Apple TV review

In a day where everyone (including us) expects their gadgets to do everything, Apple again bucks the trend and releases a product that does a few things, but tries to do them very well. From day one the Apple TV wasn't expected to be the right for everyone -- especially not many of the gadgetrati that patronize our fine publication. It does have a specific target audience (namely, those happy to live in the iTunes ecosystem), but will it be the gateway device to bring digital video to the living room? What's more, will "the iTunes adapter" still pass muster with the ever-scrutinizing CE enthusiast crowd? Learn everything we think you'd want to know about this thing (except how to upgrade the drive) our full-on Apple TV review.

The hardware

Yes, the unit looks like a smushed Mac mini -- except it got wider. Unlike the mini and the new Airport Extreme (both of which are 6.5-inches square), it has a 7.7-inch footprint. It's almost the same thickness as the Airport Extreme, though, at 1.1-inches. While the Apple TV's design indubitably looks good in almost any home theater, we can't help but wish it was stackable with the rest of Apple's equipment. The fit and finish lives up to Apple's reputation for solid hardware, and nothing feels cheesy. It's got a bold metal bezel and a very strong, sturdy-feeling chassis. You won't find a power button -- just plug it in. Compared to a other media streamers and the Xbox 360, this thing is small and quiet. So quiet, in fact, we could hardly hear it when not directly next to it.

Apple TV rear

The frontal LED and IR pickup is similar to the mini, but it gave us some trouble since we used an IR distribution system (so we can stash our gear in the closet). The Apple TV just refused to work with it. To make sure it was the Apple TV, we put our MacBook Pro in the closet and the same IR blaster fine to control Front Row. Since these IR systems are not the norm, we did all of our testing with the Apple TV on top of our TV instead. Ah well. (We pinged Apple, and they said prior to launch they tested with a variety of IR blasters, extenders, etc., and haven't ever had any problems -- so maybe it was just our rig.)

Requirements - When purchasing the Apple TV, the Apple employees were very clear about the requirement for an HDTV. That and video cables -- the ATV doesn't come with any. Apple seems aware of how this is going over with the public and wants to set expectations before people leave the store, or they could just be trying to sell their own cables. Either way, it's kind of annoying, the same way it was annoying when the PS3 didn't come with an HDMI cable.

Apple TV Remote

Remote - The remote is very familiar to anyone with a new Mac or iPod dock, it is simple and works well. Still, a couple more buttons might make it a little easier to use for simple things like volume control (which the Apple TV can't do) or turning the unit off without having to hold the pause button down for a little while. One interesting bit about the remote is you have the option to pair it with your Apple TV. Each Apple Remote has a unique ID that it sends out in IR before its command (yes, this is learnable for smart remotes). If you have multiple Apple Remotes, you can make sure you don't accidentally wake your computer when using your ATV. Definitely a nice touch.


Setup was as easy as anyone can ask for. Power is internal, so you don't have to fuss with a power brick, which helps keep the clutter down behind your rig. Plug in your unit, plug in your video cables, and you're off; one can use component or HDMI, but the test TV we used (not pictured) was older so we also tried out an HDMI to DVI cable. Although it worked just as well as component on our TV, the DVI is obviously easier in setup, and the Apple TV was able to automatically configure the maximum supported HD resolution (something component connections can't do). Despite Apple's warnings, the Apple TV will work with any TV with component inputs and a widescreen mode. Should you plug in an HDMI cable, that connection takes priority; the component output is seamlessly disabled and switches on the fly.

Apple TV WEP

Networking - After you have the display connected, you select your language and immediately your Apple TV tries to connect via Ethernet, then WiFi. The Apple TV prefers the Ethernet connection so even though we initially configured WiFi, later on when we connected a network cable the Apple TV was quick to switch over. (It also lets you know to unplug the Ethernet cable if you want to switch back to WiFi.) Wireless setup is semi-intelligent and makes it easy to connect to networks with either WEP or WPA crypto. Long WPA keys can be a pain with the remote, but the Apple TV is at least smart enough to realize what characters are valid depending on the key type, and only displays those. Considering the lack of buttons on the remote, though, it is still pretty easy to enter strings. The only setup step that most will skip also happens to be the most kludgey: configuring a static IP. Most people have DHCP enabled on their network, but for those who don't, you can configure the Apple TV manually. The problem is that all the fields are zeroed out. (It would have been much easier if Apple intelligently configured defaults for the subnet mask, gateway and DNS settings based on the IP address we configured.)

Apple TV Connect to iTunes

Connecting with iTunes - The last step is connecting to your media. You are presented with a unique number, kind of like what you get when pairing a Bluetooth keyboard. Apple TV uses Bonjour to announce its presence on your network, and iTunes sees the unit and adds it under the devices section, where your iPod, and eventually iPhone, live. In iTunes you merely enter in the number from the Apple TV, then name your device. That's pretty much it. As with the iPod, you are presented with a number of sync options; you can start streaming media immediately, even while it's syncing your content in the background. You can also add other iTunes collections on your network in the same fashion. In other words, it's pretty freaking easy.

User interface

Apple TV Main Menu

The user interface is similar to Front Row and the iPod. Apple did a good job of optimizing the UI for widescreen displays by taking advantage of as much available real estate as possible. Just like the iPod, you navigate though menus with the select and menu buttons; while this works well enough with the scroll wheel, the control ring on the Apple Remote just doesn't lend itself to the same control scheme, and we find ourselves clicking left to go back and right to select (which obviously doesn't work). But you really couldn't ask for a better looking interface in a home theater device, and it is almost always snappy and responsive. Apple has done a good job of navigating through thousands of items in a list (like albums or artists). While scrolling, items fly by with a surprising amount of control. The interface is where the Apple TV really outshines other digital media adapters, like the 360 or Netgear, um, gear.

The strangest navigation component is browsing sources, the item on the main menu that allows you select other media sources on the network (as well as connecting to a new iTunes library). Once you've selected another source you are dropped back to a new iteration of the main menu with access to the new media on that source. Unlike the other submenus, though, you can't go back with the remote's menu button. Instead, you have to return to the sources menu and switch back to your default source. Also confusing: when browsing other sources there is no way to tell which source you are on at the time (except by going back to the main menu, where it is displayed at the top right).

Apple TV Screen Saver

Screen saver - One of our favorite bits in the Apple TV is its screen savers. While it's unlikely you'll want to leave your TV on like it's your desktop display, it does provide for some really nice eye candy, especially during, say, a party. You can set the timeout from never to 30 minutes, and there are three to choose from including: logo (blah, just a floating Apple logo), albums (floating album art), and photos (floating photos). The images go up the screen at different speeds and sizes, and every once in a while they all twirl around. It's too bad they don't offer this as an option for photo slide shows.

Format support

The lack of supported formats is without a doubt the Apple TV's biggest limitation. While Apple's business model almost definitely influences these limitations, we still can't help but wonder why agnostic formats like MPEG-2 would be left out entirely. The movies and TV shows from the iTunes music store are only VGA (not even DVD resolution), and certainly don't sport Dolby Digital 5.1. They may look good on your laptop, but up on a massive screen is still just such a far cry from HD.

This on top of the lack of Divx, XviD, and WMV really limits the usefulness of the Apple TV for anyone with a remotely disparate media library, and severely curtails its use as a internet video streaming device. There are plenty of people working on hack the Apple TV to expand its functionality (we're among them), but we've yet to see solid results in the native interface. For now Apple TV owners will have to be content with H.264, (which maxes out at 1280 x 720) or MPEG-4 (even worse at a maximum of 3Mbps and 720 x 432).

Another issue we ran into is the 4GB file limit and 5Mbps bitrate limit for the media it does support. Not even Apple's own 720p HD trailers (8Mbps) have a low enough bitrate to play. Re-encoding is an option, but besides the perpetual desire not to have to do that, the results are often less than stellar, especially when this low bitrate video is blown up on a nice, big, high resolution HDTV. We kind of missed the point of watching movies in HD if you've got a screen full dancing pixels and artifacts. Simply put, if anyone is thinking about buying this to watch HD movies and videos: don't. That's not really what it's for, at least not right now. The Xbox 360 is far better at HD, and although it also has very limited codec support, at least MPEG-2 HD is supported (in addition to VC-1). While some may not care about the lack of codecs and the compression artifacts, the rest of us may have to wait for the "Apple HDTV". Despite what Apple says about "skating to where the puck will be" by only officially supporting HDTVs with HDMI and component inputs, this thing just doesn't seem ready for the true HD experience.

All of our music that plays in iTunes plays fine on the Apple TV, including AIF, WAV, MP3 (constant and VBR), AAC, and Apple lossless. No doubt some will miss OGG, WMA, and FLAC among others, but again, no surprises here. Just like the Airport Express before it, we are sure that some audiophiles with a big selection of Apple Lossless music will use the Apple TV's digital audio output connected to a ridiculously expensive DAC, but for those of us with music in more obscure formats, you're out of luck until someone figures out a hack for that too.

The most glaring omission in the audio support, however, is Audible audiobook support. Despite being authorized and playing back in iTunes and on our iPod, your Audible files won't play back on your Apple TV. (Apple audiobooks, of course, will.) It's fair to ask: who wants to listen to audio books in their home theater, anyway? Probably not too many people, but would it really have been so hard to throw Audible in there?

Photo support is great, though. We had no problems viewing RAW photos (which weren't spec), as well as all of the officially supported formats: JPEG, BMP, PNG, GIF, and TIFF.

Playing media (music, photos, video, podcasts)

Apple TV browse music

As we said before, anyone familiar with an iPod should feel at home with the interface of the ATV. Unfortunately, when listening to music your track stops when you go back to the main menu, which can be a little jarring. The lack of Cover Flow album browsing is surprising, and although the cover art is prominently displayed while playing and browsing, it's just not nearly the same as those nice iTunes Cover Flow visuals. Also missing are graphic visualizations, which would be a more than welcome addition.

Apple TV Photos

Besides the inability to stream photos from your host machine's library (who wants to sync their whole photo library to that minuscule 40GB drive?), the photos menu is somewhat limited. Users can view a slideshow of their entire library or specific iPhoto albums, but can't watch a slideshow based on date, or other metadata. (We would also really like to be able to browse all of our photos on a thumbnail grid, which also isn't doable.) The Apple TV does allow you to playback your configured iPhoto slideshows, so that will have to suffice. When viewing photos, you can skip through using the remote, but you can't change the music; hitting the play / pause button performs the expected action, but if you accidentally hit the menu button in the middle of a large slideshow, you will have to start over from the beginning next time -- very annoying.

Browsing videos is similar, but sorting TV shows adds an option to browse by date as well as name, which is nice for catching up on a series in order. The video controls are very slick; pressing left or right during playback jumps you forward and back a few minutes, but holding down kicks in fast-forward or rewind (of course, the longer you hold the button, the faster it goes). It advances in three speeds (like a TiVo); once fast-forwarding is underway you don't have to hold the button.

Apple TV scrub bar

Overall, the scrubbing and on-screen visuals work really well. A nice touch is the option to pick up where you left off if you were watching your video on your iPod or in iTunes, and want to finish watching it on your Apple TV when you get home.

Unlike other media, the podcast support isn't that hot. The first issue is with advancing in programs: you can't just hit the right and left buttons to skip a few minutes, as with other media. Also annoying: podcasts always start where they left off, no option to start from the beginning, as with other media. But the biggest problem is that you can't skip chapters in enhanced podcasts (which, as you might recall is an Apple-developed format), although the embedded pictures do change on cue. We're not sure how many people will want to listen to podcasts with their home theater (probably about as many as will listen to Audible books), but there is a lot of good vidcast content out there, and no matter what the type, it should all work uniformly well.


Apple TV sync

If there was one feature of the Apple TV that might be called revolutionary, it would probably be the syncing. Just like any new take on a familiar technology, some just won't understand the need. But if you think about it, syncing your content to the Apple TV makes perfect sense, especially when you consider how many people use laptops as their primary computing device. Who wants to have half their content library missing because their laptop is in the car, away for service, or just isn't turned on? Then again, while it is nice to have content on the Apple TV itself, 40GB of storage is just downright frustrating. If you're so digital media-centric you'd throw down $300 for an Apple TV instead of (or in addition to) a Xbox 360, doesn't it make sense that you'd probably have more than 40GB of content, between music, movies, and photos? So, just like our TiVo Series3, we had to upgrade the drive ourselves. But for those who don't want to upgrade, at least there are lots of syncing options, all configurable via iTunes.

Photos and music syncing allows you to sync all your content or just specific playlists, albums, etc., as well as music videos (which are synced like music rather than like videos). Movies, TV shows and podcasts all have the same sync options: all, all unplayed, or most recent. This will help people keep the only the latest episodes on their Apple TV for highest quality random access; users can stream the rest directly from their computer (if it's ready to serve content, that is). If allowed, iTunes will swap out media to keep what's cached on the ATV fresh, since you're most likely to watch something you haven't watched before. Almost all the syncing options are configured in iTunes. In fact the only syncing options within the Apple TV interface are its initial configuration, and to stop syncing. While the Apple TV is syncing there is a small icon in iTunes and in the Apple TV menus notifying the user that data transfer is in progress; you can also see the syncing status from the sources screen.

When media won't sync, iTunes gets a caution icon next to the Apple TV logo. That's fine, but this happens every single time it can't sync -- you'd think it would learn after the first time and try to skip them until they're available. We were the ones who finally learned, though, and gave up on trying to resolve the caution icon. Media that is playable in iTunes, like Apple own HD movies trailers, but playable by the Apple TV, isn't synced at all which makes sense until you realize how easy it is to add codec support. We also had a few issues with slideshows; first was that you can't start a sync while watching a slideshow; second is that you can't sync an iPhoto album that is also a photocast.

The biggest syncing limitation, however, is that you can't sync photos with more than one computer. We recognize the challenges of multi-master synchronization, but not everyone keeps all their media on one machine, and with the lack of photo streaming one is forced to move their iPhoto library from machine to machine, depending on which is designated the Apple TV's master. iPods, for instance, don't have this problem and will allow you to sync photos from one computer, and music from another.

Streaming content

There is actually quite a bit of internet content that can be streamed directly to the Apple TV. Unfortunately you can't buy and stream iTunes Music Store media (that has to be done from your computer), but you can do trailers and clips. The trailers look pretty good, while the top iTunes Music store items are pretty pointless -- we're not sure who wants to sit there and listen to or watch 30 second music / video samples, but it's not us. We suspect this is a prelude to eventually being able to buy content directly from the Apple TV (much like you can buy and download content directly from and to your Xbox 360), but we will have to wait and see.

Apple TV TV shows

We experienced some pretty rough delays connecting to the iTunes Store during our testing; luckily you can bail out by hitting the menu button whenever you want. We tend to prefer the way Front Row browses movie trailers (with the full size movie posters), but on the Apple TV you navigate a list with the movie posters on the side. Streaming music and videos from iTunes worked very well, though. That low bitrate limitation meant streaming content to the Apple TV looked and sounded just about every bit as good as having it synced. Actually, the streaming experience is so seamless, one can easily lose track of the video source, be it internal or streamed.


Apple TV Upgraded

The Apple TV runs nothing more than a stripped down version of OS X, which means it's pretty obvious that we're going to see a lot of hacks. While upgrading the drive seems like the first and most obvious, enabling SSH, new front-ends, USB booting, and others are in progress or already complete. Of course this will probably be a two way street -- some will enable new features on the Apple TV, others will get Back Row, (the name of the UI) running on their own computers in place of Front Row. But for us, additional codec support will be the most important potential feature, as well as enabling the USB port for external drive expansion. For some, we imagine the hackability of the Apple TV is probably a far more tempting venture than its intended use.


The Apple TV is great at everything it was built to do -- serve as a plug and play solution to interact with your iTunes media. But it isn't called the Apple HDTV for a reason. Sure, it technically supports 720p, but not in any meaningful way. Anyone who cares about high quality video will not be happy -- the 5Mbps limit is just too low. The other big misses here (like no photocasting, photo streaming, inadequate enhanced podcast support, and not being able to sync with multiple machines) are all hopefully things that can and will be fixed with future software updates. But the simple fact is, this is a mass market device intended to have mass market appeal, and while some will balk at the limited codec support and walled-garden approach, people who live in iTunes will enjoy the simplicity of just plugging it in and never having to fuss with anything. It's hard to deny the fact that the interface is slick and simple enough that anyone -- and we do mean anyone -- should be able to use it with ease.

For users who don't want to concern themselves with media library management, disparate home media serving and libraries, and the more complex bits about digital media in your home theater, there simply isn't an easier, more enjoyable way to get content from your computer to your HDTV. For everyone else (read: lots and lots of Engadget readers), until larger-scope issues are addressed, this is likely to be relegated only to novelty set-top box and weekend hack project.