Review: Apple TV Take 2 (40GB/160GB)
Pros: An iTunes format movie and music player for high-definition televisions, capable of acquiring content on its own from the Internet or accessing a computer’s iTunes library. Supports playback of high-resolution (720p) rented or user-created videos, as well as streamed or synchronized YouTube, music, photo, and podcast content, using a relatively straightforward interface and 802.11b/g/n wireless networking gear. Runs quiet, consumes little space, and includes Apple Remote; works with iTunes software to let you move certain purchased content back and forth from the device. Now functions as an AirTunes client to stream audio content wirelessly from an iTunes-equipped computer, even simultaneously with other AirTunes devices. Available in 40GB or 160GB versions, more reasonably priced than prior models.
Cons: You’ll have to create, convert, or buy compatible content, based on Apple-limited video format support; YouTube, iPod-formatted, and previously purchased iTunes Store videos can look downright bad on larger HDTVs. Does not include video or audio cables of any sort, and may not be compatible with certain TVs that it can physically connect to. Wireless hard disk synchronization can take a very long time to fill over standard wireless connection, such that 802.11n is strongly recommended. Doesn’t connect wirelessly to other Apple TVs or network storage devices, and integrated USB port does not allow connection of useful accessories such as a keyboard or additional storage. Music playback and photo features are acceptable but not mindblowing; could still benefit from simple tweaks. Small glitches and omissions in certain Store, video and audio features detract from overall experience.
Originally announced under the tentative name “iTV,” the 7.7-inch-square, 1.1-inch-tall Apple TV received its final name in January 2007, and after a brief delay was released on March 21, 2007 as a “DVD player for the 21st century.” Apple explained that the device was designed to let you enjoy your iTunes-equipped computer’s video, audio, and photo content on a widescreen TV, offering higher-resolution output capabilities than an iPod, with both a lower price and a more TV-ready interface than a Macintosh computer. There were limitations—Apple TV didn’t have an actual DVD player, TV tuner, or recording capabilities built in—but like an iPod, the company initially suggested that playback of iTunes-formatted content was a compelling reason for users to buy it.
Similar in design to Apple’s previously released Mac mini computer, Apple TV surrounded a glossy plastic top and rubberized bottom shell with a rounded square of aluminum, replacing the Mac mini’s rear computer monitor- and accessory-friendly ports with ones designed to connect to high-definition televisions and audio receivers. Gone was the traditional Mac keyboard and mouse combination, replaced by a simpler, packed-in white plastic Apple Remote control, and the only other plastic item in the box was a power cord. You supplied the audio and video cables for your own TV and speaker setup, typically at a cost of $20-40, depending on the connections you wanted to make. But you didn’t have to supply a networking cable; Apple included an 802.11b/g/n wireless card that you load the device with content using your existing home network.
On a positive note, version 1.0 of Apple TV basically worked as promised right out of the box, assuming you had both the HDTV and cables to hook it up. An enhanced version of Front Row—Apple software developed to let Mac users navigate their iTunes collections from afar—was the Apple TV’s widely liked interface, making it easy to wirelessly transfer and enjoy MPEG-4 or H.264 movies, similarly formatted TV shows, MP3, AAC, or Apple Lossless-formatted music, podcasts, and photos originally stored on a nearby computer with iTunes. The problem was that too few people were interested in picking the box up to give it a try.
Though Apple rolled out expensive in-store displays and TV commercials for the device, it was obvious from the start that Apple TV wasn’t appealing to the masses. Early on, Apple Store visitors frequently commented that videos didn’t look very good on the demo units; Apple TV virtually required a high-definition television set, yet Apple didn’t have any HD content to offer. The company tried to negotiate iTunes Store deals with leading film studios, but met with considerable resistance, so it turned to YouTube to provide free but low-quality streaming video content for the device, and tried to spotlight certain podcasts as examples of compelling high-definition content. Not surprisingly, these initiatives didn’t help Apple TV’s fortunes.
There were other issues. Users who bought the 40GB device found that its 33 usable Gigabytes of hard disk space weren’t enough to hold a lot of their video content, and though wireless re-synchronization wasn’t painful, it was time-consuming. Actually creating Apple TV-friendly videos was a pain, too: Apple initially provided no free Apple TV-specific video encoding tools, and for legal reasons, ignored users’ requests for a DVD-to-Apple TV conversion feature. Only in June 2007, after releasing a more expensive, higher-capacity 160GB Apple TV, did the company add a “Convert Selection for Apple TV” feature into iTunes, but even then, the software wouldn’t convert DVDs, and ran slowly when it was given files it could process. Even the hardest-core fans of Apple TV were forced to concede that it wasn’t right for everyone; for months, stories of adventurous people hacking the Apple TV outnumbered stories about people using it as intended.