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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


The High Definition Audience

Another limitation on the device is that it only supports a native resolution of 720p. While it can plug into a 1080i HDTV, it only upscales the display, creating a picture that is still really 1280x720. However, the jump from standard definition 480 to 720 HD is much larger than the upgrade from 720 to full resolution 1080. Supporting native resolution 1080 would raise the units cost at limited benefit, since 720 HD downloads are already quite large and will likely be enough to please Apple TV's target audience: users in search of a simple, well designed box that lets them play their PC content on their TV.

Anyone who won't settle for less than the highest resolution possible has likely already invested thousands of dollars in a state of the art flat panel display, is already signed up for HD cable delivery, and has already bought into the next generation of HD optical discs.

Apple TV bucks the trend set by the PlayStation 3 of bundling in an HD optical player. Instead of working to create a market for reselling movies to users in HD on optical disc, Apple hopes to sell users on the model of buying movies and TV on demand as downloads. So far, Apple's online video business seems to be growing into a sustainable rate. This year, Apple has maintained its pace of a million video downloads per month, despite only offering the Apple TV for sale in the middle of the first quarter.

TV for the Rest of Us?

Like the Wii, Apple TV doesn't aim to compete in dots per inch or megaflops per second, but in usability and convenience. Parents with children will appreciate its simplicity; it makes watching a selection of movies over and over problem free: no scratched up discs, and nothing jammed in the slot.

Apple TV also works as a way to show off photos. Even at version 1.0, it makes showing off iPhoto vacation albums effortless and gives slideshows an automated polish with some animation, dissolves, and a soundtrack, although its first generation photo viewer is simpler than Mac users might expect of Apple.

While providing an easy way to play iTunes music and videos, Apple TV lacks support for Internet radio feeds, or for alternative delivery of photos, video, and streaming music from sources apart from iTunes. If Apple partnered with Yahoo on Flickr, Google on YouTube, and added support for standard Internet audio and video streaming, it would deliver a stronger product with broader appeal.

Since Apple TV already contains a full version of QuickTime and inherent support for RTP/RTSP media streaming, adding the ability to search for, discover, and stream content would also boost the value of Apple TV, and serve as a way to incite interest in standards-based video and wide area Bonjour for content discovery, initiatives Apple is already interested in pursuing. A Global Upgrade for Bonjour: AirPort, iPhone, Leopard, .Mac.

Combining its existing support of RSS-delivered podcasting with Bonjour-discovered media streaming would open up Apple TV as an indie alternative platform for commercial broadcasting, and cement Apple TV as a way to get original and unique content that cable and satellite providers can't really match.

The Wrap Up

Essentially, Apple TV provides a drop-dead simple way to watch computer-based content from the comfort of the living room. It does what it promises as advertised: it unlocks content such as photos and home movies, and it makes it easy to watch podcasts and movie purchases from iTunes.

In its first version, Apple TV software works well, but its hardware suggests lots of potential room for improvement. Apple TV's open design means that third parties can address features Apple itself does not care to target. In fact, the wave of interest in Apple TV from the hacker and open source community should provide Apple with some useful feedback on the value of keeping its TV system open, and provide an encouraging example of the advantages of working with, rather than against, hacker enthusiast customers. Many users interested in Apple's upcoming iPhone hope to see a similar openness for that platform.

Apple TV offers a wide enough set of features to appeal to a variety of users, even those already invested in a source of higher quality HD movies. The convenience of being able to download movies from iTunes is a central selling point, but is certainly not the only appeal of the device. Its relatively low price point strikes a good balance between features and cost, particularly given the additional breathing room available for future features.

Expect the value of Apple TV to increase as Apple begins to deliver HD content and software updates that add expanded media support, avenues for more interactive content, and overall upgrades to its core photo, music, and video features.

Rating: 3 of 5
3-stars


Pros:
  • Competitively priced, slim, solidly designed hardware.
  • HD ready, with support for high quality digital audio.
  • Easy to setup and start using.
  • Open, hackable hardware offers a lot of potential.
  • Useful to watch Handbrake-ripped DVDs.
  • Puts podcasts on TV.

Cons:
  • Lacks AirPort Express' AirTunes for iTunes wireless music distribution.
  • No support for Internet radio or other streaming content.
  • Photo viewer needs an upgrade in sophistication.
  • No HD video content currently provided by Apple.
  • No cheap movie rental options.
  • USB DOA.


Products and companies mentioned in this review
Apple TV
HandBrake
AwkwardTV