Pulse Apple

Apple TV: what we already knew … and what we didn’t

Four months later we already have our first impressions about the device that, for a price of 289 EUR and whose availability is expected for next February, Apple offers to bridge the gap between the digital content library of your Mac and the sofa of your living room.

What we already knew

But first of all, a summary: Apple TV is a small device (19.7 cm on the side by 2.8 cm in height) aimed at your living room. Connects to a wide-screen digital television and optionally a multi-channel sound system. Once you’ve connected an Apple TV and turned on the TV, you’ll see a menu of options similar to what you can find on an iPod or in the Mac’s Front Row software.

In addition to connecting to the TV, Apple TV connects to your home network, primarily through the 802.11 wireless network connection. (Yes, the device has an Ethernet port on the back, which you can use in case your network is not wireless). Once it’s on and connected, Apple TV can act as a bridge between your computer, whose hard drive is packed with music, movies, TV shows, and photos, and your television.

You control Apple TV using the Apple Remote to navigate the iPod-style interface, browsing through the list of movies, music, photos, and TV shows. The big difference with Apple TV, however, is that you will be watching all this content on the big screen of the television instead of on the small screen of your iPod. Apple TV also gives you access to iTunes movie trailers and 30-second previews of the most popular iTunes songs.

Just as Apple announced last September, to use Apple TV you will need a widescreen television with component or digital inputs. It doesn’t have to be an HDTV, but at least an enhanced definition display (capable of displaying 480p or 480 lines of progressive resolution, not interlaced).

That We have learned

Beyond its new name (remember that in September Apple already indicated that iTV was just a code name for the product), the main data that we have known about Apple TV has to do with its storage capacity. Now we know that inside the device is a 40 GB hard drive. Last September we speculated that the Apple TV could have a limited storage capacity that would force us to send the audio and video information over the network connection. The inclusion of a hard drive changes the situation considerably.

You can upload the information to the Apple TV’s hard drive by syncing it with a computer (Mac or PC) using iTunes. On your local network, Apple TV will appear in the iTunes Sources list, the same way it happens when you connect an iPod. Click on the Apple TV icon and you can configure all the syncing features, again just like you would with an iPod. Then iTunes will automatically copy the movies, music, photos, and other information to your Apple TV through your home network. (Apple estimates that the hard drive is large enough to hold about 50 hours of movies, or 9,000 songs, or 25,000 images.)

If you have more than one computer in your home, don’t worry. Although Apple TV can only connect to one copy of iTunes to store information on its hard drive, it can connect up to five computers and receive the information from them (including movies and music). The only difference is that you will not be able to save the information received from said computers on the hard disk, it will just reproduce it. (And Apple TV cannot connect to iTunes libraries without explicit permission. A PIN code will appear on the TV screen when Apple TV attempts to connect; you will need to enter that code in iTunes to allow Apple TV to connect.)

The Apple TV announcement at Macworld Expo has also given us more details on the video formats this little box can play. Not surprisingly, this is the same type of video that an iPod can play: H.264 and MPEG-4 with sizes up to 640 x 480 pixels (the size of all videos in the iTunes Store). But it will also play high definition content at 1,280 x 720 pixels or 720p in HDTV terminology. (The Apple TV supports both 720p and 1080i, but cannot play 1080i resolution videos.)

Other data that we have learned is that the Apple TV uses an Intel processor (unspecified), and that it supports 802.11 wireless technology including support for the ultra-fast 802.11n specification.

What we did not know

Although Apple TV is on its way, we still have a few unanswered questions. Perhaps the biggest of them all is: At a time when Internet video services like YouTube are wildly popular, is it possible that Apple could advertise a TV product, connected to the Internet, that does not have the ability to surf the web? YouTube and other similar services? Apple has never demonstrated such ability, although it has shown the ability of the Apple TV to navigate and watch Apple.com movie trailers, and browsing a site like YouTube should work in a similar way.

There are also other questions about file formats. The Internet is full of video content that does not use the MPEG-4 format. Besides YouTube there are a large number of encoded files such as DivX, Xvid, WMA, MPEG-2 and other codecs, as well as live video streams using Windows Media and Real formats. If the Apple TV does not support most (or none) of these formats, then we will not be able to reproduce a large amount of video available on the Web.

It is obvious that intrepid programmers will find ways to transfer, convert and transcode video to formats compatible with Apple TV, but even the most elegant of solutions will not turn out as good as a solution included in the product itself.

The good news is that even if Apple TV does not have the ability to play such videos in this version, that does not mean that it will not incorporate those capabilities later. In the Extras menu of the Apple TV there is a visible Update Software command, and that suggests the possibility that the Apple TV is still a puppy to which we can teach a good number of new tricks. Now, the tricks that we can teach you will depend on Apple.

There is still one final mystery about the Apple TV, and it’s located right at the back: between the video and docking ports is a single USB port. Apple has not said a word about the application of said USB connector. We have our suspicions: it may allow you to expand the storage capacity by connecting an external hard drive, or allow the direct connection of an iPod or perhaps a high definition DVD player. Or it may be there for no reason. Until next February, when we can get our hands on one of the first Apple TV models, all we can do is just throw in guesses.