capsule review

Apple TV, Take Two

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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.

Quirks

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.

You can save a podcast or TV show as a favorite but not subscribe to it on the Apple TV.

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).]

At a Glance
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