Lots Of Potential In iTunes Device, But Some Glitches

Apple TV is hindered by limited software and a lack of easily available high-def content -- but it has the potential to go a long, long way.
Ask anyone who owns an iPod: A three-minute song eats up 2.9 Mbytes of storage, while a one-hour (42 minutes, actually) TV show takes 483 Mbytes. A couple of movies here, the entire collection of your favorite singer there, and you can find yourself short on storage space. Enter the Apple TV.

Apple TV
The Apple TV stores media on its hard drive and organizes it for you in way that's familiar to Apple enthusiasts and their iPod-toting pals. Like a personal video recorder, Apple TV stores and displays prerecorded movies and TV episodes. Unlike a personal video recorder, it can't record, and it only displays media (movies, music, TV shows, and podcasts) downloaded from iTunes. However, for media junkies like me, this collection of media can be substantial.

It's a storage device. It streams media from computers on your home network. And it's a more impressive way to watch iTunes. But at $299, will it be as successful as its portable cousin? Maybe.


As with other Apple products, the Apple TV is a joy to hold and behold. Less than 2.5 pounds and wider than a Mac mini, but only half as high, its silver-rimmed white exterior gives other devices an inferiority complex. The Apple TV's accessories are as minimalist as its design. It comes with remote, a small manual, and a power cord. For video, Apple TV supports HDMI, DVI, and component video. Audio is analog RCA stereo or optical. High-definition resolutions include 480p, 575p, 720p, and1080i.

You connect the Apple TV to a network on which you have a PC or Mac running iTunes (7.1 or later). After that, getting it to work requires following the on-screen instructions on your TV, typing a passcode with the Apple Remote, and little else. You can set up the Apple TV to sync with your iTunes library or stream from it.

Apple TV synchronizes all media found on iTunes, if you have room for them on the device's 40-Gbyte internal drive. If you don't, Apple will sync movies and TV shows first, then music, podcasts, and photos. Although Apple TV can only sync from one computer at a time, it can stream media (except for photos) from up to five others. Although I synced from my Mac, I streamed from the iTunes I installed on a Windows PC. Through the device's Sources menu, you can choose the libraries of different computers on your network. It sounds elegant, but it's actually disappointing. What Apple TV should do is merge the content of your computers into one set of menus so you don't have to switch between libraries to view all of your content.

Played back on an HDTV, most video content provided by iTunes looks fuzzy and indistinct. According to a staffer in New York's Fifth Avenue Apple store, iTunes gets its content directly from the film and TV studios, which have so far only provided low-quality video. This was fine for an iPod, but on our 40-inch television, it looks like third-generation videotape. Presumably, when the iTunes Music Store starts to deliver high-def video (and Apple is no doubt working feverishly to make it so), the Apple TV will be able to offer a more palatable diet. Until then, the entire purpose of the Apple TV--to provide a better alternative to watching downloaded content on your computer--is thwarted.

The Apple TV is a product with enormous potential, currently hindered by a lack of easily available high-definition content and with elegant, but limited, software. Apple has said it will provide updates to tweak and improve the wrinkles in its interface. This capable little machine has the potential to go a long, long way.

This story originally appeared as a longer version in:
"Review: The New Apple TV -- A Work In Progress"