My week with the Apple TV

For years before Apple announced the Apple TV, I’d been clamoring for just such a device. On the day Apple finally announced its Mac-based media center (then code-named the iTV), I said I would buy one as soon as I could. And true to my word, I was typing in my credit card number at Apple.com as soon as Apple started accepting pre-orders last January.

So now that the Apple TV is here (see “Apple TV:Ready for Prime Time?” page 48), after all those years of clamoring and all those months of waiting for my order to ship, here’s what I think.

Money, meet mouth

Here’s what struck me when I finally took it out of the box and got it set up: With all the recent focus on the iPod and the iPhone and the name change from Apple Computer Inc. to Apple Inc., some people have been questioning Apple’s commitment to computing. The Apple TV is itself a Mac—essentially a stripped-down Mac mini, running a version of Mac OS X, and with the computer interface replaced by a slick, remote-control-driven menu system. But it’s also computer-centric, built to play all the media you store on your Mac (or PC, if you’ve got one)—movies, TV shows, music videos, music, and photos—on your TV set. Without a Mac or a PC attached to it, it would be just an empty box with pretty menus.

For the past year, before my Apple TV arrived, I’ve had a Mac mini parked on top of my TV set. That mini and I have had some good times together. But now I’ve kicked it to the curb and replaced it with the Apple TV—and I haven’t looked back.

The Apple TV was easier to hook up than the Mac mini, because it’s designed to attach to a TV set rather than to a computer monitor. Configuring the Mac mini to work with my Sony HDTV took a long time, and I was never really happy with the results. But when I plugged in the Apple TV, I did absolutely no configuration. The Apple TV’s output just looked great right out of the box.

The Apple TV’s interface is essentially “Front Row 2.0,” and it’s a huge improvement over the first version. The menus are not only more attractive but also easier to use.

To be honest, in the months after I pre-ordered my Apple TV, I became increasingly worried about my purchase. After all, the Apple TV 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 $24 VisualHub to convert videos to Apple TV-ready formats.

But after using it for a couple of weeks, I’m feeling much more positive. Apple’s engineers have performed even better than I expected. And because the Apple TV runs OS X, Apple can improve the Apple TV’s features at the drop of a hat; if Apple doesn’t, hackers will.

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.

An Apple TV wish list

I was traveling when my Apple TV arrived, so while Christopher Breen wrote his review (page 56), I could only stare at an Apple TV at the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue in New York City—knowing that mine was waiting for me back home. But now that I’ve had some personal time with the product, I’m a fan: the Apple TV does everything it was designed to do—and quite well. Most of my criticisms have to do with features I wish it had, not with features it has.

What’s missing? Apple should work with major Internet streaming content providers to make their offerings available on the Apple TV. Imagine using an Apple TV to tune in to a live video stream of CNN Pipeline or Major League Baseball’s MLB.tv. And in this YouTube world, shouldn’t we be able to browse video-sharing sites via the Apple TV? You should also be able to browse and buy content in the iTunes Store right from the Apple TV interface, without having to go to a computer.

I’d also like to see the Apple TV improve its photo features, beef up support for podcasting, and add multichannel audio. And Apple really needs to add HD movies and TV shows to the iTunes store.

Clearly, when it comes to the Apple TV, the sky’s the limit. The good news is, the first-generation product is pretty darned good all by itself. I can’t wait to see what comes next—both from Apple and from those enterprising hackers out there. But in the meantime, I’m pretty impressed with what’s been done so far.

[ Got a comment? E-mail Jason or post a response in the Macworld Forums. ]

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