Apple's cool new gadget wirelessly links digital media files from your computer to your TV with ease -- but there are a few catches, such as the need for a high-definition set

By Wook Kim
March 25, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT

Apple TV: Bringing Web video closer to primetime

A few months ago, Apple CEO Steve Jobs unveiled two new products at the annual Mac World Conference in San Francisco. One was the iPhone, the impossibly cool gadget — a hybrid of mobile phone, widescreen iPod, and Internet device — that has early adopters anxiously counting down the days till its June release. The other was Apple TV, which went on sale earlier this week.

While Apple TV may not have the giddy wow-factor of the sleek, future-is-here iPhone, the nondescript metal-and-plastic slab offers its own share of wow-inducing features — and has the potential to be just as transformative and revolutionary a product.

So what, exactly, does this $299 gadget do? Simply put, Apple TV is a ”set-top box” that functions as a wireless bridge between your TV and computer. Movies, television shows, music videos, songs, and photos stored on your computer(s) — both Mac and PC — can be viewed on a television in a different part of your home. And while it’s not the first set-top box on the market (they’ve been around for a few years), Apple TV is, without a doubt, the best and the easiest to use. Like it did with its now iconic iPod, Apple has taken an existing technology and turned the complicated and convoluted into something elegant and easy to use. Even with its now-limited capabilities, Apple TV is a promising first step in the inevitable convergence of TV and home computers.

To run Apple TV, you’ll need a Mac (with OS 10.3.9 or later) or a Windows-based computer (with a 2.0 GHz Pentium chip or better, running XP), the latest version of Apple’s iTunes (7.1), an Ethernet network or wireless broadband connection, and a high-definition TV (more on that later). Set up is a snap: plug the box into an outlet, attach the box to your TV via an HDMI or component video cable (both sold separately), and you’re ready to go. A series of help screens will walk you through the quick and painless process.

Once the box has established a connection with your computer, it will ”sync” with iTunes and begin loading your files onto its internal hard drive. The disc has a 40GB capacity, enough to store roughly up to 50 hours of video. I’d recommend going to iTunes and manually selecting what files are recorded onto your Apple TV box. The same goes for music and photos (we all have certain pictures that should never be viewed in high-def). If you happen to have more than one computer in your household, Apple TV lets you access data from up to five of them — but rather than loading last night’s episode of The Office onto its hard drive, it will instead wirelessly ”stream” the show onto your TV screen.

Apple claims that the picture quality of the movies and TV shows sold on iTunes is ”near DVD quality.” I wouldn’t go that far, as the images seemed a bit soft and grainy on my 32-inch LCD screen. Still, iTunes-purchased content is eminently watchable (and, to be fair, these are compressed files that are less than a third the size of true DVD-quality files). User-generated content works even better: the few digital photos and video clips — from iPhoto and iDVD — I downloaded to Apple TV looked spectacular (if I don’t say so myself). Sound quality depends on whether you choose to hook up Apple TV to an A/V receiver or, as I chose to do, simply let the sound come through my TV speakers.

Apple TV does have its share of problems and drawbacks. First, is its compatibility with only high-definition TV sets. I’m guessing that this is due partly to the impressive performance of HDMI and component cables (which offer a vast improvement in picture quality over the composite cables used in standard TVs) as well as the promise of high-def content being sold on iTunes sometime in the near future. Another issue is the inability of Apple TV to stream movies and music directly over the Internet. As of now, this feature is limited to a few brief song and video clips offered on the iTunes Store, though it is clear that online-content-delivery is moving in this direction. Apple has refused to comment on developments in this area, but we’d bet an announcement is looming in the near future.

What do you think about Apple TV? How eager are you to see Web video on a bigger-screen TV? Where would you rank a device like Apple TV on your wish list for high-tech toys? Think you’d buy one? Post your thoughts below.

COST: $299
PROS: Easy to install and use; works with multiple Macs and PCs; seamless integration with iTunes
CONS: Limited to high-def TVs, lack of high-def content, inability to stream directly from Internet