Apple TV, Take Two
Apple’s first take on a set-top media box—the Apple TV—may be the most under-appreciated Apple product this decade, and understandably so. Intended for the living room and its big-screen TV, the Apple TV lacked the simplicity that consumers expected from an Apple-branded living-room technology. Additionally, it failed to take advantage of that big-screen TV and its accompanying bone-shaking audio system by making it difficult to watch HD content and impossible to listen to surround sound.
Mom and pop, the intended audience, not only had to accept these compromises but were also tasked with understanding the syncing and streaming relationship between the Apple TV and a network of computers scattered about the house. Beyond that, there remained the puzzle of getting content you owned onto the box. Sure, you could buy movies from the iTunes Store, but iTunes’ catalog of movies was extremely limited, and its movie price didn’t always compare favorably to the DVD version. If you wanted to encode the DVDs you already owned, iTunes was no help. You had to unearth the tools for ripping your DVDs and possess a measure of know-how to use them.
With “Take Two” of the Apple TV, Apple attempts to address these issues via a revamped system for new customers or software update for existing users. It does so by first severing the sometimes confusing cord between the Apple TV and your computer, allowing the device to operate largely on its own. Even without the tethered computer-to-Apple TV relationship, those with a broadband connection can watch streaming YouTube videos and movie trailers (some in HD), view .Mac Web Galleries and Flickr albums, download podcasts, buy TV shows and music, and rent standard- and high-definition movies from the comfort of the couch. This, along with the Apple TV’s reduced price, streamlined interface, ability to output 5.1 surround sound audio, and new-found AirTunes capabilities, make the device worth a long second look if you passed on the initial offering.
Macworld has extensively covered all things Apple TV since the announcement and eventual birth of the device. If the first go-around of the Apple TV didn’t pique your interest enough to read up on it, you may wish to peruse my review of its first iteration ( ). Here you’ll learn about the ability to copy media to the Apple TV from a synced Mac or PC on your local wired or wireless network as well as stream music and videos from an associated computer over the network to the Apple TV for playback to a connected TV and AV gear.
This hasn’t changed with the second coming of the Apple TV’s software. You can still sync your Apple TV to one computer (the syncing relationship means you can copy media from this computer to the Apple TV’s hard drive) as well as connect up to five different computers for streaming music, video, and pictures to the Apple TV. The Apple TV continues to offer 802.11b/g/n wireless networking as well as a 10/100Base-T wired Ethernet connection. It provides HDMI and Component video output as well as optical and analog audio ports. And it still offers video playback that conforms to the 720p high-definition specification (resolution of 1280 by 720 pixels at 24 frames-per-second).
One important change is the Apple TV’s price. Apple has reduced the price for each model by $70. The 40GB Apple TV now sells for $229 and the 160GB model, $329.
You’re aware of the what the Apple TV did. Let’s turn to what it now does and how those new features pan out.
The Apple TV interface of old owed a debt of gratitude to the iPod’s hierarchical interface. You’d select a media type—Music or Movies, for example—and move through a series of cascading screens to issue commands. The new Apple TV interface requires fewer of these screens thanks to its split-pane nature. Media types such as Movies, TV Shows, and Music appear on the left side of the pane and the commands associated with the selected heading appear on the right. So, for example, when you select Movies on the left side of the screen, you’ll see Rented Movies, Top Movies, Genres, All HD, Search, Trailers, My Movies, and Shared Movies to the right.
Using the included Apple Remote Control you choose one of these headings, push the Next button on the control to slip over to the right side of the pane, and use the Up and Down buttons to select the command you want. In most cases, this either takes you to the iTunes Store where you can browse, preview, rent, purchase, and download media or lets you browse the iTunes library of a synced computer or those computers streaming media to the Apple TV.
It’s in this latter regard that the new interface is the most helpful. In the past, when you wanted to move from browsing the contents of the Apple TV’s hard drive to browsing the iTunes library on a synced computer, you had to choose a Sources entry, select the synced computer, and then wait while its contents were displayed on your TV screen. Apple has made this relationship a little more transparent by including “My” and “Shared” entries.
Where you see a “My” entry such as “My Movies,” “My TV Shows,” or “My Music,” you’re looking at the contents of the Apple TV’s hard drive as well as the iTunes library of the computer the Apple TV is synced with (provided that iTunes is running on that synced computer). There’s nothing in the interface to tell you whether media is stored on the Apple TV’s drive or on the synced computer, Just choose the media you want, press Play on the remote, and it plays. Streamed movies from a synced computer take a little longer to load than those on the Apple TV’s hard drive, but as long as you’ve got at least a solid wireless 802.11g network, you should notice no difference in playback other than this longer load time.
Where you notice the biggest difference between a wired and unwired connection is during syncing. Copying media from a computer to the Apple TV over a wireless network can be very slow going, particularly if you’re trying to fill the hard drive of the 160GB model. (Fortunately the Apple TV will stop syncing when you’re playing media from the synced computer so as not to interfere with playback.) You shouldn’t use an 802.11b connection in the first place as it’s too slow to stream video much less sync lots of content to an Apple TV’s hard drive. That leaves 802.11g and n. While 802.11g is fast enough to stream video, using it makes for a slow syncing process. 802.11n is better but best of all is a wired Ethernet connection, at least the first time you pack your Apple TV with media.
The “Shared” entries denote any media that’s available for streaming from up to five other computers you’ve authorized to work with the Apple TV. These Shared entries provide a slightly more direct path to your streaming media. Choose a Shared entry and the next screen displays a list of computers authorized to stream content to the Apple TV. Choose a computer and a list of that particular media type stored in the computer’s iTunes library eventually appears. Choose it and you can navigate through that streaming computer’s media just as you can with media filed under a “My” entry.
Regardless of whether you’re looking at the contents of a My or Shared media library, you’ll find that media nicely organized. When you select My Music or Shared Music, for example, you can view music by Playlist, Album, Artist, Songs, Genres, Composers, or Audiobooks. TV Shows can be organized by Date or Show; when you view by Show, the Apple TV uses the Season and Episode tags assigned to each TV show to organize a show’s episodes into seasons and episode numbers within each season.
One area where the interface could use some improvement is with searching the libraries of attached computers. Currently, the Apple TV allows you to search the iTunes Store for music, movies, TV shows, and podcasts but there’s no way to search the Apple TV’s hard drive or the iTunes libraries of synced and streaming computers. This isn’t a big deal for movies, TV shows, and podcasts as you can pretty easily find what you want in what’s likely to be a fairly limited collection of media. But music is different.
If you haven’t organized your music into playlists within iTunes and you’re trying to weed through a large music library on a synced or streaming computer, you’re going to find it slow going. Suppose you have a couple of thousand artists within a connected computer’s iTunes library. You’ll start at the top of an Artists list, hold down the Apple Remote’s Down button, and wait, wait, wait while the alphabetical list of artists flies by so that you can finally select an artist whose first name begins with the letter W. Some way to rapidly move through long lists by alphabetic character, as you can with an iPod, or a straight Search feature would be welcome.
You oughta be in pictures
New to the Apple TV with the Take Two software update is the ability to stream pictures from a .Mac Web Gallery or Flickr album. Accessing this material couldn’t be much easier. For a .Mac Gallery, simply use the Apple Remote and the Apple TV’s onscreen keyboard to enter a .Mac member’s name. Any public .Mac Web Galleries published by that .Mac member will be available on your Apple TV.
Flickr works similarly. Just enter a Flickr user’s member name and that user’s public images can be steamed to your Apple TV. Additionally, you can look at that member’s contacts and add them to your Apple TV’s list of Flickr members. This is a terrific way to quickly assemble a portfolio of streamed pictures that may interest you.
Note the word public above. You can’t access .Mac Web Galleries that aren’t available to everyone or Flickr albums that have been reserved for just that member or his or her family or friends.
In my tests with an Apple TV connected over an 802.11n wireless network, both the contents of friends’ .Mac Web Galleries and Flickr albums appeared in well under a minute. Generally the pictures looked good, though low-resolution images had jagged edges, just as they would when blown up on a computer monitor.
You can configure how these Web Gallery and Flickr images appear on your TV screen, just as you can with synced and streamed photos. Within the Photo settings area you can choose a number of slideshow options including time per slide, accompanying music, repeat, shuffle, Ken Burns effect on or off, and kind of transition between images. You can even use the contents of a .Mac Web Gallery or Flickr album as the Apple TV’s screensaver.
Content is king
It is no minor matter that Apple now offers movie rentals that can be downloaded directly to the Apple TV. Currently, the Store offers around 380 rentals, but Apple says it will have 1,000 movies for rent (100 in HD) by the end of February. Standard definition library titles (meaning older titles) cost $2.99, whereas newly released standard-def titles run $3.99. High-definition library titles are $3.99 and new HD titles, $4.99.
Without those rentals—or the ability to purchase music and TV shows as well as download podcasts from the Store—the 2.0 software update would offer little more than a slicker interface, streaming pictures from .Mac and Flickr, and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound.
Apple has managed the mechanics of downloading movies and purchasing TV shows and music reasonably well. It’s easy enough to find movies, preview them, and rent what you like, though the current selection is limited. But it’s not seamless.
As video downloads from the iTunes Store to the Apple TV, the Apple TV calculates when it believes it can start playing the material without interruption and presents a notice when it reaches that point. My Apple TV performed this task admirably with TV shows I bought and standard definition movies I rented. With the Apple TV connected to my router via an Ethernet cable, HD movies weren’t quite as successful. I’d start playing an HD movie immediately after the notice appeared, and, several minutes into the movie, playback stopped so the Apple TV could rebuffer the stream. If I waited an additional 10 minutes or so, the rebuffering disruptions stopped. With a speedier broadband connection than the 3 – 4mbps my DSL service provides, it’s likely I wouldn’t have seen those interruptions. (I saw the same kinds of interruptions when I attempted to view the HD Trailers offered in the Apple TV’s Movies section.)
These interruptions become more important when you attempt to start a movie, give up when you see the rebuffering errors, and then resign yourself to waiting until later in the day to try watching the movie again, once it’s fully downloaded. You have just 24 hours to watch a movie once you start playing it. When the clock runs down, the movie is automatically deleted from the Apple TV.
If you’ve failed to take into account your first aborted attempt to watch your movie, you may be in for a rude surprise when, 25 hours later, your movie is missing in action. For this reason it pays to give the Apple TV longer than it thinks it needs to begin playing an HD movie rental. Fortunately, the interface includes a Downloads screen that reports the progress of your download. In my case, the “ready to play” screen appeared when around 11 percent of the movie downloaded. I let this progress bar go to 25 percent, and I had no problem playing the movie from beginning to end.
Of course this would be less of an issue if Apple and the movie studios allowed you more than 24-hours to watch a movie. Although you can pause a movie in progress and—as long as you do nothing else with the Apple TV in the interim—resume playing it after the 24-hour rental period has passed, it would be far more convenient if you had an additional 12 to 24 hours of rental time. This would make it reasonable to split a long movie over two nights, which is something parents of young children and early-to-bedders often do with rented movies they obtain in more traditional ways.
The look and sound
Interruptions and time-limits aside, I was impressed by the look of the HD movies I rented and played on my 42-inch Panasonic plasma TV. While these movies aren’t Blu-ray quality, they look far better than many of the DVDs I own. Standard-definition content isn’t bad either. Clearly it’s not HD—there are artifacts in evidence—but I found it completely watchable on my TV. I’ve found every episode of this season’s Lost, which is offered only in standard definition, a treat on the Apple TV.
I was just as impressed by the sound. Live Free or Die Hard’s 5.1 sound track was nicely separated and huge through my 5.1 AV receiver. And I applaud Apple’s decision to include an AirTunes option—the ability to choose the Apple TV as a remote speaker system within iTunes and stream music to it and its attached AV gear. This may seem like simply the inverse of the Apple TV’s traditional relationship—where it pulls music from iTunes rather than iTunes pushing music to it—but being able to add the speakers attached to your Apple TV to a houseful of AirPort Extreme Base Stations that are likewise streaming music to their attached speakers is a nice benefit. Better yet, now that Rogue Amoeba’s $25 Airfoil 3 can stream music from any application running on your computer to an Apple TV, the Rhapsody music subscription service just became a whole lot more useful to me.
As enthusiastic as I am about the Apple TV, it’s not perfect. For example, you can’t shuffle music videos as you can music files. Even though music videos are found in the Apple TV’s music area, and that same music area allows you to shuffle songs, shuffling these tuneful videos isn’t an option.
Although you can purchase TV shows directly from the Apple TV, you can’t subscribe to them (or podcasts, for that matter)—this is something you still have to do from your computer within iTunes. While not a horrible burden—as you have the option to add TV shows and podcasts as favorites so that you can quickly navigate to their page on the Apple TV’s version of the iTunes Store—it would be more convenient if a subscription option existed for both TV shows and podcasts.
Additionally, I found it odd that when I navigated to the Apple TV’s Reset Settings area and chose the Factory Restore option, the Apple TV booted not with the new 2.0 operating system, but rather the original 1.0 software. True, the Apple TV lived up to its word to return the device to its state when shipped from the factory nearly a year ago, but still, I was surprised that it forced me to repeat the 20-minute download and update process to return to the current software version.
Finally, my Apple TVs running the Take Two software aren’t as stable as they were running software version 1.1. In my week of testing I had to force-restart one or the other of the Apple TVs a couple of times when the device became unresponsive. There’s no pretty way to do this as the Apple TV doesn’t have an On/Off switch. You pull the power cord and plug it back it to reboot the machine. It came back to life with all media and settings intact, but this isn’t something I’ve had to do more than once with version 1.1 of the Apple TV software.
Macworld’s buying advice
The big picture is that the Apple TV has the potential to change the way we obtain and consume video and, to a lesser extent, audio. It’s very easy to get the media you want—provided the iTunes Store offers it—and while HD movie rentals can’t be viewed the instant you click the Rent button, with a reasonably fast broadband connection you need plan no more than an hour ahead to watch a fine-looking and -sounding movie on a big screen with big sound. In its current state, the Apple TV isn’t without its quirks, but many of them are minor or could be addressed with a software update or modification to the Store’s movie rental agreement.
If you’ve stayed away in the past because of the Apple TV’s dependence on your computer, you wanted HD video and 5.1 sound and couldn’t have it, or you simply couldn’t imagine why you’d need another box tethered to your TV, it’s time for a stern rethink. This is an important and useful piece of technology.
[Senior editor Christopher Breen is the author of The iPod and iTunes Pocket Guide, third edition (2008, Peachpit Press).]