I received a new, second generation, Apple TV as a gift about a month ago, and by now I had expected to post a review about all of the things that you can do with this device from the standpoint of being an accessory for your iPhone or iPad. After all, the new Apple TV is only $100, it is tiny enough to make a great stocking stuffer, and with the new AirPlay features that I discussed last week, a friend can come over to your house and, with the touch of one button, share photos and videos on his iPhone on your big screen TV via your Apple TV. It is a neat trick, and one that will become even more useful once Apple allows iPhone app developers to incorporate AirPlay in any app.
Unfortunately, I've been having troubles with my new Apple TV, and I thought I would post about it here because it is something that I wish I had known about before I got mine. In short, the problem is that with some older TVs, the new Apple TV cannot send an HD signal. Instead of seeing 720p or 1080i, you see only 480p. 480p is DVD quality, which is certainly decent, but on a large screen TV you really want HD quality for your photos and videos.
The TV that I am using is a Toshiba 57HDX82 that I purchased in 2002. When I was shopping for a TV in 2002, I made sure to get a TV that had DVI/HDCP support to future-proof it; I figured that we might reach a day when movie studios would require consumer electronic devices to have digital content protection, and DVI/HDCP supports that whereas HD component video (which this TV also supports) does not. Nowadays, instead of DVI, most HDTVs support HDMI, but HDMI is exactly the same thing as DVI except that the cable is smaller and the cable supports audio as well as video.
I was not concerned when I saw HDMI become the standard for TVs because HDMI to DVI cables are about the same price as HDMI to HDMI cables, so I could always use HDMI devices with my TV's DVI port. For example, I have a first generation Apple TV, and it works great with my TV. I run a cable from the HDMI port on the Apple TV to the DVI port on my TV, run a digital optical cable from the Apple TV to my stereo system, and the original Apple TV gives me a fantastic HD picture and fantastic sound. But of course, the old Apple TV doesn't support AirPlay, doesn't let you stream Netflix movies, etc.
I see now that the new second generation Apple TV says that it only supports TVs with HDMI ports. It never occurred to me that this would be a problem — as I noted, DVI and HDMI are the same thing except that DVI doesn't have audio, which is fine for me because I'd rather run audio to my stereo system anyway. But for some reason, the same HDMI to DVI cable that provides an HD signal with my first generation Apple TV only provides a 480p signal with the second generation Apple TV.
I believe that the culprit here is the DVI, but I also see that the Apple TV outputs a 720p HD signal. There are two standards for HD television — 720p and 1080i — and my TV, like many HDTVs, only has true native support for 1080i. Having said that, you can still send my TV a 720p signal and my TV converts it to 1080i. I am pretty sure that this is what happened with the first generation Apple TV, and I have never had trouble with any other device sending HD to my TV.
Notably, when I first hooked up the Apple TV to my TV, not only was output limited to 480p, but also the picture was very wobbly, making it essentially impossible to watch. After a long time trying to find a solution (even purchasing a converter box to try to trick the Apple TV into working with my TV — that didn't work, so I returned it), I packed up the Apple TV and was ready to return it to Apple when Apple released the 4.1 software update for the Apple TV. In addition to adding support for AirPlay (a feature that Apple advertised), the update also fixed the wobbly image problem (a feature that I have never seen Apple acknowledge being part of the software update).
For now, I have decided to keep my second generation Apple TV. With the wobbly image problem fixed, 480p is certainly watchable even if not ideal. Indeed, for streaming Netflix movies on the Apple TV, I don't notice much of a difference anyway. But I am also keeping my first generation Apple TV so that I can watch photos and videos in HD. My hope is that a future Apple TV update will allow the new Apple TV to fully work with my TV, just like the older Apple TV works with my TV. But for now, if you are thinking of getting an Apple TV for yourself or for someone else as a gift this holiday season, I recommend that you make sure that the TV has HDMI. Just asking whether it is an HDTV is apparently not enough.