Apple TV Review
UPDATE: read our latest Apple TV review.
The marketing is persuasive. You can have up to six Macs or PCs connected to an authorised Apple TV on your wireless network (or wired network, thanks to a 10/100 base-T Ethernet port). Then it can play all the content stored on its hard drive or streamed for your computer over the network while you, your friends and loved ones sit on a sofa, watching the television, instead of staring at a computer monitor.
High-def owners club
While this is all well and good, it doesn’t work in practice as perfectly as we’d like. First, the Apple TV has a very modern set of TV connection options: HDMI and component video. If you’ve already invested in a high-definition TV with DVI, component or HDMI sockets, connecting the Apple TV to it is simply a matter of getting the right cable.
If you haven’t yet bought a HD television, you’re far more likely to have a SCART or phono connection. You might be lucky and have a SCART socket that can accept component video via a simple adapter cable. More likely, you have regular old RGB SCARTs, in which case there is one hope for you: J.S. Technology’s Component (YUV) to RGB/VGA converter. We soon managed to have our Apple TV up and producing a brilliant picture on our RGB SCART-equipped TV using this converter, which currently costs £90. Still, it’s a needless expense and we really say the Apple TV is only for people with HD television sets.
Apple explained to us that it didn’t want to use “legacy” television sets and that the high definition standard enables it to create a crisper and more visually appealing interface. There may be some truth in this, but we’re not convinced that the trade off is worth excluding the entire market of non-HDTV owners.
Once you get it up and running, the Apple TV is actually a pleasing gadget to use. It’s beautiful to look at and the interface is very much like Front Row’s menu system, only far more responsive – except when the Apple TV is synchronising, when everything slows down – and it uses the same Apple Remote Control as supplied with all new Macs.
Music playback is good, taking full advantage of your album covers for on-screen display, although lacking the iTunes visualisers some might prefer. Photo playback isn’t so good though, only giving you the option to view an album as a slideshow: you can alter how often slides flip, what music and transitions to use and whether to use the Ken Burns Effect or not, but anything more sophisticated is out of the question. Like the music interface, photo playback also fails to take advantages of groupings by folder that you might have set up in iTunes or iPhoto, so if you have an extensive list of iPhoto albums, you’ll find it hard to navigate through them. Still, it’s far nicer and more convenient to watch photographs on your television than gathering round the computer.
As soon as you’ve set up the device you’ll need to get content onto your Apple TV. To do that, you’ll need to connect it to your home network. The simplest method is Ethernet, since all you have to do is plug a cable into the back of the Apple TV. Given the size of the files potentially being pushed around, it’s somewhat disappointing that gigabit Ethernet isn’t an option, but 100BaseT is more than sufficient.
For true wireless freedom though, Apple has included support for standard 802.11b/g networks as well as for the new 802.11n standard. Joining the Apple TV to a wireless network is surprisingly easy. You simply select it from a menu of discoverable networks. If a password is needed, you use an on-screen keyboard to enter the password character by character, which is far simpler than it sounds.
Once you’ve joined the network, you choose a computer to sync content with. You can sync with only one computer, but you can stream content from up to five others. Disappointingly, you cannot stream photos. As when syncing an iPod, you can specify which tracks, shows, playlists and types of videos to put on your Apple TV. Given you’ve only 33GB to play with (since 7GB of the nominal 40GB the Apple TV’s hard drive has to offer is taken up with software and formatting) that’s something you’ll probably end up doing out of necessity. Streaming the music rather than syncing it helps, as does the reasonably smart syncing (sync only unwatched or recent shows, for example).
Sync when you’re winning
A nice touch is that syncing happens whenever you do something in iTunes. That means that you’ll find your iPod stays up-to-date with your Apple TV-viewing and vice versa, a blessing for the telly addict, but somewhat a curse for one who shares an Apple TV and finds their partner has been watching shows without them.
Setting up streaming is almost as simple as syncing, although we found that getting the Apple TV to show up in the target iTunes computer was far harder than setting up syncing. Disabling the streaming computer’s firewall and using Ethernet temporarily usually worked; once paired, we could then revert our set-ups back to normal without problem.
One strange piece of clumsiness in the interface comes from the Apple TV failing to integrate the content from streaming computers with the synced content: you have to explore the separate Sources menu, which contains a mirror set of the main options for each machine, something we found a little odd. Depending on how fast your network is, initial syncing takes around an hour. We suggest connected to Ethernet for the initial sync and taking it from there to update content wirelessly. Day-to-day syncing can take some time as well: if you have anything less than a pure 802.11g network, you might want to consider investing in a new WiFi 802.11n network (such as the AirPort Extreme), or purchasing a plug device such as the dLAN 200 AV kit (www.develo.co.uk). We wouldn’t recommend streaming video unless you’ve the top-end networking options at your disposal.
Of course, it would be good to have some video content to put on the Apple TV. Forget the iTunes Store unless music videos and Pixar shorts are your thing. There’s also no TV tuner built into the Apple TV and no other kinds of input, so if you’re going to get video content onto it, you’ll need to crowbar it into iTunes.
While iTunes is good for importing CDs, it isn’t a great piece of movie-management software: you need to get something into QuickTime or MPEG4 format for it to even register with iTunes. You also need to add metadata manually, since there’s no IMDB integration, for example: if you don’t, you’ll find your videos aren’t sorted on the Apple TV in any decent way.
Getting video onto the Apple TV is harder still, since it only plays H.264 and MPEG4-encoded videos (which is why there’s no option to play movies stored in iPhoto). iTunes is a slow converter, as is QuickTime Pro which took nearly two hours using the Convert for Apple TV option to convert a 45-minute MPEG2 video we’d recorded and exported from our Elgato DTT stick. Elgato’s EyeTV software does have an excellent Export for iPod option that includes all the right metadata in the export, but it’s almost as slow as QuickTime.
iSquint to watch TV
Other third-party options work better. The free iSquint (www.isquint.org) works like a breeze, by comparison, and with the Optimize for TV setting cranked up to Go Nuts, we could convert 45 minute DivXs to excellent quality Apple-TV compatible videos in just 15-20 minutes. iSquint unfortunately possesses no metadata options so you’ll need to add information to any files you add to iTunes. We notice that Apple recently integrated the open-source DivX codec (XviD) in QuickTime; if it could just find a way to include this into the Apple TV the whole story of the Apple TV would be far different. It would go from an ‘avoid’ to a ‘must buy’.
To avoid conversions altogether, the best bet is Miglia’s TVMax+ hardware encoder, which saves video directly into MPEG4 format at an excellent resolution, thanks to its Apple TV setting. However, it has an analogue TV tuner built in, so if you’re planning to record Sky, Virgin Media or Freeview, you’ll need to have your set-box close by – or a long SCART-composite or USB 2.0 lead, depending on where you decide to locate the TVMax+. You’ll also have to brave the home-built software Miglia has started using in preference to EyeTV. All the same, it’s definitely a good investment for Apple TV owners.
The Apple TV is a lovely gadget, but it has more than a touch of the ‘stone soup’ about it: it requires so many extras and additions and so much extra work before it’s edible that you’ll be wondering if perhaps a Mac mini, a laptop or a simple iPod video out cable wouldn’t have been a lot simpler and a lot cheaper.
Two stars may seem a harsh score for a well-designed product. But the lack of movie or television content in the UK, plus the inability of the device to play other formats than iPod video (notably DivX) work against the Apple TV. The range of hacks doing the rounds show that the device is capable of far more than it currently does (see the Apple TV Hacks website Apple TV Hacks). Maybe Apple will implement some of these features in the future.
Movies and television aside: the Apple TV is a fantastic device for streaming music, and the ability to show off your photographs (plus of course home movies) on a television set, rather than on a computer, is a welcome addition to any household. We’re just not convinced that this alone is worth the £199 asking price. If Apple can start selling movies in the UK; improve iTunes’ ability to manage movies, and – above all – let the Apple TV play standard movie formats (DivX) then we’ll heartily recommend it. Until then, there are better things to spend your money on.