Apple Inc. has graced the public with another smooth, white, exquisitely designed gadget, this time aiming at making it easier to play iTunes movies and songs on the living-room TV set.
Too bad, then, that where looks really matter in the quality of the video on the TV screen the $299 Apple TV comes up very short. It’s as if Apple had launched an iPod that sounded like a cassette player.
When I tell people about the Apple TV, they usually judge it by its name and assume that it’s an actual TV set. So to clear up any confusion, let me say right now that it’s not. It’s a square device the size of a hardback book that goes in your entertainment center. You connect it to your TV set via cables (not included). It also connects to your Mac or Windows computer, wirelessly or via cable.
Once set up, the Apple TV can play the contents of the computer’s iTunes library on the TV set, whether it’s music, podcasts, videos, TV shows or movies. It can also show your photos. XP is the only Windows flavor officially supported by Apple, but I connected the unit to a PC running Vista, and had no problems.
There’s a 40-gigabyte hard drive in the Apple TV. It will automatically copy over as much as it can from the iTunes library, so you can access your media when the computer is off. The hard drive doesn’t make the Apple TV a TiVo: it doesn’t record live TV.
The unit is controlled by a teensy infrared remote that looks a lot like a baby iPod. If hunting for the remote is a frequent activity in your couch, this one will be a nightmare. At least it’s so small that you could tape it to one of your other remotes.
On the TV screen, the Apple TV projects a very iPod-like interface, commendably clear and easy to use. It also looks great, especially on a high-definition TV. It uses your own pictures as an animated screensaver.
Speaking of HDTV, you more or less need one of those sets for the Apple TV. It’s not designed to connect via the older single-lead RCA video cable. You need a TV that takes either the three-lead component cable (the jacks are usually colored red, green and blue) or the all-digital HDMI cable. Newer standard-definition sets may have component inputs, but most TVs out there don’t.
It’s surprising, then, that videos from Apple’s online iTunes store look horrible on an HDTV set. The movies and TV shows have the same nominal resolution as DVDs, but look much blurrier, approaching the look of standard-definition broadcast TV.
To make it worse, these barely watchable movies aren’t cheap. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest‘ costs $15 on iTunes, almost as much as the DVD. TV episodes are more reasonably priced, at $2 each.
It’s possible to convert home footage shot with high-definition video cameras to play on the Apple TV, but not in their native resolution, known as 1080i, so some quality is lost even there.
I compared the Apple TV to Microsoft Corp.’s Xbox 360 game console, which can more or less do the same things, acting like a bridge between a Windows computer and an HDTV set.
After having my eyes gently caressed by the Apple TV’s menus, the Xbox interface is like a slap in the face. It’s garish and confusing, and you have to press more buttons to get where you want to go.
But the Xbox does your HDTV justice. Microsoft’s Xbox Live marketplace has some movies in HD, and these look absolutely stunning _ better than most broadcast HD, and almost indistinguishable from HD DVD or Blu-ray discs, which provide the best video quality available to consumers right now.
Even the standard-definition fare on Xbox Live looks much better than iTunes movies, despite nominally being the same resolution. They look almost as good as DVDs.
Xbox Live has two other advantages: the movies are downloaded straight to your Xbox hard drive, with no need to go through the computer, and you rent the movies for around $3, which is a lot cheaper than buying.
This is not to say that you should rush out and buy a $400 Xbox for use as a movie player. It doesn’t connect wirelessly to your computer, nor does it include a video-style remote. Both these omissions can be remedied with some extra purchases, but they’ll push the cost closer to $500.
The Xbox hard drive is half as large as the Apple TV’s, though that’s less of an issue when you rent movies than buying them. (There’s a $480 Xbox on the way with a 120-gig drive.) The movies can be watched only on the Xbox, while Apple’s movies can be viewed on a computer or iPod screen as well. You only get 24 hours to watch an Xbox movie, which seems unnecessarily harsh.
The Xbox is also a bit of a brute compared to the Apple TV. It’s noisy, and its power adapter really deserves being called a ”brick” it’s as large as the whole Apple TV, which doesn’t have a brick of its own.
So neither solution is perfect, but I far preferred the Xbox. I didn’t spend thousands of dollars on an HDTV to play substandard video on it, and I’m sure any new HDTV owner will sympathize.
Of course, Apple will at some point start selling HD video through iTunes. It has to. Will that play on the current Apple TV? Probably, but I’m wary of the result.
According to the company’s specifications, the Apple TV can play HD video with a resolution of 1,280 by 720 pixels, but it doesn’t actually seem that well suited to it. The hard drive is small, and the low power consumption speaks of weak processors inside. And since Apple’s standard-definition video looks so bad, I’m not confident the HD video will look good either.
My advice: if you don’t want the Xbox 360, wait for upgrades to both iTunes and Apple TV that take HD seriously.