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Five Days With Apple TV Take 2

By Chris Maxcer MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Feb 25, 2008 4:00 AM PT

After Apple announced the upgrade and lower price for its Apple TV, casually dubbed "Take 2" by CEO Steve Jobs in his Macworld keynote address in January, I knew I'd finally shell out the cash to buy one. Simply put, the first-generation Apple TV didn't have enough bang for the buck to bother with.

Five Days With Apple TV Take 2

However, Apple TV Take 2, with its buy-and-rent-straight-from-the-couch simplicity, finally had a killer application. I didn't know the half of it. It turns out Apple TV has other killer apps, most of which have been largely overlooked by some reviewers who have been gushing over the easy new rental features.

The Basics

The Apple TV is essentially an elegantly designed widescreen high-definition TV extender device with stand-alone capabilities. As an extender, it pushes content from your Mac or PC, using iTunes as the central application hub, and delivers it on your TV. Basically, any content that you have available in iTunes -- movies, videos, songs, TV shows, podcasts -- will play through your Apple TV and, in turn, your television.

As a standalone device, the Apple TV lets you buy and rent movies from Apple's iTunes store, view YouTube video clips, watch video podcasts and browse Flickr photos. While renting an HD movie from your couch is cool, the Apple TV is still meant to be connected to a Mac or PC via iTunes.

Stream or Sync?

The big decision is whether you want to stream your iTunes content via your Mac or PC over a wireless network or sync it to the built-in hard drive on the Apple TV.

The Apple TV comes in two configurations -- a 40 GB model that sells for US$229 and a 160 GB version for $329. I chose the 40 GB model, but in many households, the 160 GB might be the better choice -- it all depends on the combination of your computer running iTunes and your wireless network, a point that I'll come back to.

The Experience

As with any Apple product, at least a third of the reason for buying an Apple TV is for the elegant simplicity that comes with the hardware and software design. The box is unobtrusively cool sitting next to your TV, and the menu interface is slick and satisfying to use. Plus, it's intuitive. A child could find and rent a Bruce Willis "Die Hard" flick without instruction, which is why the unit comes with parental controls.

To set up the Apple TV, you basically plug it in and connect it to your HDTV using an HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) or component video/audio cable, sold separately. If you've got an HDMI port free on your TV, use it -- it's a digital signal for sound and video, and it'll give you the best quality results. I started taking detailed notes as I set up my Apple TV, but I tossed the notepad aside. There's a reason Apple only ships rudimentary instructions with its products -- it's freakin' easy. The only important tip is to open iTunes on your Mac or PC and make sure it's connected to your wireless network. You'll also want to know the password for your wireless network (but you can directly connect Apple TV via an ethernet cable to a router if you so desire).

Back at your Mac, iTunes will recognize that an Apple TV is connected to your network and show it in your Devices list in the left side column of iTunes. Once connected, iTunes will start you along the registration and configuration path, which is remarkably similar to the way you sync an iPhone via iTunes.

Like the iPhone registration process, it's quick and easy. You'll have tabbed menu options for choosing which movies, TV shows, music, podcasts and photos you want to sync, or you can let iTunes automatically pick and choose, giving priority to new and unwatched items.

Movie Night

My first test movie was "The Simpsons Movie," rented directly from the Apple TV in standard definition (not HD). It's a cartoon, so I didn't think HD was really necessary. I started the download early in the afternoon, figuring it would be available in an hour or so, certainly. It wasn't. It was downloading -- slowly. Using the Settings option on the Apple TV, I checked my wireless signal -- two out of four bars. Hours later, it was still downloading. I was surprised because I had downloaded hour-long TV shows directly from iTunes in my MacBook with much faster results than the movie seemed to be downloading to my Apple TV.

My wireless router and DSL (digital subscriber line) are likely to blame. I'm running a Verizon-supplied 802.11g wireless router, set to accept old and slow 802.11b signals as well, and my DSL maxes out at 1.5 megabits per second (Mbps). An 802.11n wireless router would give me significantly faster speeds and feeds between my Mac and Apple TV, but it won't be able to make Verizon pipe content any faster into my home. I'll have to upgrade my DSL for that.

Still, an 802.11g wireless router works, just not quickly. As you might guess, syncing content between my Mac and Apple TV took hours over my wireless network. As for streaming TV shows, I experienced hiccups in the playback. Reports from others using 802.11g networks have noted smooth playback, though, so good streaming is capable with 802.11g. However, if you don't have a fast home wireless network -- and don't expect to upgrade to say, an 802.11n Time Capsule anytime soon -- consider opting for the 160 GB version so that you'll have plenty of room to sync all the content you want. It will play directly from the Apple TV hard drive.

Download Speeds

Apple reports that standard definition movies, which have a resolution of 720 by 480 anamorphic (max), come with an average 1.5 hour wait time to start at 768 kilobits per second, about 1 minute at 2 Mbps, and in less than 30 seconds at 6 Mbps. HD movies, which have a resolution of 1280 by 720 (max), along with Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound, take about 8 hours to be ready to start playing at 768 Kbps, in about 2 hours at 2 Mbps, and in less than a minute at 6 Mbps. Most broadband users aren't piping the Internet into their homes at 6 Mpbs yet, so users will have to plan accordingly. This also means that most people can drive or walk to their local Blockbuster Video stores and return home before starting an HD movie -- unless Blockbuster is out of the movie they want.

Of course, the whole movie watching process is hobbled by Hollywood, which very much wants consumers to continue buying highly profitable DVDs. You won't find new releases on Apple iTunes -- you'll have to wait 30 days before the latest and greatest blockbusters are available. After you download a movie, you've got 30 days to start watching it, and once you start it, you've got a measly 24 hours to finish it. Just don't blame Steve Jobs. These limitations are levied by the movie industry, and Apple isn't the only movie download service hampered by them.

My Second Movie: 'Transformers' in HD

Having learned from "The Simpsons," I queued up Michael Bay's action hit "Transformers" in HD one night before I went to bed. It was ready for me in the morning, and wow, the sound and HD quality was a pleasant surprise -- better than I expected. While it's not up to Blu-ray quality, it's close enough for me -- and likely good enough for most consumers. The extra DVD content, however, is nonexistent. Still gotta buy a disc to get the extras.

Oh, one more thing: While you can rent HD movies via your Apple TV, you can't rent them via iTunes like you can rent standard definition movies.

More Than Meets the Eye

Enough about the movies (and, as you might guess, the gobs of TV shows available for purchase for $1.99 an episode). These are great features, no doubt, but what I really like the most are two features that have been around for a while -- iPhoto integration and podcasts.

The first thing I did with my Apple TV was sync a bunch of albums I had already in place in iPhoto -- primarily a trip to Kodiak, Alaska, where I got to fish for coho salmon in sweat-inducing proximity to large Kodiak brown bears, and a snow tubing and skiing trip I was on the day before I set up the Apple TV.

Wow. Digital photos look great on a computer screen, but on your HD television, they are a joy to share. And those bears -- much larger than I remembered, it turns out. An Apple TV gets your photos off of an isolated Mac hard drive and gets them into the living room where they belong. If you're a Flickr or .Mac user -- or have friends who use the services -- online pictures are only as far away as the Apple TV remote.

A Gazillion Podcasts

Most everyone knows what an audio podcast is, especially iPod owners, but video podcasts are sneaking up -- Apple's iTunes online store catalogs and provides access to a gazillion podcasts, give or take a hundred thousand or so, and I'm not kidding. "Ask a Ninja" is one of my personal favorites, which is available free -- FREE -- right from iTunes. Plus, you can subscribe to it, so keeping current is wicked easy.

In addition, you can get free video podcasts from top-notch content providers like The Discovery Channel, CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS, PBS,, and Comedy Central. Yes -- all this ... from your couch!

There's YouTube, too, of course, so if you're into burning four minutes or four hours, there's tons of content available. The interesting thing is, despite the lack of keyboard and mouse, I like browsing with the Apple TV remote better than I do through Apple's packed iTunes store. That was a surprise I didn't expect.

All in all, I'm not ready to ditch my Netflix account because sometimes, I want the DVD extras and -- Hollywood be damned -- the latest new releases. But as for the future, while I'll be messing around with circular discs less and less frequently, I expect that I'll be spending more and more time using my Apple TV.

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