Review: Apple TV — so easy a caveman could use it (if he had an HDTV)

Let's not deceive ourselves. Apple TV isn't the first device to do what Apple TV does, not by a long shot. It suffers many shortcomings. But for reasons that become self-evident the moment the familiar Apple logo appears on your HDTV after plugging it in, you know why this product will be a raging success when other similar products have flopped. What Apple has done with Apple TV is to corral an ornery collection of technologies and concepts and somehow made them all not merely palatable to nonpropeller-head consumers, but with its usual élan and panache, has actually made the damn thing fun.

How simple is Apple TV? There are no buttons on it anywhere. The remote control has just a menu button and a navigation array familiar to anyone who's used an iPod. You connect the HDMI cable (or component-video and optical digital audio cables) to your HDTV, and Apple TV awakes. It searches for your available wireless networks. You choose yours. Enter your password. You're connected. Boot iTunes, and the Apple TV logo appears.

Apple Is as Apple Does
Apple TV has a 40-GB hard drive and acts just like an iPod. Just tell it what to sync and, just like an iPod, iTunes begins to transfer your selected content — music, TV shows, movies, Podcasts, photos — to Apple TV. In 30 to 45 minutes (depending on how much content you're transferring), all your content now resides on Apple TV. You're ready to surf and view.

But wait, there's more. Apple TV also streams. It streams whatever music or video doesn't fit on the Apple TV hard drive. It streams dozens of movie trailers and 30-second music video clips. If you add content to iTunes, and there's room on the Apple TV hard drive, it automatically updates it.

And, like all Apple products, the thing just works. No, it more than works. It's cool. It looks cool. It performs cool. You just want to sit and play with it. You want to scroll through your digital pictures because they look so real on a big-screen HDTV backed by an automatic soundtrack with songs frighteningly appropriate. Your pictures become a 3D sliding tile screen saver. The 640 x 480-pixel iTunes movies are upconverted to match the native resolution of your HDTV. Apple calls it "near" DVD, and they're right; only the platinum-eyed set will be able to tell the difference. Streamed videos start up faster than a DVD.

Room for Improvement, but not Much
But wait, there's more. Say you're watching a video on your iPod. When you get home, you jack it into your PC. Boot up Apple TV, and it knows where in the video you were and picks up from where you left off. When you subscribe to podcasts or a season pass for a TV show on iTunes, the new episodes are automatically transferred to the Apple TV hard drive. There's dozens of thoughtful not-so-little touches like this.

And yet, it could be better. Apple TV works only with an HDTV, yet there's no HD content on iTunes (although you can make your own HD movies and import them to iTunes). It doesn't include an HDMI cable. It streams only with your PC with iTunes running. It works best with an 802.11n router, but the N specification isn't finished and your N modem may need a firmware upgrade before it'll work. It works only with iTunes. It doesn't stream photos. It has no thumbnail gallery for pictures; you have to scroll through your albums to find a specific shot.

The Direct Approach
But these are quibbles that Apple is sure to address (after all, what's the point of making it usable only with an HDTV and only using HD connections if you don't plan on offering HD content at some point?). The bottom line is, there may be other devices that do stuff like this more effectively, but you don't have to wander Jack Nicholson-like through a snowy labyrinth to get there only to freeze to death before you find anything. Apple has plowed a road right through the maze directly to your content.

Oh, one last quibble: It runs hot. But it's still cool.