Apple TV First Impressions

I bought an Apple TV a couple of weeks ago and I figured I’d give my first impressions. I’ll jump to the bottom line first to make things easier since the general slant of the review will be positive but the bottom line is less than positive and the Apple TV may not be for you (yet).

I bought the Apple TV with birthday money I received. In such cases I like to get something I usually wouldn’t get and the Apple TV fit the bill (and the money just covered it – it was a sign). I like Apple TV but even though there are some who say that Apple TV is a bargain compared to the cost of production and the margins Apple usually gets for their products I’m not convinced it’s worth the $300 price tag. It does seem to have potential.

The TV

At one time Apple’s tech specs stated a hi-def TV was needed. This isn’t exactly true and they’ve since elaborated on their TV compatibility. It’s now listed as:

Enhanced-definition or high-definition widescreen TVs capable of 1080i 60/50Hz, 720p 60/50Hz, 576p 50Hz (PAL format), or 480p 60Hz

Which also isn’t entirely accurate. There’s also a resolution setting for 480i. In my case I have a standard def 27″ Sony Wega tube TV (KV-27FS13). It has a component video input connection and it works with the 480i setting. The TV also has a “16:9 enhanced mode” that compresses the scan lines down to the area of the 16:9 aspect ration. I need to enable this mode, otherwise the picture is stretched vertically.

If I’m viewing a 4:3 aspect ration video there’s a border all around the picture. The size is closer to a 22″ picture rather than the 27″ tube size. This is because the TV must be in “16:9 mode” even when viewing 4:3 video. So if you have a 16:9 TV it will fill the vertical.

Setup

Setup is straightforward as is expected from Apple products. Cable it up, plug in the power and it runs a setup wizard. First it’s necessary to select the screen resolution. In my case I knew it would be the lowest, 480i. I picked 480p to see what happened. After viewing a garbled screen for a few seconds it went back to the resolution selection screen. The rest of the wizard selects the language, connects to a network and connects to iTunes.

Despite having only the Apple remote to enter information it wasn’t too tedious to set up my wireless network. It’s necessary to scroll around using a on-screen keyboard with the Apple remote. I use a 64-character password and expected this to be a hassle, but I was lucky enough to get it right the first time. I connect using a 802.11g wireless network. The Apple TV is capable of 802.11n but I’ll wait and see if upgrading my wireless network is really worth it for just Apple TV. So far it wouldn’t be worth it, streaming DVD or high-def quality may require it.

A five digit code has to be entered with the iTunes library (or libraries) that you want to sync with. By default Apple TV will sync content with iTunes in the following order: Movies -> TV Shows -> Music -> Music -> Podcasts -> Photos.

Syncing

I changed the sync settings for myself.

  • I don’t have any iTunes movies so I turned off syncing for them.
  • I told it to sync all unwatched episodes of TV shows. You can also break it down by specific TV shows or limit the number of episodes being synced.
  • I synced specific playlists. I did this as a test more than anything, I don’t plan on using Apple TV to play music in the foreseeable future.
  • I sync all unplayed podcasts. This includes audio and video podcasts. You can also break it down by specific podcasts or limit the number of episodes being synced.
  • I don’t sync any photos

Syncing Issues (or maybe “the way it works”)

Some people have reported problems where the Apple TV has problems staying connected to iTunes and they have to go through a ritual to reconnect it. I haven’t had any problems at all and I’m not using Apple hardware as the Wireless WAP. I’ve used two different 2Wire gateways.

Syncing between iTunes seemed a bit hit or miss when I was first using it. But I’ve found the following events will trigger a sync between iTunes and Apple TV.

  • Start iTunes
  • Download a purchase from the iTunes store. Podcast downloads will not trigger a sync. Free things (weekly song, promotions, etc…) will trigger a sync.
  • Watch or listen to something on Apple TV all the way to the end. Soon after it will be deleted and a sync will be triggered.
  • You can also manually initiate a sync from iTunes.
  • Restarting Apple TV (only possible by cutting power)

In all these cases everything is synced, not just the item that triggered the sync. I typically leave iTunes and my iMac running for days (frequently a week) at a time and there have been several days where no sync was triggered so there doesn’t seem to be any sort of timer that will trigger a sync to make sure things are up to date. I also can’t find a way to trigger a sync from the Apple TV itself (pulling the power plug doesn’t count). So if the item you want hasn’t synced you’ll need to get up off the couch and go to your Mac or PC to initiate the sync from iTunes.

Streaming

You can also stream directly from your iTunes library. If you plan to stream frequently you probably want to plan for the hardware necessary for a dedicated 802.11n network. Especially for high-def files. (Running a device as 802.11n on a mixed 802.11b/g/n will severely degrade the performance of 802.11n)

In my case I was surprised how well things streamed. Any iTunes videos I played streamed just fine on my 802.11g network. What’s also interesting is I did this during the initial sync and didn’t have a problem. the other nice feature is that streaming has a memory. It will remember where you left off and mark a file as played when it’s done. This seems obvious to me, but it doesn’t happen when streaming from one iTunes to another.

My Apple TV is relatively close (10 feet with one wall in between) so that probably helps. I also have the WAP set to full power to help reach PCs at the other side of the apartment.

You can stream from multiple iTunes libraries but there’s no integration between the libraries. You pick a library and browse it and only see what’s in that library. Apple TV can only sync with one iTunes library.

Video Quality

I suspect this is one area where I benefit from having a analog, standard tube TV. Most current video available through iTunes (podcasts and TV shows) isn’t high-def. A standard tube TV has a display resolution of about 640 X 480. When Apple first released the video iPod the video resolution was 320 X 240. Now TV shows and movies are 640 X 480 which is comparable to my TV.

As I previously mentioned, I need to put my TV in “16:9 mode” which gives me a smaller picture area for 4:3 video such as The Daily Show. It took a bit of getting used to but isn’t too bad. I wouldn’t want to watch a lot of TV this way or even one action movie but for something like The Daily Show it’s OK.

Watching a 16:9 show, such as Stargate SG-1 fills the available picture area on the screen and is comparable to a 16:9 DVD. Apple says it’s “near DVD” and I would tend to agree, if you’re watching on a tube TV like I am. The quality is better than I get from my Cable TV (analog from Comcast). It’s also better than the “best” level for my Tivo recordings.

If I go full screen on my iMac or Apple Cinema Display for a iTunes video the quality suffers and I would think HD TVs would have the same problem.

Apple TV can support resolutions up to 1280 X 720 for frame rates less than 25fps and up to 960 X 540 for frame rates equal to or greater than 25fps. Since Apple TV can support higher resolutions than iPods anything that needs to run on both (like TV shows and movies through iTunes) will be at the lower 640 X 480 resolution. Some video podcasts are now putting out multiple versions, one for the iPod or those who want a smaller download and one for Apple TV.

Video Without the iTunes Store

iMovie and Quicktime Pro both include options to to export in Apple TV format. Handbrake (DVD ripper) also includes options to easily export in Apple TV format. I haven’t looked at any of these options yet but look forward to moving some of my own video to Apple TV.

Summary

Much like the first gen iPod, the Apple TV feels like a good product but one that’s ripe for enhancements and upgrades. As I mentioned up top, it seems slightly overpriced at $300.

Apple has already made a 160GB hard drive available as a $100 option (the base model is 40GB). In my case I haven’t filled the current hard drive and I get good streaming quality. It’s probably best the option wasn’t available when I purchased my Apple TV. I admit I’d like to be able to have a large Video and Music library on the drive but since there’s no backup option with Apple TV I’d need another copy somewhere else anyway.

No cables are included so be sure you have some or order them. You don’t need $100 cables, just good quality inexpensive cables. You can get good cables for under $20.

Apple released software version 1.1 for Apple TV as I was finishing up this article. It includes YouTube support and a security update. I’ll cover them in a future post after I’ve applied the update. This article is based on version 1.0 of Apple TV.