Hands-on: Apple TV provides simplicity and 'wow'

Simple setup, easy to use

Apple TV has suffered from being Apple's "other product," the new product that isn't the iPhone. But make no mistake: Apple has put a lot of wow into this device that brings media stored on your computer to your TV.

The first thing you'll notice is Apple TV's small size; it's about 8 inches square by 1 inch high. The second thing you'll notice is that it's easy to hook up and start using. Then, you'll notice the quality of the user interface. Like an iPod, the Apple TV interface is designed to locate almost all your content with just a few clicks. But the Apple TV interface goes beyond simply being easy to navigate, and that's where the wow factor comes in.

All in all, if you are a dedicated iTunes user, Apple TV is a simple, powerful way to play media stored on your desktop on your widescreen TV. Here's our hands-on experience.

Apple TV

Image courtesy Apple.com

Getting started

When powered on the first time, a simple on-screen series of menus walk you through basic setup issues, such as choosing a language, naming the Apple TV unit and choosing a wireless network. Apple TV supports 802.11b/g/n wireless networks, although it won't stream media over slower 802.11b networks. It also supports Ethernet connections.

When setting up the network, you can use standard wireless security protocols such as WPA. When you connect to a secured network, a virtual keypad appears on-screen to type the networks pass phrase using Apple TV's remote. If Apple TV is connected to a wired Ethernet network, it will automatically detect and use that network.

Apple TV sports both HDMI and digital component video output and is designed for use with widescreen TVs meeting the EDTV and HDTV standards. It supports a range of resolutions for TV output and will auto-select an appropriate resolution when connected with HDMI.

However, when connected to a TV using component inputs rather than HDMI, Apple TV defaults to its lowest resolution. That's because component connections cannot provide information to Apple TV about the resolutions that the TV supports. You can, however, choose a more appropriate resolution manually. For audio, Apple TV includes both a digital TOSLINK port and analog RCA stereo ports. These can be used for connecting to either a TVs audio inputs or to a home theater receiver.

Video is supported at the 320x240 and 640x480 resolutions originally used by Apples video iPods, as well as the high definition 720p resolution. It does not, however, support 1080p, an omission that has drawn some criticism. Apple TV does a solid job of displaying video at each resolution, though 320x240 video tends to display at somewhat lower quality.

Syncing up

During setup, Apple TV will ask if you want to sync content with a specific iTunes library or use streaming-only mode. Syncing to an iTunes library means that the contents of that library are copied to Apple TVs internal hard drive, which makes the content available at all times, even if the computer is turned off or removed from the network. You can sync Apple TV with only one iTunes library, but you can stream content from up to five computers (including the one that it is synced with).

One thing potential buyers should keep in mind is that Apple TV is designed to work directly only with audio, video and podcasts managed in an iTunes library using iTunes software. In other words, despite its many virtues, iTunes is not for those who plan to acquire video and audio from other stores. Put differently, Apple TV directly supports only the formats that iTunes supports, although there are a variety of tools, including Apples QuickTime Pro and Techspansions Visual Hub, that can be used to convert video.

Associating Apple TV with an iTunes library is extremely simple. After Apple TV has been added to your network, just open iTunes on a Mac or PC, select Apple TV in the devices list and enter a pass code that is displayed on screen by Apple TV. If you are choosing to sync Apple TV with the associated iTunes library, youll see a display similar to that of an iPod. As with an iPod, there are tabs for each type of media (movies, TV shows, music, podcasts, and photos). You can use these tabs to determine whether all your iTunes content, or just specific items, get synced.

In its initial release, Apple TV only includes a 40GB hard drive, so you may need to limit the content that is synced to it. To help maximize the storage space, Apple includes filters that can, for instance, sync only the most recent media or unwatched movies, TV shows and podcasts. You can also choose to sync only specific music playlists and photos.

Files are synced in a specific order: movies, TV shows, music, podcast and finally photos. Also, unlike other forms of media, photos must be synced to Apple TV to be viewed, although Apple says it is considering options for streaming photos in the future. Considering photos are the only content that cannot be streamed, it's a little odd that Apple would choose to give photos the lowest priority when it comes to syncing content.

Apple TV is associated with libraries for streaming in largely the same way that it is for syncing by displaying a pass code onscreen, which is then entered into iTunes. You browse among the associated libraries by using the Source menu on the Apple TV. Streaming content is browsed and played in exactly the same manner as synced content and works reliably from both 802.11g and 802.11n sources.

Whizzy but simple interface

Apple TV is as easy to use as it is to set up. The included six-button remote can be used to easily navigate through the menus to select and play content. Navigation is completely intuitive, and its hard to find anything more to say about browsing and playing content on the Apple TV -- it simply works.

Apple deserves high praise for the look and feel of the Apple TV interface, which is stunning while still managing to be simple. Each interface element delivers a cohesive look while drawing from such diverse sources as personal photos, album art and stills from video content. You really get the feeling as you navigate through the Apple TV that this is your personal digital media experience.

The fact that music and video tags from iTunes are displayed to give you additional information about selected titles (description, air or publication date, etc.) is a nice touch. However, depending on the size of your TV, some of this print can be difficult to read from across the room.

One of the most visually stunning and personalized features of the Apple TV interface isnt even truly part of the interface. The included screen saver feature will display random photos synced to the Apple TV with beautiful 3-D effects (you can also choose to view CD album art instead of photos). In fact, this screensaver makes your TV into a great digital picture frame when youre not watching other content.

Final impressions

The Apple TV is focused on one goal: Bringing iTunes-based digital media stored on your computer to your TV. It achieves that goal quite well and simply with a device that is simple to set up and a delight to use.

Apple TV, however, isn't for everybody. For one thing, its $299 price tag isnt exactly inexpensive. And you are largely limited to using the iTunes store, which has a large and loyal following. However, videos are available from a variety of other sources that aren't supported by Apple TV and the iTunes software.

Still, if you want easy access to music and video from iTunes, as well as your personal digital images, Apple TV is an excellent choice.

Ryan Faas is a freelance writer and IT consultant specializing in Mac and multiplatform network design and troubleshooting. He is the co-author of Essential Mac OS X Panther Server Administration and the author of Troubleshooting, Maintaining, and Repairing Macs. For more information, visit RyanFaas.com.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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