Apple TV

Our next contender is a bit different. Apple TV was designed specifically as a means of getting media content from the Internet and your Mac or PC and getting it into your living room where it belongs, and everything from the physical design to the services and software is built for doing just that. The unit, resembling a flattened Mac Mini, is small and virtually silent, yet still boasts an integrated 40GB or 160GB HDD, Ethernet plus 802.11g and 802.11n wireless connections, not to mention HDMI, component video and stereo and digital audio outputs with which to hook it up to your A/V system. You might not care about looks or noise levels, but chances are that other members of your household will. If so, the Apple TV is a much easier sell than the Xbox 360 or PS3.

I'm not what you might call a Mac person, but the Apple TV doesn't seem phased by a PC connection. Just plug it in and set up your network connection and all you have to do is switch on your PC, fire up iTunes and enter the passcode that Apple TV puts up on the screen. Ease of use is a plus point in general. If you've used a recent iPod or the iTunes Store then using Apple TV is really just an extension, with a CoverFlow system for browsing content in most cases and easy to follow lists and thumbnails when not. Cleverly, you don't need to go through your PC to do a lot of things. Built-in browsers for YouTube, Flickr and Apple's own MobileMe makes it easy to check out a range of Web 2.0 content on your TV screen without having to fiddle with that nasty remote control/Web browser combination. Integration with the iTunes Store is so good that it's practically transparent.

On the one hand, you could say that Apple TV isn't the best media player for those of us outside the relatively closed Mac/iTunes/iPod ecosystem. It doesn't like Microsoft's media formats, and without some reasonably technical hacks there's no way to get Xvid or DivX files working. With iTunes on your PC acting as a media server you're pretty much stuck with the file formats that Apple's software prefers unless you use a third-party app to convert them. That's good if you like working with AAC and H.264, but not so great if you prefer WMA and OGG Vorbis. Needless to say, any TV you record using Windows Media Center or download with the BBC iPlayer is also a no-no, without a little hacking and converting.

On the other hand, there are things that Apple TV does better than any rival player. Apple TV was built to synchronise content between the iTunes library on your PC and a copy cached on its own internal hard disk, and the process is pretty much flawless. You can happily leave it on its default settings, or fine tune how iTunes and Apple TV swap video or photos to your heart's content. You can use the same features you use in iTunes to prepare downloaded video files for your iPod to prepare them for your Apple TV and overall it's another example of how Apple breaks down the old 'chain of pain' in getting media from one device to another, admittedly with the usual caveat that wide format support is the inevitable casualty.

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