Apple revolutionised the MP3 player market with its iPod, now it's hoping to do the same to video streamers with Apple TV.
Apple TV is designed to stream the music, photos, podcasts and videos stored in your iTunes library on your computer to your television. All your media can be brought to your lounge with minimal fuss via a slick and familiar interface. But has Apple done enough with its first entry into this space?
As usual, Apple's styling of the hardware is near-perfect. It's easily the best-looking video streamer out there. The trademark silver Apple finish means it will fit in with any other Apple hardware you might have.
The remote control is identical to the one that comes with Frontrow-equipped iMacs. It's wonderfully simple with just six buttons -- four direction buttons, a pause/play key and a menu key. On the downside, it feels a tad cheap and we'll wager it will get lost quickly, or at the very least get eaten by the dog.
Apple TV comes with just a power cable and remote control. There are no HDMI or component cables, which is a bit rich considering the £200 price tag.
You'll need to make sure that your TV supports either component or HDMI before you go out and buy one, as there are no Scart or composite connections. You'll also need a widescreen TV -- there's no configuration option to change the resolution to a 4:3 ratio, which isn't a huge problem because the number of 4:3 British television sets with component or HDMI is tiny.
At the back of the unit there are sockets for Ethernet and USB, component video out, HDMI out and optical digital out. It's one of the few video streamers with an HDMI port, which is a welcome addition.
Unlike other streamers, Apple TV has a hard drive built-in. The idea is that it copies (or syncs) the music, video and pictures from one Mac or PC in your house, so you can watch stuff even when your computer is off.
If you have more than one computer, or a mate pops round for tea, you can also stream content from up to five other computers using the wireless connection.
The 40GB hard drive is on the small side if you're planning to copy your entire collection of content over to the device, especially as there's only about 33GB available to use.
Setting up the box is as straightforward as we've come to expect for anything from Apple -- just answer a few questions about your TV and the country you're in, and you're off.
After your TV is correctly set up, you'll need to connect Apple TV to your network in order to start using it. If you're using Ethernet, you'll find this very simple indeed. Attach the network cable and within a short space of time Apple TV will have found any computers currently running iTunes.
Wireless configuration is nice and easy, too -- we tested it on a Wi-Fi network protected with 128-bit WEP security. Once you enter the key for the network, you'll be able to see Apple TV listed in iTunes. To connect, you must enter a further short code into iTunes that pairs your Apple TV to your iTunes library.
One of the best things about Apple TV is its menus. Not only are they very pretty, they're incredibly easy to get to grips with. They remind us of an iPod's and are just as easy to use.
On the initial screen you'll find menus for Movies, TV shows, Music, Podcasts and Photos that correspond to a tab in iTunes. This means that you can easily control the kind of content that is copied to your Apple TV on your Mac or PC.
You get a number of choices in iTunes about what content you want to sync. For example, with music you can send your whole library or individual playlists. In the movies tab you have the option of sending your recently downloaded films, and within TV shows you can pick which series you want to automatically add.
Music playback works well. We could hear a little click between some tracks when testing gapless tracks, but it was pretty good overall. We were a little disappointed that it's not possible to create playlists via Apple TV and ideally we would like to be able to pick music from a variety of machines to create one gigantic mega-playlist. But otherwise it's like you've hooked your iPod up to your TV.
We really liked the way photos are dealt with. You can select folders to send over to Apple TV, these will then be displayed as a screensaver during system inactivity. Alternatively you can watch them as a slideshow, accompanied by music from your library in a random shuffle mode or from a playlist of your choosing.
Video can look wonderful on the device. We added a free high-definition feature called Elephants Dream and a couple of movie trailers, all encoded at 720p. The quality was excellent. Some trailers were better quality than others, and at times we saw some nasty jagged lines around the edge of text, although this seemed to be more a fault with way the files had been encoded rather than Apple TV.
We bought a few music videos from the iTunes Store and had no problem streaming them over a wireless network. There was a short pause while Apple TV authorised itself for playback, but everything worked fine. There isn't any high-definition 720p content available yet to buy on iTunes, this is also true of the US, which means that clips bought from the iTunes Store are sub-DVD quality.
It's annoying that you can't watch video you've downloaded from the Internet unless it's in one of the supported QuickTime formats. Apple TV won't appeal to you if you were hoping to watch any WMV, XviD or DivX videos you've downloaded.
You also can't access the full range of trailers found on Apple's site directly from the Apple TV. If you want to access the high-definition trailers, you need a registered copy of QuickTime Pro. This lets you save the trailers to your hard drive, import them into iTunes then sync the files with the device.
If the restrictions annoy you enough there are plenty of Internet sites that will tell you how to 'hack' the hardware to allow playback of more files, but doing so will void your guarantee and you may turn your lovely new Apple TV into a paperweight.
Apple TV sounds great. We hooked it up to a 5.1 surround-sound system via the optical output and were very happy with the quality of the sound. If you're hoping for surround sound from anything purchased from the Store, such as movies or trailers, you'll be disappointed -- Apple TV can't pass a 5.1 signal to the amplifier because of the restriction on the maximum audio bit rate.
If you've been living in the Apple universe for some time, you'll love Apple TV. The integration with iTunes is very slick. Accessing your library is really easy and streaming from five additional computers is a really great idea.
But for the rest of us, the lack of support for popular Web file formats such as DivX, and the lack of Apple TV-friendly content available to buy on iTunes in the UK, is a real killer.
The reality is that there are other media streamers on the market that, although they lack a hard drive and the easy-to-use Apple menus, offer more to people who are hoping to watch their media on TVs around the house. We're thinking of products like Pinnacle's ShowCenter and D-Link's forthcoming DSM-750. You could even use an Xbox 360.
Close, Apple, but no cigar.
Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Kate Macefield