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

Apple TV offers a way for consumers to unlock the videos, music, and photos on their computer for use in the living room on TV. The new device competes against a series of other products, including the least expensive option of simply running a long video cable from the computer to the television. Whether Apple TV is worth the price will depend a lot upon on how much users like iTunes already, and how they plan to make use of the Apple TV.

There are few secrets left about Apple TV's hardware features and its simple software interface; most of those details were originally revealed by Steve Jobs at "Showtime," the Apple event which previewed the new box under the code name iTV, months ahead of its official launch at Macworld Expo in January.

Rather than demonstrate how to run through its simple menus and set it up, this review compares Apple TV against competing devices and the experience of Front Row Macs, examines the future potential of its hardware, outlines its software flaws and missing features, and highlights how well Apple TV fits the needs of its target users.

Apple TV vs Media Playing Game Consoles

Other competing devices include Sony's PlayStation 3 and Microsoft's XBox 360, both of which offer the ability to stream interactive music and video entertainment to TV from network sources, or alternatively play movies on HD disc. The Xbox 360 also serves the role of what Microsoft calls a "Media Center Extender," a TV output device for video content streamed from a Media Center Windows PC.

Using the 360 in that capacity is not nearly as effortless as the Apple TV however. The Xbox interface is designed primarily to play games, with media features tacked on as a secondary feature. The 360 is also much larger and noisier, particularly when playing DVDs. Apple TV doesn't try to compete against the next generation game consoles, but instead serves to make iTunes content easy to use on TV.

This will likely limit the appeal of Apple TV among gamers and Windows Media Center users, but broadens its potential among users who just want a simple and elegant system for watching iTunes content on TV. Compared to the 10 million Xbox 360 units Microsoft has shipped to stores, Apple has sold over 70 million iTunes-connected iPods in the same year and a half. Back in 2005, analysts estimated 100-200 million users of the free iTunes itself.

That's a significant population of users who make up the target market for Apple TV. It's no surprise why Apple's new device caters to iTunes users and works a lot like the iPod, rather than trying to mimic the struggling fortunes of Sony and Microsoft hardware in the gamer market. Apple's previous efforts with the iPod have delivered stunning growth and profits, while both Sony and Microsoft have lost billions on their next generation gaming gamble, only to be shown up by Nintendo's simpler and more popular Wii console. Part of that is no doubt related to the Wii's low price, which at $250 is close to $300 Apple TV. Both the Playstation 3 and the Xbox 360 are $500-600 when equipped with a hard drive and HD disc, making them significantly more expensive and effectively pricing them in a different category all together.

Apple TV

Apple TV vs Earlier Apple Products

This is Apple's first complete attempt to offer a set top box. Over a decade ago, the company ran limited testing of a stripped down Mac Quadra 605 customized for use as an interactive TV device, but abandoned the project before ever turning it into a commercial product. What's different this time around is that Apple isn't just providing a Mac interface for a cable set top box.

Apple TV isn't a conventional set top box at all, but rather an extension of Apple's iTunes, which serves as both the media library behind the iPod and the client to Apple's online iTunes Store. That makes Apple TV a dual purpose device: a way to play users' own content, and a way to buy and download content from Apple's online store. As with the iPod, it can be expected that a lot of the appeal of Apple TV will come from users wanting to play their existing content.

Analysts in a rush to condemn iTunes as a collapsing failure been pointing out for years that iPod users only buy a fraction of their music from the iTunes Store. However, those fractional sales are adding up rapidly, recently passing the milestone of 2.5 billion songs. That fraction has installed Apple as the only really significant merchant of online media sales. From that perspective, it appears clear that Apple is not attempting to replace cable TV and DVDs with Apple TV, but rather offering the device as a way to integrate iTunes and iPhoto with the living room, with TV and movie downloads as a convenient side dish. Apple is currently selling about a million new TV episodes and movies per month, so Apple TV isn't relying upon a fanciful, pie in the sky business plan.

Apple TV: iTunes on TV

Apple's AirPort Express already provides users with a way to play music from their iTunes library on a remote stereo system using wireless distribution. Apple TV is a natural extension of the same principle: simply plug in the box, connect it to a TV, and the music and movies of iTunes--along with pictures from iPhoto albums--are wirelessly distributed across the house.

Apple TV is designed for wireless distribution using the emerging wireless-n standard. It requires an AirPort Extreme base station or other wireless-n router to connect at top speed, but it can also be used with the earlier 802.11g generation of wireless networks. Alternatively, it can also be plugged into the network using an Ethernet cable. The AirPort Extreme was reviewed earlier in the article, "An in-depth review of Apple's 802.11n AirPort Extreme Base Station."

Essentially , Apple TV is a tiny Mac dedicated to running a specialized version of Front Row, the application Apple added to Mac OS X Tiger to enable the Mac to act as a simple, no fuss media player navigated by a similarly simple remote control.

Apple TV

Apple TV vs Front Row

TVs demand a simpler interface than a PC, in part because they commonly offer a lower resolution display compared to modern PC monitors. Further, even with the sharpest high definition screens, users are positioned much further away from the screen than they would be at a computer.

No remote control offers the accuracy of a mouse to drive the interface, so the controls need to be simple, sparse, and clear. An interface designed to be navigated on TV is commonly referred to as a "10 foot display." The Front Row Macs offer this type of display for viewing content on TV, but doing so requires a long video output cable connected to the TV.

Many users will find that their Front Row Mac is too far away from their main living room TV, probably on purpose. Watching TV and using a computer are different tasks, and many people install them in very different environments. The PC is likely to be in at an ergonomic office ready for research and work, while the TV is commonly in a more relaxing environment suited to passive entertainment. The "TV/PC convergence" analysts long promised never really happened.

On page 2: Apple TV's Open Potential, Apple TV Hardware, No Support for Composite TV, and Finding High Definition.