The Apple TV isn't the first media-streaming set-top box on the market, but it's the first one from Apple, and is therefore the one to bring what was once an early-adopter technology to the masses. For those of you still catching up, the Apple TV wirelessly grabs your iTunes content-including videos, music, podcasts, audiobooks, and photos-from your PC and makes it available on your HDTV or home theater system. And as it did with the iPod, Apple promises to dominate the product category simply because the company has made, by far, the smartest, easiest, sexiest, and most entertaining PC-to-TV media center yet.
Other media centers and gadgets perform similar functions, but they lack the ridiculously simple setup Apple excels at, and the Apple TV is more fun to use than more full-featured digital media players, such as the Netgear Digital Entertainer HD EVA8000. Following typical Apple protocol, the Apple TV has a minimalist design, with no buttons-not even one for power. Just plug in the HDMI cable and the power cord and follow the onscreen directions. The tiny remote has the same simple controls as the first-generation iPod: a navigation array and a Menu button.
Network connectivity is an idiot-proof, two-step process: Choose your network from the onscreen list, then enter your password on the onscreen keyboard. Apple TV performs all the network-configuration drudgery. Synching your iTunes content with Apple TV is exactly like loading up your iPod. Figure about 30 to 45 minutes for all your content to make the move from iTunes to the 40GB Apple TV hard drive.
While the device is compatible with 802.11b/g/n, we suggest you use an 802.11n router to maximize range and Apple TV's streaming abilities, as well as to minimize hiccups. Any router will allow for autosynching from your computer and can stream content from up to five additional computers, although Apple suggests using its AirPort Extreme router.
For our tests, we used a Belkin N1 router, which worked perfectly once we upgraded the firmware for the latest N specifications. For streaming content, you'll have to keep your PC on and iTunes open.
Seamlessly integrated with iTunes, the Apple TV stores your content and displays it on your TV via an HDMI cable and the combination of component video and Toslink (optical digital audio) connections. Unfortunately, these cables aren't included (they cost about $20 each from Apple). And of course, the device works with only iTunes, so if you've accumulated audio and video from a mix of sites and services, you're out of luck.
Once you get beyond these minor housekeeping matters, the Apple TV's simple menu structure and eye-boggling graphics make trolling through the various features and content a joy. Videos from iTunes have a resolution of 640 x 480 pixels, described by Apple as "near-DVD" quality. The Apple TV upconverts this resolution to the native resolution of your HDTV. On our 50-inch 1080i Hitachi P50T501 HDTV, we saw mixed results for television shows; some were full 16:9 aspect ratio, some should have been but were just 4:3, and many looked to be barely VHS quality. But only the platinum-eyed will be able to tell the difference between a DVD and an iTunes movie. Along with your own content, you also get dozens of current movie trailers and music-video clips.
But it's what Apple TV does with your digital photos that's worth the price of admission. Seeing your shots on a large-screen HDTV is a revelatory experience. The Apple TV automatically supplies your HD slideshow with a soundtrack from your iTunes library, often with eerily appropriate selections.You can choose from 13 photo or transition effects and can select the amount of time each photo is on the screen. Your pictures also become an animated 3D sliding-tiles screen saver. The one caveat is that it's hard to locate specific images. Apple TV doesn't supply a thumbnail view or submenus, and it can't stream photos, since images aren't stored in iTunes. We hope this drawback will be addressed in the next software build.
We have a few other items on our wish list, including the ability to order new movies, TV shows, and music directly from the sofa (as opposed to your PC). Other than that, and as long as you're content living and playing in an iTunes world, Apple TV more than lives up to its hype. It's the most elegant digital media adapter yet, and one that we assume will only get better with age.
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