Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Hands on with the (somewhat infuriating) Apple TV

YouTube search is also terrible. If you don't want to play one of the featured videos, and you try to search for a video you like on the Apple TV, you have to select a letter, wait 10 seconds or more for the Apple TV to find all the videos that begin with that letter, then select the next letter. This form of iterative search, while cool if the device has instant response, means it can take minutes to enter a search query -- and, of course, your video won't be there because it's most likely not encoded in H.264.

"The company goes so far to make the product easy to use that it's often a pain to use."

Limited TV support

If you've got a standard definition TV, you know, the kind most people who haven't bought an HDTV have, don't bother thinking about the Apple TV. The Apple TV only supports TVs that take in component video or HDMI inputs. In fact, although the Apple TV has been hacked to output in 480i (the format most older TVs use), it's really meant for 720p or greater.

There's a paradox here, though. Most of the videos on the iTunes store are provided in relatively low resolution, designed so you can watch Bad News Bears on your iPod. The video quality for most iTunes video on the Apple TV is adequate, but it certainly isn't HD. It'd probably look better on older TVs, but, well, you know. Not supported.

Crashing, hanging, and HDMI

The new connectivity buzzword in HDTV is HDMI (High Definition Multimedia Interface), a cable format that sends both HD video and audio to your TV or your amp (and, incidentally, includes all sorts of DRM to boot). The Apple TV has an HDMI connection, but we discovered it caused the Apple TV to hang or reset itself.

Basically, HDMI talks both ways -- it knows if you've been bad or good -- and if the signal's been interrupted between the Apple TV and the TV or amp, Apple TV just gets confused or hangs.

Now, why would the signal get interrupted? The answer's simple: you're not likely to have just the Apple TV in your entertainment center. At the very least, you'll have a cable or satellite box, maybe an XBox 360 or PS3, and possibly a DVD player. When you want to watch something other than the Apple TV, you're switching to another input, thereby interrupting the Apple TV HDMI connection -- and the Apple TV gets confused.

When we replaced the HDMI connection (and, yes, we tried different cables) with a component connection, the problems stopped. So, if you get an Apple TV, use component connections.

By the way, our first Apple TV died. It simply refused to acknowledge that there was a network connection, hardwired or wireless. Which brings us to...

Networking limitations

The Apple TV is a network-centric, high-end media center machine. It's basically worthless without a network connection. The device has both an Ethernet port as well as a WiFi connection, although the device insists on supporting the wireless connection when you first install it -- you have to wait for that connection to fail before you can even begin configuring the thing.