“The Apple TV is one of those products that you either love or shun.”
- Easy to use and setup; supports ethernet and WiFi
- most video content looks good
- High price; gets very hot; cables not included; support few video formats; needs some fine polish overall
Steve Jobs said that the Apple TV failed to meet expectations – although “techie” oriented folks such as us were more than pleased with the way it quickly interfaced with iTunes and our home network. But certainly not being able to access the Internet directly other than to watch YouTube was oft-putting, as was the cost for the 40 Gigabyte model (providing roughly 32GB’s of space for use) and how it was tied to a computer and iTunes for use.
But Jobs doesn’t just whine, he delivers, and the results produced the Apple TV Take Two – a reworking of the idea behind the Apple TV which is about movies – and which is now all about renting them. Renting does not just come from Disney or some Indie studio, but all of the major ones – matching easily those other online services which limit theirs to computers only. Apple TV rentals don’t leave out being able to be viewed on computers or iPods either (with the exception of high-def; more on this later), so it makes sense that the entire user interface has undergone significant changes to match that of the underlying philosophy now being put into play. And while Apple has also dropped the price of their two models (the other features a 160GB drive), they allowed those of us who bought into the Apple TV about a year ago to update into all of this through a free download.
Now before we do the update, let’s consider what the Apple TV is all about. When it first appeared, it was all about integrating with iTunes on your computer so that you could transfer content either wired or wirelessly from it through the Apple TV to your HDTV. By definition this required a Component output on the APPLE TV at the mini-mum for video up to 1080i resolution, with audio transferred through the RCA analog plugs or the optical out (in stereo only), or the HDMI output could be used to transmit both video and audio. The other connectors consisted of an Ethernet plug to connect to the home network (using 10/100 base) and the Internet or you could use the built-in wireless (being the faster 802.11n if you had it, or the slower 802.11b/g). There was also a security slot and a USB port which didn’t do anything (and still doesn’t). The Apple TV has a price tag of $229 USD for the 40GB version or $329 for the 160GB.
Please check out our seperate Apple TV heat test using an ifrared camera!
*Editors Notes – 4/7/08 – This review has been updated and the score raised to reflect version 2.1 of the Apple TV firmware. User reviews posted prior to today’s date reflect their experience with the earlier versions of the Apple TV. You can view reviewed software update on Page 2 of the review.
*Editor Notes – 3/28/07 – We replaced our test unit with another and did not experience poor HDMI quality on the second unit. It appears to have been an isolated case. If you have experienced heat or HDMI quality issues, please post in our forums for others to read.
Apple TV Design
The design of the Apple TV matches the look of other Apple products. It is thin, sexy and looks nothing like any other TV component on the market. Apple’s industrial design team struck gold once again with the Apple TV. In some ways, it looks like a Mac mini that was squished down to 1" thick. It’s no surprise that the brushed metal exterior matches the metal exterior of every modern Mac computer with exception to the MacBook.
While the Apple TV looks like a thinner version of a Mac mini, it is much wider and longer. It’s also bigger than the recently released AirPort Extreme base station (which coincidentally is the same width and length of the mini). The Apple TV measures 7.7" x 7.7" x 1.1", making it roughly 1.2" wider and longer than the Airport Extreme, Mac mini or LaCie mini external hard drives.
At first I thought the irregular size of the Apple TV was a mistake or an oversight. Given the fact that the Apple TV gets pretty warm during use, it makes total sense that Apple would give the Apple TV dimensions that are not conducive to stacking drives on top of or under the unit. The insulating effect could cause those components to overheat and possibly fail. I could be wrong about this assumption, but it has some merit.
Apple uses an Intel based processor and 30GB hard drive to power the Apple TV, other than that Apple is keeping the specs hidden (we might crack open the case in a future article to see what’s they are :) )There are very few ports on the back of the Apple TV. This means that there are fewer ways an average consumer can get confused by the setup process or use of cables. Apple essentially limits users to two connection methods – HDMI (which handles both digital video and digital audio) and component audio/video. There’s a digital audio port as well.
The Apple TV does not use an external power adapter or brick. The power cable connects directly from an outlet to the back of the Apple TV. This makes setting up and even transporting the Apple TV much easier.
Included with the Apple TV is a remote and power cable
The back of the Apple TV
Setting Up the Apple TV
Setting up the Apple TV is as simple as it could possibly be. It is easier to set up the Apple TV than most kitchen appliances or VCRs. Upon opening the Apple TV’s packaging, you’ll likely be surprised to find very little inside; the Apple TV itself, the power cable, the tiny little Apple remote and some limited documentation.
To set the Apple TV up, first remove all the plastic wrapping that the contents are covered in. Attach your component audio & video cables (or the single HDMI cable) to the corresponding outputs on the back of the Apple TV. Connect the cable(s) to your EDTV or HDTV and turn the TV on. Turn on the Apple TV.
The very first time you turn on the Apple TV, select the default language for all the menus. Because there’s no keyboard for the Apple TV, you’ll have to use the Apple remote for selections.
After your language preference is selected, the next screen asks you to select a wireless network to connect to. If you live in an area where numerous 802.11b/g/n wireless networks are present, you’ll probably see them all on the Apple TV screen. Use the remote to scroll to your preferred network. Note that this is not like war-driving – you can’t arbitrarily select any unencrypted network. It has to be the very network that you connect your computers to; it should also be an encrypted network.
Speaking of encrypted networks, the next screen requires that you enter the pass phrase for your wireless network. Being a bit of a security nut, I was dismayed to realize that I had to use the Apple remote to enter in a very long network key using the letter-by-letter, arcade-game style text entry mode. After some grumbling and a lot of scrolling and clicking, the pass phrase was finally entered in and the Apple TV instantly joined the wireless network.
Apple TV Passphrase Screen
The final setup process involves a PIN number displayed on your TV. Apple TV and your iTunes library need to pair up, and this is done by means of a security code, or PIN. When you open iTunes, the Apple TV shows up as an available music device, just like an iPod would show up. When you click on the Apple TV option, you are asked to enter the Apple TV’s PIN number. Once this is done, the Apple TV and iTunes perform a one-time handshake and prepare to sync music, videos, podcasts, etc.
Apple TV Pin Screen
Back on the TV screen, my Samsung HDTV lit up with the beautiful Apple TV ‘welcome’ video sequence. The entire setup process took less than 5 minutes. Apple TV gets major points for ease of setup.
The Apple TV may not support hot-swapping of video cables. Moving from HDMI to component connections, at least in my test, resulted in a blank screen after selection of the correct 720p setting. A reboot of the Apple TV with component cables proved effective. The resulting picture was fantastic.
Doing the Update
So we’re going to install the update now – and besides a reworked interface we expect the optical out to add the ability to transfer Dolby Digital surround for multichannel sound as well as the upscaling of video to now go to 1080p. But the biggest change will be to cut the cord from iTunes and let the Apple TV stand on its own four rubber feet. The Apple TV begins the download, which takes about 20 minutes with our broadband connection via wired Ethernet. It then reboots itself a number of times before finally displaying a new and splashier opening screen (which like the earlier one doesn’t ever show itself again unless it loses power or there’s a factory reset). The new home screen comes up and that it’s simplified is an understatement: being text columns with sub menus to choose from. Of course the individual menus still feature graphics.
The Apple TV hadn’t lost its connection to our network or iTunes, which means we can continue to copy over our stream content. Still unchanged is that the Apple TV can only display up to 720p resolution, but it does so in 24 frames per second which is perfect for films. So videos imported into iTunes (as opposed to being downloaded from the iTunes store) must continue to be properly converted using, in our case, programs like Handbrake and VisualHub whether they’re to be in standard or higher definition. We should also mention that while there’s now a resolution setting on the APPLE TV for 1080p (when using a HDMI connection), it’s just a continuation of upscaling the image to more closely match the native resolution of the HDTV display. It’s no different than that setting being found on a DVD player; you still can’t create resolution when it’s not there.
The quality of the video being presented that we have stored on the Apple TV’s hard drive hasn’t changed either. Standard-resolution still looks bad to fair, with plenty of artifact problems to put up with. Converted DVD movies continue to look good, although they continue to have resolution issues tied in to the particular titles (any Harry Potter DVD for example goes mushy when smoke or magical sizzle CG effects show up). And being able to upconvert to 1080p now matches the resolution of our Samsung LED rear-projection display, but doesn’t really make a differ-ence in any of the video as we see it. But now we can access surround sound from the optical output which really does beef up the audio. That is, of course, provided we convert titles over that way from now on.
Music continues to be streamed in stereo when we select a playlist or song, plus cover art is displayed as it was be-fore. Photos can be copied over or streamed from the computer directly – unchanged is that you are limited to streaming from iPhoto or Aperture (on a Mac) or PhotoShop Album or PhotoShop Elements on a PC – streaming either the entire photo library or selected albums.
YouTube seems the same as well, with viewing from thousands of titles with predetermined choices like “Most Viewed” and “Top Rated” or searching for specifics. But now we can sign in with our existing account.
CH, CH, Changes
So let’s get to the real changes – starting small and working our way up the media chain (as it were). First, the Apple TV is now an Airtunes device – similar to Apple’s AirPort Express internet module. What this means is that first, you can now send iTunes music wirelessly to it, and so audio can then be played through the speakers of the TV or audio amplifier connected to the Apple TV. Additionally, software such as Rogue Amoeba’s Airfoil 3 improves upon this by enabling any audio that can be played on a Mac or PC to be transmitted through for listening to. It works as stated and we like being able to easily hear our Sirius audio this way – taken from the internet-based player on our Mac.
Podcasts may have started out as audio shout-outs, but they quickly became video based and, more recently, in high-definition as well. Besides being able to watch/listen to those that have been downloaded and stored on iTunes, the Apple TV can now access them directly – again furthering its independence from a computer.
Also directly accessible from the Apple TV are photos from a person’s .Mac gallery as well as viewing those from the photo website Flickr. These are “public” galleries where the user doesn’t mind strangers viewing them.
Apple TV User Interface
As soon as the gorgeous animation subsides, the Apple TV user interface appears. The user interface looks almost exactly like Front Row (common to most recent Apple computers), though there are clearly more menus and options for controlling media and configuring the Apple TV.
The Apple TV user interface is beyond simple; a 90 year old grandma could figure it out in a matter of seconds. Listed are options for viewing movies, TV shows, photos, movies trailers, podcasts, etc. You can also play music from your iTunes library on your TV. If you have a high-end audio system hooked up to your TV, this can be quite a nice experience.
There are numerous ways to customize the Apple TV experience, including modifications to the screen saver, video dimensions, HDMI brightness, determining whether content should sync or stream from any of the 6 available computer connections, etc.
The Apple TV screen saver is flat-out gorgeous. It takes stock images already on the Apple TV or images from your iPhoto library, and creates a multi-image animated tapestry that scrolls and spins on the TV screen. It’s one of those things you have to see for yourself; absolute drool-worthy eye candy.
Apple TV Screen Saver
A limiting factor to the Apple TV user interface is the inability to browse and purchase iTunes videos and music directly from the Apple TV. You can view automatically-synced movie trailers via the Apple TV, but at the time of this writing, Apple has deprived the Apple TV of being a point-of-sale device for the iTunes store.
Moving Content to the Apple TV
Once the Apple TV has been setup on your wireless network and paired with your iTunes library, it automatically begins to synchronize all the audio and video content in your iTunes library. It is important to note that ALL your content is selected by default. If you don’t have any intention of moving your music library to the Apple TV, you should quickly deselect the ‘sync music’ option in the Apple TV section of the iTunes program interface. The same goes for your iPhoto library (for Mac users).
Syncing content from iTunes via wireless connection can be a bit time consuming. I used a 5GHz 802.11n network to move roughly 10GB of content. The data moved along at rates ranging from 1.9MB/s to 4.1MB/s. For a 10GB library, those speeds mean a sync time of 45 to 80 minutes. For a 30GB library, the time required for syncing would skyrocket to 2-4 hours.
Luckily, the Apple TV can be synced by standard LAN cable for faster syncing.
You can connect the Apple TV to your AirPort Extreme router (or any other router with available LAN ports) and connect your computer to the same router via LAN cable, or you can try my preferred mode, which involves connecting the Apple TV directly to my MacBook Pro via LAN cable, completely bypassing the router. Transferring my iTunes library by wired connection sped things up from roughly 2-4MB/s to 11MB/s. A 10GB library that takes no less than 45 minutes by WiFi took only 15 minutes through a LAN connection. A 30GB library syncs in about 45 minutes.
If you have your iTunes library on an external hard drive connected to an AirPort Extreme base station, you may find that syncing the Apple TV will take a long, long, long time. If this is the case, try connecting your external hard drive directly to your computer by USB 2.0 and then sync to the Apple TV. Speeds should increase dramatically.
Of course, syncing your Apple TV by wired connection may not be feasible all the time, but it sure makes for an efficient first-sync. After the first wired sync, updated wireless syncs are a piece of cake.
Turning off Syncing
Some people may opt to let the Apple TV stream all content from any of up to 6 local computers (no matter if they’re PC or Mac). After an iTunes library has been synced with the Apple TV, turning off syncing forces the Apple TV to erase all synced content from the hard drive. The user interface warns of this, so it’s hard to accidentally erase content. I do not understand why the Apple TV cannot temporarily disable syncing rather than forcing an all-or-nothing option on the user.
As for audio and video quality in strictly-streaming mode (i.e. no content on the Apple TV at all), I noticed no downgrade in quality whatsoever. Whether I was watching movie trailers that Apple sneaks onto the Apple TV or whether I was watching any of my high-res 16:9 videos, the content looked great. In fact, with my 802.11n network, I was able to watch a movie for a while, then repeatedly skip to and from any point in the film (using the Apple remote) without the video stream ever skipping, lagging or stalling. I abused this feature as much as I could to see if I could force the Apple TV into giving me stuttered content, but I failed to break it.
Sampling Video on the Apple TV
When testing my Apple TV video quality, I found that component rendered better quality than HDMI. HDMI seemed to have a lot of ghosting of images, whereas component seemed perfectly clean and crisp. This was on a Samsung 26-inch LCD television (model LN-S2651D). Other users may have different results depending on the type of cables used, model of HDTV, etc.
*Editor Notes – 3/28/07 – We replaced our test unit with another and did not experience poor HDMI quality on the second unit. It appears to have been an isolated case. If you have experienced heat or HDMI quality issues, please post in our forums for others to read.
In my iTunes library, I have several recent episodes of Lost, some video podcasts, a few new 16:9 movies and a couple older TV shows that were obviously converted from 4:3 film to 4:3 digital for sale on the iTunes store. I was curious about whether the Apple TV would enhance the 4:3 TV shows at all, or if they would continue to look as old as they were.
Of course, the newer 16:9 digital films looked great. They played with the same quality on the Apple TV as on my MacBook Pro. Home-library movies converted from DVD to MPEG-4 (using h.264 and 1200kbps bitrate) played very nicely – near DVD quality. While there were some minor artifacts common to converted video, there was nothing that caught my eye as flawed or annoying. Also, I was watching video from only 18 inches away – up close and intentionally looking for flaws. Had I been sitting on a couch in my living room and 6-10 feet away from the screen, I would not have been able to differentiate the MPEG-4 file from DVD. Whether synced or streamed, my 16:9 movies looked amazing. I can really see that this is where the Apple TV will shine.
iTunes TV shows, however, seemed to struggle a little on the Samsung display. Lost, in particular, was disappointing especially because it is a currently-running show and, while the videos are 4:3, one would expect near perfection on the Apple TV. What I experienced, however, was messy, lossy, pixellated video. It looked like I had converted a VHS tape to WMV, then converted to AVI, then converted to MPEG-4. Choppy, blocky and washed-out are all fair descriptions for the Lost videos I tested.
Lost on the Apple TV
The same shows, when captured in HD format using a DVR and then converted to Apple TV format, played beautifully.
Until Apple manages to convert all ITMS content to high-def, watching some TV shows on the Apple TV will be a bit of a crap shoot. Some shows will look gorgeous, and some shows will look sickly.
iTunes Music on Apple TV
One feature of the Apple TV that I really dig is the ability to play iTunes music on my TV. I can scroll through my music library using the beautiful Apple TV interface. When I select a song or playlist I want to listen to, Apple TV instantly begins playing. The song’s progress appears on the TV screen, along with a stunning image of the album art, complete with the slick reflection under the image. The album art moves around on the screen from left to right making it a pleasant sight. The Apple remote controls the progress of the song just like it would be controlled in Front Row or on an iPod. I can skip forward or back, pause, stop and even jump the the next track. Using the iTunes music playback feature seems like it’d be great for dinner parties or holiday mixers. Maybe that makes me sound like a total square, but it seems like a great use for the Apple TV music function.
Jack Johnson on the Apple TV
What Content Actually Works?
There’s a lot of hubbub right now over select iTunes video content not working on the Apple TV. It seems that there are videos that work fine in iTunes, whether purchased via iTunes or manually converted to iTunes-friendly format, but that do not play on the Apple TV. Online forums are filling up with aggravated commentary about this problem. The standard Apple TV friendly formats are h.264 and MPEG-4 (whether protected by DRM or not). It is a logical expectation that any content purchased via iTunes or that are compatible with iTunes should be compatible with the newer technology of the Apple TV.
Apple’s website says "If it’s on iTunes, it’s on your widescreen TV." Apple support, however, offers more of a riddle than a solution. Specifically, Apple support claims "not all videos that play in iTunes will necessarily play on the Apple TV". However "any video that plays on 5G iPods (video iPods) WILL play on the Apple TV."
So what to do if select video content won’t play on the Apple TV? Find yourself a video conversion program and convert it to iPod/Apple TV format. VisualHub (an indispensable program for Mac computers) will convert almost any video format to Apple TV-friendly format. Sadly, if DRM-protected video won’t play on your Apple TV, conversion might be out of the question.
Is the Apple TV a DVR?
The Apple TV is not a DVR. You cannot record any type of video with it. Also, it does
not play DVDs. It does not convert videos from one format to another.
iPhoto on Apple TV
When using the Apple TV in "sync" mode with a Mac computer, it is possible to sync your iPhoto library (the entire library or just parts of it) with the Apple TV. If your iPhoto library consists of high quality digital images, then the resultant display on an HDTV is going to be very impressive.
I’m a semi-pro photographer and even though I’ve seen my own photos hundreds of times (enough to get bored with them), I was highly impressed with the way they looked on my HDTV. The Apple TV displays the images in a sort of Ken Burns-like slide show, with or without music. Colors are fantastic, transitions were fun and engaging and the overall effect was very pleasing.
Stepping Outside the RDF
Despite the fact that the Apple TV has a number of excellent qualities, there are a few trouble spots that really should be brought to light. To ignore these areas would be nothing short of irresponsible. It is safe to assume that Apple could provide firmware or software updates that would solve most of these problems:
Trouble Area 1: Hot, Hot, Hot
One of the first things I noticed about the Apple TV is the fact that it gets very hot. Remember the whole MacBook Pro heat issue in early 2006? The Apple TV gets that hot. I recorded an average surface temperature of 110 degrees F when syncing or playing video. It was so hot that I was concerned about it damaging wooden, painted or plastic surfaces.
There are no external vents or fans on the Apple TV. While it seems that there may be a CPU fan on the inside of the Apple TV, heat from the unit escapes by dissipating through the aluminum and plastic body. It seems that with high external temperatures like 110F (undoubtedly hotter inside), the cooling process should be assisted with a few side vents or at least a tiny side- or rear-mounted fan.
In my opinion, the Apple TV should NOT be used in a small or tightly enclosed area with insufficient ventilation. Even more importantly, nothing should be placed on top of the Apple TV at all, ever. The insulating effect could exacerbate temperatures and prove dangerous.
Trouble Area 2: Power Switch
I don’t know about you, but I’ve got dozens of gadgets, media devices, TVs and other technology all around my home and my office. No matter how huge and expensive or tiny and insignificant, each of my media or tech toys has a power switch. I’m concerned about the environment. I’m even more concerned about the rediculous injustice I call "monthly electric bills". I like to be able to turn devices off, or at least put them into a suspend/sleep mode.
The Apple TV does not have an on/off switch. It just sits there running hot. The Apple TV can be put into sleep mode only with the Apple remote – by holding the play/pause button for about 5 seconds. Even in sleep mode, the Apple TV remains warm-to-hot and parts inside are still functioning. If you put the Apple TV to sleep and later put your ear to the top of the cover, you can clearly hear the hard drive or CPU fan still spinning. The Apple TV’s sleep mode is more of a ‘resting’ mode.
The only way to fully turn the Apple TV off for zero-power-consumption is to unplug it from the wall or from the surge protector that it rightfully should be plugged into.
Trouble Area 3: Cheap-o Cheap on the Cables
The Apple TV does not come with any video cables. After spending $299 for the Apple TV, you’ll have to spend $30 or more for a good HDMI or Component cable package at Apple stores. Some retailers are charging as much as $100 for virtually the same cable. HDMI and Component cables are selling for as little as $1.99 on eBay (I ordered a set). If these cables are going for as little $1.99, then why can’t Apple just include one or both? What’s $4 worth of cable, especially when it makes the customer feel like he or she has gotten a great deal? It irks me that some companies skimp on the simplest little thing to save a few dollars.
Trouble Area 4: Apple Remote
When navigating the menus on the Apple TV interface, I noticed that my MacBook Pro, which was sitting nearby, was responding to the Apple remote commands. Front Row was opening and closing accidentally while I was selecting menus on the Apple TV. To solve this problem, I scrolled down to the Settings directory on the Apple TV and paired the remote with the Apple TV. This limits the Apple remote to controlling only the Apple TV, not every Front Row-enabled computer with an infrared port nearby. Also, the Apple remote does not control audio levels for content playing from the Apple TV. Your TV’s remote will be required for changing volume. Woops.
Trouble Area 5: Officially, HDTV or EDTV Required
According to Apple, the Apple TV needs to be connected to an EDTV or HDTV to work properly. For most consumers around the world, buying an Apple TV would necessitate buying a new TV set as well. Of course, component video can be downgraded to RCA video using a conversion box, but this downgrade nullifies one of the primary reasons to use an Apple TV – high def video content would no longer be high-def.
There are a number of non-HD TV sets sold that have component video inputs. The Apple TV reportedly displays video on those non-HD televisions, but the content clearly won’t be HD.
Trouble Area 6: Format Wars
One of the popular uses for the Apple TV is to bring internet and home-grown video content away from the computer and onto a proper television. There are quite a number of formats that video files can be found in – many of which are not recognized by the Apple TV. What are people going to do with the collections of WMV, DivX, AVI or even FLV/SWF files? Unless users are willing or able to hack the Apple TV (which has already been done), they’ll need to convert each of those files to one of the limited video formats supported by the Apple TV (which are h.264 and MPEG-4 video files).
Converting these countless video files likely means buying software that will convert the files for you. This means added expense. Even if you find a free video converter (and there are plenty of them out there), you’ll still need to take the time and effort to convert everything over. And converting files almost always involves loss of quality. Apple TV can’t be everything to everyone, but I would have expected a little broader range of supported video formats.
Apple’s entry into the living-room entertainment market has been one of the most talked about phenomena in recent tech history. The Apple TV is one of those products that you either love or shun. There are a great number of positive attributes – it plays 16:9 content beautifully, it’s a pleasure to use the interface, it makes for gorgeous iPhoto slideshows, it’s a wonderful way to stream iTunes music to an entertainment center and it’ll undoubtedly appeal to a great number of TV and home-video enthusiasts. On the other hand, it seems to truly be a niche product. Only people who buy iTunes movies and TV shows, or those who prefer to back up their entire DVD collection to MPEG-4 format for DVD-free use, may find the product indispensable. Personally, I think the Apple TV is a pretty neat product – something worthy of a lot of attention and respect. I also feel that it’s not necessarily something I absolutely need to have or use all the time. I don’t see it revolutionizing my world (but that’s just me).
To find out if the Apple TV is right for you, or if it’d make a well-appreciated gift for someone special, it is necessary to really evaluate whether or not you need iTunes or home-converted video content streaming from your computer to your TV. Is this your niche? Are you willing to make peace with some of the Apple TV’s shortcomings? If so, by all means buy the product.
If you’re really not sure if the Apple TV is right for you, get yourself to an Apple store or some other retailer where the Apple TV is available for handling and testing. You may find yourself passing on the $299 expense. You may also find yourself in love and going home with an exciting new source of entertainment.
Whether you jump on the Apple TV bandwagon or sit this one out, there’s no escaping the fact that the Apple TV is a huge phenomenon that will challenge conventional thinking and may even spur video content providers to think a little more about catering to the individual consumer’s habits and desires.
• Easy to use
• Uses 802.11b/g/n
• Most video content is gorgeous
• High $299 price
• Runs very hot
• No cables included
• Limited video formats
• Some video content is sub-par
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