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.
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 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.
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.
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.