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.
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