Apple TV: it just plain works

To say that Apple TV is the world's best media streaming device could be considered faint praise, the tech equivalent of calling someone the world's tallest midget. After all, most previous versions of these devices, which take music, video, and photos from your PC and play them on your TV and stereo, have been unreliable, hard to use and generally shunned by the buying public.

Apple has managed to rise above that kind of failure with its typical mantra: Keep it simple and make it pretty. Setting up our £199 Apple TV was a breeze, and anyone who's used an iPod will be instantly familiar with its extravagantly attractive interface.

With a 40GB hard drive for storing content, the sleek device appears to be able to avoid the picture break-ups and glitches that frequently come with streaming video over a wireless network. The basic rule of Apple TV content seems to be: If you can play something in iTunes, you can play it on Apple TV. That puts some limitations on users, but then, that's the price of simplicity.

A squished Mac Mini?
The device looks a bit like the Mac Mini after an elephant sat on it. It's about 7 inches square and a little over an inch tall. It comes with a power cord, a remote about the size of an iPod nano, and that's it.

You're on your own to purchase other cables you'll need. For instance, if your TV is HDMI equipped, you'll have to purchase a HDMI cable. The Apple TV has ports for HDMI connectors, component video, and analog video connections.

Once I connected the box to our test HDTV (you must use a widescreen TV, by the way), the device started looking for a network connection. I was using Wi-Fi instead of an ethernet connection, and the Apple TV couldn't initially find my network. Once I typed in the network's SSID on the on-screen keyboard, though, I was up and running. The box is very quiet but got significantly hot after about an hour.

You must link the Apple TV to a copy of iTunes on a PC or Mac (the screen provides you with a passcode you must type into iTunes to make the connection). Then Apple TV starts copying your content from your iTunes library onto its hard drive in a specific order: first movies, then TV shows, then music, etc. If there was a way to move something to the front of the line, it wasn't obvious to me. I wanted to shift some of my photos to the device, but kept getting a message saying it was too busy copying my music and I should try again later.

Apple TV remote
Once some of my video and music was on the Apple TV's hard drive, I started jumping around using the tiny remote. While the remote looks like an iPod, it doesn't quite act like one. What looks like a click wheel doesn't operate just by moving your thumb around the circumference of the wheel. Instead you need to click up, down, or sideways to move.

And while it's admirable that Apple has managed to shave a remote down to essentially six buttons, you'd better be careful of this one. Given how often the big honking remote for my TV gets lost in the folds of the bed covers, this one won't last a week unless it's strapped to a boat anchor and a pager.

Video tests
For my video testing, I bought an episode of a new show from FX, The Riches, from iTunes. Picture quality for this drama was okay, but not sensational. Overall, the images seemed a bit dark and washed out, even in colourful outdoor scenes. Apple TV can decode up to a 720p signal and it can output up to 1080i. You may have trouble finding 720p content to display, though. The iTunes Store doesn't sell it.

Apple TV will also play video that's not on its hard drive. But for that, you're dependent on streaming over your wireless network.

Music playback was very reminiscent of the iPod's interface, with lots of ways to view your collection. Album art for the music I was playing displayed beautifully -- so beautifully it made me wish I could navigate my collection by the cover art, like the cover flow view in iTunes. But, alas, that option isn't available. One other complaint: Once you left the music area, your album stopped playing. I would have liked to be able to continue listening to my choice while I was picking through pictures or watching a slideshow.

My colleague Johathan Seff at our sister site talked to Apple and posted this informative blog with more details about the Apple TV.

Bottom line
As good as Apple TV is, I was still left thinking it could do more. For instance, it's got an Internet connection and a hard drive, so why do I have to download a video or album to my PC, then have it sync to the Apple TV? Wouldn't it be easier to cut out the middleman and have Apple TV connect directly to the iTunes Store?

Despite those reservations, though, Apple TV is more than just the tallest midget out there. It's the first media streaming device I could imagine recommending to a non-geek. And I wouldn't be surprised if it evolves into something even more powerful.

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