|Home Theater Media Servers Home Theater/Media Center PCs|
|Written by Andrew Robinson|
|Sunday, 01 April 2007|
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Home theater PCs are not so much a fad as they are the future. The sheer capability and versatility one gets from integrating a home theater PC into a home theater and/or whole-home AV network is staggering. Think about it. Consumers now have a single component that can catalogue and store all of their music, movies, television programs and even play the latest high-definition formats, such as Blu-ray and HD DVD, in a chassis not much larger than your standard DVD player. Throw in the fact that you can essentially make any computer, even the one you currently own, a home theater PC and you begin to see the prospect’s superb value and outrageous potential. For me, the biggest downside to home theater PCs is the PC part. Most home theater PCs are based around a Windows operating system that ultimately makes them somewhat user-friendly to the scores of PC users out there, but highly unreliable. This conundrum leaves a lot of users, like myself, looking elsewhere – to Apple, for example, for something better, more plug and play, more user-friendly and more reliable.
Apple has been at the forefront when it comes to designing computers and peripherals for people who want to use them, rather than be abused by them. Apple’s industrial design is second to none and their operating systems and software simply work. More importantly, Apple has done something no PC has ever done, which is to forge a real relationship with the consumer. Apple, without a doubt, has the single most loyal fan base of any electronics brand out there today. Apple listens to the customers’ needs and has always designed and released new products based on those needs – until now.
Apple entered the home theater arena last year with the introduction of their Mac Mini computer. While the Mac Mini wasn’t all that impressive under the hood (it was more or less a repackaged iMac), its size (a mere six-and-a-half inches square by two inches tall) and a little program called Front Row made it a potential home theater PC killer. Out of the box, the Mac Mini was easy to use, and Front Row had a lot going for it with its extremely basic yet elegant interface, but it lacked a lot of the refinement the current home theater PCs offered at the time, mainly internal hard drive space, video cards and audio/video inputs. Nevertheless, it was a Mac, so I stuck with it. For months, I tooled around on forums and user groups and discovered that, with a little effort, I was able to coax my mighty Mac Mini into becoming a true home theater computer. The downside was that, by doing so, I most assuredly voided the warranty and the spirit of what Apple is all about: simplicity.
Still, I had my Mac home theater computer and on it, or should I say, on my external hard drives, had amassed my entire CD and DVD collection. I could jump around from film to music at the touch of a button. I could even beam my music, via iTunes, throughout the house, using Apple’s AirPort Base Stations. I was content, but not happy. I had accomplished a sort of band-aid solution for the moment that filled my immediate needs but ultimately left me wishing and hoping for more.
Enter Apple TV, the answer to my prayers, sort of … well, not really. Out of the box, Apple TV is all Apple, in that it sports their trademark industrial design, complete with opalescent white casing with simple understated lines. It measures in at seven-and-a-half inches square by a little over one inch tall, and weighs two-and-a-half pounds. It retails for $299, which isn’t a whole lot but, considering that it’s roughly half the price of a Mac Mini and doesn’t have nearly the features, I begin from the start to question its value. The front of the Apple TV is as barren as a baby’s backside, but the rear is loaded with goodies. For starters, the Apple TV has an HDMI video out that can carry both audio and video to your high-definition set. In addition, it has a component video output, as well as RCA analog audio outs. Another seemingly neat feature is the Apple TV’s inclusion of an optical audio out, though upon further investigation, I’m not sure why one is needed. More on this later. The Apple TV has a USB 2.0 input, as well as a 10/100BASE-T Ethernet connection. Again, cool features but, on second examination, seemingly useless. You see, the USB input will not allow you to connect an external device like a hard drive and the Ethernet connection doesn’t allow you to directly download content, say from iTunes, to the Apple TV itself. More money out the window?
Under the hood, the Apple TV features an Intel-based processor and has a 40GB (33GB usable space) internal hard drive, which can store (according to Apple) up to 50 hours of television and movies (downloaded through iTunes), or 9,000 songs, or up to 25,000 images. Again, all of these figures are based around the user storing their iTunes or iPhoto-only files locally on the Apple TV’s internal hard drive. Obviously, if you rip files yourself and at higher quality, these numbers will quickly begin to shrink. Another thing about the Apple TV’s internal hard drive that I found odd was the inclusion of one in the first place. I mean, Apple TV’s biggest draw, at least to me, was the ability to remotely access my files already stored elsewhere in my home. Apple TV was to provide me with an interface, not unlike Front Row, to navigate through my music and movies remotely, so why the need for such a compact and costly hard drive? In terms of remote access, the Apple TV utilizes an AirPort Extreme WiFi connection of 802.11g, 802.11g, or 802.11n wireless network. I was a bit shocked when I noticed which file formats were supported or rather, I should say, not supported, by Apple TV. For starters, the Apple TV only supports MPEG-4 video up to 3 Mbps at a max resolution of 640x480 pixels, which is far from high-definition standards. In fact, Apple TV really only likes iTunes-purchased video, which sadly is compressed to 320x240 for those wanting to watch movies on their iPod Videos. Even more shocking, given Apple TV’s advertising as a high-definition solution, is its complete lack of multi-channel audio support, i.e., Dolby Digital. The Apple TV is stereo-only, baby. Speaking of stereo, the Apple TV supports all of the major stereo formats, ranging from MP3 to AIFF. Apple TV claims to support all of today’s current high-definition resolutions up to 1080i, but in their spec sheet, they claim a maximum resolution of 1280x720 pixels. So, in order to take full advantage of the 1080i spec, the Apple TV has to de-interlace the already lower-res MPEG-4 imagery to fit the 1080i spec. No doubt this is why, when you first turn on the Apple TV, the default video setting is 720p.
This brings me to the remote. Oh god, do I hate the remote. It’s the same remote that comes packaged with the Mac Mini and subsequent other Apple products and, well, it sucked the first time I used it. Sure, it is simple, but you can’t do more than one thing at a time. If you have a music library like mine, scrolling through it via the remote is like water torture. It’s simply too simple and, more annoyingly, too cute for its own good. I want to run it over with my car, and I actually would if I wasn’t so afraid it would get stuck between the treads in my tires because it’s so needlessly small.
Macs are simply the standard in terms of plug and play for anything in both the worlds of computing and consumer electronics. No Apple product I’ve encountered has ever faltered in this regard, including the Apple TV. With zero instruction, I had the Apple TV out of the box and connected to my 60-inch high-definition Vizio plasma in no time. The Apple TV doesn’t have an on switch, so as soon as it’s plugged in, you’re good to go. What follows are a series of screens that guide you through the process of getting your new Apple TV to “talk” to your other Apple products, in my case a Mac Mini located in my office down the hall. I connected the Apple TV to my bedroom system via its HDMI output, which I ran into my Denon 4806 receiver, feeding the impressive Definitive Technology Super Towers with plenty of juice. All in all, the entire set-up took less than 20 minutes. Note: you’re going to want to have your wireless router password handy before you begin integrating the Apple TV into your system. Also, the Apple TV wants to transfer files from your network or computer to its own internal hard drive, but you can set it to simply sync with the devices so that it plays everything wirelessly, which is kind of the point. If I wanted all of my files in my bedroom, I would’ve just put my computer in there. Lastly, you’re going to want to set the HDMI video setting to low (if you’re using HDMI) for the standard setting. The high video setting is way too bright and causes excess pixilation during video files, which I’ll get into later.