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mac.column.ted: An Alternative FAQ for Apple TV

Ted Landau answers some pressing questions about the Apple TV.

Ted Landau
April 2007

If you have questions about Apple's new Apple TV, there's already a wealth of answers on the Web. Considering that the device has only been available for a few days, that's pretty impressive. Such is life in the fast-paced world of the Internet. For this column, I sought to come up with some "alternative" information that had not yet been widely covered, if at all—and combine it with some personal comments. The result is the following FAQ collection:

Q. How exactly would you categorize an Apple TV? Is it a type of AirPort Base Station? Or a peripheral device, like an iPod? A computer, like the Mac itself? Or a DVR, like a TiVo?

A. Apple TV plays the content of your iTunes Library on your television, accessing it via a wireless connection to your Mac.

There may be some temptation to think of Apple TV as a type of AirPort Express Base Station. Recall that the AirPort Express includes support for AirTunes, which allows you to stream music from your iTunes Library to audio components connected to the Express. Apple TV, which streams video as well as audio, could thus be viewed as a video-capable version of the AirPort Express. This perspective, however, would be wrong. Apple TV is not any sort of Base Station. If you launch AirPort Utility, for example, Apple TV does not appear. Quite simply, Apple TV has no (at least no documented) ability to function as a Base Station. While you could connect a cable modem to Apple TV's Ethernet port, it would do little good. The Apple TV unit would not function to establish a wireless network or to provide access to the Internet.

You'd be much better off viewing Apple TV as an iPod-like peripheral, one with video and wireless capabilities. This seems especially on target when you look at how Apple TV interacts with iTunes. Apple TV appears in the Devices section of the Source list (on the left of the iTunes window), just as an iPod does. [Note: This is another way that Apple TV is not like an AirPort Express; Express connections appear in a Speakers pop-up menu at the bottom of the iTunes window.] You sync your iTunes Library files with an Apple TV in almost the identical way as you do with an iPod. Indeed, the entire user interface for Apple TV in iTunes is nearly a twin copy of the iPod interface.

Figure 1: The Apple TV display in iTunes

Still, Apple TV does not entirely behave like a peripheral device. In many ways, it is more like the Mac itself. It contains an Intel processor and a 40GB hard drive; it has wireless, Ethernet, and USB connectivity options. The USB port is the long flat type found on computers, rather than the smaller or more rectangular-shaped ports used by most peripherals. Regarding the 40GB hard drive: After you set up Apple TV, you'll find that you only have about 32GB of free space to store content. Part of the "missing" 8GB is almost certainly because a version of Mac OS X is located on the drive. The Apple TV user interface itself, which bears a good deal of resemblance to the Front Row software that ships with iMacs and MacBooks, presumably runs under this version of Mac OS X. This sure sounds like a computer to me.

Finally, in some ways, Apple TV is a DVR device, a potential competitor for TiVo. It can't yet directly record shows from television stations. However (although less convenient that using TiVo), you could record shows on your Mac using a tuner such as EyeTV, import the shows into iTunes, and sync them with Apple TV. Apple TV is actually a more direct competitor with Unbox, a joint venture between TiVo and Amazon for downloading movies.

Taken together, Apple TV is a bit of an odd duck, one that does not neatly shoehorn into any of these pre-existing categories. Apple TV shares this same quality with the forthcoming iPhone: they both represent a new generation of Apple products, ones that define new categories.

Q. You mentioned that Apple TV has a USB port. What exactly is it for?

A. This remains one of the big mysteries of Apple TV. An Apple support article states: "The USB port on the back of the Apple TV is only used for service and diagnostics. A USB keyboard, mouse, hard drive, or any other device will not be recognized by Apple TV." And that's all Apple has to say on the subject—except for a probably related note on another Apple Web page: "You can take your Apple TV to an Apple retail store or Apple Authorized Service Provider (AASP) for diagnosis."

This suggests that Apple stores and service providers have (or soon will have) a device that can connect to Apple TV's USB port and allow for diagnostic tests to be run. Or perhaps everyone will have to ship their unit back to Apple for servicing.

What sort of device? So far, Apple has not said.

What sort of tests would such a device run? And how would it all work? For starters, I assume the "diagnosis" would include a list of technical data about the current status of the Apple TV not accessible from the standard Apple TV user interface. But why require a USB connection to do this? Wouldn't it be simpler to be able to access this information directly, perhaps requiring some "secret" sequence of button presses on the Apple TV remote? Yes it would. However, end users would inevitably figure out how to do this (such secrets don't last long on the Web)—which suggests that Apple is especially reluctant to let users access this information. But why this level of secrecy for Apple TV? After all, Apple places no such restrictions on the diagnostic modes of Macs and iPods.

Part of the answer could be that the diagnostic USB connection provides more than just a data display. Bear in mind that inside an Apple TV is a hard drive, presumably with Mac OS X installed on it. As such, it could occasionally need the sort of disk repairs, or even reformatting options, provided by Disk Utility. You can already use Disk Utility's First Aid to repair the hard drive on an iPod. Why not an Apple TV? The problem is that Apple has not provided any documented way to mount an Apple TV on a Mac, making it impossible to use Disk Utility. Perhaps, the USB connection is what solves this dilemma.

Still, I am left wondering why Apple is so reluctant to provide answers here. I offer two related theories: First, Apple TV is dangerously close to being a Mac mini. If you could attach a keyboard and mouse to the USB port and access a Mac OS X interface via the television display, it could conceivably function as a standard Mac. Apple presumably does not want this to happen, possibly for pricing considerations (Apple TV is three hundred dollars cheaper than the least expensive Mac mini). As with the iPhone, Apple wants to keep Apple TV a closed system, with only the most indirect access to the Mac OS inside it. Second, this could be a feature that will be unlocked for general use in the near future, perhaps after Leopard (Mac OS X 10.5) is released this spring. [At first, I speculated that Apple TV might be running a pre-release version of Leopard. It soon became clear that this was not the case. Apple TV actually uses a stripped down version of 10.4.7.]

Q. What are the pros and cons of syncing vs. streaming?

A. With Apple TV, you have a choice: you can either play content from the Apple TV hard drive, after transferring it from your Mac (called syncing)—or you can play content while it streams from iTunes on your Mac to Apple TV. An Apple Support article neatly sums up the differences in these two approaches and explains how to switch from one mode to the other. By the way, even while a sync is in progress, Apple TV can play any content that has already been transferred to its hard drive.

In general, syncing is the method of choice. Streaming makes sense only if you have too much stuff to fit on the Apple TV drive, or if you have a large file that you intend to only view once and you don't want to wait for it to sync before you watch it, or if you have multiple Macs (only one Mac can sync with an Apple TV, others can connect via streaming). Of course, even with syncing, you have to initially stream the data to the Apple TV to get it on the hard drive. Especially with a slow network connection (which Apple defines as anything slower than an 802.11n network), the initial sync of your entire iTunes Library can take a very long time. In such cases, Apple recommends temporarily connecting everything via Ethernet cables (see this Apple Support article for details; a related article explain more generally how to switch between wired and wireless networks). After the initial sync is over, return to your normal setup.

But what if you have a new AirPort Extreme Base Station, capable of 802.11n networking, but your Mac still requires the older 802.11g protocol? Do you still need this temporary work-around? Nope. There is a great, fast, permanent solution (assuming your Mac and the Base Station are in close proximity): Connect the Base Station to the Mac via an Ethernet cable. Next, set up an 802.11n network and use it to connect the Apple TV to the Base Station. You're done. I used this setup to sync my iTunes Library to the Apple TV. There was still a wait until the transfer is done, but it zipped along about as fast as I could expect.

[On a related note: You do not need an active Internet connection to use Apple TV—except for those features, such as movie trailers, that directly access the Internet. However, according to this Apple Support article, Apple TV needs access to the Internet, at least once, to confirm that it is authorized to play protected files downloaded from the iTunes Store.]

Q. What's with the passcodes that you need to enter when pairing a Mac with an Apple TV?

As described in an Apple Support article, when you first attempt to pair an Apple TV with a Mac, whether for syncing or streaming, a passcode number appears on the Apple TV screen. You then need to enter this passcode number in iTunes, to complete the pairing. This is a bit similar to how pairings of some Bluetooth devices work.

But why are these passcodes needed here? Apple doesn't require passcodes when selecting to share iTunes Libraries among multiple Macs on a local network. Also, iTunes includes a Preferences pane which lists Apple TVs that "are allowed to connect to iTunes." Apple could have set this up so that you needed to enable permission here, with a simple checkbox, before an Apple TV could connect.

Figure 2: The Apple TV Preferences in iTunes

David Pogue, on his blog, cites an answer provided by an Apple rep: "The idea is piracy prevention. Typing the code confirms that you're in the same house as the Apple TV--to prevent you from sharing your movies and TV shows from across the Internet." This sounds like a bogus explanation to me. First off, people in different houses could still share a passcode. Remember telephones? Or email? I suppose it could prevent an unknown person from accessing your Apple TV. But even without passcodes, there seems little danger of this happening. As the software is currently set up, any attempt connect a Mac to an Apple TV must be initiated by the Apple TV unit. In other words, some stranger on the Internet could not access your Apple TV unless you first selected the stranger's computer from the Apple TV Source list. On the other hand, passcodes might work to block you from syncing your Apple TV to an unsuspecting Mac. Still, I haven't seen any evidence that Apple TV's can be accessed beyond the local network. The Apple rep that spoke to David refused to comment further on this subject. So this too remains a mystery.

Q. Is the remote that comes with Apple TV the same as the one that came with my iMac or MacBook?

A. Yup. They all work interchangeably. In fact, if you have a MacBook and an Apple TV next to each other, pressing the remote will affect both of them simultaneously. To avoid confusion here, Apple TV offers a partial work-around. You can pair a specific remote with an Apple TV by selecting "Pair Remote" in Apple TV's Settings screen. After doing this, no other remote will work with the Apple TV unit. However, the remote will still work with any Mac that uses a remote. So if your MacBook is next to your Apple TV, you still have a potential problem. The solution here is to pair the relevant remote to your Mac. See this Apple Support article for details.

To unpair a remote, go back to the Settings screen and select the toggled command that now says "Unpair Remote." But what if you lose or break a paired remote? How do you unpair it? Grab any other Apple remote and hold down its Menu and rewind keys for 6 seconds.

Q. Is Apple TV compatible with all the different video formats I currently have on my Mac?

A. Probably. This Apple Web page gives the specifics as to exactly what video formats Apple TV supports. However, rather than try to decode exactly what it all means, here is a rule of thumb: If you can get it to play in iTunes, it will likely play on Apple TV. There are a few exceptions. For example, I had a QuickTime movie (.mov) file of a television show recorded by EyeTV. It played fine in iTunes, but when I tried to sync it with Apple TV, I got the following error message:

Figure 3. The message that appears when a file cannot sync with Apple TV

Even here, there is a solution. Open the movie in QuickTime Player, select the Export command from the File menu (you'll need the Pro version to do this), and select the Movie to Apple TV option from the Export pop-up menu. If you don't have QuickTime Pro, you can get the same option from the Export>QuickTime>Expert Settings option in iMovie. Load the resulting MPEG-4 file into iTunes and it will now sync with Apple TV. The only downside here is that this is an excruciatingly slow process; it takes longer to convert the file than it would take to watch the video itself!

Q. Is Apple TV capable of playing HD-quality video?

A. No content currently in the iTunes Store is in an HD format. Most other content you already have or will download is similarly not likely to be in HD format (except perhaps for some movie trailers). That would suggest the answer is no. However, QuickTime's Export to Apple TV option can convert content to a maximum resolution of 1280 by 720, which is equivalent to 720p HD. HD video that is already compatible with this format, or is converted to this format via the Export option, appears to play in HD on the Apple TV. Apple TV does not yet support playing any video in 1080i or 1080p HD.

Apple TV does have a TV Resolution selection, accessible from its Settings menu. From here, you can select the resolution of your Apple TV. Alternatively, you can cycle through the same options by holding down the Menu and Menu up/scroll ( ) buttons simultaneously on the Apple Remote for 6 seconds. Apple recommends setting Apple TV to the highest level that your television is capable of displaying. In my case, I found the Apple TV was set to 480i initially. I switched it to 1080i HD, which my television supports. This improved the quality of the Apple TV software screens, although I did not find that it noticeably improved the display of video content.

Q. How does adding an Apple TV to a 802.11n network affect the overall speed of the network and the Macs connected to it?

A. After some initial disappointment with the speed and range of my new AirPort Extreme Base Station (as detailed in my previous column), I was concerned about what would happen when I added an Apple TV to the network. I didn't need to worry. I have a 2.4 GHz n-only network, with a Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro as the only connected device. When I added the Apple TV, the reported speed of the MacBook Pro (as viewed from AirPort Utility's Advanced settings) dropped from 130 to about 104 Mbps. However, as expected, this had no effect on the speed of the Internet connection. In casual testing of some file transfers from the MacBook Pro, I similarly did not notice any slow down.

The Apple TV connection, as listed in AirPort Utility, showed a rate of 78 Mbps. The strength of the connection, as indicated by the Signal Strength in the Network Settings of Apple TV, was 5 bars. Its streaming speed, as already reported earlier in this column, was excellent.

Q. Any final troubleshooting tips for dealing with Apple TV?

A. For the latest in troubleshooting reports, I recommend checking out the MacFixIt home page, of course. It has already covered numerous issues regarding the Apple TV, including Apple TV disappearing from the iTunes Source list or purchased video not playing on an Apple TV. The manual that comes with Apple TV has a brief troubleshooting section (which is also available from this Apple Support article). Happily, Apple has provided much much more information on its Web site. I have already cited several such articles earlier in this column. A great place to start is either the Apple TV support page or the Apple TV Fast Start series of documents. Additional documents cover a variety of topics from the Apple TV status light to firewall settings.

Finally, here are two troubleshooting tips of general interest:

  • The Apple TV interface provides a way for you to reset the device, back to its factory settings if you wish: Select the Reset Settings option in the Settings section. There is also an Update Software item in the same section. This is the method by which new versions of the Apple TV software will get installed. I expect that, unlike with the iPod, such updates will not need to be downloaded to the Mac. Apple TV will directly access the Internet to get them.

  • If you turn on your television and select the correct input for the Apple TV connection, and still get no picture, press the menu button on the remote, to make sure Apple TV is on and not in standby mode. If that fails to wake it up, trying unplugging and replugging the Apple TV. Otherwise, put the Apple TV in standby mode (by holding down the Play button for about 6 seconds) and then "wake it up" by pressing the Play or Menu key. This remote control trick also worked for me on the one occasion where my Apple TV disappeared from iTunes' Devices list.

To read my review of the Apple TV, check out my column at The Mac Observer.

To send comments regarding this column directly to Ted, click here. To get Ted's latest book, Mac OS X Help Line, click here.

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