Today, I took a trip down to the local Apple Store to check out the Apple TV in person.
I walked into the Apple Store and right there they had two Apple TVs setup, connected to a large Sony HDTV (probably about 32 inches). The TV was widescreen, naturally. The small Apple remote was sitting right next to it on a long security leash.
First impression - not bad. Screen display is attractive. I expected a bit of a smoother scroll between the icons on the left. They kind of snap into place, more than rotate slowly, like they do on Front Row.
The menu interface is nearly identical to the typical iPod display, with a few interesting differences. First, if you go into the Music menu, you'll find the Music Videos listed there. This is different from the current iPod menus. On the iPod, the Music Videos menu is listed under the Video menu. While I suppose it makes sense in both places, I guess it makes more sense under Music, since it is music related. The Video menu seems to have disappeared entirely. I never did particularly like the arrangement of the video menu on the iPod. It never quite seemed to be in the right place. By moving the various video menus into the submenus along with everything else, it seems to almost be saying that video is not a big deal anymore. It's just another feature of the product. This is not a bad thing. TV Shows and Movies have also been moved out of the Video menu and now sit on the main menu itself. The Podcasts menu has also been moved out of the Music menu and onto the main menu. The Podcast menu also appears to be all podcasts - music and video. I like this move because podcasts didn't quite fit under Music on the iPod either. It always felt like something completely different and so it deserves its own menu. Now it has one.
The network setup is nicely organized too. If you view the About menu, it not only lists the usual information, it also lists the Apple TV's current IP address, current Mac Address and the wireless signal strength. This is a great place to put these items because they are all within 'easy reach'. I know that if I owned one of these, I'd definitely want to know the IP Address and Mac Address, so I could properly set it up on my router. The wireless network detection is very simple and easy to do as well.
As for the rumors that it runs a version of OS X, it's hard to tell for sure, but it does certainly show a few signs that that is true. Whenever you tell it to view a movie preview streamed from the Internet, you get a 'Connecting' screen, complete with a large version of the standard OS X spinning progress bar. Granted they could have easily faked this, it is at least one sign that OS X is in there somewhere. The fact that it appears to be running some form of Pentium tells me that it could very well be OS X.
Now for the all important question. How is the video quality? Honestly, I gotta say that they should have been demoing this thing on a non-HDTV television instead of an HDTV. I watched a movie preview from the Internet. It seemed very blocky. I watched a bit of The Incredibles from the Apple TVs hard drive and it too was blocky. I watched a couple of video podcasts and they too were blocky. Granted the videos played fine and had great sound, it still struck me as very blocky. I suspect this is simply a matter of the fact that movies sold on iTunes are of a relatively low 640x480 resolution. This resolution would look fantastic on a standard definition television, but looks blocky on the much higher HDTV resolution. This device has a very much 'aimed at the future' feel for it. Yeah, it does output HD content, but most of the content that you can feed it right now is NOT HD. This isn't the Apple TV's fault though. It's just that there isn't a lot of HD content out there yet. I fully expect Apple to upgrade the resolution on it's movies and TV shows to HD levels sometime soon in order to better 'feed' the Apple TV. As more HD content becomes available, I can see the apparent quality of the video improving. It seems to me, that the Apple TV would actually look better on a standard definition TV these days, due to the relatively low resolution content available for it.
Will I buy one? Probably at some point, but not right now. I'm still a bit hesitant about it's compatibility with standard definition TVs. When I asked one of the Apple guys if it would work on a standard definition TV, he told me that no it would not. He said it would need a widescreen TV. But, when I pressed him, saying that I had read online that it did support standard definition TVs, he said it would as long as i had the right plugs on the back of my TV (which I do). The Apple TV requires component output cables. It doesn't use a standard video RCA jack or an S-Video jack. I think that Apple states that it doesn't support non-widescreen TVs because they don't want people that have TVs without those component output cables to buy one only to discover that it doesn't work. I can understand this, but I would think they would at least mention that it works on 'some' standard definition TVs. I'm also a bit hesitant about the small 40GB capacity of it. Yes, there are already complete instructions on the Internet on how to manually upgrade the HD to larger capacities, but I don't like the idea of spending $300 on something just so I can manually hack it to put a larger HD in. I'm sure I could do it, but I'd be afraid to damage the thing and have a $300 doorstop. The current 40GB capacity is way too small, especially for a device centered around HD video! That 40GB HD will dissapear fast if you start throwing real HD video on there. It's going to need a MUCH bigger HD. I fully expect Apple to start shipping multiple versions of this with different, larger HD capacities - just like they do on the iPod.
All in all, a very interesting gadget that I will be keeping an eye on to see how it develops.