Practical Technology

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Why the Apple TV is your Best Media Extender Choice

Tens of thousands of words have now been written on the Apple TV. Let me give you some bottom-line words. The Apple TV is the best media extender on the planet. Period. End of statement.

Now, some writers will tell you that an Xbox 360 or another media extender like D-Link’s DSM-520 Wireless HD Media Player, or Media Center Extender WMCE54AG already can give you everything Apple TV does and more. Unlike those people, though, I’ve been using, and getting annoyed at, media extenders for years now. Here’s the key difference: the Apple TV works, the others don’t.

Oh, you can get any of them to work. All it takes is blood, sweat, tears, and an electrical engineering degree. Well, OK, I’m kidding about the degree, but not about the rest.

Even the easiest of them, the Xbox 360, requires you to be running Windows Media Center Edition 2005, Vista Home Premium or Ultimate on the PC side, turn on the Xbox-enabling program and switch on the Windows Media Connect software and then spend a lot time running back and forth between your PC and your Xbox 360 tweaking settings until you have it working properly.

Oh, and did I mention that you really want to do this with a hardwired Ethernet connection? I found that with even a good 802.11g Wi-Fi connection you can go from viewing Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest in nice, clear 720p HD one moment to an unwatchable choppy mess in the next.

The Xbox 360 may be a great gaming console, but it’s not a great media extender.

Now, with the Apple TV, all I needed to do is plug it in to my TV using either component or the HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) cables for video. The Apple TV doesn’t come with any cables, so you’ll need to get your own.

In my case, my main HDTV is a Sony KD-34XBR960 34-inch HDTV monitor with a DVI (Digital Visual Interface), so I had to use a HDMI to DVI cable for video. Because of that, I also had to use analog audio cables to hook the Apple TV up to my two-channel TV audio. When I want to get fancier, I pipe 5-1 audio to my Pioneer VSX-D498 Dolby Digital Audio/Video Receiver via Toslink optical audio cable.

If that sounds like a lot of trouble, keep in mind that you have to jump through similar hoops for any TV and any media extender.

After that, I plugged in the power cord, and I was on my way. First, since I was using Wi-Fi, the Apple TV wanted to know which Wi-Fi access point to use. I selected it from the list the Apple TV put up on my television. Next, I entered the network WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) password using the Apple Remote’s Play/Pause button and the Apple TV’s virtual keyboard.

After that, it was just a matter of connecting the Apple TV to my iTunes library. A few seconds later, the Apple TV was syncing–bringing over to its hard disk–the newest five movies from my library.

Impatient soul that I am, I didn’t want to wait for those to be brought over so I clicked my way down, with the slightly wider than a pack of gum remote, to my iTunes residing on a computer in my office and started watching an old MST3K (Mystery Science Theater 3000) take off on The Giant Gila Monster.

About five minutes into watching it, I realized I was watching this movie over an 802.11g link and it looked fine. There were no jerks. There wasn’t any desynchronization between video and audio. It just worked.

As I continued to use it, I found that the remote’s fast forward, reverse, pause–all those controls you take for granted on a DVD player but often have trouble working on other media extenders were just working. In short, the Apple TV was a pleasure to use rather than a pain.

Of course, my copy of The Giant Gila Monster made its way to my television from first being recorded to a VHS tape, then transferred to a DVD and finally to my server as an MP4 file. In short, forget about judging video quality from this particular movie.

When I tried far higher quality productions, such as the aforementioned Pirates of the Caribbean, the Apple TV showed that it could use 720p HDTV as well as any HD player. Note, however that I say 720p. The Apple TV can’t do 1080i or 1080p in this 1.0 version. If you want to view movies at their 1080 best, you still need a Blu Ray disc player like the Sony BDP-S1.

For more ordinary films, such as those you might get from iTunes, I found that the quality is somewhere between the old Super VHS format and 480p DVD. Now, to me, that’s perfectly watchable. Some reviewers don’t like this at all, but I think they’re missing the point. Apple’s not claiming the Apple TV is an HDTV device, they’re saying it’s a wide-screen TV device.

More to the point, I, for one, don’t want to juggle DVDs or, God forbid, VHS tapes. I want my films on a hard disk, easily available to me on my TV, in good, watchable condition and that’s exactly what Apple TV gives me.

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