For various reasons that I won’t go into here, my wife and I stayed home during our last vacation, so I used the opportunity to upgrade to HDTV and thought I’d share what I learned.
(If all you care about is the Apple TV, skip down to that heading.)
First, I should tell you that I relied heavily on my friend and colleague, Ed Covelli. For general electronics, there is nobody better, and any wisdom that appears here can be directly attributed to him, just as any poor advice may be blamed on some misunderstanding on my part.
If you are just starting off in the HD world, as I was, a good place to begin is CNET’s primer on the subject, the “Ultimate HDTV Buying Guide”. It contains an explanation of the different HD technology, how to choose the right size, and much more:
If you have yet to pick a TV, take a look at CNET’s reviews and choose the right trade-off based on price. For example, you might really want a set capable of 1080p until you find out that the least expensive models cost over $7,000, and nobody really supports 1080p yet anyway.
You should also be realistic about the cost. Along with the TV, you may want speakers (and that means a receiver too), DVD player (or HD or BluRay DVD player), an Apple TV, etc. Be sure to make a plan and budget accordingly, and remember that you can always add more stuff later. I found some excellent prices at B&H Photo for most of the equipment, whereas Best Buy was better for other items.
Before you purchase the TV, make sure you can actually get HD service. I mention this because I purchased the set, the peripherals, cables, etc., set it all up, then called DirecTV to install the HD dish, only to find out that they could not provide me with HD. I had to spend an extra week switching to cable.
If you decide you want external speakers, make sure the TV and receiver have HDMI ports. HDMI is a single cable that creates a digital connection between devices that carries both audio and video. Receivers that support “HDMI switching” will let you connect multiple HDMI devices and send the video through a single HDMI connection to the TV.
(NOTE: Even though HDMI also carries audio, my receiver required a separate connection for audio anyway. I assume other receivers work the same way.)
Finally, don’t forget the cables, but don’t get ripped off either. For the best quality, you will want either optical audio or digital coax cables to connect your peripherals to the receiver, and you will find a better price at Radio Shack (for example) than at Best Buy, despite their protestations that their $50 cable is really MUCH better than the former’s $25 version. For the HDMI cable, go to the Apple Store where they sell 6-footers for $20, and don’t fall for the line about how you’ll “hear a hum”. I heard that from two different salesmen at two different chains, even though neither could explain to my satisfaction how the cable can introduce any sound in a digital connection. FYI, there is no discernible hum in my setup even with the “cheap” cables I used.
All of this brings us to the Apple TV. I figured, since I was getting the rest, why not try this unit and see if it lives up to the hype? So far, I have not been disappointed, although there is room for improvement.
Setup was a snap. The ATV requires a connection to your network and has both an Ethernet port and wireless capability for that purpose. Turning it on and getting it connected took all of 5 minutes.
The ATV is designed as a conduit between iTunes (and iPhoto) running on your individual computers and your HDTV and speakers. You can set one machine as the main library and all of its data (or only the specific data you choose) will be copied to, and automatically synchronized with, the Apple TV. This makes browsing for songs, videos or photos similar to the experience you get with the iPod. In fact, you can think of the Apple TV as one large iPod with a heck of a video screen and speakers.
(What the Apple TV will not do is record live TV. In other words, it is not a substitute for a Tivo or other DVR unit, although you can use the separate EyeTV product to emulate that functionality if you’re really into pain. The EyeTV, a product that will let you watch and record live TV on your computer, is great, but getting its content into iTunes should not be attempted unless you have time on your hands.)
Other than the main library, you can link the Apple TV with up to five additional computers so you can stream content directly from their drives. The difference is that the main library is always available, whereas the secondary libraries are only available when those machines are online.
Along with music, the Apple TV can display photos, including any albums you’ve created, from your iPhoto collection, but the drawback here is that there is no apparent way to show individual photos. Instead, you must show the entire album or library as a slide show over which you have no control of pace.
One nice perk of the Apple TV is the screensaver that kicks in when the unit has been idle for a user-specified amount of time. You can set the screensaver to show album art or photos from iPhoto, but I can’t begin to explain just how cool it is. If you stop by an Apple Store to take a look, be sure to ask them to show this feature too.
In terms of quality, the unit is top-notch. Music that was recorded with a higher bit rate sounds identical to CD’s to my untrained ears, and video will play at its original quality too. It is important to note, however, that the iTunes Music Store does NOT sell HD-quality video. If you buy an episode of a TV show or a movie, do not be surprised if it looks, well, bad on your HDTV. The reason is that HD files are still prohibitively large and there is no practical way to deliver them in quantity over the Internet. I trust that they will address that issue eventually, but, for now, it is what it is.
If you do have HD-quality video, it will play as such on your HDTV.
The bottom line is, if you want a convenient way to play music or watch video in your living room, the Apple TV is worth looking into. They still have some issues and bugs to work out (I was able to crash it at one point, forcing a restart), but that’s to be expected with any new unit and Apple has a good track record in resolving such flaws over time. If your most important criteria is to play HD video on your HDTV, this may not be the right solution for you at this time.
For more details on the Apple TV, see Apple’s site here: