With all the hype and attention that the iPhone announcement got last month at Macworld, the introduction of another new Apple product got less limelight than it would otherwise have enjoyed… Apple TV.
The Apple TV (formerly known in development as iTv) is a small media box that connects not to your computer but to your living room TV, home theater or wherever you kick off your shoes and stare at a screen for entertainment. It uses the latest flavors of media connections including HDMI, component video, optical audio and analog (2 channel only) audio. It also had an Ethernet socket and built in wifi connectivity for communicating with your computer’s iTunes library (both Mac and PC). There is also a USB port presumably for future expansion like an external hard drive or other toys, but for now it’s just there. Unlike the iPhone, which is months from release, the Apple TV is about to ship to stores and those who have ordered it online from Apple.
The unit has a 40 GB hard drive for local storage of programs, but it is essentially designed as a doorway between your computer’s iTunes and your living room. Videos and music on your iTunes library are available to stream to your Apple TV via the wired Ethernet or the wireless network. If you have a wireless home network already, Apple promises that setting up Apple TV to access it and connect to iTunes is fairly straightforward with either a Mac or a PC. If you do not have a wireless home network you can hard wire it via an Ethernet cable. If you have a newer Mac with Airport Extreme built in, you can just connect to that for your Apple TV to get all your iTunes content. The new, superfast 802.11n format is supported but it’s backward compatible with the current 802.11g dominant wifi flavor as well.
The Apple TV uses an interface similar to Apple’s Front Row, a nifty and easy way to access videos, music, podcasts… any content in your iTunes. Hook it to your home theater and all of a sudden all your iTunes music is available for listening on your stereo, and your downloaded videos for watching on your TV. The built in hard drive stores content locally so even if your network is a little slow it can be played once transfered. In fact, as I understand it the Apple TV is like a wifi iPod, which syncs to iTunes in the same way an iPod does.
It looks like Apple is poised to take over your living room with this neat little box, right?
Not so fast.
Apple TV is a baby step in what might end up being the future of TV, but it is horribly flawed right now. I have zero interest in getting this toy until several issues and inadequacies are ironed out.
First, while the Apple TV supports both 720p and 1080i HD resolution, getting content of that high a quality is almost impossible. First, Apple doesn’t offer it for download in the iTunes store, and secondly even if they did the files would be so huge that even a very fast internet connection would take many, MANY hours to download an HD film. Typical iTunes video resolution is a paltry 640×480, and the quality of such video is roughly that of broadcast TV or regular DVD. That’s fine if you have a regular TV but if you have an HDTV it’s a disappointing picture quality. Here’s the rub… you HAVE to have an HDTV because the only video outputs on the Apple TV are HD outputs… no composite video, S-Video or coaxial outputs. That’s kind of like having a supermodel wear sweatpants and a hoodie. Plus Apple’s interface requires a widescreen to work properly, or it’s cut off or distorted oddly. Until Apple TV supports 1080p output AND HD content is readily available and downloadable in a reasonable timeframe, this is not for home theaters. Oddly, Apple has created a product that can only be used by consumers with an HDTV, and yet is only able to provide content of regular TV quality in both picture and sound.
Second, as far as I can tell Apple TV does not support output of high quality sound such as DTS or Dolby Digital, let alone Dolby HD or DTS-HD. Apple is nuts if they think people do not want surround sound when they watch movies. Sound quality is a big part of film. Maybe I am reading things wrong, but no technical specs list any surround sound support.
Third, it does not allow you to download content directly to your TV via the iTunes store. In other words you need to go to your computer, buy and download any content you want to watch, and then once it’s in iTunes you can go back to your living room and stream it or sync it to your TV. That makes no sense to me. It takes away the independence of living room content and make the Apple TV a glorified iPod hooked to your TV. It’s already on your home network… why not make spontaneous purchase/download and streaming available?? At least it could be like a remote one-click purchase through your computer’s iTunes rather than it’s own independent iTunes store credit. Part of the concept has to be true on-demand viewing of the kind of programming consumers want. Right now it’s a long way from that.
Finally, there isn’t enough content available in iTunes to get me excited about having a set top box. Yes, I could rip my regular DVDs to store in iTunes, but honestly I am not that lazy that I cannot put that DVD into my player and watch said movie instantly. It takes more time to rip a single movie than it’s worth for the convenience of having it available for Apple TV.
I think Apple’s ideas for an integrated living room/computer media source is sound, Microsoft’s been after than for years, and the Apple TV is the first stand alone gateway of it’s kind. However right now it is an unfulfilled promise a few years away from being a complete enough package to be what it wants to be. I’ll wait for that time.
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