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Reviewers' Notes: Apple TV

(Part of a continuing series of posts related to info that didn't make it into my print column. This week: A review of the Apple TV media receiver).

In today's piece, I talked a little about the Apple TV's display requirements, in which Apple (accurately) summarizes the Apple TV's hardware requirements as "widescreen TV." You can try to use it with a wider variety of TVs, but you sacrifice picture quality: It supports four different resolutions--480i, 480p, 720p, 1080i--and can connect to a standard-proportion screen, at the cost of squishing everything on the screen. I even managed to hook it up to an ancient analog CRT by plugging a composite-video cable into one of its component-video jacks, generating a grainy, black-and-white, too-skinny version of the Apple TV's interface.

In other words: Yes, a widescreen TV really is required.

Since the Apple TV doesn't include any video cables in the box, you'll need to buy your own. Shop carefully--it's easy to get ripped off on video cables at retail. For instance, HDMI cables can exceed $100 in stores; Apple sells them for $20 each at its online store; Amazon offers them for under $5. They will all work equally well.

In addition to its component and HDMI video outputs, the Apple TV also provides regular RCA analog stereo connections and an optical-digital connection. (Here's a map of them all.) But it doesn't provide surround sound. Next to all those, you'll find a USB port that, unfortunately, does nothing. Apple says it's reserved for service and support.

As I wrote, the Apple TV's graphical interface borrows heavily from the Front Row software on Macs. But it's been refined in some pleasing ways. For instance, if a song or photo-album title is too long to fit on the screen, it scrolls from side to side when you select it, so that you can read the whole thing. (Somehow, Front Row hasn't been updated to match. Front Row developers, meet Apple TV programmers; Apple TV programmers, meet Front Row developers.)

The Apple TV operates fairly efficiently, drawing just 20 watts in use. It has no cooling fan and therefore won't generate the background whine of many cable or satellite set-top boxes, but it does get pretty toasty on top. Some of that heat may be generated by its AC adapter, which is built into the box instead of a separate power brick.

The Future Shock blog has more details about the hardware components that make up the Apple TV's guts.

Inside, the Apple TV runs a stripped-down version of Mac OS X; it can even look for, download and install software updates from Apple. This fact, along with what's reportedly an easy-to-open case, has led hackers to go to town with this box. So far, they've found ways to upgrade its hard drive, install new software and even run the Apple TV's software on a Mac laptop. See, for instance, AwkwardTV and Apple TV Hacks. If Apple's smart, it will pay close attention to what these folks manage to do with this box--and then add the best of these new features in the next software update or hardware revision for the Apple TV.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  March 29, 2007; 10:19 AM ET
Categories:  Mac  
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way too expensive, for so little

Posted by: drwho | March 29, 2007 11:54 AM | Report abuse

I just don't get why more folks don't hook up a PC to their TV's. We've had a HTPC for at least 4-5 years now. Perfect for couch websurfing via wireless keyboard/mouse combo. Excellent playback of OTA HDTV, web video, photos, music and upscaled DVDs.

IMO these "set top boxes" are trying to reinvent the wheel. Plus the entire concept of a "set top box" is totally anachronistic when considering flat panel displays and projectors.

Consumers that buy any TV without a DVI or RGB input are wasting their AV budget, very short sighted.

Posted by: Anonymous | March 29, 2007 12:05 PM | Report abuse

DAVID POGUE of the NY Times reviewed Apple TV and wrote:

"Now, there are people -- at least 12, for sure -- who actually watch movies right on their computers, or who wire their PCs directly to their TV sets.

The rest of us, however, are overwhelmed by cultural inertia. Computers are for work, TVs are for vegging out, and that's final."

I hope that the above is not true. I think it would be pretty pathetic, indeed lame, if "cultural inertia" somehow prevents one from solving the issue at hand in the most direct way possible.

Using a PC from the couch is not a big deal if you take 5 minutes to set it up properly with large fonts, etc.

The mindset that PCs are for "work only" is pretty unimaginative to say the least.

Posted by: Sasha | March 29, 2007 12:26 PM | Report abuse

Rob- Have you looked at the Xbox 360 as a media center? From what I've read, it seems to have potential (especially with the new hard drives coming out), but I haven't seen a normal person focused review of it yet.

Posted by: J | March 29, 2007 12:27 PM | Report abuse

Isn't that the way Apple started out back in the day -- wiring a box into a TV?

Posted by: Tosa Mom | March 29, 2007 1:26 PM | Report abuse

For those who suggest just hooking up a computer to a TV, that may work great if you live in an apartment or have your computer in the same room. I've done that before. But otherwise, you have to run coaxial or another cable -- done that as well -- as it's rather ugly and a pain.

I got the Apple TV less than a week ago and so far I'd say it's great. Only complaint is the hard drive size - mine's filled already - with movies, music and photos. Set-up and operation are easy. My 5-year-old is already an expert. Glad to hear about the hacks to install a larger drive. Picture quality has been surprisingly good on a 55-inch HD set.

Posted by: B | March 29, 2007 5:13 PM | Report abuse

Computer to TV hookups have their own problems. I have an EyeTV Hybrid tuner hooked up to an iMac, with the iMac hooked up to an HDTV. When viewed live, the audio is slightly out of sync with the video.

Posted by: Andrew | March 29, 2007 6:19 PM | Report abuse

Anyone know whether Apple is selling any high-definition content? Why do we need (or want) to attach this thing to a 720p or 1080i television set if iTunes isn't selling any 720p content?

Posted by: Reston | March 29, 2007 9:09 PM | Report abuse

I'm underwhelmed.

While efforts are being made to hack the Apple TV for support for other codecs (Xvid/DivX anyone?), I just installed a DLink DSM-520 that supports just about everything out of the box via wire or wireless, works with any media server that supports uPnP, and plays my 600+ movie collection in DVD quality mp4 flawlessly.

For under $200 from Newegg, btw.

Posted by: Jeff Elkins | March 30, 2007 3:15 PM | Report abuse

SageTV with a media extender has worked well for me. SageTV runs on your computer and works like a DVR. The media extender brings the same interface right to your TV over a wired or wireless connection. It also supports streaming Google Video and YouTube.

Posted by: PT | March 30, 2007 8:33 PM | Report abuse

I looked at the AppleTV as an option for the living room. I purchased a MacMini last year. I found for the same price as a MacMini, I could (and did) purchase a Miglia HDTV tuner card and a Newertech 500GB drive that's designed to sit underneath and match the mini. With the bluetooth keyboard and mouse I now have one beast of an entertainment system.

Sure, the total investment is more than an AppleTV box, but for me, this has become the ultimate home entertainment solution.

Posted by: Brian | April 2, 2007 12:10 PM | Report abuse

I don't think it's so much a cultural shift in thought that had to be made as much as the need for ease of use by consumers. Many consumers want higher media capabilities, but time and knowledge don't afford them the luxury of having these things. Apple (as always the best and smartest - I'm a Mac user, if you cannot tell) has finally made it understandable for the general public who have these needs but can't be bothered with the headaches of trying to figure out the intricacies.

Posted by: Jen | April 6, 2007 10:50 AM | Report abuse

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