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Review: Apple TV best for iTunes addicts

Story Highlights

• Apple TV an elegant streaming media solution
• Product is sleek with a simple setup
• Only streams iTunes content
• Small 40GB hard drive has only 33GB of usable disk space
By John P. Falcone
CNET.com
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(CNET.comexternal link) -- Apple's answer to the digital media adapter is finally here.

The Apple TV is essentially a stationary, networked iPod that lets you enjoy all of your iTunes digital media (video, audio, and photos) on the wide-screen HDTV and sound system in your living room -- rather than the confined screens of your video iPod or your PC.

The good news is the $300 Apple TV largely succeeds in bringing iPod-like simplicity and elegance to TV-based network media devices. The bad news is its narrow iTunes-only compatibility severely limits the quantity -- and quality -- of the video content you can enjoy on your TV.

The box

The Apple TV itself is a tiny silver square with rounded corners measuring 7.7 inches per side and just 1.1 inches high. That's far smaller than most standard DVD players and stereo equipment; like the similarly sized Mac Mini (Read reviewexternal link) or Nintendo Wii (Read reviewexternal link), the Apple TV will fit just about anywhere.

It also sports a minimalist aesthetic that's classic Apple -- the front panel has only a power light and the remote sensor. There are absolutely no buttons, nor is there a front-panel display.

Once you plug it in, it's always on.

There's no cooling fan, which makes for essentially silent operation, an important feature in a home theater device. The box does get at least as hot as your average laptop, however, so be sure to give it plenty of ventilation.

The included remote will be familiar to Apple aficionados. It's the exact same gumstick-sized clicker that ships with recent iMac models, featuring the same five-way navigation pad found on an iPod Shuffle (play/pause, back/forward, and the plus/minus buttons), plus a "menu" button that doubles as "back" when navigating the Apple TV menus.

Unfortunately, the little remote can't be programmed to control the volume of your TV or A/V receiver. Because it's a standard infrared remote, you can program a universal remote to control the Apple TV.

Apple's package includes the remote, the power cord, the instruction manual, and the unit itself. The lack of any A/V cables is a disappointment, though Apple is offering a selection of affordable XtremeMac cables at its online and retail stores. The HDMI cable, for example, costs $19.95. Of course, any compatible cables you have on hand will work just fine.

Connectivity

The Apple TV has a decent set of network and A/V jacks crammed onto its backside, but it's by no means comprehensive. There are two video output options: component (red, green, blue) and HDMI. If you connect to a TV or an A/V receiver via HDMI, that single cable will handle video and audio. Otherwise, audio can be output via analog stereo (red and white RCA jacks) or optical digital.

The dearth of composite and S-video connectors means that the Apple TV is not just HD-friendly, it's pretty much HD only--if your TV can't support a 480p (enhanced definition), wide-screen image or better, you can't use Apple TV. While we're all in favor of future-proofing, a little backwards compatibility would've been nice, too.

Apple TV is the first digital media adapter we've seen to include built-in support for 802.11n wireless networking. That's the latest -- and fastest -- iteration of the Wi-Fi standard. Designed to support speeds of up to 200 Mbps, the 11n standard is fast enough (on paper, at least) to deliver the high bandwidth required to stream high-def video.

The device will still interact with older wireless standards, but don't expect 802.11g, and especially 802.11b, networks to reliably stream video. Thankfully, an Ethernet port is present for those who prefer to bypass wireless altogether and opt for a wired connection instead.

Apple TV also includes a single USB 2.0 port on the rear, but it's currently just a service jack--meaning it lacks any consumer application for the time being.

Because the Apple TV doesn't have a laptop-style external power brick, it is possible to get the device up and running with two cables--the power cable to wall outlet and an HDMI cable to the TV or A/V receiver.

Setup

Once we got our Apple TV review sample connected and powered up, it was time to go through the setup routine. On many such devices, connecting to a wireless network and interfacing with a connected computer can be a Sisyphean ordeal that taxes even the most patient and knowledgeable gadget fan. But with Apple TV, the setup process couldn't be simpler.

After prompting us to choose a display language and a resolution (choices range from 480p, 720p, and 1080i to Euro-friendly 576p and 50Hz HD flavors), the Apple TV automatically searched for wireless networks in the area. We simply selected our Wi-Fi network of choice and entered the password on the onscreen keyboard (WEP and WPA encryption is supported).

Once it was on the network, the Apple TV displayed a random five-digit code, at which point the action turned to iTunes. We headed over to our Windows PC and booted up iTunes. Of course, Apple TV works equally well with Macs, although all computers you want the device to access have to be on the same network and turned on.

The computers must be running iTunes too. If you're using the latest version (7.1 or later), it should automatically detect the Apple TV and show it under "devices"--the same header under which you see your iPod (Read reviewexternal link) when it's connected. Enter the five-digit code, and your iTunes should immediately begin talking to your Apple TV.

The Apple TV will be authorized to play iTunes Store content purchased on your account, and you can check off which of your media types--movies, TV shows, music (including music videos and audiobooks), podcasts, and photos--you wish to synchronize with Apple TV.

If the sync options sound familiar, that's because they're identical to the options that iTunes offers when syncing to an iPod. And as with the iPod, you can make the syncing options as general ("all TV shows") or as granular ("only unwatched episodes") as you'd like.

Once the syncing options are applied, the files begin copying over from your computer to your Apple TV. Obviously, the first sync will be the longest--it's far slower over the fastest network than syncing with your USB-connected iPod--and fat movie files will go considerably slower than TV shows and song files. However, with the exception of photos (which need to go through a bit of processing), all of the content to be synchronized is immediately available for streaming.

You also can stream content (but not sync) to the Apple TV from up to five additional computers. Other computers need only be "invited" to stream to the Apple TV.

To do so, choose "sources" on the main menu, enter the randomly generated five-digit security code, and you'll be good to stream to the Apple TV. The process is simple enough that you can easily authorize, say, the laptop of a visiting friend, allowing playback of the latest episode of a favorite TV show--or a home movie--on the big-screen TV.

The interface

Most video-enabled network media devices have an onscreen interface that could best be described as serviceable--blocky text on monochromatic backgrounds that take you from one series of hard-to-navigate menus to the next. (A notable exception is the media boxes offered by Escient, such as the FireBall E2, but they're considerably pricier than the Apple TV.)

Not surprisingly, the Apple TV's interface is a thing of beauty--exactly what you'd expect from the company that's been a trailblazer for interface and aesthetic design in the fields of computer hardware, software, and now, consumer electronics. The onscreen display looks just like a scaled-up iPod menu, with all of the familiar choices on the main menu -- movies, TV shows, music, podcasts, and photos.

Settings also are available for changing configuration options and connecting to new PCs. But unlike a narrow-screen iPod, the Apple TV uses the left half of the wide-screen display to show contextual graphics -- album art for music, logos for podcasts, posters and cover shots for movies and TV shows, and so forth.

Diving into submenus and pulling back out to main menus is -- again -- as simple and intuitive as doing so on your iPod: use the center play/pause button to select, plus/minus to move up and down a list, and menu to go back. When you enter a submenu or linger on, say, a movie selection, the graphic will pull back to show a short summary with relevant information (including running time, rating, and the like).

Otherwise, the system uses subtle animations and the iTunes "cover flow" effect to showcase your digital media. It's all very cool, very slick, and very Apple.

After a few seconds of inactivity, the system will default to a screensaver that consists of a cavalcade of your photos, or a default set of natural landscapes. Any keystroke brings it back to life. Similarly, playing music shows the relevant cover art, if available, and the system will quickly flip-flop it from one side of the screen to the other. In other words, Apple TV is careful to ensure that plasma TV owners won't find album art, titles, or photos burned into their screen.

Another nice usability touch to the system is smart resume. Apple TV remembers where you stopped watching a movie or a TV show -- even if it was being watched in iTunes on your laptop. Returning to a previously watched video file gives you an option to resume from that point, or start from the beginning.

Because the Apple TV has live access to the Internet--something no pre-iPhone iPod could muster -- it does have a few extra options you won't find on your Apple portable. Movie and TV trailers, for example, are available for streaming live, straight off the Web. There was one curious omission, however: unlike iTunes, you can't get streaming Internet radio stations on your Apple TV.

Streaming performance

We used two Windows PCs to stream content to the Apple TV--an old Dell laptop (with an 802.11g Wi-Fi card) and a Dell desktop on a wired network connection. Both were connected to a Belkin N1 router, to which the Apple TV also was connected wirelessly.

For streaming tests, we concentrated on video rather than audio--the higher bandwidth of video files has always been the biggest challenge. We purchased two movies (The Royal Tenenbaums and The Incredibles) and three TV episodes (one each from Lost, Battlestar Galactica, and The Office) to give the Apple TV a streaming torture test, and the results were impressive. Even before syncing, each of the videos was watchable within a few seconds of selecting from the menu.

Once it buffered up, the video was smooth and stutter-free in every case, even though it was streaming wirelessly from a laptop to a router in the next room and from the router (again, wirelessly) to the Apple TV. That said, don't expect to fast-forward and rewind while streaming as easily as you would on a DVD--each time you do, the file needs to rebuffer to the new location.

Still, we've played with a lot of media streaming products that completely fall down when trying to rewind and fast-forward through long movie files, so the fact that the Apple TV offers usable navigation while streaming is a definite plus. As you'd expect, response time is much faster, smoother, and more DVD-like if the file has already been synchronized to the Apple TV's internal hard drive.

Overall, we'd rate the streaming performance as excellent, and that was even while streaming from an 802.11g laptop (which is theoretically somewhat slower than the 802.11n maximum wireless speed). Of course, it's always important to note that streaming performance is reliant on the vagaries of one's network. Don't expect smooth sailing if family members are simultaneously battling on Xbox Live, downloading a BitTorrent file, and making a Skype call, for instance.

Video quality

Unfortunately, the excellent streaming performance is offset by a drawback that's more the fault of iTunes than Apple TV: generally disappointing video quality. Movies and TV shows in iTunes are currently available in what Apple calls "near-DVD quality" -- a maximum of 640x480. Perhaps "bad analog cable quality" would be more descriptive--all of the videos were quite soft, lacking the sort of fine detail we've come to expect from well-mastered DVDs.

But the resolution isn't the full story: we found the quality to be very uneven across our cross-section of sample videos. The "Phyllis' Wedding" episode of The Office looked pretty good -- no complaints for a 247MB file that cost us a mere $2. But Lost looked pretty chunky -- square MPEG artifacts were clearly visible in the lush jungle scenes. Galactica looked even worse -- the dark corridors and exterior space battles found in "Resurrection Ship, Part 2" were muddy to the point of distraction.

The movies were somewhat better, but even nonvideophiles could pick out a litany of problems: Wes Anderson's repeated panning shots in The Royal Tenenbaums showed considerably more frame judder than you'd see on DVD, and the various details of the family house -- crowded bookcases and wood paneling -- were often submerged in splotches of black and brown with no detail.

Similarly, false contouring artifacts were in evidence on the brick walls of the rooftop scene in the first chapter of The Incredibles, as well as on Jack-Jack's head during the family dinner scene. The streaming movie trailers were worst of all: 300, Grindhouse, and Zodiac were all a mess--but they were freebies and streaming straight off the Web, so we were far more forgiving.

In other words, the video quality on the Apple TV wasn't that different from what we found on products such as the MovieBeam and the RCA Akimbo Player. Likewise, especially when blown up on a big-screen (42 inches or larger) television, Apple TV videos were a step down from what you'd see on a $50 DVD player.

iTunes only To be clear, none of the video quality problems are necessarily the fault of the Apple TV. It's the movies and TV shows that you're buying at the iTunes Store that are falling down.

Even with the higher resolution (they were formerly optimized for 320x240), iTunes videos are still optimized for the small screen and the storage capacity of the iPod. And they look fine on that 3.5-inch screen, or even a 15-inch laptop screen.

But these same videos just can't scale up to a 50-inch plasma without suffering. Ideally, Apple will someday begin selling files that are optimized for true DVD resolution (720x480) or even true HD resolution (1280x720), and do so with considerably less compression.

In the meantime, though, there's not much of an alternative. That's because the Apple TV is strictly a one-trick pony, and its trick is iTunes. Apple TV's huge advantage in the market, compared to the competition, is it's the only noncomputer networking product that's capable of streaming content purchased from the iTunes Store -- the number one digital media retailer in the world. But, unlike the majority of competing products, it can't stream anything else. If it's not in iTunes, the Apple TV can't see it.

So it's up to you to get your media files into iTunes--an easy task for music (CDs and MP3s), podcasts, and photos, but a much bigger challenge for videos.

Anything already encoded in the MPEG-4 or H.264 formats is generally good to go. But that leaves a lot of AVI, WMV, DivX, and Xvid files on many people's hard drives with nowhere to go. Apple's own Quicktime Pro ($30) offers an Apple TV-friendly conversion preset and plenty of third-party software is already or will soon be available, but to use it to get those other formats into iTunes requires a lot of transcoding. (Even worse: a lot of people have already done this to optimize their digital videos for iPod viewing. Those files will work on Apple TV, but the resolution will be so low that it'll look horrible on your TV.)

For the record, the Apple TV is capable of handling files encoded at a maximum resolution of 1,280x720 at 24 frames per second, and 960x540 at 30 frames per second, all of which is scaled to the output resolution you select (480p, 720p, or 1080i).

What's missing The narrow iTunes-only compatibility problem--and the iffy video quality found on many current iTunes Store offerings--is the biggest stumbling block to recommending the Apple TV. But there are some other problems as well.

For instance, while the audio quality for the movies and TV shows was fine, it was limited to stereo. Unfortunately, even if Apple wanted to encode its iTunes Store movies with surround sound, the Apple TV's audio bandwidth (for video files) is a paltry 160kbps--far below the 640kbps standard found on surround-encoded DVDs. And the Apple TV's hard drive is a mere 40GB--of which only 33 are usable. That's far less then the 80GB you'll find on an iPod that costs a mere $50 more.

Furthermore, the Apple TV has a superslick interface and the ability to pull content straight off the Net, including trailers for the most popular movies and TV shows. But if you want to actually buy them, you still need to run back to your computer -- which could be in another room or on another floor of the house. We can understand why you wouldn't want to browse the entire store using a six-button remote, but the inability to click-to-buy from a streamlined list seems a bit counterintuitive.

The easy setup, iTunes compatibility, and iPod-like interface and design is probably more than enough to make the Apple TV a slam dunk for consumers who are already faithful devotees of all things Mac and iPod. And there's no denying that its design and video streaming performance bests similar network media products we've seen to date.

But the product's iTunes-only compatibility means that you're locked into Apple's online offerings, which -- for now, anyway -- don't look so good on exactly the sort of big-screen HDTVs with which the Apple TV is designed to be paired. If and when Apple improves the quality of its store's offerings -- or includes a better option for reading or converting existing video files -- the Apple TV would be a much easier recommendation. Until then, it's best suited for iTunes addicts only.


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