Review: Apple Inc. Apple TV (40GB/160GB)
Pros: A cleanly-designed alternative to tethering your iPod or a computer to a widescreen television set, offering streaming or synchronized access to part of your iTunes video and audio library, as well as synchronized, slideshow-style access to your PC or Mac’s photo library. Supports not only high-resolution televisions but also the playback of high-definition video and photo content, using an intuitive interface and sophisticated wireless networking software to ease installation, navigation, and playback of your content. Works well with common 802.11g networks and offers 802.11n compatibility for superior performance. Runs quiet, consumes little space, and includes Apple Remote; works almost seamlessly with iTunes 7.1 (or later), even with multiple Apple TV units or computers networked together. Now available in 40GB and 160GB versions.
Cons: You’ll have to create, convert, or buy compatible content, as limited video format support and glitches in many previously iPod-converted video files will render even an existing iTunes video library in need of substantial updating; older iTunes Store videos look downright bad on larger HDTVs, and some videos don’t display properly on any TV. Does not include video or audio cables of any sort, and may not be compatible with certain TVs that it can physically connect to. Standard model’s included hard disk is of even lower usable capacity than expected, takes a very long time to fill over standard wireless connection, and USB port does not allow connection of a second dedicated media drive. Music and photo features are acceptable but not mindblowing. Lack of any volume control will bother some users. Pricey given the actual value it adds.
Call it a screenless iPod, a stripped-down Mac mini, or a networked media player: however you choose to think of it, Apple’s newest consumer electronics product Apple TV ($299) has arrived, and the company wants you to take notice. Marketed as a “DVD player for the 21st century,” the 7.7-inch-square, 1.1-inch-tall device plays back videos and more without using stacks of old discs, and boasts an eye-catching interface that all but demands to be connected to high-quality A/V systems rather than yesteryear’s blurry standard-definition sets. Described less glamorously, it’s a wireless accessory for your iTunes-equipped PC or Mac that lets you play the computer’s videos, photos, and music through many widescreen TVs and most home receiver setups. Updated June 5, 2007: Following Apple’s release of a $399, 160GB Apple TV in early June, we have added additional details and conclusions to our original March 23, 2007 review. They can be found at the very bottom of this review, which is otherwise left unchanged.
If you haven’t tried connecting your computer or a fifth-generation iPod to a TV set with a $15-20 AV cable, this might be the first time you’ve ever thought of displaying content from your iTunes library on a larger screen. Apple’s betting that you don’t want to tether your computer or iPod to a TV, and that you’d rather use a dedicated device for navigating your iTunes videos, synchronized photo slideshows, and music collection through a TV. It’s also betting that you’ll think Apple TV does this well enough to merit a $150 premium over similarly equipped iPod docking stations.
After testing two Apple TV units with six different television sets, two wireless networks, and four different computers, our view is this: right now, Apple TV is a good product, but it’s neither a 21st century DVD player, nor a smart buy for most iTunes users - at least, yet. Why? Our answer, explained in the review below, boils down to two very important words: content and pricing. No matter how much of a fan of Apple’s products as you may be, and iLounge’s editors are certainly right up there, buying into Apple TV right now is an act of faith - faith that transforming your favorite videos into Apple’s chosen formats is a good idea, and faith that iTunes Store and similar content will look good on your home TV. Even if you possess such faith, there are still some very important things you need to know before diving in, including how much time and money you’ll need to invest in making Apple TV a part of your home.
Apple TV In a Nutshell
Ten months ago, Walt Mossberg of The Wall Street Journal nonchalantly wrote that Apple was working on two new, unannounced devices - “a media-playing cellphone and a home-media hub” - both of which Apple confirmed with official announcements only months later. It was clear back then that Apple wanted a “living room” device - something to let you enjoy everything from music to video without depending on your computer - and was trying to figure out what exactly to provide. Many people expected a wireless streaming accessory that would transfer iTunes audio and video content to one or more home AV setups in real time. Apple apparently agreed, but didn’t want you to depend fully on your computer for content or browsing, so it gave its hub a 40GB hard disk, and a browser so you can select content from either the hard disk or a connected computer.
Rather than calling it an iPod without a screen, the hub - redubbed Apple TV - is best understood as a stripped down Mac mini computer optimized for high-definition television sets rather than computer monitors. Like the Mac mini, which it strongly resembles in all ways other than its shorter stature and wider girth, you provide your own display and speakers, but unlike the mini, there’s no keyboard, mouse, or set of programs to run - just the media browser. To control the browser, Apple TV includes only a single means of input: the same six-button, infrared Apple Remote control that has been shipping with the Mac mini for more than a year now.
The power supply’s hidden inside Apple TV’s enclosure, along with a set of processors and memory chips that are somewhere in-between the capabilities of today’s low-end Macs and high-end iPods. When you connect the included power cable - the only other item in the box besides manuals and Apple stickers - the unit turns on, and stays on at all times unless the cable’s disconnected. Though it runs a bit warm and has a slightly larger footprint than the 6.5-inch square mini, it doesn’t require a fan or aggressive ventilation. Instead, it sits almost silently next to your TV, making little enough noise that you’ll need to put an ear up to it to know if the hard drive is running.
Unlike a DVD player, which gets loaded with content via individual discs, Apple TV receives content exclusively from Apple’s iTunes 7.1 (or later) software. There’s no way to use an iPod or a separate hard disk full of movies with its built-in, but intentionally crippled USB 2.0 port; the port will charge your iPod, but otherwise is supposedly there for diagnostic and repair purposes only. Content gets delivered to Apple TV’s hard drive via a wireless or wired Ethernet connection with your computer, and iTunes manages the flow and delivery of all of that content, without exception.
Will it Work With Your TV?
Other than having to download the free iTunes software from the Internet - no software CD is included - Apple TV saddles its buyers with another responsibility. Since the package includes no video or audio cables, you’ll have to procure them yourself. Ports on the unit’s back accommodate the currently popular HDMI and component video standards, as well as analog and optical/TOSLINK for audio output. Audio connections should be a snap, but video is another issue: you’ll need to be sure Apple TV will work with your TV.
This process isn’t as straightforward as it should be. Apple has billed Apple TV as compatible with not just high-definition sets, but also widescreen, non-HD sets, and it includes multiple resolution and video sync modes to accommodate the majority of recent U.S. and international sets - it’s even quietly included some support for non-widescreen, non-HD sets as well. The standards will be familiar to most HDTV buyers: Apple TV outputs at 1080i and 720p resolutions for both 60 and 50Hz HDTVs, as well as 480p at 60Hz, and 576p at 50Hz for PAL users. Surprisingly, those using the component video ports will also discover a hitherto-undisclosed 480i mode for those who want to try connecting 480i TVs to Apple TV. But that doesn’t mean that any set with component video inputs will work properly.
We tested Apple TV on 6 different TV sets - 5 of them high-definition with various supported resolutions, sizes, and makes, and 1 of them widescreen but not high-definition. The hardware worked without a problem on all of our widescreen HD sets, whether they used component or HDMI interfaces, but content appeared only in black-and-white on our non-HD widescreen TV, despite being connected with the same component video cables. Significant enough differences exist between TVs that you may even find a non-widescreen, non-HD set that works, but as a general rule, expect it to work reliably on widescreen HD sets, especially those with HDMI ports.
That still leaves you to buy the cables. XtremeMac sells a series of well-made $20 XtremeHD cables, all of which we’ve now tested and would recommend without question, while some companies sell less aggressively designed $5 alternatives, and Monster Cable will try to convince you to buy $60 versions. You don’t need the expensive ones, and be careful about buying super-cheap ones, too. If your TV has an HDMI port, a single $5-20 HDMI cable is all you’ll need for both audio and video, but if you want to connect it to both a TV and audio receiver at once, you’ll need more cables at a higher price. Apple TV supports output from both of its audio ports at once, so you can have sound coming through your TV and separate speakers if you desire.
Setup and Interface
With cables in hand, setting up Apple TV is fairly easy. Regardless of the type of wireless network you’re using (see Performance Concerns, below), once iTunes 7.1 has been installed on your PC or Mac, and Apple TV has been plugged into your television set and the wall, the process is nearly automatic. You’ll pick a language, connect Apple TV to your network by name and password, watch a brief glamour video, and sit back as the unit sends a signal to iTunes that it’s ready to tango.
A five-digit code will appear on Apple TV’s screen, and iTunes will list Apple TV in its Devices menu as ready to set up. After one click and entry of the code on iTunes, Apple TV’s ready to stream content right away, or be told what to synchronize from your iTunes library. It’s that simple - once you’ve picked the movies, TV shows, podcasts, music, and photos you want to sync, you press a Sync button and sit back for hours (again, see below) as the process completes. The process is identical in all ways save cosmetics from Mac to PC - we tested on both platforms, and except for the PC’s less attractive iTunes interface, the experience was the same. While you’re waiting, you can use most of Apple TV’s interface features to immediately view streamed content from your computer - the system makes the streaming/synchronization process so easy that you mightn’t even realize it’s happening.
By this point, Apple TV’s media browsing interface seems almost self-explanatory, but we’ll run through it anyway - a video is here if you want to see it in action. It’s displayed in clean, high resolution, and looks like an evolved combination of the iPod interface with the large on-screen graphics of Apple’s past Front Row software. Icons and cover art are on the screen’s left, menu choices on the right. You separately browse movies, TV shows, music, podcasts, and photos through five separate main menu links, discussed further below, with Settings and Sources serving as the only question marks. Settings brings you to a menu where you can change your TV’s resolution mode, reconfigure your network settings and see current signal strength, toggle three screen savers, and turn on music repeat/sound check audio features, Apple TV sound effects, or a lower-brightness HDMI mode if your HDTV doesn’t need as much light as the unit normally could put out. You can also try to pair or unpair the included Apple Remote, check for Apple TV software updates, change languages, and see legal notices.
Of these settings, the most interesting is the screen saver selection. Apple does a superb job of preventing burn-in on susceptible sets by consistently fading out its menus or any static graphics after a short period of inactivity. You can choose to turn the screen saver off, or on from 2 to 30 minutes of inactivity, and have it active or inactive during music playback. There aren’t many screensaver choices, but you’re sure to like at least one of them. A bouncing Apple logo isn’t likely to be it; you’ll surely prefer one of the beautiful high-resolution options, generated using cover art or photos from your collection. If you haven’t synchronized photos, Apple TV has a bunch of generic but pleasant ones pre-installed; both flow upwards in three layers on your screen, twisting in 3-D once in a while just to do it.
We’ll get into advanced uses of the Sources menu near the end of the review, but suffice to say that it’s one of Apple TV’s most impressive but least widely acknowledged features. Sources essentially manages multiple iTunes machines on your network, and does so quite well: within this screen, you can choose to browse AppleTV’s own hard disk, or the remote library of any of several computers the unit has been authorized to access. One of those libraries - shown with a chain link - is both a “synced” and streaming computer, while the others are for streaming only. It’s a credit to Apple that Sources lets you flip so easily between different iTunes libraries, each requiring only that 5-digit code and a currently running iTunes program to establish a connection, and providing almost complete access to their iTunes contents in the process. The feature’s not flawless, as noted below, but it works well.
Most of the time, Apple TV behaves as you’d expect, and that’s a good thing. But throughout our testing, we did experience a number of hiccups that surprised us, ranging from the setup process to streaming and synchronization, photo, and video playback.
We purchased and set up two Apple TVs, first installing one and then the other, so that both were simultaneously on the network but not installed in such a way as to interfere with a “normal” single Apple TV setup experience. Our first unit failed to see any of the wireless networks in the area, requiring us to use an on-screen keyboard to type both our AirPort Extreme Base Station network’s name and a password. Once those details were entered, it immediately connected to the network without complaint. We’ve had very few experiences like this, and found it especially surprising with Apple TV, but in a later test on a different network, this unit didn’t experience any initial connectivity issues.
Our second Apple TV was installed roughly 20 minutes after the first one. It saw all of the local wireless networks, but when we selected the correct one and correctly entered our password, it failed to connect the first five times it tried. Then, unexpectedly, it succeeded and hasn’t complained since, even after being disconnected and the process re-started. Regardless of these hiccups, both units got on our networks and worked within 20 minutes of their initial unpacking, an experience most PC users will find to be comparatively thrilling.
Synchronizing and streaming to our Apple TVs also yielded some interesting results. In addition to an Ethernet port for wired connectivity, Apple TV packs a wireless card capable of 802.11b, g, and n (draft 2) communication, which means that any wireless computer on your network can send media to it, though some will be slower than others. In sum, 802.11b users should expect smooth music streaming but uneven video streaming; 802.11g users should expect smooth music and standard-definition video streaming, plus virtually flawless higher-definition video streaming, and 802.11n users should expect both trouble-free streaming of any type of content, plus relatively fast skipping around within streamed videos.
Your network type will also dramatically impact the speed at which content is dumped onto Apple TV’s hard drive. In our tests with Apple’s 802.11n AirPort Extreme Base Station, an 802.11g machine transferred files to Apple TV at around 70MB per minute, while an 802.11n machine worked at roughly 150MB per minute, both considerably under the theoretical limits of the network. With the 802.11g machine, filling Apple TV’s hard disk can take 8 hours - no joke - while the 802.11n machine requires slightly under 4 hours. A test on a second network with an 802.11g router and an 802.11g computer took 9 hours and 15 minutes. Transferring only individual files feels faster, but not fast.
If that math doesn’t completely make sense to you, there’s a reason: the hard disk has been somewhat misleadingly described as 40GB in capacity, though it has only 32.83GB of usable storage space, a fact that won’t thrill those who thought the drive was anemic before. Apple suggests that the usage model for Apple TV is different: you’re supposed to use your computer as the main repository for content, and synchronize only portions of your media to Apple TV at a given time. We respectfully disagree. Most users have no desire to keep shuttling content from device to device, and would do much better with a central networked storage drive that holds all of their home or office iTunes content. Apple TV gets us no closer to that goal, and what it does do, it does slowly.
Movies, TV Shows, and the Apple Remote
A balanced view of the Apple TV’s movie and TV capabilities must credit Apple for creating a great video viewing interface with clean, simple graphics and controls, while knocking it for failing to deliver the format support, content, and consistent presentation the average user would expect from a $300, high-definition-ready media player. Despite all of its other features and impressive design touches, video support is the tentpole of a device that all but demands a high-definition television and a wireless network connection, and we can’t say that we’re fully satisfied with what Apple TV accomplishes so far.
To start with the positives, Apple’s done a pretty good job with its extremely limited Apple Remote control. Since the company recognizes that videos piped through the device won’t always be chaptered for easy rewinding and fast forwarding, Apple TV parses such videos into 20 right clicks: you press 10 times to get halfway through the movie, and 10 more to get to the end. If you prefer to view the movie as you’re going forward of backward, you hold the button down, and the unit displays a TiVo-style bar with 1, 2, or 3 arrows to indicate speedy movement through the video, first second by second, then faster and faster. We really like the way the scrubber (current position) bar looks and works, fading in and out as necessary, and not consuming lots of screen space.
The other four buttons are simpler. Play/pause works as you’d expect, and holding it down turns the unit off to the extent possible - it’s really always on, but just idling. The Menu button pulls you out of the movie, stopping it, and taking you back into the menu system. You can resume the movie where you left off - even if you started watching it on your iTunes-equipped computer - or start at the beginning. And the + and - buttons do nothing. If you’ve been using the Apple Remote with your computer or iPod Universal Dock, you’d expect them to change the volume, but Apple TV locks this feature out through both the analog and optical audio ports. Though some people would pooh-pooh it, a Settings screen option to allow volume attenuation of the analog audio would have been very much appreciated. Apple expects you to use an iTunes carryover feature called Sound Check to adjust the volume of your content to an even level, but that’s not always practical, so you’ll need to keep two remotes around or program Apple TV’s functions into a universal remote.
Browsing movie and TV show content is similar to doing so on the iPod, but surprisingly not quite as good in certain ways. Visually, Apple makes a nice effort by putting either cover art or a poster frame on the left side of the screen, along with video time, name, and description details that materialize underneath the image within a second or two. And the movie browsing is just fine, too. The issue’s with the TV Shows menu: shows aren’t grouped by seasons like they are on the iPod, so you might have to do some hunting around to get them in order. Instead of seasons, Apple lets you pick between Date and Show displays, with Date displaying all of your content in order of most recent to oldest, and Show grouping by show, without season hierarchies. We’d like to see season groupings return.
Where Apple TV runs into more serious issues is in its support for video formats. As you may be aware, the device only supports two video standards - MPEG-4 and H.264 - and even then, only at certain restricted resolutions and bitrates. They are:
* MPEG-4: Up to 720 x 432 pixels, 30 frames per second, AAC-LC audio up to 160Kbps, and 3Mbps total bitrate.
* H.264: Up to 1280x720 pixels, 24 frames per second, with AAC-LC audio up to 160Kbps, and 5Mbps total bitrate, with alternate modes ranging from 960x540 at 30fps to 640x480 and 320x240 at similar frame rates.
Those letters and numbers mightn’t mean anything to you, but suffice to say that they’re very limiting in one respect: unless the video was recently created by Apple or an Apple-approved tool - and possibly even if it was - it might not play on the Apple TV. For that reason and several others, even though videos piped through Apple TV can theoretically look fantastic, they may not. Our own experiences ranged from disappointing to great, depending on the type of content we pushed through it.
What looked great? QuickTime Pro 7.1.5-converted videos - including high-res ones - and current iTunes Store movies. If you have content that can be converted into a high-resolution format, such as 720p, and you don’t mind giving up the 5.1-channel surround sound for a 2-channel downmix, you’ll be impressed with how excellent your own freshly-converted videos will look on Apple TV. Even if you’re using iTunes or QuickTime’s 640x480-resolution convert for iPod feature, you’ll be generally happy with how most DVDs look - few people will be able to tell the difference between 640-pixel-wide videos on Apple TV and 720-pixel-wide DVDs, assuming they’ve been encoded properly, but the differences will be more noticeable on bigger (40+-inch) HDTVs.
Also, we had no problems at all watching streaming trailers on Apple TV - a feature you’ll find in the Movies menu, alongside previews of top iTunes TV shows and movies in their respective menus. Apple TV trailers and previews are not in ultra-high-definition like the 720i and 1080i/p trailers that we’ve been seeing recently, but they look very good and start playing quickly. Similarly, 30-second previews of top iTunes Store movies and TV shows work well, even if they’re missing the obvious feature - a Buy Now button - that people will be expecting.
What looked poor? Older 320x240 videos sold by Apple for the first year after the launch of the video portion of the iTunes Store look grainy and poor, but they’re still watchable. Our greatest disappointment was that videos we’ve converted from TiVo recordings, as well as with other programs, don’t always display properly on the TV’s screen. For some reason, Apple TV puts them into a small window at the center of the screen, with large black bars on all sides. As these videos played properly with both the iPod and iTunes, we can’t explain why Apple TV treats them differently, but hope that it’s not intentional.
There was one other category of videos: the unwatchable ones. We were surprised to discover that some of the H.264 movies we’ve tested without problems in iTunes and on iPods do not play properly on Apple TV. As with the heavily letterboxed display mentioned above, these videos exhibit serious macroblock and stuttering issues that suggest one of two things: either Apple has changed its standards and doesn’t mind rendering some previously viewable files unwatchable, or Apple TV needs an update to make certain videos play as well as they do in iTunes and on the iPod. Again, we’ll leave it for you to decide whether this is a bug, or Apple’s way of making users “prefer” iTunes Store or other authorized content.
For the record, our gut feeling is that these are just bugs - during video playback, even straight off Apple TV’s hard disk, we occasionally noticed small blips in video, such as a dropped frame or two, or occasionally a little mark appearing within the frame, unreplicatable when we rewound and watched again. Similarly, there were some times when streamed videos began to play on Apple TV without their first 3 or 4 seconds of video, only to emerge properly synched with the already-playing audio and worth without problems. Our guess is that Apple will fix these issues in the future.
Photos and the Apple Remote
By comparison with the video playback features, we have relatively little to say about Apple TV’s photo playback mode. Whether you find it impressive will depend largely upon your point of reference: it’s two steps up from the Mac’s Front Row software, one step up from the fifth-generation iPod’s Photos mode, and a step or two behind Apple consumer photo program iPhoto 6. If you haven’t seen any of these programs, the concept is simple: you tell iTunes which pictures you want to transfer over from a folder on your PC or Mac, then play back a slideshow of the pictures on Apple TV. If you’ve organized your pictures into albums, you can select them by albums, and in any case, you watch them with your choice of musical accompaniment.
Pictures display either as static images or with the Ken Burns Effect, a gentle sweeping and zooming motion that reveals additional details in the photo rather than displaying its entire body on the screen at once. You have a choice of numerous and impressive between-photo transition effects drawn from the latest iPhoto, and can use the remote solely to pause or skip forward or backward in the slideshow. Again, the + and - buttons do nothing - there’s not even a way to change music tracks, as with the iPod - and the Menu button takes you out of the slideshow.
In what appears to be a change from the demonstration version of Apple TV, you can’t watch a photo slideshow unless your photos have been synchronized to Apple TV’s hard drive - a process you’ll have to initiate through iTunes. We suspect this is either bandwidth- or debugging-related: when we last laid hands on Apple TV, we noticed that the unit’s photos screensaver tended to studder visually when photos were being streamed from a distant computer, but photos stored locally displayed just fine. Perhaps Apple ran out of debugging time before the product’s release and will remedy this in a future software update, or maybe not.
Music, Podcasts, and the Apple Remote
When we first saw Apple’s demonstration of the Apple TV music interface months ago, we were generally quite impressed: in addition to a white-on-black iPod-style text interface, the unit displays nice, high-resolution album covers on screen while you’re browsing through tracks, then puts the cover and a MTV-like text display up as a Now Playing screen. If you have a screensaver turned on, the screensaver will interrupt the Now Playing display, but otherwise, the cover and text will occasionally flip sides of the screen to prevent burn-in. It’s clean and simple, and though we hate to say “of course,” music sounds great through the analog, optical, and HDMI ports.
But now it also seems a bit boring. Leaving aside the prospect of 5.1-channel audio - desired for both music and movies by many home theater fans - the next-generation iTunes and widescreen iPod/iPhone interface based on Cover Flow has gotten us used to the idea of eye candy, and Apple TV’s fresh September, 2006 music interface now looks comparatively understated and traditional. DLO comes shockingly close to the same effect - albeit at lower resolution - with its most recent edition of HomeDock Deluxe, and Apple TV’s version doesn’t provide a lot of motivation to sit down and look at the screen. iTunes-style (or better) visualizers would help a bunch, but if you just plan to turn your music on and walk away from the screen, what’s here is fine.
The Apple Remote works mostly like the controls of Apple’s iPod shuffles. Play/pause works as expected, and again, the + and - buttons do nothing - you have no volume control over your music, nor access to equalization, song rating, lyrics, or other iPod-like features like full-screen album art. The backwards and forwards arrow buttons will skip through the current track in multi-second increments if held down, but if pressed quickly, they’ll skip to the previous or next song. Every time you change songs, the current song and album art will zoom out of the screen - possibly the music interface’s coolest effect. During audio playback, unlike the video and photo sections, presses of the Menu button will bring you back up a level on the menu without stopping your song, unless you leave the Music menu and return to the main Apple TV menu.
It’s worth mentioning that Apple has for some reason dropped support for Audible—formatted audio books from Apple TV, though it’s preserved support for its own audiobooks, and retained support for podcasts, video podcasts, and music videos. Podcasts and music are basically interchangeable in terms of interface and presentation, while video podcasts and music videos are subsumed into their parent categories and use the same Apple Remote controls mentioned under the Movies, TV Shows, and the Apple Remote section above.
Sources: Multiple Apple TVs or Multiple Computers with one Apple TV
Though Apple TV’s $299 price doesn’t necessary lend itself to multi-unit purchases for the average person’s home, we wanted to know what it was like to use two Apple TVs with one computer, multiple computers with one Apple TV, and multiple computers with multiple Apple TVs. We receive so many questions from readers about multiple iPod and multiple computer environments that we wanted to see if we could answer some of them in advance for Apple TV, so here’s what we found.
As suggested in the Setup and Interface section about, Apple TVs handle all three of these situations well, which we weren’t necessarily expecting to be the case. Networking is always a challenge, and even for a company with Apple’s expertise in simplifying this process, having multiple wireless devices - multiple computers, routers, and other hardware such as TiVos, PlayStation 3s, and Wiis - can seriously complicate the process of even bringing one new device, let alone two or three, into your home. To make a point which deserves to be underscored, despite small setup hiccups, multi-Apple TV and multi-computer hookups are surprisingly easy with Apple TV. You can flip between multiple streaming iTunes libraries with hardly any effort - we had three computers (two Macs, one PC) turned on at one point - and two Apple TVs co-existed just fine in the same environment. Apple allows up to five Apple TVs to be linked to the same iTunes library, and we suspect that they’d all work very nicely together.
That said, the multi-computer network wasn’t without its own little issues. Apple TV sometimes appeared to need a re-introduction to a previously linked computer when we tried to switch from one machine to another, a process that required de-linking the computer and re-initiating the 5-number password process again. Even though iTunes was on, it sometimes didn’t seem to be able to talk with the Apple TV after another machine had made a connection, and though we wanted to try a “refresh” or a way to force iTunes to start talking with the Apple TV to add more content, we didn’t see an easy option. Restarting iTunes and re-trying the password process always worked to re-establish the connection; restarting our computers was never necessary. Most of the time, however, Apple TV’s multi-computer switching was trouble-free.
We also had no problems when two Macs were syncing to two separate Apple TVs in the same environment. Everything behaved as expected, but because the transfer process is slow, you’ll have to ask yourself whether you want to keep two machines on, and synchronizing content with Apple TVs, for hours at a time. Over the course of that time, the sync process might be interrupted and incomplete, especially if you’re transferring over several large movies; we had this happen during our testing.
A Final Note on Omissions
Based on numerous reader and editor discussions, we feel obliged to mention one last point on Apple TV. We try to judge products on the performance and value provided by their actual features, rather than the ones people wished were included, and so you won’t see in our list of “Cons” many of the things readers have been begging Apple to include in a device like this: a TiVo-like digital video recorder, a disc player, or even the ability to play games.
But that doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t like to see them, or that they wouldn’t have helped Apple TV tremendously. We would have loved the ability to record TV programs with this device, and had it been equipped with a DVD or next-generation disc player, Apple TV would have been an ideal bridge replacement for the players people have been using for years. Absent these features, it doesn’t really replace anything in a home AV setup as much as compete with them for HDMI or component video ports. That’s a big contrast with Apple’s competitors’ approaches; Microsoft’s Xbox 360, Sony’s PlayStation 3, and other offerings like the Linksys 1600 all include disc drives and think bigger, so the only question at this point is whether Apple’s more minimalist strategy will appeal to more people than these multimedia but video-heavy devices.
When Apple develops a new product, it has three choices: cater to its own beliefs as to what consumers want, cater to the desires of its hardest core fans, or cater to the mainstream. There are dangers in each of these approaches - picture them in your own mind - but there’s one harsh truth that is as applicable in consumer electronics as it is in politics. As Tip O’Neill famously put it, “All politics is local,” or in other words, disregard the needs of your strongest supporters at your peril.
As slick as its interface and packaging may be, Apple TV ultimately doesn’t feel like a mainstream accessory: it’s billed as a music, photo, and video player, yet it’s very focused on video, and then, not the type of video that’s sitting on most iTunes users’ computers. A year and a half after Apple started to sell videos through the iTunes Store, customers outside of the United States still can’t buy TV shows or movies from it, and though such international users may have the ability - unlike Americans - to legally rip DVDs to Apple TV, there’s not yet a guarantee that the device will properly play the videos without macroblock or other display issues. As videos we converted with ADS Tech’s hardware H.264 encoder Instant Video To-Go proved unwatchable, the fastest iTunes-compatible transcoding solution we know of has been rendered useless - unless Apple updates the device to guarantee that all iTunes-viewable videos are similarly Apple TV-viewable.
In our view, Apple TV isn’t, as some have suggested, a solution in search of a problem, but rather a partial solution in need of being completed. More and better content - particularly free, easy tools for user-created and -converted video files - would go a long way towards that goal, and software updates to fix its current bugs and hopefully add video format support could make Apple TV a big success. But in its current form, as user-friendly as it is when you turn it on, it’s not as friendly when you try to fill it up with great-looking content. For that reason, it deserves its widespread labelling as a somewhat impressively executed but ultimately niche product - one that has done enough on ease of use and interface to earn better than the limited recommendation (B-) it would otherwise have merited.
[Note: This review was modestly updated after original publication to include an additional sync test result, conclusion details, and fixed photos. Reviews of XtremeMac’s compatible video cables, and other pre-release information about Apple TV, can be found at our All Things Apple TV page here.]
Apple’s 160GB, $399 Version of Apple TV
The months that have passed since our initial Apple TV review have been relatively eventful by Apple hardware standards: as noted on our All Things Apple TV page, and in The Free iPod Book 3.0, hackers have found ways to change the device’s applications, operating system, and 40GB hard drive. Subsequently, Apple announced plans to frequently update the device’s software to add new features such as a YouTube video browser. And it has recently characterized Apple TV as a “hobby” for the company, not an Apple core business, tacitly acknowledging that its living room solution hasn’t taken off like the portable iPod—yet.
More unexpected was this: Apple quietly announced the early June release of a higher-capacity, 160GB version of Apple TV ($399). Buried in a press release heralding a mid-June release of its YouTube software application, the hardware update is seemingly a response by Apple to the four or five companies that have been offering Apple TV hard drive upgrades for as much as $300, including round-trip shipping. The 160GB unit formats out to 144.75GB—4.4 times the available capacity of its 40GB/sub-33GB formatted predecessor—and can hold 200 hours of video or over 36,000 songs, by Apple’s estimates. Doing the math, the 160GB model actually falls only a hint under holding 40,000 standard iTunes downloads, versus the 9,000 songs of the prior model.
Other than the capacity bump, the 160GB Apple TV is unchanged. It still ships bare, packaged with little more than a power cord, Apple Remote, and manuals, and therefore forces you to buy video and audio cables separately. Similarly, in shape, size, markings, and ports, it’s no different from the model that came before: but not for the price and a sticker with a tiny 160GB reference on its box, you’d never tell it apart from the 40GB model until you turned it on. Even then, only an About screen reveals the higher capacity. Since it is so similar to the prior version, it doesn’t merit a completely new review, but a few comments are in order.
That the new 160GB Apple TV arrives a mere two months after the 40GB version is guaranteed to evoke mixed feelings. On one hand, it feels more like the product Apple should initially have released, or at least enabled through a USB-connected external drive, as its now considerable hard disk is twice as capable of storing movies and TV shows as the company’s biggest iPod. The importance of this extra capacity cannot be overstated: dependent as it is upon a widescreen, superior-definition television, Apple TV doesn’t do its best when playing back iPod-ready, low-resolution videos, and all but needs the extra space to serve as an effective next-generation video player. If you are thinking of buying an Apple TV, you’re probably doing so for the video, not the audio, so the 160GB model is the version we would be most inclined to recommend.
On the other hand, as with other soon-after-initial release Apple product updates, many of those who bought Apple TV in March are already feeling burned by such a fast and comparatively affordable new update. We’re partially sympathetic. Adding a 160GB drive to the prior Apple TV couldn’t be accomplished for much less than $150 before now, and resulted in voiding the device’s warranty. Apple’s not offering an upgrade service. So the “buy a new 160GB model” alternative may attract new Apple TV buyers, but it leaves many of Apple’s strongest fans—Apple TV’s earliest adopters—feeling as if they shouldn’t have jumped on the bandwagon so soon.
If you can put that disappointment aside, or haven’t yet bought an Apple TV, the reality is that the new 160GB model shares all of the benefits of its 40GB predecessor. Over the course of the last two months, we’ve spent plenty of time with the prior Apple TV, and found its performance as a media player to be very consistent, though not outstanding. When provided the right source material in video or audio format, it looks and sounds wonderful, taking nearly optimal technical advantage of a high-definition television set and excellent pair of speakers, respectively. Though it could benefit from even better music and photo display features, and doesn’t offer the surround sound audio horsepower of a DVD player during movie playback, its simplicity for music, movie, photo and movie trailer navigation and viewing, plus the ease with which it transitions from playing back streaming to stored content, are otherwise impressive.
But its bottlenecks remain: unlike Apple’s format-agnostic QuickTime, Apple TV remains capable of playing back only certain MPEG-4 and H.264-format videos, requiring you to waste extended time encoding files, and in some cases finding additional software before you can view TV shows, movies, or home videos you may already own. And its synchronization process with iTunes is labored: even using Apple’s latest AirPort Extreme 802.11n router and an 802.11n-equipped computer, it took the better part of a full day to put 100GB worth of content on the new hard drive, a process that will double or quadruple in time on slower 802.11g networks, and only decreasse if you can run an Ethernet cable from your computer to the device.
With modest feature tweaks—additional video format support, the ability to connect to external USB hard disks, and superior presentation of music and photo content—even the original 40GB Apple TV could have been a great device, quite possibly a core Apple product, and to its credit, the new 160GB model does go part of the way to eliminating at least the storage-related concerns. At $399, it’s not going to light the world on fire, but it’s certainly going to take the wind out of the sails of companies that have offered hard drive replacements for older models. With the right software updates and some bundled cable promotions, Apple could easily remedy virtually all of Apple TV’s remaining concerns; however, it remains to be seen whether Apple will address them, or just use additional applications such as YouTube to try and bolster the appeal of its $299-$399 “hobby” products. We continue to hope that pragmatism wins out here, and that Apple TV becomes what users truly want it to be, sooner rather than later or too late at all to matter.