We are slowly entering the age of Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) where TV shows are just as likely to come to us over Internet as they are via cable, satellite or antenna. Today most people who watch Internet TV are sitting at a computer or possibly watching video podcasts on their iPod, but the day will soon come when most of our TVs are connected to the Internet giving us not hundreds, but thousands or even millions of channels to watch.
While we're not there yet, I had a sneak preview of what it's like to watch Internet content on a big screen TV when I installed an Apple TV device to a borrowed 47-inch Vizio LCD high definition TV. [Apple TV only works with widescreen TVs.]
Like all Apple products, the sleek 1.1-inch-high, 7.7-inch-square $299 device exudes elegance from the moment you start taking it out of its beautifully designed box. It connects to a TV with your choice of cables – I used a single HDMI cable that provides both audio and video. That and the electrical plug were the only cords I needed. Apple TV connects to your Windows PC or Mac via either a wired or wireless home network.
Unlike some products that only stream media from a computer, Apple TV has its own 40-gigabyte hard disk that you can load up with content transferred from a personal computer running Apple iTunes. So once you install the device to your TV, the next step is to configure iTunes to synchronize (transfer) music, podcasts, movies, TV shows and photographs from your computer Apple TV's hard drive. Once media has been synched, you don't need to run your computer or iTunes because it's all on the Apple TV's hard drive.
The device will play copy-protected music and video you've purchased through iTunes so long as that media is authorized to play on your computer.
In a sense, it turns your widescreen TV into a great big iPod, and like the iPod, it doesn't work with any applications other than iTunes, so you can't use it to watch protected content downloaded through Windows Media Player. You also can't stream content directly from Web sites such as CBSNews.com or YouTube.
To me, this is a major limitation of the device. Whether this decision was made to keep things simple or to force people to remain within Apple's software and services sphere, it's typical of Apple to create closed systems like this that limit user choice. It also doesn't have a tuner, so forget being able to use it watch or record broadcast, cable or satellite programs. Still, Apple TV is a drop-dead simple solution that's easy to set up and easy to use.
In addition to playing media that's copied to its own hard drive, it will also stream (play) music and video from your PC or Mac's hard drive as long as iTunes is running on a network connected computer. While it can display photos copied from your computer to its drive, it can't steam photos from a computer.
I tested Apple TV on a Windows Vista PC and a Macbook and, in both cases, it worked almost flawlessly. There were a few moments when I was puzzled by its slightly less than intuitive interface, but a quick look at the 46-page manual solved those problems.
One problem was when I forgot to properly configure iTunes to synchronize the correct folder, and the other was when I failed to authorize my Windows PC to play a movie I purchased from iTunes. iTunes copied the movie to the Apple TV moments after I purchased it but I couldn't play it until I went back to my PC and entered my iTunes user name and password to authorize its use on that machine. This problem, of course, has less to do with technology than with the movie and music industry's policies to prevent piracy at the expense of inconveniencing legitimate customers who pay for their media.
Counting the time to install the hardware, configure iTunes, download a short (20 minute) movie, transfer it and a few songs and pictures to the device and deal with my two minor initial setup problems, it took me less than 45 minutes from the time I started unpacking the box until I started watching a movie on the Apple TV. That's remarkable considering how challenging it can sometimes be to get PC content over to a TV.
The picture quality of downloaded programs was good but not spectacular. While not quite as crisp high-definition or a BluRay or high definition DVD, the quality of the video signal was much better than standard TV programs, which isn't a bad start. Ultimately, of course, Apple will have to support all of the high-definition standards including the 1080p resolution that's currently only available from high definition DVDs.
My only complaint about Apple's ingeniously small and simple remote control is that it's so small I worry I'll lose it. One thing I do like is that it lets you fast forward and rewind through programs and skip back or ahead 30 seconds with a single click.
Another pleasant surprise was the quality of streamed content. Remember, this is content that's being transferred as you watch from the PC to the TV — in my case over a wireless network. Apple insisted on loaning me its high speed 802.11n wireless adapter so I could get the maximum throughput but I didn't bother installing it. Instead I used an older (and slower) Linksys Wireless G adapter, yet the streaming worked fine. I watched an entire episode of "Everyone Hates Chris" without a single hiccup. And just to prove that it was really streaming, I closed iTunes in the middle of the program and, sure enough, the program immediately halted.
Of course Apple is far from the only company to figure out a way to bring PC content to a TV. Microsoft has two strategies: All PCs with Vista Home Premium or Ultimate editions come with Windows Media Center which means you can connect a Vista PC directly to a TV to view all your media; and you can add an optional tuner to turn your PC into a Tivo-like device that lets you watch and record over-the-air TV. For about $200 more than an Apple TV you could buy a full-fledged Windows Vista PC to hook up to your TV but it would be a lot more complicated to set up and use. Microsoft also offers a way to turn an Xbox 360 into a Media Center extender which, like Apple TV, can bring PC video, audio and photos to a TV.
A syndicated technology columnist for more than two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books, including "The Little PC Book."
By Larry Magid