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Apple TV (2007) review: Apple TV

With its enhanced iTunes video offerings, PC-free operation, and a lower price tag, the updated Apple TV is a compelling Internet-enabled entertainment device for the living room.

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John Falcone
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John Falcone

Executive Editor

John P. Falcone is an executive editor at CNET, where he coordinates a group of more than 20 editors and writers based in New York and San Francisco as they cover the latest and greatest products in consumer technology. He's been a CNET editor since 2003.

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14 min read

Editors' Note (October 1, 2010): This old version of the Apple TV has been replaced with a smaller $99 Apple TV that adds Netflix compatibility.

7.0

Apple TV (2007)

The Good

Provides access to iTunes-based movie rentals, TV shows, music, photos, and podcasts, as well as YouTube videos on your living room TV; streams media from networked Mac or Windows PCs; purchases and rentals can be done directly through iTunes Store on your TV; movie rentals from all major studios include some in HD and surround sound; sleek external design and elegant user interface; simple, streamlined setup; includes state-of-the-art 802.11n wireless networking; smooth, hiccup-free streaming.

The Bad

No support for Netflix, Pandora, and other major online media services found on most new Blu-ray players; doesn't work with older, non-widescreen TVs; movie rentals must be watched within 24 hour timeframe; no subscription payment options; lackluster file support for non-iTunes video formats; oversimplified remote can't control other devices.

The Bottom Line

Apple TV provides a slick venue for iTunes-based media in the living room, but the average Blu-ray player now provides a wider array of online media options.

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 box
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).


The Apple TV is much smaller than a standard DVD player.

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.


The Apple TV remote is the same one that ships with iMacs.

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.

Connectivity
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.


The entire backside of the Apple TV is jammed full of ports--but none for connecting to older TVs.

Apple TV includes built-in support for 802.11n wireless networking, the latest--and fastest--iteration of the Wi-Fi standard. Designed to support speeds of up to 200Mbps, the 11n standard is fast enough to deliver the high bandwidth required to stream high-def video. The device will still interact with older wireless standards, but don't expect 802.11g, and especially 802.11b, networks to reliably stream video. Thankfully, an Ethernet port is present for those who prefer to bypass wireless altogether and opt for a wired connection instead.

Apple TV also includes a single USB 2.0 port on the rear, but it's currently just a service jack--meaning it lacks any consumer application for the time being. Because the Apple TV doesn't have a laptop-style external power brick, it is possible to get the device up and running with two cables--the power cable to wall outlet and an HDMI cable to the TV or AV receiver.

Setup
Once we got our Apple TV connected and powered up, it was time to go through the setup routine. On many such devices, connecting to a wireless network and interfacing with a connected computer can be a Sisyphean ordeal that taxes even the most patient and knowledgeable gadget fan. But with Apple TV, the setup process couldn't be simpler. After prompting us to choose a display language and a resolution (choices range from 480p, 720p, 1080i, and 1080p to Euro-friendly 576p and 50Hz HD flavors), the Apple TV automatically searched for wireless networks in the area. We simply selected our Wi-Fi network of choice and entered the password on the onscreen keyboard (WEP and WPA encryption is supported).

Once the Apple TV is on the network, you have two options: you can set it up to sync with and stream content from other computers on the network (via the iTunes software running on those machines), or you can jump right into the content that's directly available online (the iTunes Store, Flickr and .Mac photos, YouTube videos, and podcasts).

Linking the Apple TV to Mac or Windows machines running iTunes is a simple affair. The latest version of the software (7.6 or later) should automatically detect the Apple TV and show it under "devices"--the same header under which you see your iPod when it's connected. Just plug in the randomly generated five-digit code shown on the Apple TV screen, and your iTunes software will immediately begin "talking" to the Apple TV. The Apple TV will be authorized to play iTunes Store content purchased on your account, and you can check off which of your media types--movies, TV shows, music (including music videos and audiobooks), podcasts, and photos--you wish to synchronize with Apple TV.

If the sync options sound familiar, that's because they're identical to the options that iTunes offers when syncing to an iPod. And as with the iPod, you can make the syncing options as general ("all TV shows") or as granular ("only unwatched episodes") as you'd like.

Once the syncing options are applied, the files begin copying over from your computer to your Apple TV. Obviously, the first sync will be the longest--it's far slower over the fastest network than syncing with your USB-connected iPod--and fat movie files will go considerably slower than TV shows and song files. However, with the exception of photos (which need to go through a bit of processing), all of the content to be synchronized is immediately available for streaming.

The process works in reverse as well: any music or TV show that you buy should sync back to the computer, where it can then be used there or uploaded to your iPod or iPhone. (The major exception is HD movie rentals, which are intended only for view on the Apple TV).

You also can stream content (but not sync) to the Apple TV from up to five additional computers. Other computers need only be "invited" to stream to the Apple TV. To do so, choose "sources" on the main menu, enter the randomly generated five-digit security code, and you'll be good to stream to the Apple TV. The process is simple enough that you can easily authorize, say, the laptop of a visiting friend, allowing playback of the latest episode of a favorite TV show--or a home movie--on the big-screen TV.

The interface
The interface on the updated Apple TV improves (for the most part) on that of the original version. That's high praise indeed, as it was already one of the most intuitive and easy-to-use consumer products out there. The new system uses a centered split-screen navigation scheme--primary selections on left, submenus on the right. Choose "music" on the left, for instance, and your right side choices are "top music," "music videos," "genres," "search," "my music," and "shared." The first three use onscreen graphics (album covers) and a modified version of the iPod-style coverflow menu to provide an overview on popular choices. Those looking for specific artists, albums, or songs can search using an onscreen keyboard. Search results automatically populate with each letter entered and are ordered by most popular, so it's pretty easy to find what you're looking for. With a few tweaks here and there, the same general options are also available for movies, TV shows, podcasts, and YouTube.

In general, it's a great interface that will be usable to anyone who's ever used the iTunes Store on a computer. But there is some room for improvement. The tiny remote can be frustrating to use when doing long searches (the addition of a dedicated backspace key would've been nice). And the graphical pages used for highlighted content and search results can be overwhelming. Choose an artist with a large song catalog, for instance, and you'll get a page full of identical icons (each song on an album represented by the same cover art). A list view or an artist "home page" (a la Rhapsody) would be an improvement here. That said, this is Apple TV, not Apple Jukebox, and the movie and TV pages are a bit easier to navigate, if only because there are fewer choices.

The onscreen display looks just like a scaled-up iPod menu, with all of the familiar choices on the main menu--movies, TV shows, music, podcasts, and photos--plus a dedicated YouTube option as well. Settings also are available for changing configuration options and connecting to new PCs. But unlike a narrow-screen iPod, the Apple TV uses the left half of the wide-screen display to show contextual graphics--album art for music, logos for podcasts, posters and cover shots for movies and TV shows, and so forth.

After a few seconds of inactivity, the system will default to a screensaver that consists of a cavalcade of your photos or cover art. Similarly, playing music or podcasts shows the relevant cover art, if available, and the system will quickly flip-flop it from one side of the screen to the other. In other words, Apple TV is careful to ensure that plasma TV owners won't find album art, titles, or photos burned into their screen.

Another nice usability touch to the system is smart resume. Apple TV remembers where you stopped watching a movie or a TV show--even if it was being watched in iTunes on your laptop. Returning to a previously watched video file gives you an option to resume from that point, or start from the beginning.

Streaming performance
We connected the Apple TV to a Belkin N1 router, which also uses the superfast 802.11n wireless standard. Accessing the Internet-based iTunes Store content was generally very fast (though we're on a good T1 broadband connection). YouTube videos, movie trailers, and video previews all played nearly instantaneously, as did most video podcasts.

HD movies rented from the iTunes Store are, of course, the biggest challenge, but here the process remained pretty smooth. A confirmation screen will indicate that the movie download has started, and leaves you to go about your business on the menu screen. When enough of the video has buffered, a second screen will then pop up to confirm that you can start watching the movie without interruption. On our superfast corporate connection, that happened in less than a minute; on slower broadband connections, HD movies may need to queue up for several minutes. Standard-def TV shows and movies should be good to go almost instantaneously, however.

Streaming from networked computers worked very well for photos, music, and most video files.

Overall, we'd rate the streaming performance as excellent. Of course, it's always important to note that streaming performance is reliant on the vagaries of one's network. Don't expect smooth sailing if family members are simultaneously battling on Xbox Live, downloading a BitTorrent file, and making a Skype call, for instance. Likewise, don't expect to fast-forward and rewind while streaming as easily as you would on a DVD--each time you do, the file needs to rebuffer to the new location. Still, we've played with a lot of media streaming products that completely fall down when trying to rewind and fast-forward through long movie files, so the fact that the Apple TV offers usable navigation while streaming is a definite plus. As you'd expect, response time is much faster, smoother, and more DVD-like if the file has already been synchronized or downloaded to the Apple TV's internal hard drive.

Video quality
Scenes from Ratatouille and Transformers demonstrated that the HD video quality is far superior to the previous low-res offerings on iTunes (which were optimized for the small screens of the iPod/iPhone portables). Foreground detail on both films was generally impressive, with (for instance) the fur of the rats in the Pixar film clearly apparent. But the compression needed to get the films into streamably small file sizes is evident: Backgrounds still exhibit blocky MPEG artifacts, and fades into and out of black show noticeable solarization. In other words: It has the same strengths and weaknesses that we've seen on downloadable videos on Vudu and Xbox 360 Marketplace.

Purists will bemoan the fact that the resolution is "only" 720p rather than 1080p, but the real problem is bitrate, not resolution. Perhaps one day we'll have a broadband infrastructure that can support reasonable download times on such fat file sizes. In the meantime, videophiles will be able to see that Apple TV high-def falls well short of the best Blu-ray movies. The large majority of less critical viewers, however, will be suitably impressed.

7.0

Apple TV (2007)

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 5Performance 7
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