Apple claims that its new Apple TV “is like a DVD player for the Internet age”, which is exactly why I wanted one. It is also the standard to which I will be comparing and judging it. Since electronics manufacturers and media companies seem to have learned nothing in the last twenty years and are now full tilt into another hideously stupid format war, I’m hoping I can flip them all the bird and use the Apple TV in lieu of a new HD-DVD or Blu-ray player for my high definition viewing. After spending a week with Apple’s opening salvo into this market, it looks promising, but still has a way to go.

As with many new Apple products, a lot of press (or blogging, at any rate) surrounds the Apple TV. I agree with nearly everything in MacRumors’ review of the device, so no need to rehash it here. It’s also worth noting ArsTechnica’s usual thorough coverage for screen shots and so on. The innards of the box also seem to be extremely hackable, which I like. One thing I don’t quite get with all the coverage is all the bitching about no cables being included. When was the last time you bought an AV component that came with cables you actually used? My original DVD player came with RCA cables. Where are they now? In a drawer, because I hooked it up using S-Video and fiber optic audio. So, to Apple: I fully support you not including crappy cables that I’d toss.

The first thing to get used to about the Apple TV is that operates essentially like a glorified iPod. This surprised me a little bit. I was expecting more of a “stripped-down computer” experience, not a “pumped-up iPod” experience. Whatever you want to call it, though, it is a fairly slick experience. The benefit of the iPod-like interface is that it is simple. It’s obvious how to use the thing and you can do quite a bit with minimal controls. The drawback of the iPod-like interface is that it is simple. I want this box to do more than it does. Fortunately, what I want it to do can all be done with software changes, so future revs of the software may deliver it.

Some of the things that have impressed me over the week, in no particular order:

  • Contrary to the initial announcement, the Apple TV supports both 1080i (which means I can run it in my TV’s best resolution) and 480p (which means you can run it on a non-HD set). The picture looks great in 1080i, especially photos.
  • Part of the set up features a key registration/code entering step, which suggests there is a sort of “publilc key” trust relationship going on between the Apple TV and your iTunes. I guess what impresses me here is that it’s done in a way that seems obvious and painless, which is not always easy to pull off.
  • Setup was even easier than I expected it to be.
  • The number and types of connectors on the back of the Apple TV are exactly correct. That is, if I was building the thing, those are exactly the set of connections I would have added. (Well, I would have added firewire as well, I suppose.)
  • The Apple TV can work both by syncing with iTunes and playing the local copy or by streaming playback directly from up to five different machines. Even over my 802.11g network, DVD quality video streamed very well. This greatly reduces the drawback of the Apple TV’s smallish hard drive.
  • My universal remote had no problem learning the codes from Apple’s remote. Once the codes were recorded in my universal remote, I could even use the “pair remote” feature. This must mean that each Apple remote transmits an identifier unique to the device as well as the command, and that the “pairing” tells the Apple TV to only listen to signals with that identifier. Since I recorded the signal from the Apple remote to my universal, it must have recorded this id as well.
  • No dongly power brick thing. Just a plain power cord.
  • Picture quality is much better than my attempts to hook my laptop up to the same TV via the DVI connection.

I can also suggest the following improvements to Apple:

  • In picture mode, allow browsing by film roll, like you can in iPhoto.
  • When viewing pictures, allow rating of pictures, like you can in iPhoto, and sync the vote results back to the source machine. My wife and I like to rate pictures together and the big TV screen would be an extremely useful way for us to do so. I don’t use the music rating as much, but presumably it could work the same way.
  • Improve what is on screen when music is playing. For the life of me, I’m not sure why the standard iTunes visualizer isn’t an option. It seems like an obvious choice. Add it.
  • QuickTime files can contain multiple audio tracks (director’s commentary or other languages, for example). In the QuickTime Player, you can turn these channels on and off (in the Pro version, anyway). Add capability to control this from inside the Apple TV.
  • Many have said it: given the fact that a) the Apple TV exists as a front for the selling of content from the iTunes store and b) that the Apple TV can play trailers and other samples from the store, the fact that you can’t actually order anything from the store though the Apple TV seems really dumb.
  • And, the big one: surround sound. In spite of containing hardware that can handle it, the Apple TV’s support for real surround sound is limited and mysterious. Some of this can be fixed with software, but it would also require that Apple license some technology into QuickTime, which it doesn’t look like they will do any time soon. Apple, if you are really trying to make the Apple TV “like a DVD player for the Internet age”, you are going to have to give it at least the capabilities of a DVD player from the last century. I’d love to be able to tell people that the Apple TV works as a valid alternative to HD-DVD or Blu-ray, but its lack of real surround sound appears to be the only reason that I cannot. I realize that you’re trying to embrace the most compatible format so that all receivers can be supported, but that isn’t what your competition is doing.
  • It’s not entirely obvious what the best way to rip a DVD for display on the Apple TV is. It appears that MediaFork (previously HandBrake) is working like mad to get a version out that can at least turn 5.1 DVDs into the funky semi-surround sound that Apple uses in its trailers. They should be releasing in mid April or so.

While neither impressive nor depressing, it’s worth mentioning that the box runs surprisingly hot, which may not bode well for those trying to hack an upgrade to the hard drive. Another odd thing is a lack of a power button. Like an iPod, you can put it to sleep (holding down the play button for five seconds), but it never really turns off (it even syncs while “asleep”).

Since I use a universal remote (with lots of spare buttons) and the Apple TV uses Mac OS X and includes a version of Perl, a hack that I’d love to see someone do is to build a program that detects arbitrary remote control signals and, based on which signal it was, execute a certain script. For example, my remote has a “System 5” button. I’d like to be able to hit this button to cause /usr/bin/screencapture to execute, taking a snapshot of the screen. Naturally, this would require various other hacks (like ssh) to be in place to configure the whole thing, but I think this would be a very powerful mechanism. I don’t know enough about IR communication to make it work, though.

In all, I’m pleased with my Apple TV purchase, but not as pleased as I’d like to be. Time will tell how often Apple makes software improvements and how significant they are when they do. How they handle the surround sound problem will probably mark the difference between a killer success and a marginal one.