In case you haven’t noticed, iTunes offers more than just music these days. It’s become an online Blockbuster of sorts, filled with hundreds and soon thousands of TV shows, movies, and videos, all ready for download. Buy that episode of Lost you missed for $1.99, download and transfer it to your iPod, and you can enjoy it anywhere. But what if you want to watch the show on a real screen—you know, like that big TV in your living room. That’s where Apple TV comes in, providing an easy way to move videos wirelessly from your Mac or PC to your TV. While it isn’t the first computer-to-TV media bridge, it is by far the most intuitive product of its kind.
A sleek, round-cornered box that’s only an inch thick, Apple TV is about as unassuming as it gets and is small enough to fit just about anywhere. There are no buttons or controls in sight—just an LED and infrared sensor (for its remote control) on the front and a handful of jacks around back. There’s something you need to know right up front: Apple TV works only with digital TVs, so if you’re still living in the world of analog TV, this is not the “media bridge” for you.
Setup is simple. Plug the box into your HDTV (or A/V receiver) using an HDMI cable or a set of component-video cables plus a digital audio connection. Then it’s a matter of using the stick-of-gum-sized remote control to navigate your way through a half dozen onscreen menus. (Fair warning: the remote is so small that it’s easy to misplace.) You choose your network from the on-screen list, enter your password on a pop-up keyboard, and Apple TV provides a code that enables secure communication between your computer and iTunes. If you re-boot your computer, you just have to re-enter your network password.
Once setup is complete, Apple TV asks if you want to transfer content to its 40GB hard drive, following the same simple process used to transfer music from a computer to an iPod. Whatever doesn’t fit on the hard drive can be streamed from the computer to your TV. And as long as iTunes is running on your computer, Apple TV will be automatically updated whenever you download a new movie or TV show—in fact, you can draw content from up to five different computers.
Using an Apple Airport Extreme 802.11n router, streaming was fast and consistent—virtually the same as playing content stored on the Apple TV hard drive. The fast forward, pause, and rewind controls were about as responsive as video on demand, which is to say more sluggish than controlling a DVD but not sluggish enough to be annoying. Apple says movies and TV shows are “near” DVD quality in the same way 128kbps music tracks are “near” CD quality, which means images are not as sharp and colors not as crisp as what you would get from a DVD. Image quality of downloaded iTunes content was wildly inconsistent, however. On my 50-inch Hitachi plasma HDTV, The Prestige and Veronica Guerin looked almost as good as DVD but Robocop was barely VHS quality. TV shows were also a mixed bag. The first episode of NBC’s short-lived Conviction was so heavily pixelated that it was barely watchable, while the first episode of Law & Order looked fine—in fact, it was sharper than the season 17 episodes. The first episodes of 1960’s sci-fi fave Time Tunnel also looked excellent and slightly better than widescreen episodes of the new Battlestar Galactica. Considering Apple TV is designed to work only with HDTVs, the lack of high-def movies or TV shows on iTunes is disappointing. However, a growing number of free HD Podcasts are available, which suggests that the dearth of HD is probably temporary. In addition, you can import content into iTunes as long as it’s in QuickTime format or encoded in MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 (such as downloaded clips and home videos).
Despite its moniker, Apple TV can also deliver music from your iTunes library to your stereo system as well as shuttle pictures from your computer to your TV. Music can be stored on the Apple TV hard drive or streamed from the computer. Photos have to be transferred and stored on Apple TV’s hard drive and can’t be streamed.
Even so, photos look great on a big-screen HDTV. Apple TV automatically creates a backing soundtrack from your music collection and provides a variety of slide-show timing and transition options to choose from. Your photos are also used as Apple TV’s screen saver and presented in an eye-popping 3D Matrix-like rainfall.One complaint: with no sub-file structure or thumbnail screen for photos, there is no way to search for or locate a specific photo other than to click through each shot.
Apple TV is the most intuitive and easiest to use “media bridge” available, providing a hassle-free way to enjoy multimedia content from your computer to your TV. TPV