The Apple TV is a set-top box designed to stream content from iTunes running on networked PCs and Macs. It connects to flat screen TVs by HDMI cable or component RGB input, and includes a 40GB hard drive to cache content so that the networked machines running iTunes don’t need to be on all the time. Networking is courtesy of 802.11n WiFi or 100Mbps Ethernet.
Similar in purpose to products by manufacturers such as Netgear, the Apple TV brings typical Apple style to the marketplace. The case is a mere 20cm square and just under 3cm high, and includes the power adapter so there is no external power brick. It’s styled just like a Mac Mini and includes the same mini remote control.
Don’t let the name confuse you, though. This device is not capable of recording from a TV signal and although it sports a USB port on the rear, this can’t be used to plug in a DTV adapter or an external hard drive, although technically we can’t see why Apple didn’t include this capability as the machine itself runs a customised version of Mac OS X.
Opening the snazzy product packing revealed a remote control, the Apple TV itself, a power lead and a very small manual. There were no leads and not really much to entice users to read the manual. This means that users are left to source either an HDMI cable or a component RGB cable that will fit their TV, such as RGB-to-SCART. We’d anticipated this requirement and invested in an HDMI cable, so we went ahead and hooked it up.
After selecting the language, the first thing that the Apple TV does is list all the available wireless networks it can find. Since all the navigation is done with the remote control rather than a keyboard and mouse, we were interested to see the user interface that Apple provides for entering a WEP password or key. Of course, coming from Apple, this was very slick and straightforward.
At the next step a code is displayed on the screen, with an instruction to look for the device in iTunes and enter the code to pair them. Once paired, you can decide in iTunes what content is made available. If content is in the iTunes library, the Apple TV will play it. Additionally, if you’re a Mac user, you can sync it with iPhoto to watch slideshows on the TV, although there’s no equivalent for the PC.
Sadly, the hard drive is pathetically small for storing video content, but of course it isn’t user-upgradeable unless you’re willing to invalidate your warranty, buy a new drive and get messy with disk imaging programs and the like. Apple hasn’t helped with the hard drive situation by filling several gigabytes with previews and trailers that can’t be deleted. This is seriously annoying as it eats into what is already too limiting.
The net result is that if you have a sizeable iTunes library and iPhoto library (our test library totalled nearly 100GB) then some of that library is going to need to be streamed, which means that iTunes needs to be running on the computer for the Apple TV to be able to access it. Also, iPhoto libraries can’t be accessed via iTunes running on another machine, so need to be synchronised to be available on the Apple TV. If you have a modern digital camera then you may well find your photo collection runs into tens of gigabytes, eating away at that precious hard drive space.
We tested the device’s video capabilities using some DVDs that we’d ripped using a Mac program called MediaFork and some TV programs that we’d recorded using Elgato’s EyeTV software and a DTV adapter, then exported manually to an H.264 MP4 format. In the case of Elgato, the company is extending its EyeTV software to smoothly support the Apple TV, but this doesn’t really help PC users. It can also take some experimentation with settings to get an acceptable trade-off between quality and file size.
For the forseeable future, UK users are only able to download music videos from the UK iTunes store, not movies. This means that the process of getting video content into iTunes is very manual, and Apple doesn’t seem to have provided much guidance for achieving this.
In operation, we didn’t experience any buffering issues when we connected to a Mac that had been plugged directly into the wireless router using an Ethernet cable, but we did experience the AppleTV temporarily locking up when connecting to iTunes music library running on a wireless laptop. The wireless network was 802.11g standard and both devices were reporting excellent signal strength, so it was a bit of a surprise, but it only happened once. Apple TV did handle us closing and reopening iTunes on the laptop without a hitch.
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