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


View All Comments

  • Awax - Monday, March 26, 2007 - link

    AppleTV is almost standalone : you only need iTunes (free) on you Mac or PC. You can play files from the inner HD or stream from computers.

    XBOX 360 : same price as AppleTV, but you need a full Windows MCE, much more expensive (and not Mac compatible). You can only stream content from the WinMCE computer which needs to be swicthed on. And AppleTV frontRow is said to be simpler.
  • yyrkoon - Monday, March 26, 2007 - link


    XBOX 360 : same price as AppleTV, but you need a full Windows MCE, much more expensive (and not Mac compatible). You can only stream content from the WinMCE computer which needs to be swicthed on. And AppleTV frontRow is said to be simpler.

    I dont know about any one else, but if I'm buying an XBOX-360, the last thing in the world I would be concerned about, is if it is 'apple compliant'. Matter of a fact, the last thing in the world I want, is ANYTHING 'apple compliant'. But hey. thats me, just call me a MAC biggot, if you must . . .
  • Awax - Monday, March 26, 2007 - link

    As staded on 1st page, the iPod success came from the MP3 capacity of being at the same time 100% legitimate and 100% pirated. It is the main format for pirated music but you can legally rip all your CDs to MP3.
    For AppleTV, the trouble is that there are no legitimate way of getting unDRMed version of videos. 99% of digital version of movies are stuck in DRM (DVD, HD/DVD/BlueRay, VoD, ...) and converting them to another format hits the DMCA (or equivalent local legislation).

    Currently, 99% of ripped video content are distributed as AVI or MKV files, encoded mainly in DivX/XviD. More recent pirated movies are released in H264.

    The solution for the AppleTV can only come from the pirates themselves. As MP4/H264 can be read on nearly every PC (Mac or Win), pirates just have to switch from MKV container to MP4 (almost same features) and keep their H264/AAC encoding process. For this last part, they just have to check that their content is compatible with AppleTV H264 limitation : currently, pirates are using the full H264 specification, even the latest options, which are not supported by QuickTime nor iTunes. And QuickTime/iTunes/AppleTV can only support stereo AAC, not 2.1 or 5.1 AAC.

    If pirates are targeting a specific device (with rather broad and open standards), this can break AppleTV's major limitation.
  • yyrkoon - Tuesday, March 27, 2007 - link

    Here is something, for at least 'food for thought"

    http://www.tgdaily.com/index.php?option=com_conten...">AnyDVD now rips HD DVD/Blueray
  • JarredWalton - Monday, March 26, 2007 - link

    The other major problem is that a high quality encode of a DivX file can be accomplished in about 2-3 hours on a reasonably fast Core 2 Duo setup (say, E6600). If you drop quality a bit, you can get it done in half that time - and I'm talking about typically full length movies for that time frame.

    H.264 encoding easily takes twice as long in my experience and it's not nearly as flexible if you need to target the specific Apple TV standards (i.e. only 5 Mbps and 720p - I can see 720p being fine, but quality at 5Mbps is debatable for some). Then you have a lot of devices that support DivX/Xvid... but not Apple TV's H.264. Decoding of H.264 is also a LOT more complex than DivX HD - a 1280x720 DivX file easily runs on a midrange Pentium M or similar CPU; H.264 requires dual cores or GPU acceleration.

    I personally don't see this device as catering to the necessary market to get lots of illegal content. I think that decision has already come and gone, so without something substantially better (and Apple TV's content requirements are not going to qualify), people will stick with what they already have.
  • Awax - Monday, March 26, 2007 - link

    For transcoding, you can use other tools than Quicktime : x264 is a better/faster encoder for H264 and it supports more than 2 CPUs. So on a Quad MacPro, you'll use all power available. You just need to have the proper H264 profile/level for the AppleTV.

    Encoding/transcoding is not really a problem because it needs to be done only once : you might see new "AppleTV compliant" pirate release appear on your favorite "multimedia content provider".

    Finally, AppleTV is not the only device playing H264 encoded content. The iPod does. And my Archos 604 does. Actually, I'm trying to find the ultimate encoding format to ripp my DVDs (I know, this is bad) so I can play them on my Archos and on the AppleTV I might buy if I can find such a format.
  • Spoelie - Monday, March 26, 2007 - link

    you want to have movies that display on your typical 50" HDTV in the same format as the ones displaying on your 1" IpOD?

    Good luck finding a good compromise.
  • Awax - Monday, March 26, 2007 - link

    I don't have a video iPod, I have an http://www.archos.com/products/video/archos_604wif...">Archos 604 (4.3" wide screen, plays video up to DVD resolution in MPEG4 ASP (DivX), MPEG4 AVC (H264), MPEG2 and WMV with AAC and AC3).

    So, if I encode my DVD in their native resolution, I'll be able to play them on both my 604 and my 42" HDReady TV.
  • artifex - Monday, March 26, 2007 - link

    1) I've heard that skipping around in a movie can cause a problem, especially while streaming. Did you find it was always smooth?

    2)I've heard that if you create a slideshow with synced sound, the slideshow will work, but the AppleTV will ignore the music you synced and pick some other music. Did you try this feature and can you confirm whether this is the case?
  • giantpandaman2 - Monday, March 26, 2007 - link

    Poor resolution is a huge problem. Also, given your discussion of video bitrates and their effect on video resolution you make no comment about audio decoding, or even if there is any besides stereo. I assume it can pass through digitally encoded audio through the HDMI or Optical, but how high does iTunes actually go?

    What about the price factor? $299 is a decent price for computer hardware, but compare that to $299/399 for an Xbox360 and I have to ask, what's the better deal? I'm not trying to toot the 360's horn--I don't even own one--but I'm genuinely curious as to which makes a better media extender. Off hand I'd guess the 360 due to resolution (especially once the HDMI version hits), horsepower, and the ability to buy content directly from the box, but that's only a guess. Where's your commentary on that?

    Looking at the price and specs of the Apple TV I really expected a harsher verdict. To me the Apple TV looks quite weak, fine for hardcore Apple die hards, but for everyone else wait a few more iterations/generations. I also gotta ask-is a hacked old Xbox a better extender than the Apple TV? Maybe not for mainstream--but Anandtech readers are hardly that.

Log in

Don't have an account? Sign up now