The Scoop on AppleTV

If someone asked me to describe in one sentence what AppleTV is, I’d say, “It’s an iPod for your TV.”  And believe it or not, it’s really that simple.  

The unit’s a sleek machine, less than half the size of a standard DVD player, and has the familiar Apple logo on top.  One thing to be clear about: AppleTV is not a DVR.  It’s not a media center or a PVR.  And that’s where AppleTV falls short.  This is a product that, right out of the gate, has limited usage.

What AppleTV Can Do

Apple owns a huge portion of the market in legal internet access to music, movies, and TV shows with its iTunes store.  iPods come in different sizes, colors, and options such as the new iPod video, with a small, but nice, LCD screen to view your favorite movies or TV programs.  You can download podcasts, photos, audiobooks, and more; so, you’re thinking, But AppleTV isn’t an iPod, right? So why am I talking about what an iPod can do?  Because that’s what AppleTV can do, but this time on your big screen box of indulgence.

How it Works

Your AppleTV unit comes to you with a wireless card, ready to sync with your Mac or PC using the 802.11n protocol.  If you don’t have wireless on your computer, don’t worry, you can use an Ethernet cable, but bear in mind that will raise problems with location.  If your computer is upstairs in the office and your TV is down in the family room, you’ve got a hurdle to overcome.  

If you’re feeling bad about having to fork out extra bucks for a cable, don’t, because even those with wireless will need to purchase an HDMI cable (or component video/audio) to connect the unit to their TV.  Neither is provided.  Oh, wait, you’ll be buying two cables – yes, feel bad, and then go spend the money and get a wireless card because you should’ve ages ago.

When you get your new unit, set up is as simple as plugging the power cord into the outlet, and if you have an HDMI cable, hooking it from the apple unit to your TV.  It’ll come up with a code. Then, launch iTunes, enter the code that popped up on your TV screen, and wait for the two to connect with their electronic digi-speak.  It is that easy.  Anyone familiar with an iPod will find it simple to navigate, and if you’re new to the iTunes world, it’s still fairly intuitive to use.

Whatever content you’ve purchased from your iTunes account, you can stream to your TV, or save on the unit’s 40 GB hard drive, and watch on the big screen instead of on your laptop or iPod.  You can also stream from up to five separate computers (note streaming only, iTunes can only be accessed by one computer).  Movies, TV shows, movie trailers, the list goes on, but as swell as this sounds, you know there’s a downside.  There always is.

The Problems with AppleTV

If you’re one of the tech-resistant or haven’t seen a need to replace your old TV with a newer model, chances are your TV isn’t HD compatible. If it’s not, then AppleTV won’t work for you.  There aren’t any S-video connectors; this unit is strictly an HD animal.  You have to have either an HDMI or component port on your TV, which requires an HD compatible TV.  

Another drawback is the hard drive capacity.  At 40 GB, it comes in at a lackluster size, especially considering that you can buy iPods with hard drive sizes as large as 80 GB.  The specs state that it’s about 50 hours of video, which sounds good on the surface, but with a movie taking up roughly 2 hours, that equates to 25 movies.  Add in music, and TV programs, and you’ll find yourself out of space quick enough.

Then there is the quality issue.  The movies and shows are available at a maximum resolution of 640x480, which is fine for the small 3.5 inch iPod screen or the 15 inch laptop screen, but not so much for a 50 inch plasma screen.  The picture suffers in the transition and currently, iTunes does not offer video at an increased resolution compared to DVDs and HDTV.  Audio doesn’t excel, either.  The sound is set up for stereo only, not surround sound.  So those of you with the tricked out home theaters, don’t expect to get any wow factor here.  

As I mentioned previously, AppleTV has a very narrow application.  It is set to work strictly with iTunes, with content in specified formats, such as MPEG-4 or H.264.  If you have video content in AVI, WMV, DivX, or Xvid, then you’ll have to hunt down a conversion program and do a little leg work, losing yet more video quality in the process. 

What’s Good About It

Before iTunes came along, finding quality video and audio files amounted to scouring sources with questionable legality.  With iTunes, you can get instant access to a large and growing library of media that’s legal and affordable.  A single song costs $0.99 and a TV show, only $1.99.  There are options to buy entire seasons of TV programs and complete music albums, albeit at a higher cost, but still very reasonable.

With AppleTV, it becomes even easier to get immediate access to legal content of recently released movies, TV shows, and music, and watch and listen on your widescreen TV instead of hovering over your computer.  Generally, TV shows are available on iTunes within 24-48 hours after airing on the networks.

And Apple has made it simple to use.  The interface is easy to work your way through, the album art and video images are a nice touch, and AppleTV comes with a screensaver to prevent the burning of an image onto your screen.  If you are happy with iTunes, and your iPod, you’ll probably enjoy the extra benefits that AppleTV will bring you.  The unit comes with a slick remote that features the same touch sensitive pad of an iPod.  It won’t control your other home theater products, but the AppleTV unit can be programmed for use with other universal remotes.

The Bottom Line

For the price,  AppleTV is expensive for what it does.  The 40 GB hard drive, the lower quality video and audio, and the limited formats make it not quite worth the money.  For the diehard iTunes/iPod user, this might be up your alley, but for everyone else, you’re better off finding other means of hooking your computer to your TV, such as the NETGEAR Digital Entertainer HD.