AppleTV (Original)

Apple released the AppleTV with some fanfare, but I think the message wasn't clear to many.  What does it do?  Why would I want it?  Perhaps more importantly, what doesn't it do.  How does it stack up against just connecting a PC to your TV, or using a TiVo, etc.

 There seems to be a lot of confusion about the device, and what it does or doesn't do (which is amazing since it's been out for well over a year), so I will attempt to set the record straight.  Also it seems to have gotten a lot of negative publicity, amid a few overly positive reviews - many of which were from people who had never used it.

    Initial set-up is easy, but not if you don't have it hooked to a TV.  You need to have it hooked to a TV to select the networking options for a computer to be able to see it at all.  If you plug it into an ethernet network with DHCP, it will connect to the network automatically and obtain an IP address, but you still need the password it displays in the screen to link it to a computer.  Why would you want to set it up without a TV?  Because you could start synching files to it before you hook it to a TV.  Well, you could if you could actually link to it.

Stand-alone operation
    There are basically two ways to get content onto the device, from a computer, or by downloading it directly to the device from the built-in menu system.  You will need an iTunes account to do anything other than watch you-tube videos, however.  Without linking to a computer, you can download podcasts, music, movies, Tv shows, etc.  Obviously some of the content is free, while much of it is not.  It is all in Apple's video format, but more about that later.

inking to a Computer
    You can link the Apple TV to a computer as well.  To be more specific, you can link it to a copy of iTunes.  While iTunes is all well and great, it's quite annoying that you can ONLY access the device through iTunes.  The ability to transfer files to a shared "movies" folder would be wonderful.  Not only do you have to use iTunes to copy content to the device, but the synching options are less than perfect.  There is an "automatic" option, which sort-of automatically decides what to keep on the device and what to keep on your computer.  This mode essentially uses the built in hard drive as a cache - so you never know what's on it.
    A nice feature is that when the computer it is linked to is running iTunes, you can browse all of the content on that computer's library and play movies, etc. streamed across the network from the PC.  The not-so-nice thing is, again, it would be much better if it could mount network drives and pull the movies from there.  For example, as my laptop runs out of space, I tend to put movies on my Time Capsule disk.  There's no reason why AppleTV couldn't pull content from there.  What's more, there is a USB port, but no support for using it to attach an external hard disk.

File Format
    The AppleTV supports nearly the same video formats as the iPhone and Apple's other devices, but at higher resolutions.  That is to say, it supports MPEG4 file containers that contain H.264 (AVC) Video and AAC audio.  It also supports resolutions up to 720P, so it can handle DVD encodes and the like at full resolution just fine.  It does not support DivX and the like.  ITMS video files usually have DRM, while obviously the device plays DRM free files just fine.  To get it to play other formats, you have two options:
a. Hack it and install other codecs.
b. Convert the files to something Apple TV compatible. (with a tool like Handbrake)

    The AVC/AAC combination is one of the best formats available today.  Despite what some people seem to think, it is not Apple proprietary in any way.  AAC is the successor to MP3 audio, and AVC is the successor to standard MPEG4 video.  The combination will give you higher quality files for the same amount of disk space, or take less space for the same quality files as compared with older technologies like DivX.  

    Some video nerds might point out that the bit-rate that the Apple TV supports is much lower than that of blue-ray or digital broadcast TV.  The reason for that is simple: The afore-mentioned technologies use MPEG2 compression, which is designed to preserve quality, but a a high cost of space.  That makes sense in an environment with nearly unlimited storage and transmission capabilities, and where the data won't be saved.    AVC makes much more sense when you want the data to take a reasonable amount of space for a given quality so it can be downloaded over the internet and stored on hard drives.  So you can't make comparisons like "Well Apple TV only supports 2.5Mbps rate, while Blue-Ray has 33".

If you watch a lot of iTunes content, then AppleTV is for you.  If you rip a lot of DVDs, maybe it's for you.  If you have kids and/or a significant other who is computer-shy, then maybe it's for you as well.  Still, to get the most out of it, you need a computer for it to stream from and/or sync to, which means for many they may be better off buying a Mac Mini or something similar to hook to their TV.

The Apple TV isn't a tremendous hit in Japan for two reasons:
a. iTunes store here isn't that popular (Mainly because the Japanese content is a bit thin)
b. It costs almost twice as much as it sells for in the US

On the other hand, if you are an ExPat or someone hooked on English TV Shows that lives in Japan, it does offer a convenient way to watch them so long as you have internet.