The Obvious Limitations

Let’s start with the experience inside Apple’s walled garden. The Apple TV will let you stream any content you have within iTunes. Unfortunately iTunes doesn’t play well with anything that’s not in a .mov, .mp4 or m4v container. Then there are the Apple TV limitations: 720p H.264, main profile level 3.1 (or lower) and AAC-LC audio (160Kbps per channel).

You can technically feed the Apple TV 1080p video, but it’ll always downscale to 720p. I haven’t found any evidence of scaler hardware inside the Apple TV so there’s a good chance the box won’t work with older HDTVs that can’t accept a 720p input. I don’t have anything that can test that here so if you have experience with such a setup, please let me know.

Most content acquired outside of the Apple ecosystem isn’t encoded to these specs, so if you’ve got your own library of DRM-free video you’ll need to transcode to get it into iTunes. On a fast enough system it’s not that big of a deal but it’s still annoying to do.

Mac users will probably want to use something other than QuickTime for transcoding however. While QuickTime is very simple to use, the performance on multi-core/multithreaded systems is atrocious compared to other tools like Handbrake.

With your videos transcoded, you can stream them very easily over to the Apple TV.

There’s just one problem with all of this. While the Apple TV makes you jump through hoops to play your own content, devices like the Popcorn Hour, Patriot Box Office or upcoming Boxee Box will play virtually everything you have, regardless of container or format.

Out of the box the Apple TV isn’t a good way to play your existing, non-iTunes content. It’s the same limitation that Apple had with the original Apple TV and it’s part of why the product is nothing more than a hobby. Now let’s get to the other reasons.

The New One Apple TV Movie Rental
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  • strikeback03 - Monday, October 4, 2010 - link

    By your numbers each user would save about a dollar a year. Meaning that unplugging this thing might not even make the top 100 ways to save energy.
  • naho - Monday, October 4, 2010 - link

    Yes, it is certainly not worth having 5 million people connecting and disconnecting their A TVs every day. Calculate what that would cost with a decent price for peoples time!

    The point is that that if Apple had spent half a million dollars (or probably far less) extra to put some proper power management on the device, they would have saved hundreds of times more for their customers.
  • tipoo - Tuesday, October 5, 2010 - link

    Half a million is probably even overstating it quite a deal, as they already have the iPad/iPhone/Touch versions of the chip power optimized. It would just be a matter of taking those power settings and re-optimizing them for a video device.
  • trip1ex - Monday, October 4, 2010 - link

    I see the ATV as more of a wireless iPOD av cable/dock with a 10 ft GUI and Netflix etc.

    That made it an easy buy for me especially next to Apple's own over-priced iPOd av cables and dock.

    Netflix has search and you can see other movies actors/director are in by clicking the "more" icon under a movie listing unlike 360 (although 360 Netflix is getting search in the future.)

    Wish you could organize the new ATV GUI ala other iOS products because renting tv shows and movies are the last reason I bought the new ATV. Yet those 2 options take up half of the screen real estate in the main menu. Wish I could take over that real estate with the functions I most use.

    Remote sucks without volume. IT's sad that you need your big remote laying around in case of a volume emergency. And with the dynamic sound range in today's movies and with a family it's a must to frequently change the volume. Frustrating because the small basic remote makes your tv and even tivo remote seem rather large and clunky in comparison. (A power button and input button would be nice too, but I can at least deal with them given the low frequency need to use them.)

    Another complaint is the older interface used for content located on your computer in iTunes.

    It's basically Front Row. IT's alright.

    But would love to have the icon/cover art grid interface used in the movie and tv rental menus and also used in the Netflix and even in Internet/Podcast menu.

    I could see this coming down the road in an update. Hopefully that's the case.

    But the best thing is the hobby device finally got an un-hobby like price. AT $99 I recommend any iPOd owner to get one. Doubley-so for any netflix-loving ipod owner. Even someone that just wanted to see photos on their tv should think about one. After all it turns your big screen flat panel into a digital picture frame for less than most digital picture frames.
  • hipnetic - Tuesday, October 5, 2010 - link

    I agree with most of your comments. I think most people are missing the fact that this is a great iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch accessory. If you don't already own one of those, then it's easy to find fault with the Apple TV, but if you do own one of those, the Apple TV is a great addition to the family. Once AirPlay hits and Apple starts advertising this on TV, every iOS device owner will want one of these (or one for every room in their house). Remember, they've sold over 120 million iOS devices, so even a fraction of that number will mean millions of Apple TV units sold.

    My one disagreement is that I actually prefer the older FrontRow UI, so I'm glad that my own content uses that mode. Less glad that I have to go through a couple of extra clicks to get to my own content. That said, I think it's a bit odd that they offer one (and only UI) for the content they're peddling, and a different one for your own content. I'd like to see them offer the flexibility (even if buried under Settings) to set the display mode to whichever you prefer. Me, I prefer to view all my movies in a list (or filtered by genre), rather than a tile view of coverart.

    The big problem for me right now is that there is a bug of some sort that results in dropped frames or stutter every few seconds, which appears to be *more* frequent/noticeable when the movie has fully loaded to the buffer (which seems counterintuitive). Not many have noticed this yet, but as more users (who plan on streaming their own content) get their hands on one, I expect to see the problem more widely reported.
  • Ammohunt - Monday, October 4, 2010 - link

    I ordered one of these the other day since the current full ATX HTPC i have is mainly used to stream itunes and netflix i couldn't warrant the $300 for a smaller form factor HTPC Setup at about $300(alot of the parts i already had) for the rare web surfing. My needs may change in the future for for $100 what do i have to lose?
  • Mumrik - Monday, October 4, 2010 - link

    I was very surprised to see that Anand didn't kick Apple's ass all over the place in the Final Words for selling a media box that can't show 1080P content. I guess I feel this is a far larger issue than Anand did in this review.
  • B3an - Monday, October 4, 2010 - link

    Anand seems to be pretty bias with Apple's useless toys.
    Also the comments get deleted on here that dont put this review or Apple in a good light.
  • Dustin Sklavos - Tuesday, October 5, 2010 - link

    Like yours, right?

    And which review were you reading? The one I'm looking at wasn't very happy with the Apple TV. I do agree that not showing 1080p is an issue, but on most televisions it really is going to be like splitting hairs. With HD video content and animation, the difference between 720p and 1080p is often a pretty mild one.

    That said, even though 1080p playback would basically be a checkbox feature instead of a serious benefit, the lack of it (among other things) is enough to turn me off of the Apple TV, and even Anand said to wait for the newer Roku boxes and the Boxee Box.
  • Spazweasel - Monday, October 4, 2010 - link

    I bought one of these beasties a few days ago, and I'm impressed.

    I primarily use it for NetFlix streaming. That alone makes it worthwhile for me. Compared to even the cheapest HTPC it's much cheaper, and from a power consumption point of view it's an even better deal (it uses only 10% of the power of even the most lightweight Atom-based HTPC). Picture quality is quite good, easily as good as or better than cable (cleanly-compressed 720p looks better than overcompressed 1080p any day), and the user interface is excellent.

    Complaints about the Apple TV seem to be more about the content than the device itself. "I can't watch blahblah" has nothing to do with what you are trying to play it on; that's a matter for Apple's business development effort, not the engineers. Is your favorite TV show not available? Point the finger at the show's provider, not Apple. Plenty of content providers are making plenty of money through Apple, it's not like it's a losing proposition.

    Could Apple TV replace a cable set-top box? Absolutely. Will it? Ask AT&T, Comcast, Warner Cable, etc. I'm sure Apple would be very happy to include that functionality. The reason it doesn't is strictly because cable providers like to rent cable decoder boxes for exorbitant rates (really, Comcast, ten dollars a box per month plus another 7 for "HD technology fee" for something that costs maybe 100 dollars to make?). Cable companies aren't charities, that's a big revenue stream, okay fine. But they don't get to point fingers at anyone but themselves about it.

    As for being able to play torrents downloaded from pirate sites... yeah, go right ahead. I have no interest in that kind of behavior, and Apple has no interest in explicitly supporting pirated content either. If someone is dead set on viewing pirated movies, they should grab a copy of ffmpeg (for free... that's why they're a pirate, because they think they're entitled to free stuff that others have to pay for, right?). It does a bang-up job of converting formats and rescaling, including creating movie files which iTunes (also free) can play well, hence can be played through the Apple TV. Problem solved.

    I like my Apple TV, for good, objective, nonfanboyish reasons. It works well, it's inexpensive to buy and feed, it's small and unobtrusive, it has a good user interface, and was up and running in under 5 minutes from the moment the box was opened. What's to not like?

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