Last October, Apple CEO Steve Jobs took an unusual step for a tech impresario who usually treats upcoming projects with the secrecy devoted to NSA code-breaking operations: he preannounced a new product now known as Apple TV. Despite Jobs's short demo, Apple TV still had an air of mystery about it. It allows you to connect your iTunes songs, movies and television shows (as well as the photos on your computer) to your television set. But what would distinguish it from the other numerous forays into the evolving, and pretty confused, arena known as the digital living room? Well, Apple TV is finally shipping, and now we know. Or do we?
For $300, Apple TV effectively liberates your digital songs, videos and photos from your PC, allowing them moments of glory on your widescreen television. If you have a big iTunes collection, a big television and even a medium-size budget, you'll probably get your money's worth from Apple TV. But this premiere version seems to be a tantalizing first step toward a more significant—and, as of yet, mysterious—merger of the den and the living room.
The design of the object itself is somewhat enigmatic. It's a fairly flat tray, seven inches wide and long, slightly over an inch high. There are no buttons, no switches, not even an on/off toggle. On the back are the sockets for cables and electronics connectors. If it didn't have the familiar fruit logo and the letters "TV" on top, you might use it as a tray to hold an order of sushi at a chic fusion-cuisine joint.
It took some doing, and much consultation with Apple's technicians, to hook the device to a TV, PC and wireless network (which tells me that the product is still in shakedown mode). Once it was working, I began to appreciate the allure of Apple TV. The crisp list of menus and the straightforward means of navigating them will be familiar to anyone who has used the Apple remote with the Front Row feature on recent Macintosh computers, or even stepped through the menu options on an iPod. What's more, it's a visually rich experience with clean text on black background enhanced by high-definition movie posters, album covers and your own photos. Here is what you can do with it.
Audio: A lot of people will use Apple TV as a way to listen to their iTunes music in the living room, and here the system shines. What I hadn't expected was how much the listening experience of, say, shuffling one's music library could be enhanced by Apple TV, which lushly displays the song information and the album cover. It's also easy to stream songs from other computers through Apple's new device.
Video: Ideally, everything you watch on a high-definition set is high-def, but the movies and television shows on your iTunes collection run in "near-DVD" quality. One neat feature is that if you begin watching something on your iPod, then want to watch the rest on your Apple TV, the system bookmarks where you left off. The movies and TV shows synced to the Apple TV work flawlessly.
Photos: I first saw my photo library on Apple TV when they came up as part of a screen saver that kicks in when the system is idle. As my pictures rose up, like bubbles in a champagne glass (every few seconds spinning around as if the glass was suddenly swirled), it became painfully clear that I have been remiss in tweaking my iPhoto collection—blurry photos looked absolutely awful on the large television screen. Otherwise, it's easy to pick selected photo albums and watch gorgeous slide shows on your television.
Internet: Apple doesn't make a big deal of it, but Apple TV is an Internet device. When you're in the movie section, you can choose a menu item that displays a few dozen trailers on Apple's servers that you can stream. But you can't stream movies themselves, a rather obvious future use of the iTunes stores. In the music area, you can get a list of the best-selling songs on the iTunes store. But you can only listen to 30-second snippets. Another future direction staring Apple in the face: letting you use your iTunes account to actually buy songs and videos. In the future I expect and hope that Apple will come up with channels where you can view YouTube and Google Video clips. In this sense, Apple TV is the future, but only a glimpse.