I recently purchased an Apple TV ($225). I had a couple reasons for getting one. The first was to be able to create, maintain, and access a library of ripped movies and other video content on my television. I also wanted to be able to rent HD movies for my Vizio 47-inch HDTV (thus increasing my amount of HD content) and to have access to my iTunes library in my living room. Here’s a review of my experience with the Apple TV so far.
Renting HD Movies
One of the first things I did with my Apple TV was rent an HD movie, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, from iTunes. My impression of the picture quality was that it looked great–definitely a high definition experience. I have seen plenty of OTA 720p and 1080i high def content, and it’s my amateur impression that there is no visible difference between Apple TV HD and OTA broadcast HD.
I’ve read that many are questioning whether Apple HD movies can be truly called high definition because of the compression that is used on the video. An interesting read is George Ou’s article “Don’t Believe the Low Bit-rate Lie.” George Ou makes an interesting point about the bitrates of Apple HD and other download services being lower than that of even standard DVD discs (although different codecs are used for each, which create different bitrates. Apple’s HD codec is one of the best at giving the best picture at smaller bitrates). All I can say is that I cannot tell the difference between broadcast HD and Apple HD. Both look really good to me–way above the standard def experience.
The detail on Captain Barbossa’s face was impressive.
Using the Apple TV to Manage a Media Library
Creating a media library for the Apple TV was pretty easy. I use Handbrake, available on Mac, Windows, and Linux, to rip DVDs. There is an Apple TV preset to make ripping easy. One tip for using Handbrake is to select the “constant quality” check box, then change the percentage to around 70%. This will give you the best picture possible. However, it also increases the file size.
Apple TV preset and 70% constant quality
I store the movies on a 500 gb Western Digital My Book hard disk drive (cost me $130 at Costco). The disk drive is connected as an Air Disk (wireless storage) to my Airport Extreme 802.11n WiFi station, so there’s no need to connect it to the Apple TV or my computer. It is simply connected to the WiFi router in my den, and I rip movies to it over the WiFi connection.
Once the movies are ripped, I manually drag and drop them into MetaX, a Mac-only program that adds movie art from Amazon.com, movie descriptions, actors, and other information so it looks great when I browse through the movies on my Apple TV. MetaX will automatically add the movie to my iTunes library when it’s finished processing.
When added to my iTunes library on my computer, the Apple TV in my living room automatically begin synching the movie, and I can watch the movie immediately.
I use my MacBook laptop to rip the movies; it usually takes around two hours for each movie.
WD My Book, Aiport Extreme, MacBook, iPhone
I’ve also enjoyed now having access to my music library on my TV. It’s much easier for me to listen to music while working on a project or entertaining friends in the living room. One gripe I have is that the Apple Remote makes it difficult to navigate through huge lists; anyone with a decent music collection knows what I’m talking about. Apple TV tries to aid your search by having the screen scroll faster the longer you hold down the button, but it’s still an ugly way to navigate through huge lists. If Apple really wanted to improve on its remote control and menu navigation, it will release a touchscreen remote that syncs with the menu portion of Apple TV. Or better yet, write a program for my iPhone that allows it to transform into a remote control. *Update* Apple ended up doing just this with the iPhone Remote App. Looks like Apple was listening!.
I also like that album art is used as a screen saver. Album covers float lazily up the screen in 3D. A very nice polished touch.
I have a few other complaints about the Apple TV. One is that it did not come with component or HDMI cables. Apple’s being a little cheap and inconvenient there if you ask me. Also, downloads can be slow if you don’t have fast broadband. I have AT&T DSL (really, really sucks, I get well under 1 mb/s), so downloads take a lot longer for me than most. Also, most seem to agree the industry-standard 24-hour viewing time limit on downloaded rentals sucks (but apparently there’s a simple way around it).
So far, I’m totally impressed by the Apple TV. HD movies look great, the interface is fine, and Handbrake makes creating a media library easy. If you are looking to get rid of cable TV but still want to watch television, this is a great way to download and manage content. The 160 gig model is still a bit pricey for most people at $330 (I used my $100 iPhone credit on mine), but if you’re using it as a replacement for cable TV, it’s still a pretty compelling price.
Suggested links for Apple TV owners:
AppleTVJunkie.com - Find out every HD movie that Apple TV offers and what has just been added.
Handbrake - Rip DVD into an h.264 format compatible with Apple TV, contains an Apple TV preset.
MetaX - Add DVD covers and other information to your mp4 (h.264 files). Having DVD covers makes browsing movies on your Apple TV so much better. Watch a video demo for an example. It pulls information and movie art from Amazon.com and other sites.