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One week with Apple TV

I’ve spent the better part of the last year with a Mac mini sitting right above my TV set. It’s been my attempt to see what it’s like to have an Internet-enabled media playback device in my living room. That Mac mini and I have had some good times together. I’ve watched untold hours of video on my TV set via that Mac mini, generally using its built-in Front Row software.

But that Mac mini is no longer in my living room. Instead, it’s been relegated to a shelf in my office closet and will soon be repurposed as a server. That’s because at long last I’ve gotten a chance to hook up an Apple TV. And let me tell you: it puts the Mac mini and Front Row to shame.

Let’s get started with the most obvious thing: the video system and interface on a Mac mini — a computer! — is meant to be hooked up to a computer monitor. Oh, sure, my HDTV has a DVI port on the back. But when I hooked up the Mac mini to the TV, it became readily apparent that by default I only had two options: either have the edges of the interface bleeding right off the corners of the screen, unreadable, or accept a big black border around the edges of my TV.

This has a lot to do with how TVs are designed — believe it or not, many TV’s don’t really show you the whole picture. As a result, TV professionals know that there are “action safe” and “motion safe” areas within the TV set — in other words, they keep vital information out of the corners of the screen, since some TVs won’t display what’s in the corners. Computer monitors don’t have this problem — which is why it’s perfectly fine for, say, the menu bar is attached to the top edge of the screen while the Dock clings to another edge. But on my HDTV, the menu bar and dock were invisible, in the here-be-dragons area of the set. Apple helpfully provides an option for just these situations: an “Overscan” checkbox that forces the computer’s entire interface within the safe areas of the TV screen. Great, except with that option checked, my entire interface was surrounded by a thick black border.

So what was I to do? I spent way too many hours fussing with DisplayConfigX, a utility for modifying display settings. I can’t say I recommend it — it was hard to use and I never really got the results I was looking for.

Anyway, long story short, when I plugged the Apple TV into my HDTV via an HDMI-to-DVI cable, I did absolutely no video configuration. The Apple TV knows all about a TV’s safe areas, and keeps its interface inside those areas while allowing video to bleed all the way to the edges of the screen. It looks great, right out of the box.

The Apple TV’s interface (which is apparently code-named “Back Row”) is essentially Front Row 2.0, and what a huge improvement it is over Front Row. Not only are the menus more physically attractive, but they’re easier to use and are quite simply a cut above in terms of thoughtful interface design.

This is not to say that Apple TV doesn’t have a few interface quirks, but they’re relatively minor. Overall, it’s an impressively polished product. I’ve been hoping for an Apple TV-style device from Apple for years now, and the day it was announced I said I’d buy one as soon as I could. But in the months that have passed since I put down my credit card number, my trepidation about the Apple TV has grown. It doesn’t support streaming Web video, and its limited support for video formats means that we have to rely on tools like Techspansion’s excellent VisualHub to convert videos to Apple TV-ready formats.

But today, I’m much more positive about the Apple TV. Setting it up and using it has proven to me that Apple’s engineers and interface designers have executed even better than I had expected. And the revelation that Apple TV is running a stripped-down version of Mac OS X — so much so that if you pull out the hard drive and drop in the Perian QuickTime component, it’ll play all the additional formats that Perian supports — suggests that not only can Apple improve the Apple TV’s features at the drop of a hat, but that hackers will do it if Apple doesn’t.

Meanwhile, the act of converting videos has been painless, largely because VisualHub does such a good job, and is remarkably fast — much faster than the tools that Apple provides within QuickTime.

The networking question

Before it arrived, one of the big mysteries about the Apple TV was how it would handle hefty media files, especially over a wireless connection. After a few weeks with the Apple TV, we’re getting a much better idea.

My Apple TV is installed in an entertainment unit in my living room, nestled next to two TiVos, a DVD player, and a Slim Devices Squeezebox. (Yes, I still prefer listening to my digital music without having my TV set turned on!) I live in the San Francisco suburbs, in a neighborhood with a handful of Wi-Fi networks, but I certainly wouldn’t call it densely populated with Wi-Fi signals. My AirPort Extreme Base Station (the 802.11g “white UFO” model) is in a closet about 25 feet from my TV.

With that configuration, I had no problem playing back videos streamed over the network from my iTunes server. Only when I tested an extremely high-bit rate, high-resolution video did I see any stuttering, and that particular file had some pretty outrageous specifications. In fact, the Apple TV does a much better job at handling streamed video than my Mac Mini and Front Row ever did. I gave up on streaming files to the Mac mini long ago, but the Apple TV has handled them with aplomb.

My point is, if you’ve got an 802.11g wireless network, you may be able to stream video from another room without a lot of trouble. (Everyone’s mileage will vary, depending on your network configuration, the physical characteristics of your residence, and interference from other wireless devices.) Certainly if you have one of Apple’s fancy new 802.11n base stations, streaming video should not be a problem.

However, just to protect from any hiccups in your network, you can also sync music, movies, TV shows, and photos to the Apple TV’s built-in hard drive. In my tests, synchronizing via Ethernet was the fastest method — a synchronization of a movie, an episode of a TV series, and a single album, all purchased from the iTunes Store, took two minutes and 37 seconds.

When I attached my media server to an 802.11n AirPort Extreme router via Ethernet, and then synchronized it with an Apple TV via the wireless network, that same set of files took just a bit longer than Ethernet: approximately three minutes and 40 seconds total. A switch to Apple’s original AirPort Extreme router, however, led to a serious slowdown: with the 802.11g router, our synchronization task took seven minutes and 45 seconds.

Every network is different, so it’s hard to extrapolate hard advice from this data. But here’s my take: If you’ve got an Ethernet jack by your TV set, you’re living the good life. If you have an existing 802.11g network, there’s a good chance that it will serve you well. After nearly a week with my Apple TV, I’ve found no pressing need to toss away my 802.11g base station and replace it with an 802.11n model. Although synchronization can be slow, I rarely find myself needing something right now that’s still in the process of syncing. And when I do need to play something that’s not on my Apple TV, my 802.11g network has proven to be quite solid when it comes to streaming media files.

Does a shiny new 802.11n base station speed things up? As far as I can tell, it does. I might not be ready to buy one for my house just yet, but my 802.11g network is in pretty good shape. If yours is less robust, suffering from speed or interference problems, a new router might help you out. There’s really no way to be more specific: every home networking environment is unique.

Tomorrow I'll share my ever-growing wish list of features I'd like to see added to Apple TV, either via a software update or in the next version of the Apple TV hardware.

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