Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Starting at $229, the new-and-truly-improved Apple TV, re-released last month, is a device that could change the entertainment world, again.

Apple TV’s first incarnation, as a wireless entertainment system tied to Apple’s ITunes software and a computer running same, drew some interest, but also a lot of yawns. People didn’t want their computers doing double duty as entertainment servers. Instead, they wanted to be able to download music, pictures, video and movies to the device and work with them directly. Apple changed the product to do this, and the result is stunning.

I have a 42-inch Sony high-definition LCD television set with an HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) interface, in fact two of them.

That’s the type of television for which Apple TV is designed: widescreen, with HDMI. The price of such sets is dropping in advance of the 2009 jump to digital over-the-air broadcasting, so it’s likely you’ll have such a set someday soon.

Apple kindly sent along the 160 gigabyte hard disk version of Apple TV, which retails for $329; spend $100 less and you get a 50 GB hard drive. On the larger model, the cost-per-gigabyte of storage drops from $4.58 on the 50 GB model to $2.05 on the larger drive.

Using an ITunes-equipped computer, you can select the media, including photos from Apple’s IPhoto application, a Windows-based PC, or from online photo-sharing services such as Flickr and Apple’s .Mac Web Galleries.

Right now, I’ve filled up approximately 20 GB with my own content, and could easily add a lot more. But the storage is also meant to handle TV episodes and movies that you buy or rent online from ITunes. This, along with connections to your computer for multimedia transfers, require that you have wireless networking at home, or an ethernet network. Movie purchases and rentals work best via a high-speed Internet connection.

With everything in place, my wife and I decided to rent the high-definition version of “Live Free or Die Hard.” You do this by logging in to an ITunes account and browsing through the available films; searching is also possible using the tiny, functional remote that comes with the unit.

Thanks to our Verizon FiOS connection and a wireless router, the rental downloaded in under five minutes and played in perfect HD, with very good sound, Dolby Digital 5.1, to be precise. Rentals of “new releases” generally cost $4.99 for the high-def version, $3.99 for standard definition. “Library” films cost $1 less in each format to rent. All rentals are available for viewing for 24 hours after download. Many movies can be purchased for $14.99 and stored on the hard drive.

Using Apple TV makes me very glad I don’t own stock in a video rental chain.

Read Mark Kellner’s Technology blog at www3.washing


I also transferred a bunch of photos and a shelf-load of music to the device. It’s neat — there’s no other word for it — to see sharp, stunning digital images on a huge screen, in a slideshow that includes all sorts of transitions and can be accompanied by the music you select. Travelogues will never be the same.

Also available is the popular YouTube video library, which is searchable via the Apple TC device. It’s an incredible time waster.

You can also access all sorts of video podcasts for free, including the National Geographic “Atmospheres” series, via ITunes.

I’m told that the unit is always “on” to allow it to “talk” to the wireless network and receive software updates. My “inner BGE customer,” however, would like to see a power off switch somewhere.

But that’s my only quibble: setup, wireless networking and usage are all flawless.

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