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Review Roundup: Apple TV

Mar 29, 2007  •  Post A Comment

The initial round of reviews for the new Apple TV are in, but the verdict is mixed: Though Apple’s so-called “TV iPod” allows users to seamlessly play downloaded movies and TV shows on their HDTVs, those looking for high-quality video are going to have to wait until iTunes embraces HD.
At first glance, most critics agree that Apple TV fulfills its promise to wirelessly link your home computer and HDTV. The unit, which went on sale last week for $299, is described by CNET as having a “sleek external design.” The interface is “a thing of beauty … like a scaled-up iPod Menu.”
Once connected to a television, the Apple TV “performed flawlessly,” the Wall Street Journal wrote. “We can easily recommend it for people who are yearning for a simple way to show on their big TVs all the stuff that’s trapped on their computers.”
Over at PC Mag, the reviewer tried a variety of connectivity scenarios trying to boggle the device, yet had “zero issues streaming video and music from all machines.”
The New York Times agreed. “If you stay within the Apple ecosystem-use its online store, its jukebox software and so on-you get a seamless, trouble-free experience.”
So what’s the catch? Video quality. Not Apple TV’s video quality, but the quality of its partner in digital media domination, iTunes.
Apple TV is designed for widescreen televisions (read: HDTVs) and is designed to display movies and TV shows from the iTunes video library (it will not show content from Microsoft’s service, for example).
Yet since iTunes has not yet embraced HD, users are stuck playing standard-definition content on their HD sets. iTunes videos have a standard-definition resolution of 640 x 480 (which was bumped up from a very meager 320×240 last fall), a resolution designed more for iPods and laptops than 50-inch screens.
The Wall Street Journal, for one, had no problem with the quality.
“Video and audio quality were quite good for anyone but picky audiophiles and videophiles,” wrote the critic. “We never suffered any stuttering, buffering or hesitation while playing audio and video from distant computers.”
But most other reviews noted the quality was lacking to some extent.
The PC Mag reviewer noted his editor “wasn’t in love” with the way a movie looked on a large-screen TV, and conceded the video resolution was “slightly lower-than-ideal.”
“It was watchable,” the reviewer said. “On a more reasonably sized TV, it matters even less.”
The New York Times critic wrote, “It’s a little weird that menus and photos appear in spectacular high definition, but not TV shows and movies.”
CNET was the harshest critic, saying the video was akin to “bad analog cable quality.”
After sampling several movie and TV shows from the iTunes library, the critic said the videos, while free of streaming errors and stutters, were “soft, lacking the sort of fine detail we’ve come to expect from well-mastered DVDS.” Movies were better than TV shows, the critic wrote, “but even non-videophiles could pick out a litany of problems” with the quality. The complaints echo what music fans have said for years about iTunes-great functionality and design, but Apple’s efforts to conserve storage space on its devices (and on iTunes) typically results in lower-quality audio and video files.
Bruce Leichtman, president of Leichtman Research Group, didn’t review the unit, but this week questioned the need for the product.
“The landscape is strewn with set-top boxes that have attempted to provide functionality beyond cable/DBS TV service or DVDs,” he wrote. “For a product or service to be successful, it generally needs to solve some type of problem or create a compelling benefit. In the case of Apple TV it is difficult to ascertain what problem it solves or what benefit it provides that would warrant millions of customers to spend $299.”
For those who are looking for a device to download and play HD content, there’s always the Xbox 360, though critics note Microsoft’s library is much more limited than iTunes.

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