can view a selected album or your entire photo library as a slide show. Much like with iPhoto, you can choose from a variety of transitions as well as determine the display time for each picture.

With content purchased from the iTunes Store, video streaming is quite good over 802.11g and 802.11n wireless networks, as well as over wired Ethernet networks. Playback of video files begins in a matter of seconds. When you press the remote’s forward button to fast-forward or skip to the next chapter, there’s a delay of a few seconds while the Apple TV buffers the incoming content—a progress bar shows you how far along in the process it is. Though not nearly as fast as jumping between chapters on a DVD player, skipping ahead on the Apple TV isn’t terribly distracting on a fast network.

If you’ve ripped your own video at high bit rates, streaming can be a bit dicier. Using HandBrake, free software that can convert many commercial, copy-protected DVDs to an unprotected digital file, I ripped House of Flying Daggers at a resolution of 720 by 304, at 24 frames per second, encoded in H.264 format, and with an average data rate of 2,608 Kbps. Over my 802.11n network, with a strong signal streaming from the Mac Pro, the movie briefly froze after playing for about 15 minutes. It did so again a couple of minutes later. I’m not completely surprised because I was pushing a lot of data at the Apple TV, but it’s something to keep in mind if you rip your own movies at high bit rates.

If 802.11b wireless is part of your network, glitches with high bit rate videos will become apparent even more readily. Apple claims that the Apple TV requires an 802.11g or 802.11n wireless network or a wired Ethernet connection to stream video. I was pleased to find that I could successfully stream Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (a video purchased from the iTunes Store) from an iMac that contains an 802.11b AirPort wireless card over my 802.11n network. The Apple TV fared much worse on this computer with a ripped version of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World encoded as an MPEG-4 movie at a resolution of 720 by 288 and with a total bit rate of 2,391 Kbps. Just eight minutes into the movie, the Apple TV paused and stopped to fill its buffer. It then continued playing, but a minute and a half later, it paused and refilled again. My experience indicates that some video will stream from an 802.11b computer over a fast network, but you’ll encounter far fewer problems if you stick with Apple’s realistic recommendation.

The Apple TV can also stream movie trailers and iTunes Store previews—movies, TV shows, and music. This type of streaming works well too, provided you have a typical DSL or cable broadband connection.

Around and about

If you’ve used Apple’s Front Row or navigated an iPod’s screen, you’ll feel right at home on the Apple TV. Its interface features a main screen that includes Movies, TV Shows, Music, Podcasts, Photos, Settings, and Sources entries. You glide around the interface by selecting entries, pressing the play/pause button, and choosing options in the resulting screen. As with Front Row, you move back through the command hierarchy by pressing the remote’s Menu button.

The Apple TV is responsive to the remote and, by default, you’ll hear Front Row’s musical clunk sound when the Apple TV executes a command. The screens look sharp on a high definition (HD) TV and, in typical Apple fashion, there are some lovely motion effects—icons smoothly rotate into place when you choose a new main-menu command, and the screen flips every so often when you play audio files.

This screen flipping is more than cosmetic. Because screen burn-in is still a problem with some varieties of TVs, the Apple TV takes care not to leave static images on the screen for too long. By default, a screen saver kicks in after two minutes (you can adjust this interval). And that screen saver is very attractive, displaying a swooping Apple logo, pictures from your photo library (or from the device’s internal bank of floral images if there are no images synced to the device), or album covers from your iTunes library. Both photos and album covers drift up the screen at varying sizes and occasionally perform a pirouette.

Watching TV

Movies purchased from the iTunes Store look quite good using the Apple TV—certainly as good as most DVDs you’d play on your TV. True, Apple sells movies with a resolution no higher than 640 by 480—which is well below the HD mark—but withhold judgment until you see for yourself how the movies and TV shows look on screen. I viewed Cars and both Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and while some subtle artifacts were visible in dark-to-gray passages, the movies looked remarkably good. I ripped several movies in HandBrake—including the aforementioned It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and House of Flying Daggers , as well as The 40-Year-Old Virgin , and Neil Young: Heart of Gold —as 720 by x (where x is the height of the video the wide-screen version resolved to—somewhere around 300 pixels, usually) MPEG-4 files at 2,500 Kbps, and they looked every bit as good as watching them from the original discs.

On the other hand, if you have video at low resolutions—for example, the 320-by-240 TV shows once sold through the iTunes Store—it’s going to look blocky on your TV, just as it would if you played it from a 5G iPod connected to your TV.

While watching Heart of Gold, I particularly missed the kind of 5.1 channel surround sound you get from today’s DVDs. Currently, the Apple TV plays only stereo Dolby Pro Logic audio, even if you feed it movies that carry a 5.1 soundtrack. My colleague Dan Frakes reports that the audio chip within the Apple TV is capable of playing 7.1 channel audio, so the stereo limitation appears to be software-based only. My hope is that Apple will switch on broader audio capabilities in a future software update.

Missing in action

In addition to its lack of 5.1 channel audio support, the Apple TV doesn’t support a wide variety of video formats. Although Apple stresses that the Apple TV is designed for use with the media files in your iTunes library, many people will want to play media files that iTunes doesn’t support, such as DivX, AVI, and Windows Media video files, which are commonly found on the Web. The Apple TV supports only MPEG-4 and its variant, H.264. There are tools aplenty for transcoding video to a format compatible with the Apple TV, but it would be nice if either the device played additional formats natively or Apple included a tool for easily transcoding video within iTunes, in the same way that you can now convert audio within the program.

In this regard, Apple is limited more by media companies than its own desire to provide the tools its customers want to convert their commercial DVDs. The Apple TV is the perfect destination for commercial DVDs that you’ve ripped from your personal movie library, but such a practice is of questionable legality, and I understand Apple’s desire to stay on the right side of the law (and appease its media partners). On the other hand, transcoding unprotected media files is a different matter, and one that I hope Apple will pursue.

Macworld’s buying advice

In its current form, the Apple TV won’t follow in the world-altering footsteps of the iPod. With its simple setup, superb streaming, ease of use, and quality output, it’s a great piece of gear, but it will have more-limited appeal than the iPod largely because of the nature of DRM (digital rights management) and video. Music is widely available in unprotected form, so consumers can easily convert their CDs into digital files that they can consume through a device such as the iPod. Conversely, video content is highly protected. It takes a measure of technical know-how and patience to convert a library of DVDs to a format compatible with the Apple TV. Add to this the fact that DVDs offer advantages the Apple TV doesn’t—5.1 channel audio, higher resolution, and the kinds of extras that a movie purchase through the iTunes Store doesn’t provide—and it’s clear that the Apple TV isn’t for everyone.

However, if you’ve been frustrated by having to watch movies on your computer (or just as frustrated downloading those movies to a 5G iPod and then plugging it into your TV), if you prefer to enjoy nearly all of your media files through your TV and AV gear rather than splitting time between the living room and the home office, or if you have more media files in your iTunes library than you do DVDs on your bookshelf, moving to the Apple TV makes sense. You’ll certainly enjoy the quality of the experience. Ultimately, your decision will be based on whether you have enough computer-based media files—and a fast enough network—to justify the purchase.

[ Christopher Breen is a senior editor for Macworld.]

Applet TV with remoteThe Apple TV interface sports a menu structure that is very similar to Apple’s Front Row application.You decide which content you want to sync to the Apple TV via six tabs in iTunes.

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