Apple TV – As Good As It Sounds?

| April 2, 2007

Apple TV - A lot to like in a small package

I have been fortunate enough to pick up an Apple TV this past weekend, and like a good nerd, spent a vast amount of time tinkering with it. There has been some interest and breathless anticipation waiting for this latest Apple gizmo to pop out of the Cupertino womb. Is it the “next big thing”? Quite possibly yes.

First off, it’s incredibly simple. The worst part of set up was the time it took to drive home from the Apple store and set it up. To take advantage of this thing, you need a HD Television. Mine is hooked to a Samsung DLP – an older model that is native 720p. There are 3 things in the Apple TV box. The Apple TV unit (this thing is TINY), a very small remote and a power cable. Note – the cables to hook it to your TV are not in the box, so make sure you have them.

You can connect to your TV using either a single high density cable (called HDMI) or using 5 cables to carry the various signals. As my TV is older, I needed to use the 5 cable method. This went quickly and smoothly, and soon enough I had the Apple TV booted. There are few simple steps to set it up, and you are in business! Note however if you use the composite cables (the 5 wire method) that the unit will default to a lower resolution at first, and your picture will look fuzzy and kind of lame. Using setup from the menu can put you in the right resolution. Once set the quality of the picture was wonderful. Text and graphics for the Apple TV Interface were crisp and sharp. The unit is a model of simplicity to operate. Plug into the power and the network (I used a wired network at my home) and the system was ready to go.

One measure of “cool” for any gizmo is how long it takes before my wife ousts me from custody of the remote and takes over. Time here was about 10 minutes – exceptionally short time / high interest factor.

Also note that your Apple TV is going to want to talk to iTunes running on a computer somewhere on your home network. While my dear wife was tinkering with the setting on the box, I retired to my home office and linked my MacPro to the Apple TV box by opening iTunes. The TV showed a 5 digit code that I had to enter into iTunes to pair them together, and we were connected. The Apple TV showed up like an iPod in the devices menu, and I could move content into it like I could an iPod. In fact that is a great way to think of this – an iPod for your TV.

I had been anticipating buying this machine for a couple of weeks, and had spent some time getting video ready for it either by converting it from DVD into MPEG4 using Media Fork (formerly known as Hand Brake) and downloading some episodes from my favorite TV shows from the web (via BitTorrent) and purchase from the iTunes store). The shows downloaded via BitTorrent posed a bit of a problem, as the were set up for playback using the Divx decoder, which is not installed on the Apple TV. There are posts elsewhere on the web that discuss how to dis-assemble your Apple TV and add software to it, but I was not going to do that just yet. Using Roxio Toast I had taken some of the .avi files (from a PC) and re-formatted them to work with iTunes.

With my wife firmly driving the system, I began to download a small collection of music, video and photos to the machine. My wife started sifting through the music, with graphic album covers displayed for each playlist from iTunes. She chose one and started playing music, and was delighted when after 2 mintues of play (and not touching the remote) the Apple TV went into a screen saver mode that was scrolling pictures across the screen, and they looked very good. At this point it was some time before I could try out the video features as she was enthralled by the photos, so I kept downloading more of them to the machine.

Once I did get to try the video portion of this thing out – it also worked easily and with minimal effort. Video was crisp and clear, and you could certainly tell older content (like original Star Trek episodes) from newer content like Battlestar Galactica. Older content, even ripped at a high data rate from DVD seemed soft and fuzzy. Newer content tended to look very crisp. Animated content, such as episodes of Futurama were light years better than when broadcast on Adult Swim / Cartoon Network.

While you can’t (to my knowledge) get any High Def content from the iTunes store, I was able to download some, and convert to a compatible format. The results were outstanding (Battlestar Galactica) and the Apple TV system played back the video file evenly and smoothly.

Conclusions

All in all, a tremendous first release of the product. If you think back to the first generation iPod, one can get very excited about where the Apple TV is likely going to end up in 5-7 years, Apple correctly took a minimal compelling feature set and brought it to market at an attractive and achievable price.

Things that are great
Apple got a lot of things right with this first release of Apple TV, here are just a few:

  • Ease of setup: Just make sure you set it for the proper resolution to enjoy the stunning picture quality out-put by this little box.
  • Picture quality: Video playback looks fabulous. The only downside is that with the box set at 720p, old video like original Star Trek and first season of Farscape looked fuzzy. Setting the resolution back down to 480 and letting my TV scale the video looked somewhat better.
  • Integration with iTunes: Tight and simple integration with iTunes from any computer in your house. What is even better is your iTunes system can stream content to the Apple TV. For a while last night my wife was playing songs that were stored on my Mac Pro from the TV without having to download them. This overcomes the rather limited hard disk capacity of the Apple TV in terms of music, and was very slick. Songs, playlists, album covers all showed up and were “instant access”
  • Streaming from your Mac: The ability to get at what could be thousands of audio files tracked by your copy of iTunes is a big plus, and was an immediate hit with the family.
  • Overall “experience”: Since the return of Steve Jobs, Apple has focused a great deal of attention at how you feel towards your Apple purchase a few hours after you get your new toy home. We ended the evening very happy with our new gizmo.
  • Things that need work

    Like all first generation products, there is plenty of new territory left to expand into. In my opinion there are quite a few areas that would make the Apple TV even more attractive:

  • Support for XviD, Divx, AVI – Right now there is no way to play content that has been recorded in these popular file formats, unless you dis-assemble your box and add software components in a rather challenging process. This should be easy for Apple to fix in future software updates, and would make Apple TV even more capable.
  • Better episode support / TV show organization: Right now when you push video files onto your Apple TV they will come up as either Movies or TV shows in the menus. If you have TV shows you encoded from DVD, you have to go through several non-obvious steps in iTunes to get them to populate as TV shows on your Apple TV. Once on the Apple TV, they show up as one big list in reverse alpha format. I have not yet found a way to change that.
  • Hard drive space: 40 GB is not enough, by a long shot. The real power of this thing is going to be having a huge amount of video / audio / photo content at your fingertips. Because it uses a 2.5″ hard drive (what laptops use) you are quite limited to how big you can go at the moment. I am already preparing to swap it out for a roomier 160GB model.
  • Platform open-ness: There are whole sites devoted to hacking this wonderful little box, such as AkwardTV are excellent resources and have shown that you can modify this box with some ease past a certain level of technical capability. But I can imagine that you would have downloadable modules that would not require you to use cryptic unix commands to enable or install. I would love to have a MAME (80’s arcade game emulator) running on this thing.
  • iTunes video quality: The quality of the shows downloaded via the iTunes store were pretty bad. I can understand that they were all originally set up to be viewed on tiny iPod screens, when shown on a 56″ HDTV it looks pretty rough. Oh, and how about letting my buy episodes of things like Heros in HDTV please? I know the content is being created in HDTV, so I would much rather buy it and be legit than have to download it via BitTorrent.
  • Bugs and quirks

  • Lost pictures: At one point, the system forgot about all of the pictures that had been downloaded to it, and refused to allow any more to be downloaded to it, until such time as we pulled the plug and forced it to re-boot (see next comment).
  • Powering off?: As far as I can tell, there is no way to turn this thing off apart from pulling the plug. Like any digital device it can become confused, and forcing a power down and re-start cold sometimes will cure a great many ills. And the thought of having this thing draw power when no one is using it goes against my scottish nature.
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    Category: Information Technology, Reviews, Video

    About the Author ()

    Bruce Henderson is a former Marine who focuses custom data mining and visualization technologies on the economy and other disasters.

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