Apple TV

Apple TVPrice: 40GB – $329, 160GB – $449

Thanks to Apple’s marketing and packaging design there’s no mistaking what Apple TV does or how it behaves, how to set it up or what experienced you’ll get out of it. It’s a way of unshackling iTunes content from your computer and putting it on your TV.

The unit is an unobtrusive silver/white box with a similar footprint to a Mac Mini — about 40 centimetres square and about 3 centimetres tall. It connects to both your modem and your TV, which can be a challenge as your computer in the study might be a distance from the family room TV. Unless you have a robust wireless network it’ll mean an Ethernet cable snaking around the house or through the roof and out through a dedicated port near the TV. It connects to your TV via the usual black, white and yellow video and audio cables but it’s easier to connect via HDMI if you have a recent model TV.

Once everything’s hooked up, you’ll get the most out of Apple TV by synching it to your computer’s copy of iTunes. Both our Mac and Apple TV connected to the net via a D-Link router that was connected to a switch, and selecting ‘Connect to iTunes’ on the TV screen took us straight through. The unit shows up in iTunes under ‘Devices’ and asks for a five-digit pass code the Apple TV gives you on the TV screen. Once entered in iTunes, it syncs and updates the same as an iPod, moving all your music, video and photo content across to the Apple TV and synching periodically.

That means you can access all your iTunes content through the TV with the small Apple remote. The on-screen menu interface is a simple two-column affair that’s intuitive to get around, and it’s good fun navigating through to your own playlists and video content. But the real magic is that, as it’s synched to your iTunes library, you can download movies or TV from the iTunes store through your own account.

As far as free content, you can scan through trailers, search for YouTube video and more, but the search system can feel fiddly, especially as we’re all used to a full PC keyboard. Armed with nothing but the simple remote, you have to navigate around a field of letters to type in search terms.

Like all Apple revolutions however, it’s perhaps too early for the nascent Internet TV age for a couple of reasons. The first is that we don’t all have mind-blowing home theatres systems, or even output TV sound through the lounge room hi-fi. If you’re just using the inbuilt TV speakers the sound will be a letdown after your PC, which probably has a decent small speaker system connected.

Also, the content offering on iTunes Australia is small at this stage, and an obscure video shop for film nerds or (although Desktop of course doesn’t endorse it) Bittorrent is still your best bet for anything not mainstream.

You’ll be very excited to see that you can watch YouTube videos on your TV, but if you’ve ever switched to full screen while watching one on your computer you’ll know just how low quality they can be. The effect is twice as bad on a large TV, and for that reason you’ll probably want to use the HD option when you watch movies and TV (again limited).

Which leads to our last point. While you’re in ‘TV watching’ mode it’s very easy to forget you’re downloading content off the Internet. The prices to actually buy them through iTunes are reasonable – $2.99 for most movie rentals, which means you have to watch them within 30 days, or $9.99 to buy and keep. But the downloads will add up, and with Australia still a decade or more behind more enlightened telecommunications markets like those of Korea and Japan, a lot of high res video content is not within the means of most domestic or small business broadband accounts.

So Apple TV is a lot like the iPhone — not flawed in itself, simply waiting for a better infrastructure to really flex its muscles.