3/27/07
9:45 pm

Apple TV Review

After playing with Apple TV, I have to report that it is a mixed bag. There are some things to really like, and plenty left to be desired.

The out-of-the-box user experience is good. Hooking it up to the TV and starting it for the first time was easy. However, it only has component (RGB) video out, and HDMI. On a new TV, that’s not an issue. HDMI is the way to go. But I had to use component to go to my older HDTV. Note that neither cable is included. If you are going for an HDMI connection, buy a cable online for under $20. Don’t bother going to a retail store where they want to charge you $50 or more for the same thing.
Setting up the box to connect to my WiFi hub was easy too. No problem going to my Airport Extreme. Then shaking hands with my MacBook Pro was easy using a random 5-digit code on the screen. Next thing I know the Apple TV shows all my iTunes content.
This is where the first problem came in. Syncing my MacBook Pro’s iTunes content and the Apple TV was extremely slow. I had to go to iTunes and change the options to only include video podcasts, and no movies, TV shows or music. Otherwise, it would have taken days. I’m not sure why. I certainly could have transferred those much faster from one computer to the other.
One bright side is that it didn’t seem to matter too much. I could just select a video podcast and start playing it. It took a few seconds to start streaming, but it still was fast enough to be enjoyable.
The screen quality on my 720p was great. Of course a lot of the video podcasts I tried were down at the320x240 screen size, but I did try some closer to 720p as well. No complaints there.
A big plus is that the Apple TV seems to be all ready to show HD content. Of course none of the movies or TV shows at the iTunes store are in high def. But if I wanted to take some of our content, or track down some HD podcasts, I think it would work fine. So Apple should be able to turn Apple TV into the leading way to watch HDTV overnight with an iTunes update.
After playing with the machine for a while, I came up with a few things that need improvement:
First, there needs to be the ability to use video playlists. You can use audio playlists under the Music menu, just like in iTunes or your iPod. But there is no “Video” menu, just “Movies” and “TV Shows”. Playlists appear under neither. I rely on my smart playlist of the most recent video podcasts to determine what content I need to watch next. This playlist appears in the Music menu, but it is empty as none of the items are audio.
Second, there should be some parental controls. Not a huge deal, but I think it is needed for mass acceptance. Being able to lock out podcasts with an explicit tag would be key to letting the Apple TV loose in the family den.
Third, the Photos menu needs some work. I love the idea of showing photos on the TV so easily. But I couldn’t get my photos to sync for a while. It is off by default, but after turning it on and setting up a specific album to sync, I had issues. I could see the photos in the screen saver, but the entire Photos menu disappeared. It only came back when I restarted. Once you have photos on the Apple TV, there’s not much you can do with them except view a slideshow or flip through them. I’d love to see a better way to find photos. This could be a great part of the Apple TV experience if they add some more functionality.
Another feature that is easily overlooked is the Music menu. This simply gives you the ability to play back music from iTunes. But that feature is actually very interesting. It puts your entire music collection at your fingertips. Sure there are cheaper devices that do the same thing, but this one shows your album covers on the TV and just works very well.
The biggest thing that Apple TV doesn’t do, is to allow you to download or purchase music directly from the iTunes store. I’m not sure why. It certainly has the hardware to do this. If I could sit with the remote and browser iTunes, and then sample and buy, I’d end up buying a lot. Isn’t that what they want?
I’d say the ability to download directly will make or break this device. If they add it in the next 6 months, it could become the best new device of 2007. If they don’t, it will just be an Apple sideshow.
Review by Gary Rosenzweig

Comments: 3 Responses to “Apple TV Review”

    4/26/07 @ 7:23 am

    I agree that there may be a few things the Apple TV doesn’t have or is lacking. Over-all I think it is a great device with a lot of potential from the hacking community. Checkout our community that is growing:
    http://www.appletvbbs.com/

    4/28/07 @ 2:20 am

    Let’s see which hacks become avail. for Apple TV. I guess then it really rocks!

    -Robert

    Mark
    9/9/07 @ 9:29 am

    Well…I’ve had the opposite experience with my AppleTV ….. The family loves it!

    I have ripped my entire DVD library to iTunes, which was a mammoth task as we are talking 300 plus DVDs, including TV boxed series like Start Trek Next Gen & Voyager. Initially the work was done for a mac mini based in the lounge, about 12 months before the AppleTV came out. As such, MP4 was not the main coding of choice. I’ve recently converted all those files again to h.264 compression for the apple TV. Again, a huge job.

    Including my audio library & music video’s and subscribed podcasts, I’m talking over a terabyte of entertainment. I stream the entire load to the AppleTV as obviously, 40Gb is a tad on the small side for me. I keep a duplicate copy of the data in the lounge for the mac mini. This is necessary as our lounge has yet to go HD. Its a basic projector as our TV there. (Which people, I have to say, with music videos, makes for the best parties…audio is great, but rocking along with the actual clips playing is something else!) Note to Apple: WE NEED VIDEO PLAYLISTS to work like the iPod!

    At first I didn’t like the AppleTV’s menu system, having used the FrontRow on the Mac Mini for nearly a year. Now I find FrontRow clumsy, reminding me of my old commodore 64’s large blocky text on a TV. I DO miss volume control on the apple remote, but it’s really a minor issue, not one I’d ask Apple to worry about fixing.

    Streaming to the AppleTV via powerline networking of this much data takes less then five minutes and only happens if either device has been turned off or iTunes has been restarted (usually for an update). Would I stream via wireless? Wouldn’t bother trying! Using the powerline system I’ve found extremely stable, and there is no lag/delay buffering time.

    I use an older Mac mini of the pre-Intel chip variety to feed it, and it seems to handle it all. Though I must say, itunes is struggling under the weight of content on this machine.

    So…six months on since I purchased the device and how do I feel? Best thing I ever did. We are not ones to hold ‘slideshow’ nights so photo streaming is not an issue. Syncing we found awkward but streaming a sinch! The device runs hot, but then…who cares as long as it runs. I use VisualHub, Handbrake and now Turbo h.264 for converting content. Metadata usually through Lostify, MetaX or iTunes. It all works fine.

    The AppleTV is based in the main bedroom connected to a 32″ LCD TV via component cables, and works EXACTLY like it should. The cable box gets used…for new TV shows, news & weather.

    Does the AppleTV has drawbacks? Hell yes. But does it do what its says it will? Again…Hell yes!

    18 months ago I didn’t own a Mac. Using Windows since 3.0 and owning an XBox I intended to go XBox 360 as the media hub. Now I have 3 Macs in the house and an AppleTV. Best changes to my digital life I’ve ever made.

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