Sunday, April 01, 2007

One Week With Apple TV

What's wrong with these pictures? The copy in this Apple promotional graphic says "widescreen TV," but all of the TV images are standard 4:3 format. Hmmm. It's a good metaphor for the gap between the promise of Apple TV and the reality. But for me, the reality is plenty good (for now).
I'm late with my promised Apple TV review because I can't stop watching and listening to it. The boob tube is back and this boob is glued to the couch. All in all, though, I'm watching much less of the stuff that comes down the cable channels. (We used to call that stuff TV, but I think we're going to need a retronym for it à la "snail mail" and "acoustic guitar.")

Apple TV has been one of the year's most anticipated, reported, reviewed, analyzed, (and, now, hacked) products. So, if it's a topic that interests you, you probably know more about it than I'm about to reveal. But that's blogging for you, thousands of people writing more or less the same thing over and over. Let me thank you in advance for reading it here.

What you've heard and read is all true: Setup is astonishingly smooth and effortless, the U-I is engaging and clean, with a dash of tasteful eye candy (iCandy?).

Apple TV performs as advertised. It does not, however, perform as fantasized. As you probably know by now, it has its limits. It presents in last year's sound and picture quality (last century's, actually). It doesn't get YouTube. It's not a DVR. The movie section in the iTunes Store has bupkis. Apple TV has a tiny hard drive by today's expectations (40GB). It gets very warm to the touch. And, yes, XBox not only does more, but Xbox Live offers true HDTV. (And they announced more HD titles this week.) how much more does Xbox do? Jodie Cadieux reminded me that XBox is even stopping drug and gun trafficking in Mexico as officials there are giving out a free Xbox for every gun turned in to law enforcers. Match that, Apple TV.

That Apple TV, despite its limitations, has captured so much attention and early success mystifies some and infuriates others. I'm not here to argue the case. I'm just here to testify that I'm happily enjoying my Apple TV for what it delivers, and I'm not fretting about what's missing. It will get here.

I took Apple at their word: iTunes on my TV. That, right there, is enough to give me two things I've been waiting for: I wanted to connect the music collection on my office computer to the really good sound system in my living room. Second, I made a pledge to Scoble to watch ScobleShow, when I could do it on Apple TV. (is that a recursive reason?) Well, there's lots of other good video podcasts worth subscribing to. Kasper Hauser and other video podcasts on the big screen. Turns out that, even though Ze Frank has ended The Show has putting the archives up on iTunes.

More than I expected

I can tell you that I not only got the two things I bought it for, but I found some bonuses: It was easy to convert my own videos into Apple TV format (QuickTime Pro 7.1.5 has a command "export movie to Apple TV). Now I have Day of the Longtail and a bunch of other videos I worked on with Peter Hirshberg, Michael Witlin Associates, etc. into Apple TV format where they stand ready to inflict on unsuspecting house guests. What's more, it's not a big chore to download clips from YouTube and convert them to play on Apple TV.

Music from background to foreground

Even though the product has "TV" in its name, what I value most is is being able to hear my iTunes music on my best speakers. (Sneaker-netting the iPod into the living room or using AirTunes with Airport Express wasn't cutting it because there's no big screen U-I for browsing.)

Apple TV's oh-so-tasty screen saver is simple and satisfying, offering a multi-plane display of over lapping album art. (memo to self: resist temptation to re-scan all album art to higher resolution.)

About that Teeny Hard Disk Drive

I'm not overly concerned about the small hard drive. The drive is required only for photos. For all other content, you can stream from your computer(s) to Apple TV. I'm having no problems, no glitches streaming over my home WiFi network . (Your mileage may vary.)

The catch is that I have to have my computer on and iTunes running. If I could fit all my content onto the internal Apple TV drive, I could leave my computer off while using Apple TV. If you're running from a notebook, you can leave the house with it, and the folks back home can still enjoy the Apple TV. With content on the internal drive, you can even unplug Apple TV, take it over to a friend's house.

In order to manage what actually gets sync'd to Apple TV, iTunes 7.1.1 has set of panels, similar to the panels for managing the content that syncs to your iPod. You set set which playlists, photo albums, or podcasts should sync to Apple TV.

Up to Six Computers Can Play

Up to six separate computers can register to stream to a single Apple TV, so if your household members have multiple computers, they can share a single Apple TV. Only one computer, however, can register to sync content to the Apple TV hard drive. You can mix and match PCs and Macs.

How good is the picture?

Depending on the source, it varies from yuck to not-half-bad to pretty close to DVD—and occasionally better. So if your goal is a new source of HDTV quality programming, look elsewhere.

How good is the sound?

Quality is fine. But it's stereo or Dolby pro-logic only. Despite the presence of a digital audio port (optical S/PDIF), Apple TV does not now support discreet 5.1 or 7.1 surround formats.

Ben Drawbaugh
offers a clear table on the technical limitations of Apple TV vs HD DVD

Mickeleh's Take: March has seen some huge steps aimed at flipping TV away from the established cable and satellite walled gardens for delivering TV shows and movies. Online video is moving in. Amazon Unbox started downloading movies to TiVo. NBC Universal and News Corp. initiated an everybody-but-Google consortium with AOL, MSN, MySpace, and Yahoo planning to put a vast film and TV catalog online. Joost beta went live. And Om Malik launched a redesigned NewTeeVee to report on it all.

There's little doubt that a revolutionary change is underway, but it's one that will be years in the making. Bandwidth and intellectual property battles are the biggest constraints.

What's makes Apple TV successful despite its limitations is that it fits well with the current state of things. For me, cable is still my only source of HD programming. But for music, podcasts, and TV access to my own videos, Apple TV is proving well worth it.

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bonehole said...


It will be interesting to see the enhancements that Apple provides (enables?) via new software downloads in the coming months. There is quite a bit of overhead -- untapped potential -- available with this box.

On the content side, if Apple is able to get enough downloadable movie/video content on iTunes, I could see this replacing my Comcast VOD.

I've been using my current last-gen Airport Extreme, bridged with relay Airport Expresses throughout my home (it's an expansive home built in 1891) using 802.11g to stream. It's adequate, but JUST. I've streamed some content but for other movies I've just waited a day for things to sync up to the hard drive. said... now provides movie downloads for Apple TV at our site. We are very excited about the future of online media and distribution into the family room.

r4 dsi said...

Doesn't work with older, non-widescreen TVs; movie rentals must be watched within 24 hour timeframe; no subscription payment options; lackluster file support for non-iTunes video formats; oversimplified remote can't control other devices; no built-in DVD player.

Michael Markman said...

Mostly true. I'm using mine with a 4:3 TV that's more than ten years old. Granted, it's an early tube-based HD-capable set with component inputs.

As for the remote, I'll agree that the supplied remote is primitive and awkard. But using AppleTV with Apple's Remote App on iPhone or iPod touch is by far the best remote control experience I've ever had.