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Thursday, May 24, 2007, 07:00 am PT (10:00 am ET)

Some time spent with Apple TV — an in-depth review


Apple TV's Open Potential

Apple TV offers other features that a long video cable can't match: the convenience of wireless distribution and independent operation that doesn't tie up a remote computer. The Apple TV includes a small hard drive that allows it to pool up data from a synced iTunes library. After syncing, it can then play back the content without relying upon the iTunes computer.

It can also stream media directly from five other machines running iTunes, although when Apple says "streaming," it apparently just means making casual connection to a secondary media library. All of the media watched over Apple TV appears to be played directly from its local hard drive, regardless of its source.

So, Apple TV is really just a stripped down Mac designed to do a specific task: present media files on TV. That makes the device simple and straightforward. If your music and videos can play in iTunes, they will most likely also play on the Apple TV. If they don't, there's a simple option to convert them so they will. Both the free utility Handbrake, Roxio's Crunch, and QuickTime Pro offer solutions for converting video from DVDs, DivX, and other sources. Crunch was reviewed earlier in "Converting movies for Apple TV using Roxio Crunch (an in-depth review)."

Apple TV's simplicity complements its wide open potential as an adaptable platform. Unlike other devices hardwired to do a set of specific tasks, Apple TV's features are as upgradable as a Mac, because it is a Mac. It's the lowest cost PC Apple has ever shipped, but it runs the same Mac OS X system as other Macs, and uses the same QuickTime software to present media files.

Being built on the Mac platform means that Apple can easily add support for new file types, new compression codec technology, and other new features simply by distributing a software update through iTunes. Because the device works like every other Mac and runs an open operating system based on Unix, it's even easy for other third party developers to extend upon the features of the device. Hackers playing with the unit discovered within several hours how to install software to support videos using DivX, for example, and are busy writing plugins to enable new modules of functionality in the interface.

Apple TV Hardware

Before taking a look at its full and open potential, here's a rundown of what Apple TV does now, and its current limitations in hardware and software. On the hardware side, Apple TV is a slim box that looks like a Mac Mini run over by a steamroller. It's 7.7 inches square compared to the 6.5 inch mini, and nearly half as thick.

Apple TV uses a 1 GHz Pentium M Crofton Processor, a variant of Intel's Dothan. This gives the device much less general-purpose power compared to a Core 2 Duo Mac mini, but Apple TV pairs its simpler general purpose CPU with a more sophisticated graphics chip, which does the bulk of the work required to decode video. This combo makes the Apple TV well suited to performing video animations and decoding H.264 video, even at high definition resolutions. See "Inside Apple TV."

For output connectors, the Apple TV has both standard RCA stereo audio jacks and a Toslink digital optical output. On the video side, it has outputs for component video and HDMI, which is essentially a specialized DVI video port with integrated audio support. Most new HDTV displays use the simple and compact HDMI connector, although some use DVI or component inputs.

Because of the variety of different ports available on HDTV sets, Apple doesn't bundle the unit with cables. At CompUSA and Radio Shack, HDMI cables or plug converters were priced from $50 to well over $100! Mercifully, the Apple Store offers a variety of reasonably priced, high quality Xtreme Mac HDMI cables for around $20.

Apple TV


No Support for Composite TV

Apple TV's output options support the majority of modern audio and video receivers and displays, but it conspicuously lacks support for standard TVs that do not offer component inputs. While many modern, higher quality standard definition TVs support Apple TV's component inputs, most non-HD TVs only offer composite or S-Video inputs. Some video projectors also only support VGA as a high quality input signal.

There is no cost effective way to convert a component or DVI signal for use with these earlier TVs or projectors. That means Apple TV is positioned directly at consumers who already have—or are interested in buying—a new HDTV display or projector. There's no real conspiracy involved, as Apple doesn't even sell HDTVs online or in its retail stores, as many analysts predicted the company would.

Apple is purposely setting a high value for Apple TV's lowest common denominator by pushing the adoption of HDTV. If the Apple TV tried to support standard TVs, its onscreen menus and features would have to accommodate the lower resolution and softer video displays those older TVs generate. While the system does support standard definition 480p resolution, its exclusive use of component or HDMI video means that its display is still sharp and readable even at its lowest resolution.

Apple already offers a device that supports composite and S-video TVs: the video iPod. With its video output dock, the video-enabled iPods can be used in a simplified manner that resembles Apple TV; the basic on-screen interface it uses to display video and photos helps to outline the difference between basic composite video and the much higher quality available when using component or HDMI.

Another alternative to Apple TV for standard definition TV users is the Front Row on newer Macs, all of which support the earlier composite, S-video, and VGA outputs that Apple TV does not. Adding support for composite video output would not only bump up the cost of the unit, but since analog TVs are marked for death, it wouldn't benefit users that much anyway. The US Digital Television Transition Act of 2005 will terminate analog broadcasts by the end of 2008.

Finding High Definition

That positions Apple TV as a future ready, high definition content system. Right now however, there isn't a lot of content that can take full advantage of that capacity. The most obvious HDTV application of Apple TV is in playback of movies and TV shows, but iTunes doesn't yet offer HD versions of paid content. Similarly, while utilities like Handbrake can rip DVDs for playback using iTunes, iPods, and Apple TV, DVDs don't offer HDTV resolution video either.

The new Blu-Ray and HD-DVD discs cannot yet be easily ripped by consumers because of their stronger DRM, included to prevent playback on unauthorized devices. Currently, the only common sources of HDTV content will be user's own HD home movies taken with the latest HD video cameras, and their own high resolution photographs stored in iPhoto. Everyone has HD photos, but few people have HD camcorders yet.

While ripped DVDs and movies downloaded from the iTunes store don't show off the full potential of HDTV sets, the importance of the resolution difference between DVD and HD is hard to see unless they are viewed in direct comparison. When paused on the screen, standard definition videos from iTunes look pixelated at close examination, but users don't typically pause movies and approach the screen to examine their resolution.

On page 3: How Bad is Non-HD Content?, Getting Around, and Apple TV Software, 1.0.