[REVIEW] Apple TV

26Mar07

Apple Inc. Apple TV © iLounge.com

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.

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.
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.

picpic

Company: Apple Computer

Website: www.Apple.com

Model: Apple TV

Price: $299

Compatible: PC/Mac


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By Jeremy Horwitz

Editor-in-Chief, iLounge
Published: Friday, March 23, 2007
Category: Apple TV and Accessories

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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.

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.

Performance Concerns

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 1280×720 pixels, 24 frames per second, with AAC-LC
audio up to 160Kbps, and 5Mbps total bitrate, with alternate modes
ranging from 960×540 at 30fps to 640×480 and 320×240 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 640×480-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 320×240 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.

Conclusions

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.]

A Note From the Editors of iLounge:
Though all products and services reviewed by iLounge are “final,” many
companies now make changes to their offerings after publication of our
reviews, which may or may not be reflected above. This iLounge article provides more information on this practice, known as revving.

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5 Responses to “[REVIEW] Apple TV”

  1. 1 ...

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  1. 1 pcsatellitetv
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