Six months after it was announced, Apple TV is finally here, and of course, our testing is well underway. In order to canvas a variety of different televisions and possible usage models, iLounge’s editors have assembled a robust testing environment for our two Apple TV units: four computers, five HDTVs ranging in size and resolution, one widescreen non-HDTV, and audio receivers with and without optical audio inputs. Prior to our final review, we wanted to share some of our preliminary findings for those who are interested.
1. The 40GB hard disk actually has a formatted capacity of under 33GB. Unlike 40GB iPods, which typically provide a little over 37GB of formatted capacity, Apple TV’s 40GB hard disk has 32.83GB of available space for your media content. What’s taking up an iPod nano worth of space? A start-up video clip is probably responsible for a tiny fraction of it, with the unit’s operating system to blame for a larger portion.
2. Apple TV’s optical and analog audio ports work simultaneously, but neither is volume-attenuated. Good news – if you’ve hooked Apple TV up to both a TV and an optical/TOSLINK port-equipped home audio receiver, you’ll find that audio plays through both at the same time. But you’ll need to use your TV and/or receiver’s remote to change the volume level. Unlike Apple’s iPod Universal Dock and iPod AV Connection Kit, both of which allow you to adjust audio volume via the + and – buttons on the Apple Remote and a smart engineering trick called attenuation, Apple TV provides no volume control functionality, by default or by an optional setting.
3. QuickTime Pro-converted videos – including high-res ones – and current iTunes Store videos look great, but old (320×240) iTunes videos do not. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Apple TV-formatted videos created by QuickTime, and recent 640×480 videos purchased from the iTunes Store, look great on a television connected to Apple TV. 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 (see below). Older 320×240 videos sold by Apple for the first year after the launch of the iTunes video Store look grainy and poor by comparison, but they’re still watchable.
4. Streaming trailers and 30-second video previews work great on Apple TV – maybe better than on Macs. We’ve had issues now and again getting the Trailers feature of Front Row on the Mac to work properly – sometimes trailers hang instead of downloading. But we’ve had no problems at all watching trailers on Apple TV: they’re 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.
5. A big video caveat: file format support is not as clear cut as you might expect. Everyone knows Apple TV will only play H.264 and MPEG-4 videos – meager format support – but we were surprised to find that some of the H.264 movies we’ve tested without problems in iTunes and on iPods do not play properly on Apple TV. There are serious macroblock issues and stuttering 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. Similarly, some TiVo-transferred videos we tested – some of the ones not purchased from the iTunes Store – do not display properly on the TV’s screen. iTunes Store purchased videos, not surprisingly, fill at least a properly (two-bar) letterboxed screen, if not the entire widescreen, but other videos sometimes have four large bars around them, reducing the viewing window to a small box in the center of the screen. 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.
6. Not every “widescreen TV” will work properly. Back in january, Apple was very explicit when we discussed Apple TV as a solution for high-definition television sets – then, they corrected us, Apple TV was for widescreen TVs, not just high-definition ones. Fair enough; there are some widescreen, non-HD sets out there. So we connected Apple TV to a JVC i’Art television with a widescreen display and component video inputs, and used the default video output setting. Amazingly, the i’Art would only display a black and white image from Apple TV – the color was completely stripped out.
Poking through the unit’s settings, it turns out that Apple TV was in 480i output mode – we didn’t even know it had such a mode until that point – and the i’Art TV was using that mode. So we switched to 480p, and the i’Art TV wouldn’t work. So was Apple TV to blame? Only partially: the JVC set is an example of a widescreen, non HD set that doesn’t work with Apple TV. And the same 480i mode resulted in a color, but not properly formatted picture on another television we tested. So when Apple says in its tech specs that Apple TV supports 480p or better resolution, ignore the fact that there’s a 480i setting, and don’t expect it to work on a non-HD widescreen TV.
7. Multiple Apple TVs, multiple computers. We’ve tried several different testing scenarios with our Apple TVs – two units connected to one iTunes library, one unit connected two iTunes libraries, and two units connected to two iTunes libraries. Thankfully, each mode works, so far with only modest hiccups; we’ll discuss most of them later. In two-and-two mode, you’ll need to switch between the libraries manually, and pick only one library to copy in part to Apple TV’s hard disk (sync), which isn’t a surprise.
8. You can’t connect an iPod to Apple TV for data through its USB port or through iTunes. Apple never said that this would work, but it doesn’t, so if you have an iPod full of content and don’t want to duplicate all of that content in your iTunes library, you’re out of luck: if it’s not in iTunes, it’s not on Apple TV. And even if your iPod’s connected to a computer with iTunes – unless you use a stealthy but impractical hack – its library isn’t going to be on Apple TV, either. On a more positive note, Apple TV’s USB port will charge a connected iPod, and who knows what future software upgrades may change here.
9. Streaming speed and network behaviors will vary based on your network and connected devices. Apple TV does best when it has a 802.11n network – such as the one in Apple’s AirPort Express Base Stations – in place. We’ve been testing with one, and though we’ve had some surprising network issues – one of our two Apple TVs initially didn’t see the network, while the other did but failed the first 5 times to log in – the whole network setup process was otherwise straightforward and easy. Other than the oddball H.264 videos noted above, we’ve seen no stuttering in streamed videos even at 802.11g speeds, just a lack of completely realtime fast forwarding and rewinding. That said, if you pair an 802.11g machine and an 802.11n machine with Apple TV, it may display closer to 802.11g performance when streaming videos from even the 802.11n device.
10. No sync, no Photos option. Apple TV’s main menu is supposed to have options for music, videos, and photos, but when you turn it on, the Photos section is missing. Why? Now you have to synchronize your photo library to Apple TV’s hard drive, or you can’t view photos. 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.
We’ll have more to share in our final review, coming soon.