Apple TV: Not Ready for Prime Time

The set-top box that syncs with a computer is simple to set up but doesn't deliver the audiovisual quality or all the features consumers may want

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Simple setup, automatic updates of most-used iTunes content

The Bad: Content limited to iTunes library, no USB or photo card support

The Bottom Line: Apple TV is a solid choice for Mac enthusiasts but falls short of being a mainstream product

Setting up Apple TV, I couldn't get the phrase "kid tested, mother approved" out of my head. The genius of Apple (AAPL) products has been that they're simple for just about anyone to set up and then very easy to use. Apple TV is no exception, bringing order to the usual chaos of setting up consumer electronics with such aplomb that it puts rivals to shame.

Setup is so straightforward that within 10 minutes of taking Apple TV out of its box, I was streaming Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl from an iMac in the kitchen to a 52-in. Sharp Aquos high-definition television in the bedroom.

First, using either an HDMI (high-definition multimedia interface) or a component cable, you hook up your television to the Apple TV set-top box—a white 8-in. square that's essentially just a very quiet, very stylish, Intel-based computer without the optical disc drive.

Remote Takes Getting Used To

Next, you connect the box to your home network. As every device should, Apple TV checks first to see if you're connected via a more efficient Ethernet cable that can download at a faster rate than wireless. But I decided to see if Apple's Airport 802.11n Wi-Fi router would do a decent job of handling both security setup and video transfers between my iMac and the Apple TV box.

It did. Using the gum-stick-size remote control to tap in the right security key, you can set up either WEP or WPA Wi-Fi encryption. You're given a security key on the TV screen to pair the set-top box with the designated Mac or Windows computer from which you will be transferring digital files. (You need to have at least iTunes version 7.1 and a fairly new computer for successful pairing.)

If you own a relatively new MacBook, you'll be familiar with the Front Row user interface for entertainment that divides your digital content into clear categories. Unfortunately, Apple TV also comes with the same simple six-button remote as the MacBook, and it needs a few tweaks. I found myself intuitively clicking the left arrow button to navigate back to the prior screen. But instead, you have to press the menu button.

And the remote is so small, I was constantly worried about misplacing it and then having to search the nooks and crannies in my home to find it. Once you get used to the remote, though, it's pretty easy to zip through the neatly organized content to find what you want.

Photos look great on the big screen, but you're limited to playing iPhoto slide shows you've already configured on the host machine. While there's a USB 2.0 port on the back, you can't connect a digital camera directly to Apple TV. Nor are there memory card slots like those being built into a growing number of devices from plasma TVs to high-definition DVD players.

Not the Prettiest Picture

Curiously, though Apple TV can be connected to an HD television, it isn't really meant for viewing high-definition programming. Likewise, despite Apple's admonition that you need a widescreen set that supports at least DVD-quality playback, the device is limited to VGA-quality content. It also lacks Dolby Digital 5.1 audio support. With HDTV still in the early stages of broad consumer adoption, Apple appears to have chosen to limit the size of the media files the device can receive to make sure wireless streaming performs without a hiccup.

That's not to say video content looks or sounds bad. I watched Pirates of the Caribbean and The Colbert Report on Sharp's latest set. While both lacked the spectacular detail of high-definition, the picture didn't look lousy. Many new TVs are designed to upscale images to the set's native resolution with internal processing. Even so, movies and television shows delivered via Apple TV won't win any beauty pageants.

Listening to digital music wasn't quite music to my ears, either. I connected Apple TV to a Pioneer VSX-917 receiver. The somewhat flat rendering of Maroon 5's latest CD through this mid-priced receiver highlighted the technical deficiencies of MP3 and AAC-formatted compressed music in which subtle sounds are removed. Most people won't mind or notice, but discerning listeners with a nice receiver and a great set of speakers will.

In Sync with Consumers?

The good news is the box does support Apple's uncompressed "lossless" music format. The bad news is the built-in 40-gigabyte hard drive will fill up pretty fast if you've got a lot of music stored this way. To compensate, Apple fetches only what it considers the most relevant content on your host PC or Mac and stores it on the hard drive. Since streaming can be a very uneven experience for consumers, that's a smart choice.

Apple TV's sync function is worth additional examination since it gets to the heart of Apple's ambition to build a consumer electronics empire. Again, with only 40GB of storage, you may run out of room if you've got a big iTunes library of movies, TV shows, music, photos, podcasts, and digital books. The software prioritizes downloads in that same order, replacing the oldest content with new stuff added to the host computer.

One cool feature is that the software is smart enough to synchronize content from your iPod—and, presumably, the upcoming iPhone. Say you're watching Battlestar Galactica on the train home from work. If you don't finish it, all you do when you get home is connect the iPod to your Mac. Apple TV can then automatically pick up the TV show right where you left off.

Computer-Less Future

Apple TV also takes the less-is-more approach elsewhere. Though a deal announced May 30 will bring YouTube videos to Apple TV, you cannot download content from other popular Web destinations. Nor can you order downloads directly from the iTunes Store; you've got to download it first to a computer, then Apple TV neatly syncs that latest content.

Despite these faults, it's hard not to like Apple TV. What it does—taking content off your PC or Mac and delivering it to your TV—it does fairly well.

Still, I get the sense that this is just an interim step for Apple. I envision the day when you won't necessarily need that PC or Mac to fuel your entertainment needs. TiVo (TIVO), for instance, lets you download content from Amazon's (AMZN) Unbox movie service and other selected Web content. With other companies racing to deliver similar capabilities, Apple may be forced to respond sooner rather than later.

Until then, Apple TV is a good choice for the growing legions of people who already use iTunes to buy and manage their content.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.