Practical Technology

for practical people.

Apple TV: First Thoughts

Eager tech toy users and media addicts are already tearing–sometimes literally–into Apple’s answer to the media extender: the Apple TV.

With the Apple TV, formerly known as iTV, watch can watch your iTunes library’s digital media on your television. With this, you’ll no longer be locked into an iPod’s 2.5″ (diagonal) display. That’s not a small difference. After all, which would you rather watch, a 2.5-inch LCD screen or 34-inch plasma display?

Of course, it’s not just movies and TV show episodes, you can also use it to push iTunes tunes to your stereo system or run your own endless home photo slideshow on the television. Apple TV makes it easy for users to explore their entire media collection with an easy to use and intuitive new interface. With the Apple Remote, you can browse through your movies, TV shows, music and photos while curled up on the couch.

Of course, as some of you know, there have been plenty of devices that have promised all this before. They’re called media-extenders. They have itty, bitty, little problem: they don’t work that well.

Some, in fact, barely work at all. I suffered-and that is the right word-with D-Link MediaLounge DSM-320 Wireless Media Player for over a year, before I finally got it to work decently. It’s not good, it certainly isn’t great, but it does work… most of the time.

I’ve also spent a lot time working with Windows Media Center; several Linux-based media centers, the best of which seems to be Sage TV, and other fancy ways of getting video inside computer A into television B in the media room. I’m still looking for a good answer. It looks like the Apple TV may be it.

One of the reasons I think this is that the Apple TV has a 40GB hard drive to store up to 50 hours of video, 9,000 songs, 25,000 photos or a combination of each and is capable of delivering high-definition 720p output. That is not, I repeat, not enough room. Personally, I’m closing in on over 500GBs of video alone. I’m seriously looking now at terabyte-sized storage for my collection.

Oh, how do you get that much? In my case, by years of converting shows that I love-like Mystery Science Theater 3000 –from first well-loved home video tape then to DVD and now to hard drives. Yes, I’m a geek. I’m also a big believer that the future of video isn’t on HD-DVD or Blu-Ray but on hard drives and networks.

Speaking of networks, Apple TV supports both 10/100 Base-T Ethernet networking and 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi. With this you can either stream media for your viewing pleasure from an iTunes’ library or sync the show to the Apple TV’s own hard drive. You can auto-sync content from one computer, Windows or Mac or stream content from up to five additional computers to the Apple TV and from there to your television.

That last part is a major plus. One of the big problems with most media extenders has been that they have little to microscopic local storage. If anything happened to the network video stream-say a radio-frequency noisy microwave oven-BLIP! Your show froze up or lost audio sync in a way that reminded the older of us of twisting the rabbit-ears of portable TVs in desperate hunts through the video snow for the Cubs baseball broadcast.

Now, there are other devices, notably Microsoft’s xBox 360, that will also do this. For my money, the Apple TV’s the far better deal. I’ll go into more detail on that in a later story, but for now suffice it to say: noise, cost, and open-architecture. For a good early look at the pluses and minuses of both, from someone who’s neither in the Mac nor Windows camp, see Matt Buchanan’s comparison in Gizmodo.

You can use an Apple TV with any TV that has HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface), component video, analog or optical audio ports. I’m annoyed to report, however, that it doesn’t come with any of the necessary cables. Many news reports, which rely too heavily on Apple’s own press release, state that you need a widescreen TV. Nope. If you have a TV that can take component video, you’re in business.

Presuming, of course, that you have iTunes 7.1 or later running on a Mac with Mac OS X version 10.3.9 or later, or a Windows PC with Windows XP SP2.

Vista? Vista, which throws fits at all Apple software, continues to have trouble with the brand new iTunes 7.1 Currently, if you use iTunes 7.1 on Vista and you use the “Safely Remove Hardware” applet, the way you’re supposed to, when you’re ready to remove your iPod after syncing it, Vista may corrupt your iPod’s drive. No, I’m not making that up. The solution, and I’m not making this up either, is to wait until the iPod is synced up and pull the cord. Now, just think about what it might do to your Apple TV! And, people wonder why I seldom have anything good to say about Vista.

Today the Apple TV supports the following Video Formats – H.264 and protected H.264 (from iTunes Store) – 640 by 480, 30 fps (frames per second), LC version of Baseline Profile; 320 by 240, 30 fps, Baseline profile up to Level 1.3; 1280 by 720, 24 fps, and Progressive Main Profile. MPEG-4 – 640 by 480, 30 fps. For audio it supports Simple Profile Supported Audio Formats – AAC (16 to 320 Kbps); protected AAC (from iTunes Store); MP3 (16 to 320 Kbps); MP3 VBR; Apple Lossless; AIFF; and WAV. If you want slideshows, it supports the JPEG, BMP, GIF, TIFF, and PNG image formats.

If you’re a video geek, you’re already saying to yourself, “That’s nothing like enough supported formats.” I agree. But, there are ways and means around that limitation, and I’ll start getting into that another day.

Apple TV, which includes the Apple Remote but not a cable in sight darn it, is now on sale for $299

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