Reviewed: Apple TV Shows Its Quality
At a Glance
To say that Apple TV is the world's best media streaming device may not seem like much: After all, most previous variations on the concept--which involves taking music, video, and photos from your PC and playing them on your TV and stereo--have been unreliable, hard to use, and generally shunned by the buying public.
Apple has risen above such failure with its characteristic mantra: Keep it simple and make it pretty. Setting up the $299 Apple TV is a breeze, and anyone who has used an iPod will feel instantly familiar with its extravagantly attractive interface. Apple has bent the definition of a media streamer by adding a 40GB hard drive for storing content on the device, allowing Apple TV to avoid the picture breakups and glitches that frequently occur when you stream video over a wireless network. The hard drive feels paltry, though, given the popularity of 60GB and 80GB iPods.
Apple TV complements the company's iTunes: If you can play something in iTunes, in most cases you can play it on Apple TV. This approach limits Apple TV in some ways--you can't play the Xvid and DivX formats frequently found on BitTorrent, for instance--but that's the price you pay for simplicity.
Apple TV was easier than other streaming devices to connect to my Wi-Fi network. Unlike some manufacturers, Apple doesn't expect you to know anything about IP addresses or default gateways. If Apple TV doesn't find your network automatically, you simply supply your network's SSID and password, if necessary. About 7 inches square and a little over an inch tall, the device is compact enough to fit unobtrusively into most existing entertainment-room setups. You can connect to your TV (wide-screen models only) through HDMI, component, or analog connections. Despite its hard drive, Apple TV runs almost silently, but it got very warm after about an hour of use.
Once you're connected, you link your Apple TV to a copy of iTunes on a PC or Mac. (The new hardware shows up as a device in iTunes. To connect, you enter a passcode that Apple TV provides.) At this point Apple TV copies your iTunes content to its hard drive in a specific order: first movies, then TV shows, then music. Unfortunately, I couldn't find any way to move something to the front of the line. Apple TV will sync content with only one copy of iTunes, though you can stream content from up to five other versions on your network. In the latter scenario, you have to stream over your wireless network, which can lead to hiccups in your picture. In my limited testing, however, streaming worked fine.
Apple TV's interface is beautiful in a minimalist way--white type on a black background with beautifully rendered images of album covers or promo shots from videos. While the Apple TV's remote looks like an iPod with its iconic click wheel, it doesn't quite act like one. You must click up, down, or sideways to move, instead of simply running your finger around a touch-sensitive wheel. And I worry about having a remote that's so small in my living room: It's convenient to use, but easy to lose.
I bought episodes of The Riches and The Office from iTunes to test on an NEC MultiSync LCD3735WXM TV. Picture quality was okay, but not sensational. Overall, the images seemed a bit dark and washed out, even in colorful outdoor scenes. Apple TV decodes movie files at up to 720p resolution and can display them on a 1080i set, but it relies on the TV to handle the signal's upconversion. The device handles music playback much as an iPod does, with lots of ways to view and access your collection. One complaint: Once I left the music area, albums stopped playing. I would have liked to continue listening to my choice while picking through pictures or watching a slide show.
Despite my reservations, I enjoyed using Apple TV. It's the first media-streaming device I could imagine recommending to a nongeek.
Edward N. Albro