Apple TV: The Review

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This weekend my tax return came in, and because of an extreme want by both my wife and I, we purchased an Apple TV. The purchase is something that I have been looking forward to, and it is the first version. That means that should Apple decide to lock down the Apple TV, I will still be able to hack this one in future (which I fully intend to do ^_^).

Now, before I start the review, I want you to understand the direction I am coming from. I needed a device that was simple to operate (for my wife's sake), easy navigation through the content, and allow me to provide all my DVD content without having to use DVD's. Why? Because my son, being a 2 year old, has become very adept at getting fingerprints on the DVD's, and has already broken two. So, I need a media solution that allows me to lock up the original media from his little fingers, and be convenient to access.

The Purchase
I purchased the Apple TV from the University Bookstore, and it was literally the last one they had in stock. When I pulled it out, I was excited. It didn't have any cables, but it did have the remote and various other documents for review.

Reality Struck...Hard
I eventually got to take it home (after waiting several hours after purchasing it), and realized that I made a huge mistake. In my excitement, I didn't realize that all this time it said component video instead of composite. Until now, as a matter of fact, I didn't know there was anything like component video. As I have had very little need for anything more than a DVD player that I purchased almost 8 years ago, I didn't worry about additional hookup items.

So, here I was with a content player, and no way to hook it up, as my TV only has composite and not component video inputs. So, I started looking around for some cables that make the conversion. You would think it would be simple, but it's not.

The closest I got to was using a component video to S-video converter, that will convert to 7-pin s-video. Then, I found an obscure 7-pin to component, composite RCA and 4-pin s-video converter. But it would take at least 2 weeks to get the cables, and the expense was pretty high. I also didn't know how much of a loss I would get with the setup, so I was a little reluctant.

By this time my wife realized what I had been trying to convince her of: It would be easier and almost as expensive to just by a new TV. So, we headed down to Sears and bought a nice SDTV 27" Sharp with component video inputs for $164.00 (originally marked $269.99). The price was reasonable, and I could get the Apple TV working, finally.

The Setup
Once I got the Apple TV hooked up and plugged in, the display was terrible, and didn't show anything. It was because the Apple TV resolution was set too high for the TV by default. I panicked for a second, but then I read the manual under "troubleshooting". It turns out that if you have a standard definition TV, you need to reset the display to handle the 480i resolution. And you do that by holding down the Menu button and the + button for at least 6 seconds. Then you start to navigate through the resolution menu.

Finally, as I got to 480i, the display was beautiful. I started by trying to sync the material, but it takes a long time (more on syncing later). So I played with streaming material.

Streaming Video
I don't have the new Airport Extreme, so my wireless network is just 802.11g. Even with the slower network, the streaming was brilliant. It didn't take very long to recognize the video, cache the video, or start playing the video. The video was also really clear and crisp, even with TV episodes that I ripped originally for the iPod (320x240).

There are times when the video gets a little grainy, but at the moment I can live with it. It just means re-ripping the library, but that can wait when I have enough storage space (i.e., airport extreme and 500+ GB external hard drive attached). For now, I'm just collecting the video I will most likely see a lot, and using it.

Syncing Content
The whole point of syncing content, it seems, is not to provide additional storage space for your files, but to provide video when the computer is turned off. This being the case, you always have duplicate video stored on the Apple TV and on your computer. That's kind of a pain, as I would prefer to store different video in each location, and stream the video I don't have on the Apple TV.

You can change the synced computer, but that wipes the Apple TV completely, rendering it nice and clean for the next sync. When you turn syncing off, it wipes it completely anyway. Big problem for anyone wanting to add a lot of content without having to store it all on their laptop.

Syncing also goes on in the back ground, whenever the computer is on, and the Apple TV is sitting idle (or you are playing with the menus). Once you start watching video or streaming video, the syncing stops and restarts from the beginning once the Apple TV is idle again. So if you are going to sync your content, you would want to leave your computer on all night and have it run then.

The Good News
So, with all these problems, you may ask why I didn't go for another media player that exists out there for less money. The answer all comes down to the hacks. It's possible to install a full version of Mac OS X on the Apple TV, and then turn it into a DVR. As far as I know, you can't do the same with other media solutions out there (if I am wrong, please let me know). I also have ripped all my content through Handbrake, which places it in a nigh quality media format for Quicktime. So, I need an Apple solution to play it.

But, as the hacks allow for multiple media support, playing directly from the hard drive, and DVR support, I'm looking at a beautiful relationship with this little box that is no bigger than a hot pad, and no taller than two DVD cases stacked. Footprint is everything, and will be even more so as I move to an LCD projector for my content.