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Apple TV: First impressions

Apple TV has arrived. Here are our first-hand impressions.

UPDATE: Full review (with hands-on video) now available.

Today we got our first in-person look at the Apple TV since its unveiling back in September of 2006. Company representatives were showing it off at a Manhattan hotel suite and gave us a loaner to do our own hands-on testing. While we conduct a full review, here's our first impression--and a video of our own Rich DeMuro diving into the box for the first time.

The Apple TV is a bigger, stationery-networked iPod that you hook up to your TV, and its degree of desirability is directly proportional to how much iTunes is the center of your digital media universe. If you've got all your music in iTunes and you frequently purchase TV shows and movies from Apple's service, Apple TV is enticing indeed. It can automatically sync with one iTunes library but, instead of requiring the use of an iPod, it's done automatically via your home network. You can also stream music, video, and podcasts directly from up to five networked computers (Windows PCs and Macs). Streaming from guest computers--say, a friend's laptop that has the latest episode of 24 or Lost--is as easy as a couple of keystrokes.

Apple TV gets big points for ease of setup, its superslick on-screen interface, and its impressive features--specifically, supporting up to 720p HD video output and superfast 802.11n wireless networking. But the flip side of that HD support is that it's at the expense of older television sets--Apple TV lacks the standard outputs for connecting to anything without a component (480p) or HDMI output. And while many media streamers don't have any built-in storage at all, it's disappointing that the Apple TV's internal hard drive is limited to only 40GB--for those keeping score at home, that's merely half the size of the most capacious iPod now on the market.

Those nitpicks notwithstanding, the Apple TV is pretty much the only network entertainment device available that will play content (music, movies, and TV shows) purchased from the iTunes Store. But that iTunes compatibility is also something of an Achilles' heel, because it means that you're responsible for getting your digital video files transcoded into an iTunes-friendly format (essentially, MPEG4/H.264). Yes, QuickTime Pro ($30), iMovie, and plenty of third-party programs can do just that, but it can be a time-consuming manual process. By contrast, many competing devices can stream a variety of other file formats--WMV, AVI, DivX, and the like--without the need for conversions (but they can't stream the files you purchased from the iTunes Store).

Of course, each of those pluses and minuses are totally subjective. At this early stage, the fact that Apple TV brings iPod-like convenience and ease of use to the network-streaming media market is really its trump card. Digital media pack rats with multi-gigabyte, multi-codec video collections will want to look elsewhere--or begin the mother of all QuickTime transcoding sessions--but anyone looking to enjoy their iTunes content in the comfort of their living room may well find the Apple TV to be their favorite gadget since the iPod.