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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  • shermanikk - Monday, July 30, 2007 - link

    You were having trouble with the Front Row remote controlling the MBP in this review, this will actually happen to all Front Row devices visible unless you pair them. It's pretty simple, take a Front Row device (such as the macbook pro) and hold the remote right in front of the IR sensor and holding the "Menu" and "Next" buttons for about five seconds. After that a little chain link icon should show up on the Macbook Pro and now only that remote will control that Macbook Pro. Very handy. Reply
  • vision21 - Wednesday, April 04, 2007 - link

    I have read about Galaxy IPTV DMG 3500 - Digital Media Gateway that is available now for $180. Here is a link:
    http://www.supermediastore.com/galaxy-3500-iptv-dm...">http://www.supermediastore.com/galaxy-3...id=bizra...
    Anand should review this product as well as next version of XBox 360 with HDMI to give us some options compared to Apple TV.
    Reply
  • heulenwolf - Sunday, April 01, 2007 - link

    Wow, its amazing how much whining was generated in response to this article. I'm glad Apple made this device because I think it solves problems I have:
    My computer is up in my loft, my HDTV is down in my living room, using my PC as a media center sucks, and I want to see and hear my content on the way-too-damned-expensive 720p display I bought.
    So it doesn't play DVDs. DVD players are throw-away devices costing ~$30 now. What real value would be added by including that function in a $300 device?
    So it doesn't output 1080x. Apple doesn't provide 1080x content. They provide 640x480 which scales fairly nicely up to 720p. If you bought a 1080x display, chances are it has its own, high-quality scaler so why should Apple bother?

    Sure it would be nice if it had a few more features but its got the important basics and costs no more than an iPod. Given than it runs some version of OSX, I wouldn't be surprised to see development continue and more features added in the near future. Its a consumer electronics device so its not supposed to support the diy, modding, or pirated content communities. Its supposed to play Apple's content and "just work." According to the review, it does.

    I agree with the article's assessment that the iPod's popularity stemmed from its support for the standard mp3 format. The lack of a comparable, unifying video standard hurts the AppleTV's chances. The video codec alphabet soup is maddening to average users. I hope that the market organizes itself better and that Apple supports whatever standard comes about in future updates.
    Reply
  • JAS - Friday, March 30, 2007 - link

    I've seen the Apple TV in person and liked several things about it -- but the modest video bitrates and lack of wider codec support are enough to turn me away. Perhaps some of the negatives will be addressed by Apple firmware updates. I expect version 2.0 of this product to be a whole lot better. Reply
  • Sunrise089 - Wednesday, March 28, 2007 - link

    Nice taste on including the Top Gear shots towards the end of the article. I am curious however, since you aren't in the UK, did you catch the rare (at least in my market) TV rerun of the episode, or do you know of a place to view them online? Youtube doesn't really seem to be able to keep them up for very long at all, which makes it difficult getting friends into the show. Reply
  • ninjit - Wednesday, March 28, 2007 - link

    I noticed the top gear clip too - I'm originally from the UK, and it's one of my favourite shows.

    It was shown on BBC world and then discovery channel for a while, but in a highly edited form, each episode was about 25mins as opposed to the actual 55mins in the UK.

    Bittorent is the best place to find episodes of Top Gear (if it is not broadcast where ever you may live)
    Reply
  • PokerGuy - Monday, March 26, 2007 - link

    Anand did a nice job providing an in-depth review of Apple TV and it's functionality, but I think I can provide a one-word review that captures it equally well: "Garbage".

    This is quite simply an overpriced useless piece of junk that will not appeal to anyone but the hard core apple fanatic and the ill-informed who ask the Best Buy salesperson what they should get. Bottom line, it doesn't do much of anything, offers very little value, has all sorts of restrictions and limitations.

    My one question: why the sugarcoating Anand? It's clear from the review that you know this thing is a pile of dog crap. Why sugarcoat it?
    Reply
  • Imazalil - Tuesday, March 27, 2007 - link

    that's because it isn't, to some people. In my opinion the apple tv is meant to be a nieche (sp?) product. There are people out there that do actually buy tv shows on itunes and don't pirate / rip them. These people need an easy way to view their bought shows on their tv's which usually aren't near their computer. Despite of all the hype that the media put on this thing it is not the next ipod or imac, this just lets you view your tv shows on your tv. It's not a tivo, it's not a xbox (360) or anything else.

    If you have an xbox, tivo, your own homebuilt media center, hell even an mini mac connected to your tv, this is obviously not for you. Does it cost too much, in my opinion yeah, but then i'm a cheap bastard who downloads his tv shows from, ahem, other sources.

    Ignore the media hipe, all apple promised was to get your iProgram files (tunes, photos, tv shows etc) easily onto your tv, they have done this in spades. Yes it costs more the a lot of people are willing to spend, but then if you are paying for tv shows in itunes you have a bit of cash to spare right?
    Reply
  • ninjit - Monday, March 26, 2007 - link

    It just occured to me that for $200 more you get a mac mini, with a faster processor, more hard drive space, more memory, gigabit ethernet port

    And it still has all the features of the Apple TV - apple remote to use with Front row, built-in wifi (and bluetooth, which the Apple TV doesn't have).

    And you can get quicktime plugins to let you play ALL media (divx, xvid, avi, etc.)

    Hook up the mini to your HDTV through the DVI port, and voila your set (it'll operate just like the Apple TV because of front row)

    The apple TV really isn't a good deal at all. It should be priced under $100 to be worth it
    Reply
  • ninjit - Monday, March 26, 2007 - link

    I forgot to mention that it has a DVD drive for playing movies directly as well

    Seriously anyone who buys this over the mini is very very misinformed.
    Reply

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