Apple TV: hot if you're willing to hack

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The Independent Tech

When it was finally released, Apple's multimedia magic box of tricks, the Apple TV, got reviews ranging from acute disappointment through to gushing praises equating it to the best thing since sliced bread. After several weeks spent with an Apple TV I am pleased to say that while it was pretty good to start with, it got a hell of a lot better once I'd finished modifying it.







Entertainment 2.0



With broadcasters struggling to keep pace with entertainment sourced off the internet as a growing number of users turn to online sources for music and video, the way we acquire and consume entertainment is beginning to fundamentally change as we head into the next generation of entertainment 2.0.



One of the big challenges standing in the way of the evolution of entertainment to date has been the lack of an easy to use, stylish yet affordable means of storing and watching video and listening music.



Until recently going online to watch YouTube videos was the forte of office workers killing time on their office PCs.

As big screen TVs began to sport digital video inputs such as HDMI, DVI and/or dedicated VGA PC inputs, a growing number of gadget makers began to make dedicated media playback boxes that can stream video and music from PCs or network hard disks.



Unfortunately, many of these media streaming devices looked like they'd been hit by the ugly stick one time too many - which definitely isn't a good thing when it's sitting next to that shiny new LCD TV and receiver you've shelled out hundreds for.



Looks aside, many of these media streaming widgets also proved temperamental to set up whilst their user interface proved equally challenging to drive.

Apple TV



This sad state of affairs hadn't escaped the attention of the clever clogs at Apple's Cupertino HQ who'd quietly been taking notes, eventually launching the Apple TV.



Resembling the love child of a shrunken Mac and a placemat, the Apple TV's petite white on silver goodness makes it a stylish little number. There's no power button, it just plugs in and is so quiet that you have to rely on its front indicator light to tell if it's on (unlike rowdy media centre PCs or next-gen game consoles, you can hardly hear it running).



The Apple TV remote is both small and incredibly simple to use. Sporting a play/pause button, a menu button and a four way skip up and down control, the remote is only marginally larger than a Bic lighter.



Apple TV remotes can also be paired up with individual Apple TVs. Each Apple remote is learnable by universal remotes. This means that multiple Apple remotes, can be made to work with specific Apple TVs - pointless, but possible.



Setup is also dead easy. Simply plug it into the power, connect its video cables (you can use component or HDMI). Using HDMI also means the Apple TV can automatically configure the screen's maximum supported HD resolution. With AV cables and power connected, I was prompted to select my language and then the Apple TV tried to connect to my home network, instantly finding the Ethernet cable I'd connected (Wi-Fi is also built in) and configuring itself to play nice with my home network.



The Apple TV's interface has been optimised for television display, featuring large, easy to read menus that were dead easy to navigate using the four-way pad on the remote. Looks-wise the interface was definitely the business, and in use proved snappy and responsive to use. Where most other media streaming boxes sported ugly utilitarian interfaces, the Apple TVs interface was minimalistic, yet very polished.



One of the big downsides with the Apple TV, however, is its lack of supported video formats. Designing the Apple TV to support iTunes video formats may be a sensible commercial move for Apple, but leaving out support for industry-standard digital formats like MPEG-2, XviD or DivX borders on bizarre.



This really limits the usefulness of the Apple TV and requires all video content be converted using third party software before it is able to be viewed.



Audio and photo support is better with my entire iTunes collection (a motley collection of MP3 and AAC files) playing perfectly. This said, the inclusion of lossless OGG, WMA, and FLAC formats would have been nice.



Photo support however was rock solid. With holiday snaps in RAW and all the other mainstream digital image formats (JPEG, BMP, PNG, GIF, and TIFF) all working fine.



Thankfully these limitations are easily overcome thanks to some easy to install hacks that can get Xbox Media Centre or its kissing cousin, Boxee installed.



Because the Apple TV runs nothing more than a stripped down version of OSX, it's pretty easy to install additional third party OS/X native hacks. Some websites detail on how to format and install Xbox Media Centre and Boxee using a specially prepared USB memory stick, allowing the Apple TV to play a greater range of audio and video formats without being tied to iTunes. This is, of course, done at your own risk and won't do any favours for your Apple warranty.



Likes



1. It's a dead easy way to get media from your iTunes library to a TV set

2. It's simply sexy and definitely stylish. Most media streaming devices tend to look like industrial Franken-geek inventions. Apples white on brushed metal is a breath of fresh air.

3. Its form-factor is unobtrusive and will fit in with nearly all AV setups

4. There's also not a lot of competition. Apple's rivals have a huge way to go to catch up in terms of style and usability.

5. Its affordable. At a mere £195 for the 40Gb Apple TV, gaining access to your digital media in the lounge won't break the bank.



Dislikes



1. No bundled cables! Come on Apple – stop being so cheap!

2. It has to be hacked with Xbox media centre before it's really usable

3. Even though the Apple TV is essentially a cut-down Mac, Apple have bizarrely limited its features to media playback



Verdict



The Apple TV is great at everything Apple built it to do and is perhaps one of the easiest ways to access your iTunes audio and video media collection. Limited video format support and the need to network to a PC or Mac running iTunes will however be a deal breaker for those unprepared to install Xbox Media Centre.



Installing Xbox Media centre however allowed me to pull XviD video files of my network drive and effortlessly play them. Format issues are one thing, but the sheer installation simplicity of the Apple TV and its slick interface make it a real winner for those prepared to tinker.

This article originally appeared in the New Zealand Herald - http://www.nzherald.co.nz

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