After months of anticipation, Apple’s US$299 Apple TV, a set-top box for syncing and streaming iTunes content between a Mac or Windows PC and a television, has finally seen the light of day. Designed to provide the missing link between the media files in your iTunes library and today’s modern televisions (and their accompanying audio-visual components), the Apple TV nicely simplifies the occasionally daunting process of viewing computer-based content on a television. While limited in significant ways, the Apple TV is a solid first step in what I hope is a long line of increasingly capable Apple-branded AV peripherals.
Inside and out
About the size of a personal-size pizza (7.75 inches square, and just over an inch tall), the Apple TV ships with the bare necessities. Inside the box you’ll find the unit itself, an Apple Remote (the same one that ships with many of Apple’s computers), a power cable (with no power brick, thanks to the device’s internal power supply), and some documentation. While the Apple TV supports component and HDMI (High Definition Multimedia Interface) video output and analog and Toslink digital audio, you’ll find no cables in the box to help you make these connections. You must purchase video and audio cables separately. (Given that Apple would have to bundle five cables to satisfy the most common connections–HDMI to HDMI, DVI to HDMI, component, analog audio, and Toslink digital audio–this omission doesn’t surprise me.) The back of the Apple TV also sports a 10/100Base-T Ethernet connector and a USB 2.0 port. Currently, that USB port is termed a service port by Apple–one the company says is intended for diagnostic purposes only. I expect that with a software update this port will eventually be useful to users as well (you can’t currently connect an iPod or hard drive to it).
Inside the Apple TV is a 40GB hard drive–33GB of which you can use to store video, audio, and still images. Apple says that the Apple TV’s hard drive will hold as many as 50 hours of video (based on 1.5 Mbps H.264-encoded video at a resolution of 640 by 480 with 128 Kbps stereo audio), up to 9,000 audio tracks (with an average of four minutes per song and AAC encoded at 128 Kbps), or up to 25,000 pictures (JPEG, BMP, GIF, TIFF, and PNG images are supported, but not Raw). The Apple TV can play video encoded as MPEG-4 and H.264 and supports the same audio formats iTunes does (AIFF, WAV, MP3, AAC, and Apple Lossless). Powered by an Intel processor and an Nvidia graphics card, the Apple TV also carries a wireless card that’s capable of using 802.11b, 802.11g, or 802.11n networking protocols. The Apple TV will output video to your TV at 1080i 60/50Hz, 720p 60/50Hz, 576p 50Hz (PAL format), 480p 60Hz, or, though not listed among Apple’s specifications, 480i, so it will work with standard definition televisions that sport component connectors. (For more comprehensive definitions of these terms, check out our HDTV glossary.)
A firm handshake
The Apple TV makes it easy to couple your iTunes library with your television. Simply make the proper cable connections–string an HDMI cable between the Apple TV and your television, for example–and plug in the Apple TV’s power cord. After a short delay, you’ll see the Apple logo, and you’ll be cued to select a language.
The Apple TV then checks for a network connection. If you’ve attached an Ethernet cable, the Apple TV attempts to use it before looking for a wireless connection. If there is no Ethernet cable, it lists every wireless access point it can find. Use the remote to select the one you want and then press the play/pause button–you’re nearly ready to go. (You’ll also see an Other entry in the list of wireless access points. Select this and you can configure wireless devices that are hidden from public discovery by entering the name of the access point with the on-screen keyboard.)
If you assign IP addresses to your networked devices via DHCP, choose Using DHCP in the Network Setup screen, press the play/pause button, and it will establish a connection. Should you need to enter an IP and subnet address manually, choose that option and a screen for doing so via the Apple Remote and an on-screen keyboard will appear. Likewise, if your network is secure, you’ll be prompted to choose the type of security your wireless network uses and then asked to enter your password–again, via the remote and the on-screen keyboard.
Once connected to the network, the Apple TV projects a five-digit PIN number on your TV screen. Meander over to the computer you want to sync your data from, launch iTunes 7.1 or later, select the Apple TV icon that appears in iTunes’ Source list, and enter that PIN number. Name your Apple TV when prompted, register it with Apple (or not), and then select the media files you want to sync to the device. This setup takes no more than a couple of minutes.
Select and sync
iTunes serves as the gateway for syncing or streaming media files to the Apple TV. You can sync content from only one computer at a time, and you can’t add content manually–by dragging it from your iTunes library to the Apple TV icon on iTunes’ Source list. Should you choose to sync with a different computer, all the data on the Apple TV will be removed and replaced with the data from that new computer. When you’ve established this syncing relationship between your computer and the Apple TV, you’ll encounter an interface within iTunes very much like the one you see when you attach a 5G iPod to your computer. The Apple TV pane within iTunes holds six tabs–Summary, Movies, TV Shows, Music, Podcasts, and Photos. Within these tabs you decide which content you want to sync to the Apple TV. Content is prioritized so movies sync first. Then, if space remains, TV shows, music, podcasts, and, finally, photos.
To help manage your media files, iTunes provides shortcuts for choosing subsets of them. For example, you can choose to sync no movies and just TV shows, or request that only the most recent one, three, five, or ten unwatched movies or TV shows sync with the device. In such a scenario, once the movie or show has played through, it’s bumped off the list and deleted from the Apple TV, and then iTunes adds the next unwatched video. Because the Apple TV and iTunes are in constant communication, there’s no need to press a sync button to make this happen. As long as iTunes is open, your network is functioning, and a computer isn’t streaming something to the Apple TV, iTunes will update the device’s content.
Syncing can be slow, particularly over a wireless 802.11b or 802.11g network. If you have a lot of content that you want to sync to the Apple TV, it makes sense to start the sync before you go to bed. When you wake the next morning, the job will be done. Or, because syncing over Ethernet is faster than wireless, make that first connection a wired one.
Gently down the stream
If you have a moderate-to-large iTunes library, you’ll find the Apple TV’s hard drive too cramped to hold much of your content. (See Chris Breen’s video on Exploring Apple TV.) This would be a serious drawback if the device’s streaming capabilities weren’t as good as they are. It can stream video and audio from up to five computers–from both Macs and Windows PCs. Setting up streaming works similarly to syncing. On the Apple TV, choose Sources, and select Connect To New iTunes. A new PIN number will appear. On your computer, enter that number into iTunes by selecting the Apple TV in the iTunes Source list, and you’re connected. Choose th