Apple TV Review - Yet Another First Look

I had planned to wait and get reports from my friends before I went and purchased one, but my Macbook Pro was in for a repair and when I picked it up on Friday, I made an impulse buy. They place the things right near the registers like a candy aisle, so who am I to resist?

Apart from the new need for an HDMI/Toslink switch, without which I need to continually move cables around, I'm very happy with the purchase.

It's a pretty slick little box, even though I won't be using it for music (I've got a Sonos for that). The video and iPhoto support is much more robust than what I was expecting. Like everyone is saying, the setup is about as difficult as a toaster. There are two to three cables to plug in, and it can be completely configured with the Apple remote in about three screens. The one thing that took the longest was setting the WPA2 password using the remote. However, if you've ever gotten a high score on an arcade game you should be used to scrolling through the alphabet and selecting one letter at a time... so even that was easy.

Apple TV Back Panel

The interface isn't front row, but is better tuned for this application. The only negative I've seen with it is scrolling though a large library. For music, I tried a streaming setup just to see it, and your only option is to scroll through everything to get where you want. You can hold down the Vol +/- buttons and the scrolling will speed up to super-duper fast, but it has a sort of inertia when you let go of the button. So, if you are going from A to S, you have to let go of the button at the early R's so that it doesn't blow past S entirely. Sonos does this better with a 'power scroll' which actually lets you select the first letter and then scroll slowly from that point on.

It seems to be at least somewhat possible that the iTunes store will sell high-res content in the future - the specs for the box say it can support 1080i bitrates and resolution. And, QuickTime Pro has an 'export to Apple TV' preset which will do up to 1280x720 at 24fps. I transcoded some 720p video to the Apple TV format using QuickTime, and while it took a while, the results were as good as anything I get on DirecTV. Plus, these files can sit on a network drive and not fill the small (and apparently about to die) drive in my TiVo.

I also moved my home office this weekend, so I didn't have time to open the Apple TV up for the xVid and network share hacks floating around... but they are on the list for this week. Transcoding everything to h.264 (the Apple TV native supported format) will take weeks and weeks, whereas opening the box will only take an hour or two, so i think that's the way to go for all the old HD shows on my NAS.

Two things that would be nice, and are hinted at if you look for them.

High res content - With the higher res of the Apple TV over the iPod, I really hope they do start selling 720p content through iTunes. If/when that happens I can drop most of my DirecTV channels since iTunes already has most of the shows I watch at the store, but i can't go back from HD (plus, they really need to add House).

The USB port - Apple says it's a service port, and I see lots of people wanting external drive support (i'll go the NAS route myself), keyboard support, etc. I haven't read anywhere about anyone linking this port to the fact that a recent Mac OS release (10.4.9 or a separate patch... I don't recall) added direct support for USB webcams. All the Intel laptops and iMacs have built in cameras, so it has to be for the Mac Pros, Minis, and (maybe?) the Apple TV.

If a future software release adds iChat, you have a $300 + $40 camera ultra-simple-to-setup-and-support (meaning grandparent friendly) high resolution living room video chat device. I took a look at all the various approaches to useful video chat and conferencing about a year ago for work, and nothing is as simple to use or high quality as iChat. Put that on your folk's tv and, well, that would be pretty killer.

Anyone here have a good recommendation for that HDMI switch? I'm trying to decide between one of these two models:

Octava 4 x 1 HDMI Switch with Optical Toslink Routing - This switches audio for those of us with limited ports on both our receivers and TVs.

XtremeMac Extreme HD HDMI Switcher - This model doesn't do audio (apart from the HDMI audio), but it's riding the Apple-look-a-like wave... and is about 1/3rd of the price.

Any other thoughts?

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