What is the center of your digital home?  To the majority of the population, it’s not a question that’s asked or even remotely understood.  If we rephrased the question, you might be able to answer it a bit better.  Where do you keep all of your music, movies and photos?  An educated guess on our part would be that the average AnandTech reader keeps most of his digital content on his/her computer, thus making the PC the center of the digital home. 

Microsoft would be quite happy with that assessment but there’s one key distinction: PC does not have to mean Windows PC, it could very well mean a Mac.  Both Microsoft and Apple have made significant headway into fleshing out the digital home.  Microsoft’s attempts have been more pronounced; the initial release of Windows XP Media Center Edition was an obvious attempt at jump starting the era of the digital home.  Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and even Windows Vista are both clear attempts to give Microsoft a significant role in the digital home.  Microsoft wants you to keep your content on a Vista PC, whether it be music or movies or more, and then stream it to an Xbox 360 or copy it to a Zune to take it with you.

Apple’s approach, to date, has been far more subtle.  While the iPod paved a crystal clear way for you to take your content with you, Apple had not done much to let you move your content around your home.  If you have multiple computers running iTunes you can easily share libraries, but Apple didn’t apply its usual elegant simplicity to bridging the gap between your computer and your TV; Apple TV is the product that aims to change that.

Apple TV is nothing more than Apple’s attempt at a digital media extender, a box designed to take content from your computer and make it accessible on a TV.  As Microsoft discovered with Media Center, you need a drastically different user interface if you're going to be connected to a TV.  Thus the (expensive) idea of simply hooking your computer up to your TV died and was replaced with a much better alternative: keep your computer in place and just stream content from it to dumb terminals that will display it on a TV, hence the birth of the media extender.  Whole-house networking became more popular, and barriers were broken with the widespread use of wireless technologies, paving the way for networked media extenders to enter the home.

The problem is that most of these media extenders were simply useless devices.  They were either too expensive or too restrictive with what content you could play back on them.  Then there were the usual concerns about performance and UI, not to mention compatibility with various platforms. 

Microsoft has tried its hands at the media extender market, the latest attempt being the Xbox 360.  If you've got Vista or XP Media Center Edition, the Xbox 360 can act like a media extender for content stored on your PC.  With an installed user base of over 10 million, it's arguably the most pervasive PC media extender currently available.  But now it's Apple's try.

Skeptics are welcome, as conquering the media extender market is not as easy as delivering a simple UI.  If that's all it took we'd have a lot of confidence in Apple, but the  requirements for success are much higher here.  Believe it or not, but the iPod's success was largely due to the fact that you could play both legal and pirated content on it; the success of the iTunes Store came after the fact. 

The iPod didn't discriminate, if you had a MP3 it'd play it.  Media extenders aren't as forgiving, mostly because hardware makers are afraid of the ramifications of building a device that is used predominantly for pirated content.  Apple, obviously with close ties to content providers, isn't going to release something that is exceptionally flexible (although there is hope for the unit from within the mod community).  Apple TV will only play H.264 or MPEG-4 encoded video, with bit rate, resolution and frame rate restrictions (we'll get into the specifics later); there's no native support for DivX, XviD, MPEG-2 or WMV. 

Already lacking the the ability to play all of your content, is there any hope for Apple TV or will it go down in history as another Apple product that just never caught on?

Touch it, Bring it
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  • rexian96 - Tuesday, March 27, 2007 - link

    The video in mini is very crippled though. At least this one has a 7300 chip which would help in H264 decoding. I'd say an XBOX 360 is a much better choice (price wise) if you have an MCE PC around, or nothing beats an HTPC.
    Reply
  • feraltoad - Thursday, March 29, 2007 - link

    I didn't even think of that ninjit. You guys are both right. The Video does suck in the MacMini. -Intel GMA 950 graphics processor with 64MB of DDR2 SDRAM shared with main memory(1)-

    I think this means no way in hell is Apple gonna up the MacMini to 7300 graphics cuz if they did it really would take tard to buy an apple TV over a macmini when ur alreayd willing to shell out 300. Looking at that the Apple TV looks really insane. And even that looks crazy if Microsoft puts in a HDDVD drive now that the 360 has HDMI. Also, PS3 really flubbed up IMO by not leveraging the media center xtnder aspect since it would be preferable to the MacMini to my mind for an entertainment machine considering the gaming and the BR drive since they are ~same price. I here PS3 can do media extending work, but I don't here much from anyone about it. This crap makes me mad. The only "convergence" I ever see are companies with what seem like kick-ass winning products that ultimately "converge" into the s#it hole. They need to just make an extender that only relays video and audio but digitally (and relays commands) for those who want cable free extension. Til then I'll have to stick to my "30 dollars worth of cables" as someone else suggested.
    Reply
  • Novaoblivion - Monday, March 26, 2007 - link

    I just picked one up yesterday evening and have been enjoying it so far. I bought it after having heard that it has been hacked to play xvid files :D. Reply
  • Trisped - Monday, March 26, 2007 - link

    What is so great about the 7300 that it warrants the statement, "http://www.anandtech.com/mac/showdoc.aspx?i=2952&a...">even with the help of the GeForce 7300." A 7300 doesn't rate high on the processing side no matter how I look at it. Now if it was a 7800 or 7900 or an ATI 1800 or 1900, or better yet a 8800, then yes I would say that the statement applied. I just don't see it for a 7300 GO GPU.

    Fast Forward is when you play the video back at an accelerated speed (1.5x, 2x, 4x, 8x, 16x, etc). What is described http://www.anandtech.com/mac/showdoc.aspx?i=2952&a...">here, "Fast forwarding through video content is done very well: simply tap the forward button on the remote to skip ahead by a fixed interval and the player jumps ahead"here is more of a skip ahead, since you are skipping some video to move forward, or ahead, in the video.
    Reply
  • Trisped - Monday, March 26, 2007 - link

    Also, why was the review so tame? Normally Anandtech drills anything that isn't perfect, but this one was more of a "for your info" type review.

    We should we expect a compare contrast between the AppleTV and the XBox360?
    Reply
  • rexian96 - Monday, March 26, 2007 - link

    Didn't see it mentioned, but I am assuming it supports MP4 container only to be compatible with iTune. In that case, no Dolby/DTS sound tracks. And since it doesn't have analog 5.1/7.1 output, I think it's safe to assume stereo is the best audio you can get? Hmmm, like someone said it's just an ipod with video out & no display.

    If these assumptions are right, I think it's safe to say that it's NOT targeted towards enthusiasts.
    Reply
  • Questar - Monday, March 26, 2007 - link

    Of course it's not. This is targeted at the mass market. Reply
  • archcommus - Monday, March 26, 2007 - link

    Every review of a device like this just confirms my thoughts even more that if you want this kind of device behind your TV, you're better off just building an HTPC yourself and having a nice gigabit network throughout your home. Then you can have a server PC with hundreds of GB or even over a TB of storage for videos, music, photos, etc., and also with multiple HD tuner cards in it, and then all you need for each TV in your home is a cheap client PC with a good network connection and some old processor and like 40 GB HDD, that can then stream HD television, video, music, photos, YouTube, whatever the hell you want from the server.

    Sounds a lot better to me.
    Reply
  • vision21 - Monday, March 26, 2007 - link

    Is not that the solution to lot of these problems? Laptops already have graphics cards that support 1080p resolution. I have seen VGA ports and DVI ports on laptops, but not HDMI or component cable outs. Instead of keeping AppleTV connected to HDTV, can't we connect laptop directly to HDTV? Am I missing something? Reply
  • abakshi - Monday, March 26, 2007 - link

    A bunch of laptops now have HDMI outputs, such as the one I'm typing this on (HP dv9000t).

    But more importantly, that has the same issue as directly plugging in a desktop to your TV -- people don't do it - they want a simple, set-top box type of device, so that's where a Media Center Extender / Apple TV / X360 / etc. comes in.
    Reply

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