Review: Apple TV Works Well, but Content Too Pricey

Since the late 90s, Apple has attempted to make the technically complex simple.

The iMac did it for personal computing, and the iPod is a paragon of portable consumer electronics.

Now with the $299 Apple TV, Steve Jobs and company want to simplify your home entertainment experience.

But what, exactly, is it?

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The basic concept of this product is straightforward: Wirelessly stream content from the iTunes libraries of up to five computers, as well as play content directly from the box's 40 GB hard drive.

This means you can enjoy almost anything on your PC, be it movies, photos, podcasts, or music, on your enhanced-definition and high-definition widescreen televisions.

Apple's slogan says, "If it's on iTunes, it's on Apple TV" — and this is mostly true. Those who don't mind hooking up a few cables and thinking a little about the set-up will enjoy this wireless extension to iTunes.

Overall, it does a pretty damn good job, despite some limitations.

First, we'll quickly describe how the device works, then we'll get detailed about what you need to set it up.

Connect the Apple TV box to your television (using either the HDMI 1.2 connection or component video) and make sure the computer you have your iTunes library on is connected to a wireless router.

Once everything is powered up, Apple TV's menu will ask you to choose a language and then walk you through the incredibly simple — and, frankly, gratifying — process of pairing your computer with Apple TV.

Apple TV appears as a device on the left-hand menu in iTunes (just like an iPod) when you choose to add a library on Apple TV's menu.

To set it up, you enter a 5-digit code, which should already be displaying on your television. Type it in and that's it: you can now stream iTunes content from your computer to your television.

If you wish to make this computer your "host", you can easily sync the computer to Apple TV and all the material on your iTunes (well, almost all — read on to find out about certain video roadblocks) will be transferred to the box's 40-GB hard drive.

Just as iTunes syncs with your iPod, iTunes will constantly update your Apple TV with new material you've downloaded. You can also stream content — either stuff that is in your iTunes library or content from other iTunes libraries connected to your wireless router.

Apple TV lets you stream from up to five different computers aside from your main host computer. Songs and videos are not put into one master library, but switching between the libraries on the Apple TV menu is a relatively short and painless process.

When you stream content, Apple will stop synching and pick up where it left off when you finish. If you start watching a video on your iPod, then stop, attach your iPod to your Apple TV-connected iTunes library, it will keep the bookmark and play on your TV from where you left off.

You can view photos on Apple TV, but it uses iPhoto on Macs and Photoshop Elements on PCs and cannot stream files, so you'll have to sync photos or slideshows you've created in order to watch them on your television. That's basically it.

Setting Up the Apple TV

So: what do you need for this to work? First and foremost: you need the latest version of iTunes (7.1.1), and should also get the latest Quicktime update.

Assuming you have a wireless 802.11 b (11mbps), g (54 mbps), or n (145 or 300 mbps) network, iTunes will detect Apple TV when you power up.

It should be noted that we experienced only minor stuttering when streaming video content over a "b" wireless set-up. The sound was trailing the video.

Our solution? Pause and play the video again, and things were back in synch.

A "b" network is certainly not ideal, but it works, and it will only occasionally sputter during streaming.

You can also connect to Apple TV via standard Ethernet to enjoy the simplicity and reliability of wired networking.

The box's guts consist of an Intel processor (what type, Apple won't say) and a 40-GB hard drive for storing media.

Since many TVs have only a single HDMI input, the Apple TV accessory bonanza has already begun — there are XtremeMac 4-port HDMI switches available for a mere $20 that will enable you to toggle between your connections.

The built-in WiFi capabilities operate over 802.11b/g and 802.11n (based on "an IEEE 802.11n draft specification", according to Apple's Web site).

To use Apple TV, you'll need OS 10.3.9, Windows XP Home/Professional (SP2), or Vista. Connections on the back, left to right, are: power, USB 2.0 (for firmware updates only), Ethernet, HDMI, component video and RCA stereo audio, and optical audio.

A simple remote (it's the remote that shipped with the Apple Hi-Fi) and power cable are included.

The 7.7 inch-by-7.7 inch, 1.1-inch silver box is unadorned, except for the Apple TV logo on top. The Front Row-style interface will be easy to navigate for anyone familiar with iTunes and iPods, as well as most proprietary Mac software.

A reminder: To fully enjoy your movie and music audio, it's advisable to buy external speakers for your television as opposed to the built-in speakers it likely comes with.

The video formats supported are many, but undoubtedly the easiest way to go is to simply play files downloaded from iTunes.

Apple TV supports MPEG-4, H.264 and protected H.264 video at 640 by 480 and 320 by 240 resolution at 30 fps. It also plays 1280 by 720 video at 24 fps.

The audio formats are the usual suspects for iPods — AAC (16 to 320 Kbps); protected AAC (from iTunes Store); MP3 (16 to 320 Kbps); MP3 VBR; Apple Lossless; AIFF; and WAV — but no support for Audible.

For those of your who want to watch your vacation slideshow on your new flat panel, as long as you have your pics in JPEG, BMP, GIF, TIFF, or PNG file formats, you're good to go.

As for TV compatibility, as mentioned earlier, you'll need an enhanced-definition or high-definition widescreen with 1080i 60/50Hz, 720p 60/50Hz, 576p 50Hz (PAL format), or 480p 60Hz.

Apple has designed this product to work only with widescreen EDTVs and HDTVs. While a company rep explained that you might have some luck with a few 4:3 televisions — the older televisions that lack a letterbox shape — it's a crapshoot.

Apple is banking on the future of televisions here, and thus excluded backwards compatibility with aging models in favor of focusing on making things look right for current and future television screen templates.

Oh, and in case you're wondering whether you could take, say, an XVID file of the movie "Cars" and convert it to MPEG 4 via QuickTime Pro and then watch it without any issues on Apple TV: yes, you can (you criminal).

Now, let's talk about what you can't do.

Want to take videos you recorded on your digital camera, throw them in iTunes and then watch them on your televison? Not so fast.

Apple reps were quick to point out to us this important rule: If it plays on your iPod, it should play on Apple TV, BUT if it plays in iTunes, it doesn't necessarily play on Apple TV.

Some files require transcoding into the appropriate format. This was certainly true of video footage I took on my camera — it showed up (and played) in my iTunes library, but it didn't even show up as a playable file in the Apple TV menu.

Folks who wish to view these types of files on Apple TV need to convert the footage to an Apple TV-friendly format in the latest version of QuickTime.

Testing the Apple TV

For testing, we wanted to try as many different scenarios as we could think of.

The first involved using an AirPort Extreme router and a new Apple MacBook 13" laptop with an internal Draft "n" card and the latest OS X as our host computer — meaning we synched all its content to the hard drive.

Then we added a Mac Mini with an internal "g" card to the equation and had no problem streaming music and video from it.

Adding an Acer laptop using Windows XP was also not an issue — but soon we discovered something quite interesting.

We have a shared iTunes library here in the labs, which our host Mac Book was connected to.

Not only did Apple TV download all the content from the MacBook's pretty small test suite we created — it started to download all of the files in our shared folder!

Obviously, any unauthorized iTunes content wouldn't be able to play, but various unprotected files could, and we were on our way to inadvertently almost filling the 40GB hard drive!

Why is this cool? Think about it: Instead of streaming your buddy's content when he comes over with his laptop, you can simply put him on your shared network and his content will automatically sync to your hard drive (and stay there after he leaves), while Apple TV retains the ability to stream from five other computers ... let the music-swap parties begin!

Eliminating the previous computers and switching to a D-Link DIR-635 RangeBooster N 650 Router and a Toshiba laptop running Vista also proved to be easy. Well, sort of.

Apple TV got confused and crashed, and we discovered that when Apple TV crashes, you have to quit and restart iTunes for the two to play nice again.

When you remove a computer from the network, it still remains as an unselectable option in the Source menu.

When we added the Acer — a computer we previously had on the AirPort Extreme network — it recognized the library as the old one, even though we gave it a new name, and promptly deleted the old Acer library from the Source list.

Our final test was to connect five computers — Macs and all sorts of XP and Vista PCs — to the same "n" router while our Toshiba laptop played host. We had zero issues streaming video and music from all machines.

The main issues we have with Apple TV rest not in its performance: It does everything it claims to, and like all Apple products, with amazing ease of use.

My problem is with the iTunes movie pricing.

What about Netflix? Should I pay $300 for an Apple TV and then about $12 a film on iTunes, when for the price of one iTunes film, I can just have new DVDs all the time? Netflix even offers a streaming service.

To be fair, Apple TV is not just about movies and video. Having music streamed to your TV — and thus, presumably, your stereo system — is a great feature.

But albums get listened to over and over, making the price tag a bit less offensive. How many times is an adult really going to watch one movie? Aside from the obsessed among us, the answer is rarely more than twice.

Without a subscription-based movie service or a lower price for films that you can only view for a limited time or a couple times, I think it's hard to convince people that Apple TV is a must-have.

It doesn't cost a ton to fill up your iPod, but to load 10 flicks that may only be watched once onto Apple TV is going to set you back well over $100 ... and loading in pirated content takes extra effort and some Quicktime skills.

Our editor-in-chief, Jim Louderback, wasn't in love with the way an iTunes-downloaded "Zoolander" looked on our HP Pavilion md5880n HDTV, but the slightly lower-than-ideal resolution didn't bother me. It was watchable.

On a more reasonably sized TV, it matters even less. Apple bumped up the resolution of its video content on iTunes on Sept.12, 2006, from 320 by 240 to 640 by 480, and clearly they had Apple TV in mind when doing so.

Watching a brand-new episode of "The Office" on Apple TV is a pleasant experience. An episode from Season 2, downloaded before the resolution upgrade? Not so much.

It should be noted, however, that Apple appears to have retroactively upgraded the resolution of video content on iTunes.

Apple TV vs. Xbox 360

It's worth considering the unsung competition here: the Xbox 360. Green-button fans (so named because of the green Windows Media Center Key) are likely to be nonplussed by the Apple TV, since they've been able to stream their content to their TVs for over a year now.

Windows Media Center Edition (MCE) users (on both XP and Vista) are already able to stream their photos, music, videos, and recorded TV to Xbox 360 game consoles.

You have a lot more control of your content on the Windows side, since you're not locked into iTunes as your only TV programming source: MCE PCs can use multiple download services (legal or otherwise), and many MCE PCs have built-in TV tuners so you can record your own programs.

The Xbox 360 also has its own Xbox Live marketplace, so you can buy and download TV shows and movies directly to the Xbox's hard drive, something you can't do on the Apple TV.

On the other hand, iTunes has a wider selection of programming than Xbox Live Marketplace. Setting up the MCE-Xbox 360 connection not quite as easy a setup as the iTunes-Apple TV, since Windows may involve a utility download or two, but once all the pieces are in place, both will let you view your digital life on your TV.

Both the Apple TV and Xbox 360 can view content that is stored on their hard drives, but you'll have to keep your PCs or Macs on to stream content from MCE or iTunes.

There is HD (720p) and SD (480p) content on the Xbox Live store, but so far the movies and TV programs on iTunes are only SD format. Of course, you can't play iTunes content on an Xbox and vice versa.

The Xbox 360 is a true Media Center extender: the look and feel of the Xbox MCE interface is identical to that on the MCE PCs, down to the same color scheme.

The Apple TV interface is different from the iPod, but its look and feel is close (if not identical) to the Front Row interface on recent Macs.

Both MCE and iTunes prefer if you keep your files organized in "their" folders on your PC or Mac, but you can play files scattered around your hard drive.

Macs have a leg up in the transmission department, since all new Macs and Apple routers use speedier 802.11n (draft) networking.

All in all we find that MCE and Xbox 360 is great if you already have a 360. There is no reason to upgrade unless you are a major iTunes user with lots of iTunes content. Futhermore, you can play games on the Xbox when you're not watching videos.

But, folks, let's face the facts: For most people carrying around content on a portable device or listening to music on their computers, this is an iTunes/iPod world. Even if the Xbox 360 has some advantages, it holds almost none for the current iPod owner.

Those thinking of purchasing an Apple TV should think of this: It is basically a big iPod (well, as big as your TV screen) that loads wirelessly and has some of the sharing capabilities of iTunes.

That means you may need to do some video transcoding to make your video playback on Apple TV. Things that won't play on iPods won't play on Apple TV, and that's the bottom line.

My issues with the video content costing too much will be shrugged off by some, but my logic is this: If you can already plug your iPod into your stereo, video transfer has to be considered the main selling point here. And iPod movies ain't cheap.

It's not just ease-of-use and design; it is also the 99-cent song (oh, and all that free illegal stuff) that moved the iPod to its position atop the consumer electronics mountain.

I think Apple TV is a fantastic product — but I won't be buying one until I can watch movies with it for less than the price of going to see one in the theaters.

BOTTOM LINE: Moving the functionality of the iPod onto widescreen TV is a great idea. The fact that it works, even better. Still, it's disappointing to not be able to play some video content on Apple TV that I can play in iTunes.

PROS: Basically a TV-sized iPod. Can stream iTunes content from five computers. Shared iTunes library function makes filling up the 40 GB hard drive easy. Stream content when you want to watch it. Could replace an entire stereo/DVD component system for non-stereophiles.

CONS: Not all video content that plays in iTunes plays on Apple TV — some QuickTime surgery is required. Same cheap HiFi remote. Video resolution will irk some discerning eyes. Only works with widescreen TVs.

COMPANY: Apple Computer Inc.

Price: $299.00 direct
Ethernet Interface: Yes
Networking Options: 802.11n
Hard Drive: Yes
Supports MP3: Yes
Supports WMA: No
Shows Photos: Yes
Shows Video: Yes
Has On-screen TV Display: Yes
Rips CDs: No

EDITOR RATING: Four out of five stars

Copyright © 2007 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Ziff Davis Media Inc. is prohibited.