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