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Apple TV: Niggling Questions Answered

This image was lost some time after publication, but you can still view it here.
This image was lost some time after publication, but you can still view it here.


You've been sending questions about Apple TV, we've got answers.

Does Apple TV support 5.1 audio?
Yes (and no). Apple TV supports Dolby Pro Logic II surround sound, at least that's what they told me in the demo, but it does not feature 5.1 discrete audio (sorry DTS lovers). Technically, it plays back AAC-LC audio up to 160 Kbps, which is then extrapolated to 5.1 channels. (thanks justsayyes)

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What types of video files can I watch on an Apple TV?
Anything you can play on an iPod you can play on the Apple TV, that's the short answer. It does not support every video type that you can play in iTunes (in other words, just because you can watch a clip through iTunes does not mean you can also play it on your Apple TV). More specifically, Apple TV uses the .m4v file extension. QuickTime Pro 7.1.5 includes an option for exporting to the Apple TV format, and so does the latest version of iMovie.

What quality of video does Apple TV play back?
It decodes for 720p at 24 frames per second, with a 5MB bitstream rate (this is what we were told during the demo, although it varies slightly from the official specs published by Apple). The device can scale the video up to 1080i. But the video that you download from the iTunes store, it's worth noting, is still in standard definition.

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Apple uses H.264 codec, part of the MPEG-4 standard, for video compression.

Okay, but how does the video look on a widescreen HDTV?
Most movies and TV shows you watch through an Apple TV will look great. But it all depends on your particular screen and settings. On larger screens, especially 1080p models, you might will notice some jagged egdes, crushed blacks, blown highlights. But smaller LCD monitors will make everything look mostly perfect. Apple showed me some videos they shot on an HD camcorder that looked brilliant on the Sony LCD monitor they were using. But the darkest parts of "Pirates of the Caribbean" didn't play as well on a plasma.

If you use an HDMI cable, Apple TV will automatically set your TV to the proper resolution. If you use component cables, Apple TV will ask you to choose from a list of resolutions during the setup process.

What happens if I rig the Apple TV up to my 4:3 screen?
We haven't tried this yet, but chances are the video playback will work just fine. But the interface will be in widescreen mode, making it a bit difficult to navigate. Even the interface scales down to fit the screen. (thanks goeb)

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Does Apple TV work with my iPod?
In some ways. Let's say you start watching a TV show on your iPod, and then pause it 20 minutes in. When you connect the iPod to your computer and iTunes, it sends your pause point to the Apple TV. That way when you decide to finish watching the show on the Apple TV it will pick up right where you left off.

Can you connect an iPod to the USB port on the back of Apple TV?
No.

Then what's the USB port used for?
Apple says it's for "service and diagnostics." We can think of lots of other uses...

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Does Apple TV have Internet connectivity?
Yes, but it's controlled. Apple TV streams movie and TV trailers directly from Apple, and also grabs upgrades straight from the source. But there is, as of now, no way for you to utilize this Internet connection for your own nefarious purposes.

Does Apple TV work with my iTunes season passes?
This is one of the cooler features of Apple TV. Whenever a new show arrives on iTunes as part of your season pass, it will automatically be pushed to the Apple TV. The episodes you've already watched will be removed from the device (but not from iTunes).

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Does Apple TV stream iTunes visualizations?
Not as far as we know.

Does Apple TV still work when the host machine goes to sleep?
You must have iTunes running on your host machine to get started. But once you've synced content to the Apple TV it is copied to the hard drive and no longer requires the host. In fact, you could load an Apple TV with content and take it on vacation with you. It does not require any host computer to play back the material on its hard drive. You will need a host machine for synchronizing and managing the content on your Apple TV. The sleep cycle will not override a synchronization process once it has been started.

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What kind of wireless hub does Apple TV work with?
Apple TV works extremely well with an old-fashioned 802.11g speed Wi-Fi connection. It also works with the newer and faster 802.11n specficiation. This difference is only noticeable when you are trying to synchronize big files, like movies. It will take longer to sync on the 802.11g connection (possibly much longer if you're sharing that hub with lots of people).

How hard is it to hook different computers up to Apple TV?
It is incredibly easy. Any machine, PC or Mac, showed up instantly. Connecting them with the Apple TV was a cinch too.

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I store all of my iTunes music and videos on a network storage drive (or external HD), will Apple TV pick those up?
Apple TV syncs with whatever is in your iTunes library. So if there's a computer running iTunes that is serving up the content from a network storage device, then yes.

Does Apple TV sync all of my music files on its internal hard drive? Because that's not nearly enough space!
You can stream your music from the host computer, much like AirTunes, or you can sync music on the Apple TV itself. It's up to you, really.

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What if I'm running my iMac and Apple TV but also have an 802.11b PDA fired up, won't that cause my 802.11g (or n) network to drop down to 11Mpbs?

In a 2 computer set-up (a MacBook which holds my iPhoto collection, and a PC holds my music and video collection for example), I want to sync my MacBook so I can display photos through the Apple TV and also sync my PC since it has videos and all of my music. Is this possible?
Yes, you can connect up to 5 different host machines to the Apple TV. As long as iTunes is running on those host machines, the Apple TV can stream or sync with them.

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If I hook my HDTV to my MacBook using a VGA adapter, will I see any quality improvement by using an Apple TV?
Nope.

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DISCUSSION

In case anybody is confused about PLII: using Apple's logic I could say that my Walkman from the early 90's, with nothing more than a headphone jack for an audio output, supports 5.1 surround sound.

It's an extremely misleading statement to say that it supports 5.1 sound if it does not output 5.1 discrete channels (i.e., Dolby Digital, DTS, et. al.). It's especially misleading since the box itself only outputs stereo sound - just because you can take a third party device an extrapolate 5.1 surround from that stereo source does not mean that the stereo source supports 5.1.

If you used that logic you might as well say that the apple TV also supports 1080p - it just takes an external video scaler to upgrade the 720p/1080i native signal to 1080p.