Under The Microscope

Archive for March 22nd, 2007

AppleTV Surprises And Impressions

Minutes after they were announced on January 9th, we at Rogue Amoeba ordered two AppleTVs to test out. Just as we extended and improved the AirPort Express with Airfoil, we’re evaluating what we can do for the AppleTV. Today our AppleTVs have finally arrived and I’ve been testing them out.

Surprise #1: The AppleTV doesn’t ship with any connection cables

Printer manufacturers started shipping printers sans cables a few years back, and it was lame, but many of us have an excess of USB cables anyhow. However, I don’t have any HDMI or component cables, let alone spares1. So when the AppleTV arrived, I had a very pretty, very expensive brick. I could power it on, but not much else. It’s ultimately a small thing, but I expect better from Apple.

After a quick trip to Radio Shack, I hooked the AppleTV up to my TV.

Surprise #2: The AppleTV doesn’t require a “Widescreen TV” or an HDTV

This is a pretty damned big deal, and I haven’t seen it reported anywhere. The usually reliable David Pogue’s review states:

“The heartbreaker for millions, however, is that Apple TV requires a widescreen TV – preferably an HDTV. It doesn’t work with the squarish, traditional TVs that many people still have.” See updates at the end of this article

I don’t blame David for this. After all, it’s what Apple’s documentation and marketing talks about, using the phrases “Widescreen TV” and HDTV. The Connect page of the AppleTV web page says:

Apple TV works with widescreen, enhanced-definition or high-definition TVs capable of 1080i, 720p, 576p, or 480p resolutions, including popular models from these manufacturers.

And yet there I was, with a 480i (that’s “standard definition”, what non-HD TVs have) option right in the Apple TV settings. See for yourself:


(Click for a close-up)

That’s a “squarish” CRT TV2, just like most people still have (specifically, it’s a Magnovox 27″ model #27MS4504R). I don’t know what percentage of standard-def TVs have component inputs, but mine does and it’s about 3 years old. So let’s dispense with one myth right now – the AppleTV does not need a widescreen TV. AppleTV does have a 480i mode, which works with standard-def TVs.

My guess is that Apple would rather lose a few customers than confuse everyone. Only standard-def TVs made in the past few years will have component inputs, so most of the fifty years worth of standard-def TVs out there still won’t work with the AppleTV. By referring to Widescreen TVs, they may prevent people with standard-def TVs from buying only to find out they need a new TV. But if you’ve purchased a new, non-HDTV in the past few years, the AppleTV may well work for you (provided you have component input jacks).

Once it was plugged in, setup was incredibly smooth. In the past I’ve tested several devices to get video from the computer to a TV, and this is by far the simplest. I selected my language, told it what network to join, entered my network password, and that was it. It took about 45 seconds, and there were no problems – I couldn’t have asked for anything simpler there.

Once set, you then need to either associate it with a machine, or set it up for streaming from a machine. Either way, the AppleTV appears in your iTunes’ Devices tab, just like an iPod. When you set it up for streaming, it appears, you click to set it up, and then it disappears, visible only in the Preferences. When you set it up to Sync, it looks exactly like an iPod.

The difference is that for some reason, the Apple TV only allows for Syncing. With an iPod you have the choice between syncing everything or manually managing. The AppleTV does not allow for manual management. This means it’s not possible to drag and drop select songs to the AppleTV. I’d love to use syncing, but my music library alone is over 40 gigs, so that won’t work3.

My first experimentation was using the device for audio playback. I don’t watch much TV, but I listen to a lot of music, and I wanted to see how AppleTV fared here.

Surprise #3: The AppleTV works pretty well with your music library

The device is obviously built for TV, but it does a pretty good job with audio playback. Obviously it sounds great, and looks good, particularly if you have album art for your music. There are a few snags, however.

Navigating music can be a chore, particularly when you have a couple thousand different artists. The Apple Remote allows for just two operations in each direction. You can move by one by pressing the + or – keys, or you can scan quickly by holding down + or -. The longer you scan, the faster the scan goes, which is good. However, when you let go, the scan doesn’t stop immediately. If you see what you’re after, it’s already too late. As well, the ends of the list don’t bounce like the iPhone does. The stop is abrupt and jarring. Overall, the navigation is less than ideal. For video, you’re likely to have much shorter lists, but I think this points to problems with the concept of a six-button remote.

As well, leaving a section (such as Music, Podcasts, or TV Shows) stops playback. For video, this makes sense, but it means you can’t play audio and browse around. A minor issue, but when playing around I hit it often.

Oddly, there’s no Party Shuffle, which seems like a natural fit for such a device. You can choose Shuffle Songs as in iTunes, but that doesn’t show upcoming or recent songs, nor allow you to add songs to the list. Likewise, you can not create “On-The-Go playlists” as with an iPod, which seems even more obvious.

I tested out photos briefly, and slideshows look great on a big screen. Now there’s finally a reason for all those megapixels. When selecting background music for your slideshows, I highly recommend The Band. One note, as far as I can see, it’s not possible to stream photos from a remote machine – they must be synced locally to the AppleTV.

Surprise #4: If iTunes can play it, AppleTV might be able. Or maybe not.

The line I’d seen around the web was “If iTunes can play it, AppleTV can play it.” This is not the case. Certainly, AppleTV can play any audio or video you purchase from the iTunes Store. However, iTunes can play other formats through the use of third-party QuickTime plugins, while AppleTV can not be extended in this manner.

If you try and sync unsupported video content from iTunes to AppleTV, the files won’t sync over. You’ll get an error, indicated by a tiny /!\ symbol next to the AppleTV in the Devices list.

If you instead try to stream from a remote computer, you’ll see that the files simply aren’t listed. They’re in the iTunes Library on the remote machine, but they don’t show up as options on the AppleTV. iTunes is simply transferring the file (if supported) over to AppleTV which then handles the actual video playback. This means that support for video formats needs to be on the AppleTV itself.

Surprise #5: Video playback, including streaming, works well

“Why wouldn’t it work well?”, you’re saying to yourself. If you’ve never used a media center device before, this won’t be a surprise. But if you’ve used other devices (most of which don’t have hard drive), you know about the poor quality of streaming video. Skips and glitches were common, and seeking in a file was often not possible.

With the AppleTV and its 802.11n, however, this works great. As mentioned above, the file isn’t really streaming from your machine, it’s being copied over and then played back locally. This means it’s possible to fast-forward and rewind through the file. This seeking isn’t perfect as you need to hold the button down, and it’s a bit tricky. It does work, however, unlike every other media device I’ve seen.

When playing video on a computer, I find I prefer to jump forward or back, instead of seeking. Clicking Forward or Back does indeed jump in the file. However, this jump amount is not consistent. In an 60 minute file, it jumps 3 minutes, while in a 2 and a half minute file, it jumps 30 seconds. I often find myself wanting to skip back or forward by ten seconds, but skipping an indeterminate amount of time is not particularly useful. See updates at the end of this article

These are minor things that will hopefully be corrected, but overall the video playback is quite good. 802.11n transfer speeds are very fast, and both local and streaming video play flawlessly.

Wishlist For The Future

1) A bigger hard drive or support for external HDs

As noted, my music library alone is over 40 gigs, and video is much larger. As such, I can’t use the AppleTV in a fully automated Sync mode and still have access to all my content. A bigger hard drive would be nice, but why not just let me plug in a USB hard drive? Service reasons is a pretty crummy reason for such a thing. The guess around the RA offices is that it’ll be used for an input device, for gaming.

2) Personal Video Recording (PVR) abilities

I have an EyeTV, and it’s great. However, as it stands, I need to take my EyeTV content from my desktop and get it to my AppleTV to play it. From a technical standpoint, adding PVR capabilities to the AppleTV seems obvious. Of course, Apple doesn’t want you to – they want you to buy those shows from them. Which brings me to number three on the wishlist.

3) Purchasing from the couch

Seeing the top iTunes TV Shows, Music, and so on is fine. Now why the heck can’t I buy them from the AppleTV? A 30 second preview is exactly enough to convince me to buy. Once convinced, I’ve got to get off my duff and go to the computer to purchase and then sync the new content over? Since I first saw the device out at Macworld, this has seemed like a very rough edge.

4) Support for more video formats

The specs page for AppleTV shows the rather paltry support the device has for other video formats. Again, Apple wants you to buy video content from them, but plenty of people get content from other places. By now QuickTime Player can play much of it, and Apple recently added a “Movie to AppleTV” Export option to QuickTime, but it’s slow as molasses. Right now, if you have an unsupported video file, it’s a chore to get it playing on the AppleTV.

Quo Vadimus?

For those who aren’t Latin scholars or Sports Night fans, that means “Where are we going?”. As far as Rogue Amoeba is concerned, we’re currently evaluating how we can enhance the AppleTV. Enabling it to play any audio makes sense, and we’ll be looking at that, as well as video. Whether as an update to Airfoil or a new application, we hope to improve the AppleTV experience just as we did with the AirPort Express. Join our low-traffic announcement list and stay tuned!

Updates:
3/23/07 12:30 PM There’s confusion about component vs. composite, and I don’t blame anyone – the words are far too similar. So, how about pictures?


Component

That’s component input. Video comes in on three cables (red, green, and blue), and audio (again) comes in on red and white cables. The AppleTV does have component output. This is the input you need on your TV.

Meanwhile, this is composite input:


Composite

Video comes in on one yellow cable (or over s-video), and audio comes in on red and white cables. The AppleTV does not have a composite output, and this input jack will not help you (at least not directly).

As well, some have asked about picture distortion. As I noted in the comments, I watched multiple video sources, including an episode of Andy Barker, PI and Luxo Jr. both from iTunes, a couple TV episodes from EyeTV that were converted by EyeTV, and a couple other music video files. These all looked fine to me, but your mileage may vary.

3/23/07 2:00 PM I emailed David Pogue about this yesterday, and he was kind enough to email me back. He says:

Hey Paul–Apple says that this setup would only work IF the standard-def screens have a “simulated widescreen” mode…

If that’s the case, then my 3 year old TV (Magnavox 27″ model #27MS4504R) has such a mode. I see no mention of it in the manual, but it may be automatic. I’d wager a good number of other TVs have such a mode do too.

The most basic thing here is that I was able to hook up the AppleTV to a standard tv and watch video, without obvious distortion or scrunching. Your experience may differ, so caveat emptor.

3/23/07 3:00 PM Sometimes, it helps to RTFM. When video is paused, pressing back or forward skips by, drumroll please, 10 seconds. Perfect. I still think a proportional skip is bizarre and wrong, but at least it’s possible to do what I’m after.

3/24/07 11:00 AM Because my living room isn’t famous enough, I snapped some pictures of this all in action, which you can see by clicking below.

iTunes-Purchased Andy Barker episode restarting

iTunes-Purchased Andy Barker episode playing

EyeTV (EyeTV 200) recorded and converted content

The Get Up Kids “Man Of Conviction” Video pulled from TGUK website

Photo slideshow MWSF 2006 image

Handbrake-ripped h.264 content Strongbad Email Disc 3 FBI warning

3/27/07 11:30 AM A list of TVs known to work properly with the AppleTV. Please leave more in the comments, and I’ll update the list:

• Magnavox 27″, model #27MS4504R

• Sony WEGA 32″ model #KV-32FV15

• Sony WEGA 27″ model #KV-27FS13 (requires manual switching to 16:9)

Link directly to this list: http://www.rogueamoeba.com/utm/posts/Article/appleTV-2007-03-22-21-30#up5-2007-03-22

Footnotes:
1. As you might expect, I do have plenty of RCA audio cables lying around.

2. And next to it is my Guitar Hero guitar, as mentioned in the interview I did with Ars.

3. My workaround is to do this in two steps. I created an AppleTV playlist and set the Apple TV to sync just that. Now, I drag my desired music there, then sync. It’s clunky, but it allows me to get selected portions of my library over to the device.