AppleTV is the long awaited living room component of the iTunes/iLife/iMac/iPod world created by Apple. A little over a week ago mine arrived and after 20 minutes or so of setup I was enjoying my entire
iTunes library on my TV. Let me just say upfront that despite a few drawbacks, I really like AppleTV and I suspect anyone with a decent home theater system and a decent sized media collection in iTunes would also find it handy.
Setup was a breeze as I connected the AppleTV unit to my A/V rack with component and digital audio cables. I'm a heavy user of iTunes and the iTunes Music Store, so I was happy to see all my content was easily streamed in just a matter of minutes. A month or so ago I got the new Apple Airport Extreme (with wireless n) and with the AppleTV about 25 feet away, everything in my iTunes library streamed without a glitch.
Like TiVo, the AppleTV is all about the interface. With a simple remote and a simple list view, it's easy to surf through an entire library of movies, tv shows, and music across several computers. It seems like you'd need more buttons on a remote and you'd need more options in a video interface, but like the iPod the beauty is in the simple but powerful interface. There's nothing in the way and you can get to any file on any computer in your house with just a few clicks.
I found the buying process for new movies and TV shows easy and fast, with most films downloading within an hour (usually around 1.5Gb in size) and TV shows downloading in 20 minutes or so. While that's not instant, it's a heck of a lot faster than Netflix and beats going out to the video store. I usually didn't wait for my AppleTV to sync with my main computer, instead just streaming the newly downloaded shows right to the device. Video quality from the iTunes Store is about 640x480, which puts most video somewhere better than most cable channels but not as good as standard DVD format. With high action movies, this becomes obvious, but with most TV shows and especially with anything animated, you barely notice. Since the system is only designed for widescreen TVs, there's never any need to adjust aspect ratios or zoom in on cropped video -- everything filmed in 16:9 fills your screen.
Overall, I'd say the video quality was on par with DVDs I've converted to divx or xvid -- it's far from perfect but good enough for most video.
The biggest drawback to AppleTV is the price, at $300 for the unit itself, on top of the widescreen TV you need to own as well as the $2-$15 you'll spend on each show or movie. However, if you compare to similar devices that enable viewing of downloadable movies, an Amazon Unbox powered TiVo goes from $200-800 with movies going for similar prices, and HD movies downloaded to an Xbox360 or PS3 will set you back $400-600 before you ever buy a single movie. Then again, those other devices play games and record TV while the AppleTV does nothing but stream media.
I was surprised the unit didn't ship with any video cables, especially when people continue to be scammed over high HDMI cable prices. For $300, Apple should have thrown a short $5 cable into the box. I was also surprised that the video specs touted 720p playback capabilities, but the iTunes Movie Store doesn't actually sell movies in that format. I really thought they'd up the quality in time for the release of AppleTV.
My personal music/movie/photo collection runs around 120Gb in size, so I found the included 40Gb drive inadequate for anything other than a few movies and all my photos, but since video streaming was smooth on my network I stopped syncing it all to the device. Luckily, guides have already sprung up to let you upgrade the hard drive to something larger.
Overall, I'm happy with my AppleTV. I've used iTunes as my music organizer for the past five years so it was easy to move my content over to my TV. Buying shows and movies is a snap and it's great to be able to enjoy them on a full-sized TV in a living room instead of crowding people around your monitor. I
could see myself dropping Netflix someday if the iTunes store ever offered cheap rental prices (as opposed to requiring you to "buy" them at full price). Though the unit seems expensive, I'd say the alternatives are right up there in terms of cost, and though it's not HD quality, I found movies looked much better on my
AppleTV when compared to the movies I downloaded from Amazon Unbox to my HD Tivo.
If you follow any sort of video podcast, this device is perfect. No longer are you bound to a computer or your tiny iPod screen, with AppleTV you can finally enjoy many free video podcasts as they were meant to be shown -- on a large set.
I'm also interested in seeing what hackers do with the device. The AppleTV is sort of like a smaller Mac Mini, running a real OS on a real computer, and it serves as a good reference device for people to tinker. I can't wait until someone releases a real-time transcoder that can stream any video format on the fly. For the moment, I've found VisualHub on the Mac to be a godsend. You can throw a video file in almost any format at VisualHub and it'll quickly convert it to an AppleTV friendly format.
Bottom line: If you're an iPod owner and you use iTunes for music and video and always wanted an easy way to move that content into your living room, I'd say AppleTV is a great buy. For others, it's probably a bit too costly to consider.