Apple Tries to Bridge Computer Desk, Living Room

By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, March 29, 2007

Digital photos, music and video all conspire to fill up your computer -- but eventually, you'll want to get those files back into the living room, where the big screen and the good speakers live.

Parking a laptop in the living room is one way to bridge that gap, but the electronics industry has been pushing another answer: a "media receiver" that plugs into your TV and stereo, connects to a home network, and plays your Mac or PC's media files where everybody can enjoy them.

Earlier attempts at this concept didn't see mass-market success, thanks to clunky setups and awkward interfaces. Now Apple is taking a crack at it.

Its new Apple TV builds on the lessons of those earlier attempts. It amounts to a technological inkblot: What you think of the Apple TV depends on what you see in this trim $299 box.

Is the Apple TV an oversize iPod with no battery life? Is it a 300-CD changer that can also play movies and display photos? Is it a tiny, cheap home computer that needs no maintenance?

The first question for any would-be Apple TV buyer, however, is simpler yet: Can you use it at all? It won't work with an old analog TV. Apple built this to plug into wide-screen, high-definition televisions. Apple TV includes only high-def video outputs, and its graphics are scaled for a wide-format display. No cables come with the box, so you'll need to make sure you get the right kind (component or HDMI) to connect to your TV.

If your TV passes muster, the Apple TV should be quick to set up. A review unit loaned by Apple needed minimal work: I turned it on, selected the TV's resolution, picked out my wireless network and "typed" its password by selecting numbers and letters off the screen with the Apple TV's remote. (You can't plug in a keyboard to do this.)

Your computer, in turn, needs the latest version of iTunes for Mac OS X or Windows. Apple says Windows 2000, XP and Vista should work, but it recommends only XP.

Then I could choose between the Apple TV's two setups: syncing and streaming. In its default sync mode, it copies one computer's music, video and photos to its hard drive over your home's wireless or wired network. Afterward, it doesn't need the computer or even the network.

In a streaming setup, it plays an iTunes library's music and videos, but not photos, live over your network. It doesn't need the fastest wireless technology: An old Apple AirPort Extreme base station had enough bandwidth to play movies -- one bought on iTunes, one copied off a DVD -- without stutters.

Switching from sync to streaming mode involved a minute or so of fussing with the remote and waiting for the Apple TV to change gears (except when it once refused to flip over to streaming mode until I reset the device and redid its settings).

Ideally, you'd keep an Apple TV in sync mode all the time, but its hard drive may not permit that luxury. Its advertised 40-gigabyte capacity drops to about 33 GB after you subtract space taken up by the Apple TV software. That's not much space for many media libraries today, much less after another year of squirreling away digital music and photos.

In my case, the Apple TV's default settings left no room for my pictures. After the device had copied all my music, videos, TV shows and podcasts, my pictures wouldn't fit. To clear out enough room for them, I had to leave off some of my music. (Note that the Apple TV randomly chooses songs as a soundtrack for your photos; you'll want to change this option after it picks "Love Stinks" to accompany a wedding album.)

Apple's Web site says, "If it's on iTunes, it's on your widescreen TV," but that isn't true for Web radio stations you listen to in iTunes. This box streams Internet music or video only from Apple: movie trailers and previews of iTunes' top-selling songs, music videos, TV shows and movies.

The Apple TV's software looks like a particularly slick version of Front Row, the media-playback software on Macs, but it adds elegant 3-D effects. As you move from one song to the next, for instance, album cover images whoosh in and out of view.

Its remote control is a characteristically simple item, with just six buttons.

Most things work as they do in iTunes, Front Row or an iPod, but Apple forgot to keep some things consistent. For instance, you can't assemble a new play list, rate a song from one to five stars or use iTunes' Party Shuffle option.

Scrolling operates differently, too. When you let go of the remote's up or down button, the interface scrolls on for a moment longer, as if the Apple TV couldn't stomp on the brakes fast enough. This cutesy quirk can only puzzle users who thought they knew how to use a computer already.

Even sillier: There's no volume control on the remote. You're supposed to grab your stereo's or TV's remote instead.

Compared with most of Apple's new products, the Apple TV feels distinctly unpolished. If your iTunes library isn't too large, you can be happy with it now. But most people will do better to wait for a revision of this promising, but occasionally frustrating, device.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro atrobp@washpost.com.

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