Misunderstood technology

Now that I’ve had my Apple TV for a few weeks, I decided it was time to write about it a bit.

Since I picked up this little high-def wonder, of course, there’s been a big headline: the Apple TV has made the Yahoo! “worst tech products of 2007” list. The criticisms are all based in reality, so you can’t really blame the writer. Unfortunately, I think that most people don’t actually understand what this device is. As a result it’s more than a little tempting to compare it to what we know. Apple hasn’t helped with their usual radio silence regarding plans for the device, either.

A few notes on what the Apple TV brings to the table, as clearly and succinctly as I can relate them:

First, the device supports progressive (720p, 480p) and interlaced (1080i, 480i) output modes. A widescreen TV does not appear to be required; I haven’t tried on my old 480i JVC standard-def set, but I’m told this works. Both HDMI and component output is available. (For my European readers, you can of course configure a standard 50Hz rate, and 576p/576i instead of the 480-line variants.)

Second, the device is linked directly with one iTunes library on another machine on your network. They tout the wireless connectivity, which is convenient, but you can use a standard Ethernet connection, too. All of the supported media on the linked iTunes library is automatically copied to the Apple TV, including the played/not played status and (if applicable) the point at which you’ve paused playback. This whole process happens seamlessly in the background once you’ve set up the link.

Third, you can you can connect to up to 4 more iTunes libraries using a mechanism similar to pairing Bluetooth devices. Provided the machine is on and running iTunes, you can play content from that library directly on the Apple TV. When you use the device this way you’re actually streaming the content from one machine to another, so make sure you have decent network connectivity if it’s a video. Note that the content is never stored on the device, but is read directly from the other machine via iTunes.

Fourth, a word about content. The only clearly legal way to get content on your Apple TV is to purchase it from the iTunes Store, or to download it via a podcast feed. Nevertheless, you can play most audio and video content supported by stock QuickTime codecs in iTunes. If you believe that it is within your fair use rights as a consumer to transfer copies of media you’ve purchased to your Apple TV, there are several ways to make that happen. (Remember; piracy is a crime. I am not advocating making copies of media you haven’t acquired legally.)

Fifth, and on a decidedly more anecdotal note, I picked up my little guy directly from Apple as a refurbished unit. I know a couple of folks who swear by this; with a factory warranty and a considerably smaller price tag, it’s very tempting. I’ll probably do this again should I be looking for more Apple gear.

In my next entry, I’ll discuss content in more depth. There’s some fantastic stuff available today, whether or not there are any announcements at next week’s Macworld Expo.

Update: While 480i output is available, your television must still support a widescreen signal. My JVC doesn’t.

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