Editors' Note (August 16, 2010): We have lowered the rating on this product due to changes in the competitive marketplace. Customers interested in Apple TV should note that there are persistent rumors that this product (now more than three years old) will soon be replaced with an updated model that includes app-based online content services.
Editors' Note (September 14, 2009): Apple has discontinued the 40GB version of the Apple TV and lowered the price of the 160GB version to $229.
Editors' Note (February 12, 2008): This review has been updated--and the editors' rating has been raised--to reflect version 2.0 of the Apple TV firmware. Note, however, that user opinions entered prior to February 12, 2008 reflect users' experience with earlier versions of the Apple TV firmware and iTunes Store.
When the Apple TV was first released in March 2007, we praised its elegant interface, pain-free setup, and overall ease of use--all of which were a big departure from previous network-based entertainment devices for the home. The problem was that the Apple TV just didn't do a whole lot. Even with a later upgrade that added the ability to access YouTube videos, the product was little more than an "iTunes extender" for the living room. And viewed through that prism, it had issues: you could only access iTunes content that had already been downloaded to a networked computer and--because they were optimized for the small screen of an iPod--all of those iTunes-purchased TV shows and movies looked pretty bad on a big-screen TV.
Almost a year later, the hardware remains exactly the same, but a free software upgrade--and some changes to the iTunes Store--effectively gives the product a makeover. Apple TV now delivers direct access to the iTunes Store, so you no longer need to run over to your computer to pick the TV shows and movies you'd like to watch. Movie rentals from all major Hollywood studios are now available, and the quality of the iTunes video offerings has been significantly improved, with movies and TV shows in improved standard-definition and--for some movie rentals--720p HD video and 5.1 Dolby surround sound. And--if you've got decent broadband bandwidth--the videos start streaming from the Web within seconds (with a slightly longer delay for HD flicks). The software update also adds access to online photo galleries from Flickr and .Mac accounts. And all of that new functionality comes in addition to the Apple TV's old bag of tricks: the ability to access a full range of online podcasts and YouTube videos as well as the bulk of the digital photos and iTunes music and video library already sitting on any of the PCs and Macs on your home network. To top it off, Apple has cut the price: the 40GB model is now $229, while the 160GB version is $329. Yes, we still have a wish list a mile long for additional functionality and features we'd like to see in the Apple TV, but the updated version transforms the device into a bona-fide video-on-demand box with a lot more potential than the original version.
Features: What it can do
The Apple TV is probably best described to the uninitiated as "a networked video iPod for your living room." The small set-top attaches to your TV and streams all manner of media--video, music, and photos--over your wireless or wired home network. The specifics:
Movies: Any movie available from the iTunes Store can be viewed on Apple TV. Movies are available only for rent: $2.99 for older titles, $3.99 for new releases, and a buck more each for the HD versions. Some of the high-def versions also offer full Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtracks. Apple has secured contracts with all the major movie studios, and the company is pledging to have 1,000 movie rentals available by the end of February 2008, with as many as a tenth of them having HD versions available. Rentals come with expiration dates, however: they must be viewed within 30 days of download and there's a 24-hour time limit once viewing begins.
TV shows: TV shows can be purchased from the iTunes Store for $1.99 an episode, or a whole season for a bulk price. Most current TV shows can be purchased, though NBC/Universal shows are a notable holdout at the time of this writing. Shows are not yet available in HD, but the bitrate on the standard-definition video quality has been revved up, so they now look better on big-screen TVs.
Other iTunes videos: Unlike many digital media adapters, the Apple TV can't stream many common video file formats--including DivX, Xvid, AVI, WMV, and MPEG--directly from the hard drive. These files must first be manually converted and imported into the iTunes software. (There are a variety of ways to convert third-party videos, but ones that users have already optimized for the iPod or iPhone will note that the video quality will suffer when it's blown up for the big screen.) In addition to imported videos, the Apple TV can also stream computer-based videos that have been purchased or rented from the iTunes Store.
YouTube: Over the past several months, YouTube has been converting the bulk of its video content to h.264 versions that are optimized for the iPhone and Apple TV. The videos are directly accessible through the Apple TV's main menu, under sensible submenus such as "featured," "most viewed," "top rated," and the like. You can also log in to your YouTube accounts and access your favorites.
Music: The Apple TV can be used to buy music directly through the iTunes Store and to stream songs already in the library on your networked computer. (Audiobooks can't be purchased through the on-screen interface, but they can be streamed from networked computers to the Apple TV.) Annoyingly, despite being available on the iTunes desktop software, Internet radio stations are not accessible on the Apple TV.
Photos: Apple TV will automatically pull in any photos already in iPhoto (Macs) or PhotoShop Elements (Windows). Alternately, you can have the Apple TV pull photos from any folder (such as the "My Pictures" folder) on a networked computer. New to the 2008 update is the ability to access photos on the Flickr and .Mac online services--just type in the username, and you'll have access to his or her gallery (assuming it's been made public). Photos can be viewed as slide shows, complete with transition effects and the iTunes playlist of your choice as background music.
Podcasts: The same library of podcasts available via the iTunes Store is accessible on the Apple TV. As with the video and music stores, either choose from the most popular choices on the main splash screen, or search for your favorites via the onscreen keyboard. Audio and video podcasts are available--some "HD" podcasts are even optimized for the Apple TV.
AirTunes remote speaker: The Apple TV can be used as a remote speaker for any connected iTunes software. Just click the menu in the lower-right corner of the iTunes window and choose "Apple TV." Doing so will "hijack" the Apple TV into playing whatever audio you've got up and running on iTunes, including Internet radio. It's a useful feature if you want to stream music to your living room stereo without having the TV turned on.
The Apple TV itself is a tiny, silver square with rounded corners measuring 7.7 inches per side and just 1.1 inches high. That's far smaller than most standard DVD players and stereo equipment; like the similarly sized Mac Mini or Nintendo Wii, the Apple TV will fit just about anywhere. It also sports a minimalist aesthetic that's classic Apple--the front panel has only a power light and the remote sensor. There are absolutely no buttons, nor is there a front-panel display. As mentioned, it's available in two capacities: 40GB and, for $100 more, 160GB (though about 7GB on each model is dedicated to system software, and is thus off limits to the user).
Once you plug it in, it's always on. There's no cooling fan, which makes for essentially silent operation, an important feature in a home theater device. The box does get at least as hot as your average laptop, however, so be sure to give it plenty of ventilation.
The included remote will be familiar to Apple aficionados. It's the exact same gumstick-size clicker that ships with recent iMac models, featuring the same five-way navigation pad found on an iPod Shuffle (play/pause, back/forward, and the plus/minus buttons), plus a "menu" button that doubles as "back" when navigating the Apple TV menus. Unfortunately, the little remote can't be programmed to control the volume of your TV or AV receiver. Because it's a standard infrared remote, you can program a universal remote to control the Apple TV.
Apple's package includes the remote, the power cord, the instruction manual, and the unit itself. It's up to you to supply any AV or HDMI cables.
The Apple TV has a decent set of network and AV jacks crammed onto its backside, but it's by no means comprehensive. There are two video output options: component (red, green, blue) and HDMI. If you connect to a TV or an AV receiver via HDMI, that single cable will handle video and audio. Otherwise, audio can be output via analog stereo (red and white RCA jacks) or optical digital. The dearth of composite and S-Video connectors means that the Apple TV is not just HD friendly, it's pretty much HD only. (Technically it will work with 480i standard-definition TVs that have a component video input, but the image on monitors that are not wide-screen will be stretched). While we're all in favor of future-proofing, a little backward compatibility would've been nice, too.