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

Third Party Extensions

Third parties may beat Apple to the punch in delivering new features, or at least offer some important alternatives. While it's more difficult to update the Apple TV's software without access to the internals of iTunes' own updating mechanisms, enterprising hackers wasted no time in figuring out how to open up the Apple TV to install their own components.

The first extension of Apple TV features to be added by third parties were QuickTime components. By simply installing support for other codecs to Apple TV's buiit-in QuickTime, the device can play back anything that QuickTime can on a standard Mac, from media files encoded with DivX, XviD, and Ogg to those requiring Microsoft's Flip4Mac codec support for Windows Media 9.

Of course, being able to play new types of content doesn't mean that iTunes will realize that it should copy the new formats over to the device. By default, iTunes assumes that Apple TV can only play the formats it is designed and optimized to play, so it doesn't allow users to sync unknown file types. To get around that limitation, Apple TV needs a new way to bypass iTunes to get data from a local computer or even the outside Internet.

Experimenting users working with the site discovered that Apple TV runs its Front Row interface as a replacement to the usual Mac OS X Finder. That application will happily load any new plugin modules installed, making it easy to add new features. One of the first is ATV Loader, which allows users to turn on remote command line login and standard file sharing, as well as an easy to use graphical interface for installing further plugins over the Internet.

Existing Apple TV Plugins

Of course, the catch is that to use ATV Loader, the user has to first install it manually. That currently requires opening up the Apple TV box, removing its hard drive, manually copying the files to the drive, and then putting it all back together. Once installed however, ATV Loader can then install further plugins. After it is used to activate file sharing, the Apple TV's drive can even be mounted over the network.

That makes it easier to add new QuickTime codecs, including Perian's support for Divx and A52codec's AC3 audio support. The ATVFiles plugin allows users to then open and play those additional types of media files store anywhere on the network, without requiring them to sync through iTunes.

The Streamer plugin provides a way to play Internet radio streams, and the nitoTV plugin lets users play DVD Video_TS folders, both using mplayer. Other plugins display live RSS feeds, sports scores, and weather. ASeriesOfTubes, a new plugin still in development, will provide a way to browse YouTube videos directly from Google's servers.

Apple TV

Future Potential maintains a wiki listing of additional Apple TV plugins that range from works in progress to suggested ideas. Among them are Apple TV plugins for viewing webcams, direct DVD playback, an interface for the Slingbox, a viewer for Flickr photos, a way to present Quartz Composer files, an iChat video conference application, a Google Earth viewer, a simple web browser, and a way to install standard Dashboard widgets.

Also listed is a way to select and play classic MAME and SNES video games, a way to stream AirTunes audio from iTunes just like the AirPort Express base station, and ways to present calendar and contact information. In reality, none these ideas are too much of a stretch. The Apple TV has a general purpose operating system and a decently powerful processor for handling a variety of interactive applications.

In many cases, all that's needed is an appropriately simple interface "front end," in order to adapt a variety of existing applications to be useable with the Apple TV's simple remote control. The group also plans to soon offer a bootable thumbdrive solution for installing new plugins and other software without any need for users to crack open their unit.

What's Missing

The Apple TV provides a brilliantly simple interface that is easy to use, and does a great job of opening up video playback for iTunes videos. There's a lot of room for improvement, from minor adjustments of the interface to simply expanding its features. Apple TV's open architecture invites third part development, and since the box is integral to Apple's ongoing strategy for expanding the iTunes universe, it's hard to imagine that Apple won't offer regular, significant new updates itself as well.

On the hardware side, there doesn't seem to be a lot that could be improved upon without making the $300 device too expensive and pushing it into the territory of a Mac mini. It has a limited 40 GB hard drive, but it uses a standard PATA laptop drive that is relatively simple to upgrade. For most users, the drive size won't be a problem, because iTunes makes it easy to only sync specific content.

Apple TV

Apple may choose to offer a model with a large disk in the future, but a better option might be for Apple to enable the unit's USB port to allow for disk expansion. Currently, the USB port is disabled as the device starts up, leaving it a dormant and useless plug.

USB also offers the potential for adding a more sophisticated input device than the unit's basic remote: plug in a Bluetooth dongle and a wireless keyboard, or perhaps a Wii controller for interactive games, or add an iSight camera to enable Sony PlayStation EyeToy-like games and iChat video conferencing features.

There is no DVR support, but of course Apple TV is not intended to be a way to record content for cable TV users. Most cable TV users already have a DVR anyway. There's also no provision for direct DVD playback, but again that falls outside of Apple's intended model and involves the legal constraints of DVD's DRM. See also "Apple TV: Using DVDs and other Video Sources."

Because the iTunes Store offers no rental download options, the Apple TV lacks a common source of low cost movies; the only option is to buy movies at around $10. Movie downloads from iTunes will likely appeal more to families with children who watch the same titles over and over, as opposed to adults who frequently rent movies or get regular new DVDs from services such as NetFlix.

Users can rip DVDs to H.264 files using a program such as Handbrake, but doing so takes some time. Another possible option would be for Apple or third parties to offer a USB optical disc drive, allowing users to play back DVDs, and possibly even HD BluRay movies. It's not clear if the unit has the general horsepower to decode and play back HD discs though.

The RAM and processors in the Apple TV are engineered to be just enough to do what the Apple TV is designed to do: play back H.264 video. Adding more hardware resources would bump up its cost without really benefitting users. Anyone who needs more power would be better suited to buying a Mac mini instead.

The tightly engineered Apple TV may lack the ability to decode any type of video thrown at it, since it is optimized specifically for H.264 playback, a task which appears to be largely delegated to the graphics processor. Software-only codecs such as DivX may hit the limits of its general processing power at higher resolutions.

On page 5: The High Definition Audience, TV for the Rest of Us?, and The Wrap Up.