If you listen to certain bloated technology seers, Apple TV is the start of an electronic revolution in which customers, finally, will begin enjoying TV, movie, music, and photo content on their TVs. And while Media Center and TiVo users will take deserved umbrage at that characterization--they've been doing that and much more for several years now with no help from Apple, thank you very much--I'm here to tell you that Apple TV is nothing more than an iPod designed for your living room instead of your pocket. It is simply yet another way to consume content purchased from Apple's nearly-ubiquitous iTunes Store, an online service that sells music, TV shows, audio books, movies, and other content.
If that's not of interest to you, just stop reading and save yourself $300.
If, however, you're a fan of Apple's service and its various devices, please do read on. Because while the Apple TV is indeed just an overhyped, non-portable iPod that is seriously limited compared to the current crop of competitors, this device should be of much interest to those, like myself, who have invested a lot of time and effort into iTunes. I prefer iTunes to other digital jukeboxes, and while I feel that the music Apple offers online is of almost laughably bad quality, the company does offer high-quality TV shows and movies, and iTunes is an excellent way to manage podcasts and your other media. Overall, iTunes offers the best media experience around, in my opinion.
Anyway, Apple TV is another way to enjoy the content you manage by iTunes, and a natural evolution of the work Apple has done with the iPod. It's not the first to utilize a TV--you can easily connect most modern iPods to your TV with an optional dock and set of cables (and, incidentally, duplicate almost everything the Apple TV does at a lower cost)--but it is the first Apple device designed specifically and exclusively for the living room. And while it is missing some very key functionality that would make this device far more compelling, it's not a horrible first attempt. Let's jump right in and see what all the fuss is about.
What you got: A look inside the box
The first thing you notice about the Apple TV is how small it is: It comes in a surprisingly small (if somewhat hefty) box, typically of Apple's latest packaging design style, and is, like all Apple devices, as stripped down and devoid of buttons as possible. Some have compared it to the Mac mini, which is an apt comparison, though not one that most people will understand. It is, essentially, a pizza box-style device, of tiny dimensions (it is 7.7-inch square and just 1.1 inches tall). In the box, you get the Apple TV, a tiny and almost useless Apple remote (the same one Apple sells for its latest iPod for video), and a brick-less power cable. There are no audio/video cables of any kind supplied, which could be a nasty surprise for some customers: There's nothing like not getting everything you need in the box. Imagine getting an iPod without headphones, for example.
The device itself is almost devoid of ornamentation. On the front, you'll see the IR port and, well, that's about it. The top is graced by a stylized Apple TV logo. On the sides, nothing. On the back, you'll see an arrangement of ports, including the power port, a single USB 2.0 port, Ethernet, HDMI (essentially DVI and digital audio in single cable, and quite common on modern HDTVs), component video (red, blue, green), analog audio (RCA-style red and white), and optical audio. The Apple TV is designed solely for HDTV sets--note the lack of RCA-style composite video or S-Video ports--but actually does support a wide variety of resolutions, including 480i and 480p, which should work fine on some older 4:3 televisions. However, Apple would prefer users utilize the device's HDTV output options, and Apple TV is designed to work natively at 720p (1280 x 720). That's interesting, considering that all of the content Apple currently offers via its online service is available only in standard definition formats (640 x 480 and below). We'll discuss the ramifications of that in a bit.
Inside the Apple TV contains a 40 GB hard drive (there's no higher-end model offered with larger capacities) and 802.11g and 802.11n wireless. The hard drive is used for synchronizing with iTunes, just as you do with an iPod, though the Apple TV syncs over your home network, using either a wired or wireless connection. I synched the Apple TV with a Windows Vista-based iTunes library over the 802.11g wireless network and found it to be monotonously slow, but the good news is that you really only have to go through that process once. As you add content later, individual audio, video, and photo files sync much more quickly than an entire library. That network-based sync feature, incidentally, is one of only two major ways in which the Apple TV is superior to just using an iPod with video and its optional dock and set of cables. With an iPod, you'd have to connect the device directly to the PC or Mac that contained your media library. (There's no reason Apple can't add this feature to future iPods, of course.)
When you turn on the Apple TV, you'll notice that it's virtually silent, save for the low hum of the hard drive. It does, however, getting painfully hot: You won't be able to rest your hand on its top, making me wonder why Apple didn't just make it half an inch taller and include some vents. You gotta love form over function.
Set it up
Setting up the Apple TV is straightforward. After purchasing and connecting the audio and video cables you'll need, you fire up the device simply by plugging it in. On first boot, you'll use the Apple remote to walk through a few preliminary menu choices, including the language used and the TV resolution. 720p HD is the default, but you'll also see 1080i HD, 480p, 480i, 720p HD at 50 Hz, 1080i HD at 50 Hz, 576p at 50 Hz, and 576i at 50 Hz. (The device can't actually display higher than 1280 x 720 at 24 FPS, or 960 x 540 at 30 FPS.) After that, you can choose your wireless network, if you've got one, and enter its associated password using an onscreen keyboard. Then the device will boot up, which takes a surprisingly long time and is masked by an Apple promotional video.
On first boot, you must associate the Apple TV with a particular iTunes library. Here, Apple copies the method Microsoft uses with its Media Center software and Media Center Extenders: The device presents you with a five-digit number, which you must enter in iTunes on a PC or Mac. This, too, is pretty straightforward, if a bit more cumbersome than syncing with an iPod. When you open iTunes on a PC or Mac, you'll see an Apple TV entry under the Devices section of the navigation pane. Click that icon, and you'll see a screen where you can enter that five digit number. Then, you can name the Apple TV (I chose "Paul's Apple TV"), optionally register the device, and begin synchronizing.
The Apple TV management interface in iTunes will be familiar to anyone that owns an iPod. You're presented with the same multi-pane interface, from which you choose the movies, TV shows, music (and other audio content), podcasts, and photos that you'll sync with the device. I'm a big fan of this interface and feel that it's as effective with the Apple TV as it is with the iPod, though again, wireless sync is pretty slow at 802.11g speeds. Too, the 40 GB hard drive isn't particularly voluminous when you consider that the Apple TV is primarily designed to work with TV show and movie content (a two-hour movie sold via iTunes takes up almost 1.5 GB of hard drive space).
Anyway, once you've begun synching the library, Apple TV launches its main menu and you can begin using the device.
Using Apple TV
Fans of Apple's Front Row software will immediately recognize the Apple TV user interface. (Fans of Media Center will rightfully complain that they saw this same interface years early in the first version of Windows XP Media Center Edition.) It's simple enough, and easy to access via Apple's remote. Indeed, menu access via a remote is the second major way in which the Apple TV is superior to just using an iPod: For some reason, Apple doesn't allow its iPods to display the iPod menu system on TVs, forcing users to hop off the couch and manually navigate to new content from the device itself. But the Apple TV does sport one limitation that doesn't hobble the iPod: You can't use the Apple Remote to change the volume of playing content. Instead, you must use the remote supplied with your stereo or TV. Lame.
Anyway, back to that menu: Apple TV's top-level menu consists of several logic choices. These include:
Movies. A front-end to the iTunes Store-purchased and home-made movies stored on the device.
TV Shows. The TV shows you've purchased from the iTunes Store.
Music. The music you've purchased from the iTunes Store or ripped from CD manually. Note that Apple TV is one of the rare non-iPod devices that can legally play iTunes-purchased music.
Podcasts. Podcasts you've subscribed to from iTunes.
Photos. JPEG, BMP, GIF, TIFF, or PNG formatted pictures you sync from iTunes (Mac only), Photoshop Elements, the Pictures folder, or a folder of your choice. Typically, these will be photos you've taken yourself.
Settings. A sub-menu from which you can configure various Apple TV settings, including TV resolution, networking, screen saver, remote pairing, and so on. You can also use this menu to trigger software updates, though none have appeared yet. (It's an Apple product, however, so that won't take long: Apple is infamous for shipping products before they're ready and then updating them repeatedly.)
Sources. A way to choose between your synced content (you can only sync with one PC or Mac) and any other network-based iTunes libraries. You can stream content from any other PC- or Mac-based iTunes library on your home network, as you can via iTunes itself, but this process is slower and more performance-constrained than true syncing. That said, this was a nice feature for Apple to add, though it's a bit ponderous to have to keep switching sources via this top-level menu item.
In use, the Apple TV's menu works well, and provides a Cover Flow-like preview to the left of the content you're browsing. You can perform all the actions you'd expect, like shuffling and repeating music, viewing photo slideshows, and so forth. In keeping with its Front Row heritage, Apple TV also offers access to some Apple online content, including TV show previews and movie trailers. (Yeah, the entire point of this exercise is for you to purchase content from iTunes, in case that wasn't clear.)
Curiously, picture quality on the Apple TV isn't stellar, especially when you're utilizing content purchased from the iTunes Store: 640 x 480 (or lower) video just doesn't look great on a nice HDTV display at 720p, which is the set type for which the Apple TV is optimized. Hopefully, Apple will begin offering HD content at some point, as does Microsoft via Xbox Live Marketplace (for Xbox 360 users) and various PC-based movie services.
So what's the point?
Ultimately, the Apple TV will appeal mostly to those people who are already Apple fans: They've got a number of iPods, and maybe even a Mac. They're buying content from iTunes, but are stymied by the small screen on today's iPod with video and aren't particularly keen on connecting that device to their TV. And heck, they've got an extra $300 to burn.
As Microsoft's David Caulton infamously and accurately said of the Apple TV, "it's a $299 device that lets you watch TV in your living room!" The point being, it doesn't really offer much that wasn't already available, though it certainly is a bit more convenient than using an iPod and dock in your living room. I guess.
Compared to other living room solutions, the Apple TV falls flat unless, again, you've really made a commitment to iTunes and have decided that's the way to consume TV and movie content. (If so, Apple TV will disappoint you anyway, because its HD display makes Apple's low quality content look horrible.) For the same price, you could get an Xbox 360 and use that device to stream media from any XP- or Vista-based PC, access live and recorded TV, various online music, movie, and photo services via its Media Center Extender functionality and a Media Center PC, or download rented and purchased TV shows and movies, many in high definition (unlike iTunes, which only offers standard definition video). It also plays DVD movies, and, heck, it can play high-definition video games too. Yes, the thing sounds like a wind tunnel, especially when its playing games, but it's far more versatile and powerful device than the Apple TV. And it costs exactly the same price.
The big problem with the Apple TV is that it doesn't replace any existing devices or simplify your TV setup. (For example, a Media Center PC or Xbox 360 can replace your DVD player and provide a lot of extra functionality.) The Apple TV is yet another box to add to your already over-crowded stereo cabinet, yet another input to access from on your HDTV, and yet another set of cables to string behind your components. It's more, not less, and it is designed solely to provide you with a way to enjoy content that you must purchase online. And to purchase that content, you have to hop off your couch and access your PC or Mac, and then wait for it to sync. You can't do it directly from the device, as you can with an Xbox 360 or Media Center PC. How revolutionary.
The Apple TV is a typical Apple product: It's big on hype but short on functionality. It surrenders usability for design, and comes in the smallest form factor possible. It's tied to Apple's other products in a way that is arguably anticompetitive, though fans of Apple's services and devices should have no issues with that. Ultimately, as a gadget guy of sorts, I like the Apple TV for what it does, but given my several years of experience with the Xbox 360, various Media Center PCs and Extenders, TiVo, and other devices, I can also see its limitations and understand that Apple has ultimately under-delivered here. Sure, the Apple TV is cute. But unless you're in the company's back pocket, you can easily see that Apple designed this thing primarily for Apple, and not for users. I'm a huge fan and regular user of iTunes and various iPods, but the Apple TV is lacking that special something that those solutions have in spades. It is neither best of breed nor even in the running. It is, in short, simply OK. And I know Apple can do better than this.
For these reasons, Apple TV is recommended only for those people who have drunk the Apple Kool-Aid and decided they really like the taste and can afford the upscale lifestyle. General fans of digital media or those who are interested in accessing PC-based media from their TVs should know that there are better solutions out there.
And if you are thinking about an Apple TV, consider this: You can do virtually everything the Apple TV does with the iPod you probably already own, a $39 dock, and a $19 set of cables, albeit at standard definition resolutions. Is the Apple TV really worth the $300? At this point, the answer, for most people, is no.