Review: The New Apple TV -- A Work In Progress

Apple's much-touted Apple TV media device is now on the shelves. Is it really the Next Big Thing -- or not quite ready for prime time?
Elegant But Disappointing
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. Podcasts and photos don't sync by default; like the iPod, you have to enable this in iTunes.

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 Apple TV's “Sources” menu, you can choose the libraries of different computers on your network.

It seems elegant, but it's actually very disappointing. What Apple TV should do, but doesn't, 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. (ITunes doesn't do this either, but then it's easier to switch between libraries in iTunes' side pane.)

Quantity Without Quality
Played back on an HDTV, the majority of video content provided by iTunes looks fuzzy and indistinct. According to a staffer in New York City's Fifth Avenue Apple store, iTunes gets its content directly from the film/television 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.

Product Info
Apple TV
Price: $299
Summary: Apple's stylish and interesting new device will be more useful once problems in software and content are ironed out.
As a result, Apple TV has been criticized about movie and TV quality. I think this criticism is misplaced -- like producing a YouTube player and condemning it for the shoddy quality of videos produced by its members. But the upshot is that, although the Apple TV works as a media storage device, it isn’t ready for prime time in terms of video quality.

Presumably, when the iTunes Music Store starts to deliver high-definition video (and Apple is no doubt working feverishly into the night 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 shows and movies on your computer -- is thwarted.

Another question for Apple to ponder: The Apple TV streams addictive theatrical trailers which, according to an Apple representative, will be replenished over the user's Internet connection. Which begs the question: If Apple TV streams trailers, why can't it download music and movies directly without needing to connect to a Mac?

The Apple TV is a product with enormous potential, currently hindered by a lack of easily available HD 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.

But should you buy one now?

Well, if you can afford to pay $599 (rather than the Apple TV's $299 price tag), you can opt instead for a Mac Mini with a comparatively whopping 60-Gbyte hard drive, get your own Apple Remote, and install Apple's media software, Front Row. Voila: You have a media storage device and a computer. With a video encoder plugged into its USB port, the Mac Mini can even record TV.

Apple TV will certainly appeal to Apple addicts, design enthusiasts, and hackers (some of whom have already managed to enable that USB port). But the rest of us will be waiting to see what happens next before we plunk down our cash.