Although the Apple TV isn't the greatest HD media streamer, it is a HD media streamer and it will probably be popular if for no other reason than because it is made by Apple. With about a week to go till they ship, we though that some of you might want to get ready by encoding some HD content, after all there isn't any HD content from Apple; yet.
There are plenty of options for encoding video for the Apple TV and while none of these are proven since the device isn't out yet, one of them we can at least expect to work since it is from Apple. The latest version of Quicktime Pro, now has a new export option for the Apple TV. There are a couple of problems however, it isn't free and it's slow. We're not sure how Apple was able to make it so slow, but they did. The great part is that it is easy and with a little Automator action you could have your entire collection of HD clips converted -- no Quicktime won't open those HD DVD and Blu-ray movies you downloaded from the Internet and it won't open transport streams captured via Firewire either, without a little help from MPEG Streamclip. The other problem with Quicktime is that other than the Apple TV option, there are no other options. Luckily the results were good and while we didn't spend a lot of time analyzing the quality, after all if you compare anything to Blu-ray or HD DVD it looks bad, the results were good. When converting both 1080i and 720p sourced material, the results were 1280x720 which is what we would expect, considering the maximum supported video is 1280x720 24fps. The big difference is the encoding time, the 1080i clip took over twice as long to encode as the 720 clip.
The second way which was much faster, also might not work. VisualHub is our favorite swiss army knife on the Mac for converting video and although it isn't free like ffmpeg it's much easier to use. You don't even need to know AppleScript to bulk convert your videos. If you are really cheap you can just download the trial which only encodes a few minutes of your clip and then examine the log for the ffmpeg command to get the same results, but for $23 it is worth it to pony up the cash. Since there is no way for the folks at VisualHub to test their product with the Apple TV we are taking a risk here, so much that in fact that, the feature doesn't even exist for Apple TV, that is unless you know where to look. If you choose the iTunes tab and click where a third radio button would be, below the iPod Screen and iPod/TV Screen options you will notice that the Apple TV button is hidden. You will know when you got it because the dot will disappear from the other two radio buttons. There are plenty of options to choose from in VisualHub, we choose H.264 encoding and high quality, then let it rip. The results were almost the same size and frame rate, but it was much faster. On our Core Dou, we were able to encode 720p in just under real time and 1080i took about 4x as long as the length of the clip. The video quality was about the same as with Quicktime as well as the audio.
While we wish we were able to do some real comparisons here between the two methods, we won't. As much as we love HD, we aren't experts in world of encoding video and understand enough about it to know not to mess with the settings. We will leave that for the true experts. Look for more when the Apple TV finally hits the street.