In order to preserve our earlier coverage of Apple TV, which was announced by Apple Computer as iTV only to see both the company and the product change names, we have placed this archived version of our past iTV & Apple TV coverage here for your reference. Enjoy!
Now on its third update, this First Look is designed to provide you with as much factual information on Apple TV as possible prior to our final review. Since we’ve been covering the device in pre-release form for many months, we have several other links that may be of interest to you: a video of its interface can be seen here, while two sets of our editors’ initial opinions – one from January, the other from early March – are also available.
Rounded, Mac mini-like corners aside, Apple TV measures 7.7 inches square and 1.1 inches tall – a larger footprint than the 6.5 inch square by 2 inch tall Mac mini, but shorter, and holding its power supply inside. It ships with only a power cable, infrared Apple Remote control, and instructions; you must provide the other cables yourself. XtremeMac has been selected as the official provider of Apple TV audio and video cables, which it sells for $15 to $20 each in HDMI>HDMI, HDMI>DVI, and Component Video varieties, amongst others.
These cables – and both generic and higher-priced alternatives of the same connector types – are the only way to connect Apple TV to your television set. The unit lacks a “standard” RCA composite video port and an S-video port, and is not designed to be connected to older 4:3-aspect ratio televisions. It’s made solely for use with widescreen displays, namely ones with a minimum display resolution of 480p, and is not guaranteed to work with any other type of television. It also includes an optical (TOSLINK) audio-out and “standard” RCA-style stereo audio-outs, as well as a 10/100 Ethernet port and a USB 2.0 port. The Ethernet port provides a wired networking option, while the USB port’s functionality is presently unclear: it is known to be used for repair and diagnostic purposes, and may provide additional capabilities in the future.
Once Apple TV is connected to wall power and your television, it puts on a brief show of its own. Unlike any prior Apple consumer hardware, Apple TV starts up with an elaborate video showing the transformation of a wall full of videos into droplets of light that then fall into an Apple TV unit – symbolic of the unit’s ability to store a wide variety of digital video content in its small body. The video, developed by commercial design house Logan, runs for seven seconds prior to the appearance of Apple TV’s on-screen menu interface.
Based on Apple’s Front Row software for consumer Macintosh computers, and once called “Front Row 2.0” by the company, this interface enables you to wirelessly access the contents of an iTunes library stored on a remote computer, as well as content that has been stored on Apple TV’s built-in 40GB hard drive. Large ever-moving icons appear on the left hand side of the screen to indicate the type of content you’re about to access from the right-side list of choices, as well as denoting a robust settings menu and a list of different media sources you can connect to. If no iTunes-equipped wireless computer is turned on, Apple TV will only be able to play the content stored on its own hard drive – unless you have more than one Apple TV. Up to five Apple TVs can be synced to a single iTunes 7.1 installation.
Apple TV’s Movies and TV Shows menus feature box art on the left with time and description text beneath, and a list of other content on the right, grouped by series, or ungrouped as a list. You can also see lists of iTunes Top TV Shows and Movie Trailers to download for easy viewing on the device – the Top Shows lets you see 30-second previews, but doesn’t instantly download those shows.
Video playback looks like this – when you use the remote to go forward or backward, the video is now overlaid by a smaller, more opaque, but still clean scrubber bar on the bottom with icons and time markers. All video is scaled automatically to a widescreen 480p, 720p, or 1080i display.
Music playback has a clean new Now Playing interface, aided by a screen-saving automatic occasional flipping of the image from one side of the screen to another. Music Videos are now filed under the Music heading, as well, letting you easily access both audio and video music content from the same hierarchy.
Podcasts – both video and audio – are found in the Podcasts menu. Short details such as title, time, date, and artist appear underneath the iTunes-synced screenshot from the podcast.
Apple is very proud of the Photos section of Apple TV, which is a substantial evolution of the Front Row photo funtionality.
You can still choose from any synced collection of photographs you’d prefer to see, as well as your entire synced library, or Last Roll or Last 12 Months, but now there are some major settings menus – some derived from the fifth-generation iPod.
Numerous transition effects – the iPhoto collection – are available, and look especially excellent when displayed on a large, high-resolution display like the Sony Bravia XBR set shown here. You can also change slideshow timing, music, repeating and shuffling on and off, as well as the famed Ken Burns zooming and panning effect that iPhoto’s been using so well for years. Interestingly, pre-composed slideshows will retain their own transition and Ken Burns settings despite any settings changes you make.
Another unit-specific Settings menu provides access to Apple TV’s numerous under-the-hood options.
Some of the more interesting discoveries: despite the demonstration models’ 720p-locked displays, final Apple TV hardware will include a toggle between 480p, 720p, and 1080i, with 576p also available for users of PAL-compatible televisions. At the current time, 1080p isn’t supported.
Network settings are rendered fairly simple through the interface. Configuration options appear to be straightforward, and again, you can connect to an 802.11b, g, or n network. While music streaming should be nearly flawless regardless of your network configuration, the performance hit from an 802.11b environment may inhibit realtime video streaming, but you’ll still be able to synchronize videos and watch them, just as with an iPod; 802.11g will make realtime video streaming and general data transmissions faster, and 802.11n will be able to handle even faster data transmissions – including perhaps high-definition videos – without a problem.
A set of three screen savers lets you choose to display moving album covers, moving photos from your collection (high-resolution tiles), or a bouncing Apple logo to prevent screen burn-in; you can set the timing for the screen saver and preview each mode in this menu.
Also in the Settings menu: the longest legal notice we can ever remember seeing. Apple sends extended shouts out to an incredible number of developers, even including Creative Labs at one point.
The Sources menu lets you pick the iTunes library you want to pair Apple TV with; the iTunes content is number locked (5 digits) from your computer.
Thanks to its hard drive, Apple TV can serve as an “always on” device, automatically synchronizing the newest content from your iTunes library for viewing whenever you get back to your television, or you can put it in sleep mode by holding down the remote’s play/pause button for several seconds. Though the device cannot play back many of the popular video file formats out there, you can create Apple TV-compatible videos – including 320×240, 640×480, 720×404, and even 1280×720 (720P), high-resolution files -using Apple’s QuickTime 7.1.5 software. The company now lists Apple TV’s maximum bitrate as up to 5 Mbps and 1280×720/24 frames per second with H.264 video, versus a maximum of 3 Mbps and 720×432/30 frames per second with MPEG-4.
We’ll have more on Apple TV soon.
iTV: September 12, 2006
During today’s Showtime event in San Francisco, Apple CEO Steve Jobs offered an unexpected “sneak peek” at the company’s media router, tentatively titled iTV. The device, which is slightly larger than a Mac mini computer dimensionally, is planned for release in the first quarter of 2007 at a price of $299, and enables any iTunes 7-equipped Mac or PC to spool media content to a current-generation television set. iTV includes component video, HDMI, optical audio and RCA-style stereo audio ports, plus an Ethernet port, 802.11 wireless connectivity, and a power cable; the power supply is inside the unit. Videos, music, photos, podcasts, and movie trailers from Apple can all be performed on your home TV/AV system with the unit, which connects either directly to your TV or a set top box.
iTV’s interface is an evolved version of Front Row for the Macintosh, featuring access to Movies, TV Shows, Music, Podcasts, and Photos. Each of the icons at left zooms up as you select one of the choices from the right-side menu using an Apple Remote control; Infrared is still the way the system is accessed.
Initially, the Movies menu brings you to iTunes Store Presents and Theatrical Trailers options before providing access to your movie library: you can wirelessly stream this content from Apple’s Internet sites directly to your TV.
Cover art icons float in on the left side of the screen while you’re browsing the text menu. The art is presented in the same format as its source material – album covers as squares, movie covers as DVD box-style rectangles.
You can also get a full preview of the movie’s content in text format, just like a TiVo or other DVR-style listing.
Other content, such as Podcasts, is accessed through the same style interface; the presentation of music and other audio content isn’t quite as stylish as Front Row from what we saw here, but could change by the time of the iTV’s release next year.