Apple TV 
Home Theater Media Servers Home Theater/Media Center PCs
Written by Andrew Robinson   
Sunday, 01 April 2007

Introduction
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.

Set-up
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.

Movies And Music
I decided to kick things off with a little music. I must point out the Apple TV’s interface is brilliant and extremely easy to use. However, like Front Row, it lacks the ability to jump ahead in your playlists by hitting hot keys. With a couple thousand CDs at my disposal, I opted for one closer to the As, since I didn’t feel like scrolling for days with the Apple TV’s stupid remote. I started with Barenaked Ladies’ Gordon (Sire/London/Rhino) and the track “Brian Wilson.” When streaming Apple lossless quality to the Apple TV, the sound was decent. By no means was it equal to the CD itself, for the highs were rolled off and the bass sounded compressed and lacked air, although the midrange was fairly competent. The vocals were slightly more pronounced and didn’t quite have the weight you’d get through a better CD player, but for what it was, it was good. The soundstage was decidedly flat and failed to extend beyond the speakers’ boundaries, despite their bi-polar design. I would have to say that the Apple TV’s presentation of two-channel music would have to be reserved for casual or background listening. It is very good for this – however, so is my iPod. Frankly, upon further comparison, I found the sound of the Apple TV for this track to be nearly identical to my older iPod in terms of sound quality. Moving onto the track “Wrap Your Arms Around Me,” it was more of the same. All of the elements were present, but they always sounded a bit reproduced, never really stepping up to the line between the recorded event and tricking my ear into thinking I was hearing something more or less live. Again, the vocals stood out from the rest of the musical elements and held rather firm in the center of the soundstage. The guitars had a very slight metallic or digital sound to them and lacked the air along the frets that you’d hear in even the most budget of players. The bass lacked ultimate weight and extension and also lost a bit of its control during the moderately complex passages. Once again, the soundstage is what suffered most, as it disappeared abruptly at the speakers’ edges.

I switched gears and cued up Craig David’s debut album Born To Do It (Atlantic). On the opening track, “Fill Me In,” the music was excessively digital-sounding. Now, this particular album isn’t the greatest in terms of recording quality, but it’s the type of music that will find its way onto a great number of iPods, so I felt it a good selection to test the Apple TV’s capabilities. Again, this disc was ripped using Apple’s own lossless codec, but I must say something was definitely lost. The treble sounded unmistakably Casio-like and rolled off so violently I thought there might have been something wrong in my office with the file. Sadly, no such dilemma existed. The bass was one-dimensional and sounded as if it had taken a few too many swigs of Slim Fast. To be fair, I did switch out the HDMI connection for the Apple TV’s analog audio outs and found there to be some minor improvement overall in terms of richness and air. However, upon doing so, the sound became slightly vaguer. Ultimately, the sound quality of the Apple TV is an exercise in compromise. Again, my trusty iPod, loaded with the same file, produced similar if not better results.

Content with two-channel music, I proceeded on to multi-channel music – oh, wait, no multi-channel music here. To add insult to injury, Apple iTunes is currently pushing U2’s Rattle and Hum for download at $9.99 a pop. For that money, I can buy the DVD with its multi-channel audio tracks and enjoy U2 the way I’ve always wanted. Oh, and I can make a copy for my iPod via a little program called Handbrake, which is free. I don’t really see the value in iTunes’ video downloading the way others seem to do.

I downloaded a few television shows from iTunes, which were free, as well as made a few of my own MPEG-4 transfers, to test the Apple TV’s video presentation. I started with the new NBC television show Raines, starring Jeff Goldblum. If actors today fear the unforgiving lens of high-definition video, they’d better be mortified at the quality of iTunes downloaded video played back on high-definition plasma. I mean, seriously, this is a joke, right? Apple TV is touted as the missing link between your computer, more specifically your iTunes media library, and your widescreen television. Well, my friends, the quality of iTunes video is a link that should remain missing. If I wanted to stare at an impressionist painting, I’d buy a coffee table book. I don’t want to view it on my high-definition plasma. The image quality is as compressed as YouTube, with sound to match. Jeff Goldblum’s face was seemingly made up of four large peach colored polygons, ala early Playstation 1 games like Battle Arena Toshiden. The compression didn’t stop there. The blacks were comprised of what appeared to be dimly-colored Legos and the detail was nonexistent. The video looked the way you’d expect low-resolution video to look after blowing it up times 60. Every flaw that is apparent in the small playback screen of my iPod Video became magnified tenfold. Honestly, I don’t know who Apple thinks they’re fooling. If you’re one of those who believe the video quality isn’t half-bad, I have a number for a laser eye treatment place I’d love to share with you. If the show Raines is any indication of video quality, things were not about to get better.

Moving to what I hoped would be higher-quality video, I ripped my Superbit copy of Panic Room (Columbia) to MPEG-4, using the freeware Handbreak, and set up the video settings to the maximum Apple TV and iTunes would allow. Keep in mind I can playback raw TS DVD files just fine on my Mac Mini using Front Row, so the quality is there, it just isn’t there on iTunes or Apple TV. Panic Room was marginally better than Raines, but it was still plagued with a lot of the same video compression artifacts. The dark scenes, of which Panic Room has many, were unwatchable. There was zero separation between the actors and their surroundings. It was as if I was watching a film in a theater after the picture had gone out. When the lights finally did turn on, the image was rife with excessive pixilation and blooming. Motion artifacts were abundantly clear, as was the Apple TV’s complete lack of accurate color tracking. Skin tones looked as if Apple had just made them up on the fly. It was as if the software saw that the image was predominantly green and decided to just go ahead and run with that, making the actors more or less look like The Incredible Hulk. The sound was abysmal at best and completely lacked detail and composure.

All in all, the Apple TV’s video quality is limited by the minuscule screen and resolution of Apple’s own iPod Video, which, I’m sorry to say, is about the size of a fingernail and not a widescreen television, let alone a high-definition one. I think Apple has this sales ploy ass-backwards, and I can only hope consumers are smart enough not to fall for it. I cannot in good conscience recommend that anyone turn to iTunes for viable video content, much less encourage you to play that video back on anything larger than an iPod. It’s that bad.

The Downside
The sound quality is average at best, but it’s the Apple TV’s lack of multi-channel audio that I find astounding, considering that they went through all the trouble to include an optical audio out. For less money, and as much as it pains me to say it, you can do better with a PC running Windows. Apple doesn’t normally let these things happen, but they did with their TV product.

The video quality is terrible, although it isn’t entirely the fault of the Apple TV, except for the fact that Apple doesn’t allow for it to play anything better. They had the formula essentially right with Front Row and the Mac Mini, so why they skipped out on it now is beyond me.

Another important issue is that the Apple TV gets hot. Real hot. I have a Mark Levinson No. 433, which is a monster of an amplifier, and it never gets as warm to the touch as the Apple TV. Seriously, is the Apple TV supposed to double as a hotplate for poor college students looking to cook up some Ramen noodles?

I was also disappointed that iTunes 7.1 is the recommended version for the Apple TV unit. This version of iTunes has been known to have instability issues. Reaction time in mouse clicks on pull-down menus and buttons are much delayed. On a Powerbook G4 1.0Ghz with 1 GB RAM, iTunes caused a 10 percent increase in the CPU usage, as well as more RAM usage, compared to previous versions of the software. This is all before iTunes even begins playing music or videos. Keep in mind that this was my own experience with the program. Consumers’ experiences with version 7.1 varies depending on the user’s own computer system, but it is generally agreed upon in forums and discussion groups that iTunes 6 and earlier versions were much more stable and quicker than the current version. iTunes version 7.1 is focused mainly on cluttering the program with iTunes Music Store, Video Store, and Podcast Central, which is what contributes to the slow performance of the software. Let’s hope that future updates to the program can alleviate some of these issues with the next generation of iTunes.

I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea. Wait, I forgot to mention: no cables. $299 retail price and the Apple TV does not come with any cables. Not even the cheap RCA ones you can get with a $39 DVD player from the top shelf of the drugstore. I guess Apple didn’t want to give consumers anything to hang themselves with after they realized they had been so horribly screwed.

Conclusion
At $299 retail, the Apple TV represents a colossal rip-off. It over-promises and under-delivers. It is not a home theater PC extender in the manner of an Xbox 360 or even a Slingbox, both of which do more and cost less. It is, for lack of a better description, an iPod and Apple’s Airport Station rolled into a single chassis, which would be fine, except my iPod has more storage, is portable, easier to interface with, has a screen already, sounds better and is cheaper. For a little more, you can simply by a Mac Mini and place it in your system with far better results. Sure the Apple TV’s interface is slick and is about the only part of the Apple TV that looks good on a plasma screen – it just doesn’t justify the cost.
Manufacturer Apple
Model Apple TV
Reviewer Andrew Robinson





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