Ten Geek Details on Apple TV

Ten Geek Details on Apple TV 1

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.

  1. In general, I love this device. I have had no issues streaming or syncing content. I have an all 802.11N network. It’s linterface is beautiful and sexy. It’s going to be a big hit with my guests, as I throw many parties at my place.

    However, I do have some issues with ¡t, most of which probally can be corrected with a software/firmware update.

    1. No volume control with the Apple Remote, even using the RCA outputs. Even Apple’s $39 AV Dock lets you set your receiver at a maxium level, then lower your volume with the Apple Remote. It is unfathomable to me why a $299 device doesn’t do this as well. I see some 3rd party remotes coming that mimic the Apple remote, add seperate volume buttons, and learn your receiver’s remote’s volume commands.

    2. iTunes and Apple TV treat music videos like audio songs from a category perspective, but in practice treat them like movies. When I play music videos and hit next on the remote, it doesn’t skip to the next music video. It’s skips ahead a few seconds like I was watching a movie. In fact, when the video ends, it doesn’t even go on to the next music video. It just returns to the menu. This has to have been overlooked by Apple

    3. I got a new DVD player recently when I bought my HDTV. The DVD player has an HMDI connection on the back. When I play a DVD through it, the player up-converts the video, formats it for 16X9, and de-interlaces. I was hoping this was a standard with HDMI video devices. No such luck with Apple TV. I get 4:3, with interlaced lines on TV content. Best practice is to let the hardware de-interlace, and not modfiy your video file source.

  2. The Apple Remote does not change the volume, though it is the same remote Apple sells for use with other devices (iPod, all Macs) that do change volume when you press + or -.

  3. Hey Jeremy,

    If I have a MBP and a Flat Screen Sony HD TV, what do I need the Apple TV for? It would seem like overkill wouldn’t it considering I have my entire iTunes library on the MBP. If I buy a DVi to HDMI cable, I pretty much have HD TV and movies don’t I? This is a bit confusing. I called Apple and the sales guy could not explain, but he continued to try and sell me the Apple TV.

    Thanks in advance.

  4. Niles: I’m glad that there is no volume control on the Apple TV. I’m sick of having to individually adjust the volume and levels on each device that I own.

    All audio equipment should just output at unity, and let you control the volume at one source. Either your amp, receiver, mixer, or television. At least in my humble opinion.

  5. Don: Strictly speaking, you don’t, as noted in the [url=https://www.ilounge.com/index.php/articles/comments/top-ten-reasons-you-dont-need-apple-tv-yet/]Top Ten Reasons You Don’t Need Apple TV (yet)[/url] article posted yesterday. Even an iPod with a video cable can do many of the same things. If you’re buying Apple TV, you’re paying for the convenience of not tying up your notebook computer or iPod, and compromising a bit on video formats, etc (notebook) or on-screen menu display (iPod).

    ~: Erasing the iPod’s library and using it as a data drive for your iTunes collection – in other words, stripping it of its ability to work as an iPod. Totally impractical, and only helps in the abstract (accessing off-computer library via iTunes->Apple TV).

  6. One of the first things the AppleTV asks when you start it is “what resolution is your screen”. I’ve never tried using 480 (being outside of the US) but 576i seemed to work fine.

    Also, most items you attach to your sound system do not offer the ability to change the volume. I can see the point about using RCA but if you have ever used Foxtel via Optical it can be confusing that you can change the volume on the box but your volume level doesn’t actually change. By having a set volume level, there is no confusion about where to set the volume. Do you normally adjust TV volume on your DVD?

  7. My TV allows me to match all of the volumes across the board to the same level. My Xbox has the same level as my DVD, as my Digi-box.

  8. I still have a basic question: does one HAVE TO transfer all their music/movies/photos onto AppleTV in order for them to be played? I ask because I, for example, have about 90GB of music and movies, which is obviously much more than the ATV’s 40GB drive can accommodate. Can I choose to ONLY stream the data? Otherwise, it seems I’d constantly have to add data to, and remove it from, the ATV in order for it to be played.


  9. I have a widescreen projector in my theater, I currently use it in 480p mode with my progressive scan DVD player. I had thought that the Apple TV would work as well, and I was thinking about replacing my Elgato EyeHome with one. Are you saying that I’m out of luck since my projector isn’t HD?

  10. I, for one, am glad there is no volume control on the AppleTV itself. My DVD player, Dish DVR, and Xbox 360 are the same way, why would I want the AppleTV to be any different? This is a device positioned to sit alongside those other devices in an entertainment center, not an iPod dock. It should output at line level and be adjusted through your sound system or TV volume.

  11. glad to see someone else is having the same issues with older encodes stuttering. some of my older files will even crash the device, yet they don’t crash my Mac. Music video functionality blows, and having to sync photos is totally lame. last gripe is the screensaver: it’s useless unless you sync your library. if you fill up the device with video and decide to stream audio, no album artwork screensaver for you. similar issue with photo screensaver.

  12. acroix, only photos have to be synced/transferred to AppleTV. Movies & music can be streamed.

    And I’m with GM80 & Zaxor on the volume issue. The AppleTV is just another AV component. I’ll be controlling volume through my AV receiver just like all my other AV components.

    That said… maybe Apple should have considered making the remote programmable, so that the volume buttons could control volume on your TV or receiver.

  13. Hey,

    “Apple TV does best when it has a 802.11n network – such as the one in Apple’s AirPort Express Base Stations – in place.”

    I’m pretty sure that the Apple Airport Extreme is the base station with “n” capabilities.

    Still understood it

    Just trying to help 🙂

    ps. great article

  14. I’ll explain why I want to control Apple TV’s volume from the remote.

    I host many parties at my apartment. I used Apple’s AV Dock and their remote to skip songs and control the volume. Even with soundcheck on, different songs have different volumes. Apple’s remote was convientent to adjust the volume on the fly. It’s simple, and easily understood by any guest using it. We left it laying on my glass bar across the room from the amp/dock/speakers. That’s why I really wanted Apple TV. So everybody can see the songs they are trying to play. Now, I’ll have to have the Apple Remote, along with clunky Amp remote on the bar, and use them in conjuction. This is no where near as elegant and using Apple’s simple remote. Apple established a precendent with Front Row, iPod Hi-Fi, and the AV dock that the remote controls volume. No reason to remove it here.

    I can understand if you don’t want the remote to control your volume, but shouldn’t that be up to the user to decide in the settings? Why take away choice and functionaility?

  15. The volume control will be an issue with me. Technically, I totally agree that volume should be controlled by the audio component, but in practice that means if I want to move around the room I have to lug my big stupid landscape-oriented remote just for volume control. Not happy about this. We need a remote that replaces the Apple one with the same functionality but with volume controls that can control the audio component, all in the one remote. two devices–one remote.

  16. Hi Jeremy
    I am at a friend that have a motorbike shop equipped with 4 macs and he wants to play (if possible) different videos on 2 or 3 big plasma.
    So I thought that one appletv per screen could do the job. but do we need to run one video per mac?

  17. One Apple TV per screen will work — just make sure each Apple TV has the video stored on its own hard drive rather than streaming from the Mac.

  18. Not sure anyone’s still around to read this, but I’ll try anyway …

    I have a JVC i’Art AV-27F704 and trying to determine if it’ll work with Apple TV. It’s 480i though not widescreen (as item #6 in the article seems to suggest), with component video inputs. Sounds like Apple TV will only output black and white when configured for 480i (even using component input) and nothing at all for 480p.

    I could tolerate a squishy UI and other glitches until upgrading my TV, but lack of color would be an immediate deal-killer and ice the decision to try WD HD Live instead.

    Any feedback would be appreciated – thanks!

  19. Results of TVs we’ve tested with 480i have been very poor. Apple doesn’t really offer proper support for 480i and we wouldn’t recommend the Apple TV as a good solution; a plain iPod with a dock would work better.

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