Apple TV Impressions

Somewhat unintendedly, I recently acquired an Apple TV (for this story, see the postscript). As a UI guy and a long-time Apple guy, what do I think?

First, there is no way I would have considered this before the 2.0 update. Having a device designed to work with a home theater which didn’t natively understand 5.1-channel digital audio is a failure out of the gate. But, with the 2.0 version and the magic that is HandBrake, one can digitize DVDs with full 5.1 audio and stream them across the home network quite nicely. (And yay for MetaX also for tagging.)

So, my initial impressions. I suspect that some of the things I don’t like are actually fixable, but these are my initial impressions after having the thing for a week:

• The whole idea of having your whole audio and video library available all the time at the home theater—the main purpose of the thing—is Way Cool. I’m sure there are other gizmos which provide this basic functionality (more or less), so I’m mostly going to comment on things which are either especially good or which particularly need work.

• Basic setup is incredibly easy, even for an Apple product. Plug in the relevant cables (and supporting full HDMI means a single cable from the Apple TV to the receiver), input a five-digit code into iTunes on the main home machine, and that’s it; it just works. Now, I have CAT5 ethernet wiring in my house so there was no wireless to set up, but still, that’s not bad.

• More advanced configuration, however, could be better. I really want to change the order in which things are sync’d with the ATV. It’ll let you put photos on first, which is good, but I’d like to give music priority over movies and TV shows. I’d also like for there to be some way to exclude things in my iTunes library from showing up on the ATV; because now I have two versions of most movies in my library (a low-bitrate stereo version for my iPod and a high-bitrate 5.1 version for the ATV), I’d like to not see doubles of everything on the ATV. Similarly, on the ATV, I’d like to be able to have more organizational control, such as sorting my own movies into categories rather than having one enormous list.

• One thing I didn’t think I’d like nearly as much as I do is using the ATV for photos. We recently took the kids to DisneyWorld and I immediately sync’d the photos to the ATV and we all sat around looking at the new pics. This really is a great way to look at photos.

• The simplicity of the Apple remote is great and all that, but I find that I’d like more controls. I control my home theater with a Logitech Harmony 550 (and it knows the ATV remote codes, which is nice) and I’d like to be able to make use of more buttons. In particular, I’d like to be able to navigate the huge lists with numeric keys rather than having to scroll forever. Also, entering text using this remote is an exercise in annoyance. (As my brother pointed out, this is hardly surprising; after all, this is the company of the single-button mouse.)

There’s one kind of goofy unintended consequence of Apple using the same remote for everything, too. I often have my laptop out in the living room, and I’m constantly having to quit FrontRow which has been launched by me navigating the Apple TV. Kind of annoying, actually.

• We haven’t rented a movie (yet), so I can’t comment on that, though the UI for doing so is certainly clean and easy. They’re a little pricey, but the fact that some titles are in HD is good, and I don’t think we’ll rent that many. In fact, because of this we just dumped our movie channels, and I bet we spend less on rentals than we did on those. It’s nice that the high-res format war is over, but Blu-Ray players are still way more expensive than they should be so I’m not willing to go there just yet. Frankly, I might not be for quite some time if HD rentals are so easy and if the library expands.

• If you think YouTube videos look bad on your computer, you really don’t want to see how awful they look on a big screen HDTV. Jaggy hell.

Overall, I’d give the Apple TV something in the B/B+ range. It’s good but there’s definitely room for improvement.

So, why an Apple TV now? First, the timing is good, as the 2.0 ATV is now out, the 0.9.2 release of HandBrake understands 5.1 audio in a way that works with ATV, and the new version of Airfoil also now supports Apple TV. The main reason, however, is that my A/V receiver (an old NAD T751) kind of gave up the ghost and I wanted something which offered at least some protection against future changes in digital formats, so I went with the Denon 3808CI. (The protection against future format changes is that the 3808 has an ethernet jack and can download new firmware to itself quite easily.) In order for the warranty to be valid, of course, one has to buy from an “authorized dealer.” This is stupid, as of course the “authorized dealers” basically don’t offer discounts. However, one of them was running a promo and offering a free 40G Apple TV in lieu of a discount, so I went with that. A nice excuse, really.

3 thoughts on “Apple TV Impressions”

  1. I recently bought a receiver too. I looked at the Denons and the Onkyos primarily and ended up with the Onkyo TX-SR875. I saved a few hundred dollars and, supposedly, it has a superior upscaler with the Reon chip. It’s also silver and matches my other stuff!
    Drawbacks —
    * the thing runs incredibly hot, but I have a nice open space for it to sit.
    * There’s a delay as it switches audio sources which didn’t bother me at all at first, but as time goes on, it starts to irritate me more

    As for the Apple TV part, I’ve got a 360 and a PS3 that share duties in the media serving department. Both can access my PC file shares that have handbraked movies and all my music. And plus, the PS3 has the Blu-Ray. Now the PS3 has a unique way of handling some of the better sound options on the blu-ray discs that prevents the reciever from flexing some of its muscles. Even so, I’ve gotten 4.8mbps uncompressed audio signals passing through to the speakers and it really is awesome.

    I’ve got the front speakers biamped since I only have a 5.1 setup and supposedly that sounds better! Maybe someone who isn’t deaf like me can hear the advantage…it’s enough just knowing that I’ve done something fancy.

  2. The size and heat signature of the Onkyo put me off of it, plus it doesn’t have the network features. Oh, and I think the Denon sounds better. But yeah, I’d love to have the Reon upscaler.

    Not being much of a gamer, I don’t already have a PS3 or an XBox. I will admit that I’d now consider a PS3, though primarily as a Blu-Ray player.

    I will bi-amp my fronts as well, I just haven’t gotten around to it yet. I’ll need to be in town for more than a week at a time to feel caught up enough to do that.

    And hey, ask and ye shall receive–Apple just released the 2.0.1 software for the ATV and it at least gives you genere sub-sections for your own movies, which makes navigating a bit easier. Still lots of room for improvement, Apple!

  3. The PS3, as of a patch coming out today, now supports DTS-HD and Master Audio codecs. It already did Dolby TrueHD, so that should cover everything! All of this still needs to be decoded on the PS3 before it makes it to the receiver in Linear PCM (uncompressed) form and you need to use an HDMI cable.

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