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Apple TV: The Real Video iPod

Although the iPod has been “video-enabled” for more than a year, Apple treats video playback on the portable device as an incidental extra feature. The upcoming iPhone comes closest to the video iPod that Apple fans have been waiting for, with its widescreen-capable display. However, it turns out that Apple’s true video iPod was released last week – and it’s the Apple TV.

No one will mistake the screen-less, silver box for an iPod, of course, but in functionality – from the features to the menus – the Apple TV is the iPod’s wireless, tricked-out cousin. Rather than build a box that would dominate your living room and take over your television (as the Windows Media Center attempts to do), Apple designed the Apple TV to be as familiar and easy to use as its multi-million-selling portable media player.

The Apple TV started to become available last week after a three-week delay from Apple’s original shipping estimate. I received mine on Friday, and although I’ve spent a fair amount of time doing research from the couch, I’m not ready to write a full review. Instead, I want to pass on my initial impressions, along with some valuable pointers and sources of other great information that have appeared online. For a rundown of the basic specs and capabilities, see our article from Macworld Expo, “Apple TV Connects Macs and TVs” (2007-01-15).

The Good and the Bad — Bridging the chasm between the computer and the television isn’t trivial. The Mac mini was a solid first step in the living room (and may be preferred by some people, as I’ll explain shortly), but it was still a computer attached to a television. You interact with it like a computer, and the television just happens to be a different variety of monitor. Apple’s Front Row software is helpful, certainly, but you have to switch out of “computer mode” into “Front Row mode” to get close to the simple, menu-driven method that most people use to operate their televisions.

The Apple TV may be a Mac OS X computer at heart, but it operates with a singular focus as a menu-driven gateway to your media. Its interface is almost exactly like an iPod: a main screen containing categories (movie, music, photos, settings) that lead to lists of each item type, all listed as you would find them on an iPod. So, the first main benefit of the Apple TV is that it will be familiar to everyone who has used an iPod.

But the Apple TV needs to overcome some hurdles, so let’s get them out of the way first. It’s not a TiVo that records broadcast television; the only link with any type of TV feed would be if you decide to stack the Apple TV on top of your TiVo or cable box. (I don’t recommend putting anything on top of the Apple TV: it runs really hot!)

It’s also not a DVD player. Its content comes from other computers on your home network (Mac or Windows), and only via iTunes. As a result, the image quality of movies is, practically speaking, limited to what Apple calls “near DVD quality”: 640 by 480 pixels using H.264 encoding. That’s actually not terrible, but it is noticeably worse than a DVD’s output. For this reason, some people may choose to go with a Mac mini or a stand-alone DVD player. Another disadvantage is that the Apple TV supports Dolby Pro Logic audio, not Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound.

Of course, you can rip DVDs that you own using a program like MediaFork (formerly known as HandBrake), MPEG Streamclip, or VisualHub, import the movie files into iTunes, and then synchronize or stream the video to the Apple TV. However, Apple’s tagline of “If it’s on iTunes, it’s on your widescreen” is a little misleading. Although iTunes can play a variety of video formats, it won’t synchronize or stream material that isn’t MPEG-4 video encoded with H.264. If you ripped your DVD library into a different format, you’ll need to re-encode the movies.

The device does support 720p HD video, which is 1280 by 720 pixels, but so far the only content at that resolution are HD movie trailers and samples from Apple (the 720p option) or video you provide. If you have an HD video camera and QuickTime Pro, you can export footage from iMovie or QuickTime Player into Apple TV format. I’m optimistic that Apple will provide HD movies from the iTunes Store at some point, but even with compression, the file sizes for feature-length movies would be large enough that it would take many hours to download them over a typical home broadband Internet connection. (A feature-length movie purchased from the iTunes Store is about 1.5 GB, while HD content
would be about 16 times larger than that.)

And although it includes built-in 802.11n wireless networking (making it backwards-compatible with 802.11g and 802.11b networks; see “AirPort Extreme 802.11n Throughput Limits,” 2007-01-29), the Apple TV can’t download much content from the Internet, such as from sites like YouTube. It will stream 30 second previews of selected material from the iTunes Store (the day’s top songs, movies, etc.), but you need to purchase the songs or movies from within iTunes on a computer. Direct purchasing and downloading is another feature that I wouldn’t be surprised to see in the future once Apple TV gains a foothold in the market.

Lastly, it won’t work on most televisions. You need, in Apple’s words, a “widescreen, enhanced-definition or high-definition TV capable of 1080i, 720p, 576p, or 480p resolutions.” Some standard-definition TVs with component inputs will also work, as Paul Kafasis at Rogue Amoeba discovered when his Apple TV arrived. However, the display may appear scrunched; in a briefing last week, Apple told me that the interface has been designed for widescreen TVs, so hooking it up to a TV that falls outside the recommended specs may not be ideal.

So, that leaves us with a $300 device that plays media acquired primarily through iTunes. It sounds like a crazy move on Apple’s part, but the widespread familiarity with the iPod, and by extension people’s familiarity with iTunes, makes the Apple TV more appealing to people who see the value in accessing their digital content but don’t want to feel like they need to operate a computer (or need to call on their tech-savvy friends) to do so.

The Apple TV benefits from Apple design, which comprises much more than just the rounded-corner enclosure. Setup is easy and straightforward, including the process of pairing with computers on your network. As I mentioned earlier, the navigation system is similar to the iPod. (However, as with the iPod, you still have to get past the initial confusion of having a right-facing arrow icon (actually a greater-than symbol, or “>”) indicating more content, but pressing the right-arrow button on the remote does nothing; you need to press the Play/Pause/Select button instead. It’s one of the few odd design choices of the iPod system, but something that’s easy to adapt to.)

The interface’s look is simple without appearing basic, polished instead of garish. In fact, the Apple TV seems to value restraint; the screen saver that appears after a couple of minutes, for example, is composed of photos (or album artwork) that drift slowly from the bottom of the screen to prevent burn-in on plasma displays.

Another nice touch: when you resume playing a video, the two options (Resume Playing and Start from Beginning) are set against an out-of-focus version of the frame you last viewed when you stopped playback previously.

Lastly, the Apple TV feels like a product designed for the near future. The U.S. changeover to digital television broadcasting in February 2009 will bring more widespread use of HDTVs, which continue to drop in price. Although you can’t yet buy HD content from the iTunes Store, it makes sense that Apple would offer it in the future. And other capabilities, such as games like those found on the iPod (or even special versions of normal Mac OS X games), could be added by downloadable system updates. Perhaps the USB port on the back could be utilized for more than just diagnostics, as Apple currently states, perhaps even an adapter for a wireless game controller like the Wii Remote.

Sync and Stream — Okay, enough speculation. When you first begin using the Apple TV, you’ll want to jump in and start watching your movies and TV shows right away, but unfortunately there’s a wait involved.

The Apple TV synchronizes its content with one Mac or Windows PC running iTunes; once you’ve defined the sync machine, media is copied over the network and stored on the Apple TV’s 40 GB hard disk. That’s a lot of data to copy, even on an 802.11n network.

Fortunately, you can also view content that’s streamed over the network and not stored on disk. If you start watching a movie on the sync computer that hasn’t been copied over, syncing gets put on hold while the movie is streamed. When the show is over, or if you’re streaming audio only, syncing resumes.

To transfer your media more quickly at first, connect the device to your computer via Ethernet instead of a wireless network.

Only one computer can sync to the Apple TV, but you can stream to it from up to five other computers.

Remote Bleed — The Apple TV comes with an Apple Remote, the same type that’s included in all recent Macs. Out of the box, the remote’s infrared signal can work on any capable nearby Mac. My wife’s MacBook would jump into Front Row while I was using the Apple TV.

To avoid this inconvenience, pair each remote to its respective Mac. Hold the remote close to the IR receiver on the front and press and hold the Menu and right-arrow buttons. After a few seconds, an image of a remote with an interlocking chain link icon above it appears. On the Apple TV, go to the Settings menu and then choose Pair Remote.

As more Apple Remotes invade our house (this is the third), I’m also having trouble keeping them straight. My low-tech but effective solution is to wrap a different colored rubber band around each one.

Apple TV Hacks — Early Apple TV recipients wasted no time in voiding their warranties. Within a couple of days, tinkerers had disassembled the Apple TV, figured out how to replace the internal 40 GB hard disk with a larger one (which looks to be an involved process), and configured the device to play other video formats such as Xvid. In fact, it’s amazing just how hackable this little unit is. The Apple TV Hacks Web site is a good
source for tracking new developments, including ways to enable Remote Desktop on the Apple TV.

Still waiting for your Apple TV to arrive? You can get a taste of the snazzy startup animation by watching a QuickTime movie. [Note: As of 26-Mar-07, this link no longer works. I suspect either the movie was pulled due to overwhelming traffic, or Apple requested that it be removed. -Jeff]

I don’t have a burning desire to open up an Apple TV, so for the time being I’m content to keep testing it from the couch. With popcorn.

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