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

How Bad is Non-HD Content?

When actually viewing non-HD content on Apple TV in real world settings, the quality ranges from soft and muddy on the low end of free podcasts, to very acceptable for movie downloads and ripped DVDs. Users who now subscribe to HD cable and watch Blu-Ray movies will definitely not want to trade in their systems and downgrade to watch the current generation of standard definition content from iTunes and DVDs.

While high definition downloads are likely to be delivered from iTunes later this year, even those HD downloads are still unlikely to compare equally with Blu-Ray, which is not constrained by the compression and bandwidth issues involved in achieving a reasonably downloadable file size.

At the same time however, there's already a large population of users who find iTunes downloads useful, and haven't yet invested in a $1000 Blu-Ray player and $35 movies, and haven't signed up to pay $100 or more per month to get HD cable in the markets where it is offered. Those tens of millions of users are Apple TV's current market. They will be comparing Apple TV against their existing standard definition cable and DVDs.

Capturing the difference between standard definition and high definition in a photograph is difficult to do, because the eye and the camera see things differently. When I tried watching a standard DVD ripped to H.264 and played through Apple TV on an HDTV display, I certainly had no problem recognizing that it was compressed.

I had a hard time capturing the real look of the movie using a digital camera, however. The camera introduced glare and moire patterns and washed out bright areas of the movie. My eye had no problem reading the "Hello I'm Bob" name tag being embraced by Edward Norton in the screen shot below. The photo washes it out because the camera has a harder time capturing the dynamic range of the dark scene.

While trying to take representative photographs of the movie, I found myself more distracted by the art of the movie (which happened to be Fight Club) than its technical details. Sure enough, the letters in the credits were soft, and zoomed in, I could see individual pixels. If you watch movies for CGI effects, you will not want to watch them using standard definition through Apple TV. If you like to watch movies for the story, then Apple TV starts to become more appealing.

Apple TV

This is the same phenomenon that makes me overlook the quality of video clips on YouTube. Reviews that belabor the number of pixels in Apple TV content fail to grasp the needs of the real users who will be interested in it. What Apple TV lacks in the technical specifications of its current set of content, it makes up for in convenience, simplicity, and cost.

Getting Around

The user interface of Apple TV looks sharp and attractive on HDTV sets, and is easy to navigate with the included six button remote control. The remote is identical to those bundled with Front Row Macs. Each remote can be paired to a specific system, preventing any unintended actions from happening in a room full of remote controlled Macs.

Setting up a new Apple TV is a matter of plugging it in, associating it with a wireless network or connecting an Ethernet, and pairing it with the media library on an iTunes computer. After entering a pairing code in iTunes, Apple TV appears as a device within iTunes and can be configured to sync with either the entire library or a specific set of music, TV, movie, and podcast content and photo albums, just like an iPod.

Under the Sources menu, the Apple TV can also be associated with five additional iTunes libraries. Rather than automatically copying all of their content to the Apple TV's hard drive, the songs and videos on these other sources can be browsed and played back on demand. Depending on the speed of the network, there may be a delay in playing video from other sources, but once started, the playback is cached on the local hard drive and plays back smoothly.

The playback controls are similar to a Tivo, allowing users to quickly skip scan and replay video using the remote control. Its fast forward accelerates rapidly however, making the replay of a specific scene a bit too difficult. It's simply too easy to fire past the target; Apple should revisit how sensitive the remote control acts.

The remote offers volume controls, but they frequently don't do anything, since the volume ultimately needs to be controlled on the TV or stereo receiver. Most universal remotes can mimic the Apple remote, which errors on the side of simplicity. It may not be practical to expect Apple to bundle a programmable remote itself.

It is also a bit confusing that the unit has no off switch or shutdown menu. The only way to force the unit to sleep is to hold the pause button for several seconds. This isn't intuitive, and there's no reason why putting the device to sleep needs to be a secret mystery withheld from its menu. It should really offer sleep and wake settings as sophisticated as the Mac, allowing it to shutdown at night or at least hibernate after periods of no activity.

Apple TV Software, 1.0

There are some other rough edges in the first generation of Apple TV's software. While it automatically turns users' photos into a nice looking screen saver, the Photos section of the user interface only allows for a simple, sequential playback of photo albums. There's no way to quickly advance through pictures or to review back through them when watching a selected photo album; they are only presented on a fixed timer using the automatic Ken Burns effect, which ads some interest to photo viewing at the cost of randomly cutting parts of the photos off during display.

Photo viewing also pairs albums to a song, seemingly at random. When I set one of my playlists in iPhoto with a specific song, Apple TV didn't seem to notice. The only control it offers while playing back photos is to pause. This seems like a rather weak photo slideshow feature, especially since viewing photos on TV is something everybody and their mother--and especially their mother--is likely to want to do.

Why can't Apple offer slideshow functionality on par with iPhoto or even the Finder's Slideshow function? It can, of course. It will be trivial for Apple to release new modules that expand the unit's functionality in photo and video playback. For example, why not allow users to step though slides during a show, zoom into photos and pan around?

Apple TV also begs for more interactive features. Why isn't there an equivalent to iQuiz, the 99 cent iPod game Apple recently released which challenges the user's knowledge of their music library? How about letting users rate songs and even photos in the manner of the iPod, and sync the ratings back to iTunes? Apple TV actually offers a lot of potential as a platform for interactive video and games, but as yet its software only lightly scratches the surface of what its hardware can do.

Fortunately, it will be easy for Apple to both update the existing software and deliver new features using software updates right from within iTunes. The company has already established a reputation for delivering regular new feature updates for the Mac and iPod, so it would be very disappointing if the Apple TV software languished in its current state very long.

A month ago, Apple CFO Peter Oppenheimer stated in his conference call with financial analysts, "we plan to periodically provide new software features and enhancements, at no charge, to our Apple TV customers.”

On page 4: Third Party Extensions, Existing Apple TV Plugins, Future Potential, and What's Missing.