If you're here, you're probably looking to buy either an Apple TV, or a Media Center PC. I've used both,
and you'll find as much information as I've been able to gather here about each of them - everything from the
pros & cons to other alternatives you might even want to consider also. Each system has it's own strengths and
weaknesses, and hopefully after doing some research, you'll be better informed when you do go out to buy the hub of
your living room entertainment center.
While the Apple TV and Windows Media Center both bring content to your screen, they're each very different in
the way they go about it.
A Quick Primer
The Apple TV is essentially a self-contained device, or "appliance" if you prefer. In the physical sense
it's very basic. You don't have to install any software, worry about upgrading any hardware, etc. In fact, you
can't. Think of it like an addition to your Blue-ray Player, DVD Player, VCR, etc. You have a Blue-ray player for
your Blue-ray movies, DVD player for your DVD's, VCR for your tapes.... the Apple TV is essentially a player for
your digital and internet content. The movies, music, tv shows etc that you've been watching on your computer....
the Apple TV brings them to your TV.
The other purpose for the Apple TV is to purchase tv shows and rent movies from iTunes, and display them on your TV
(as well as your other Apple devices). This could be done on the computer through iTunes as well, but again the idea
here is to bring it all to your TV.
The Apple TV connects to your computers and the internet through either a built-in wireless connection, or
optionally a wired ethernet connection, but it does have to need to be able to access both the internet as well as
another computer on the network (either Windows or Mac) running iTunes to be able to use it. So if you're planning
on buying an Apple TV for someone who doesn't have a computer or the internet, well don't. You lose most of the
functionality without it.
In short, what does the Apple TV do?
- Movies - watch your own (must be ripped), watch trailers over the net, or rent movies over the net through
- TV Shows - watch your own (must be ripped), or buy over the net through iTunes
- Music - listen to your iTunes library
- YouTube - browse YouTube and watch videos, just like on the computer. Very slick interface though
- Flickr - view Flickr photos
- Photos - view your own photo album
What doesn't the Apple TV do?
- Play DVD's - there's no DVD player built in
- Watch TV - no tv tuner card
- Record TV - no tv tuner card means this can't be used as a PVR
- Allow addons/plugins - there are ways to "hack" the Apple TV, but they're not terribly easy to do,
and also void your warranty.
Windows Media Center
It started with Windows XP Media Center Edition, and evolved to Media Center for Windows Vista. I myself have only
used the Vista version so it's all I'll comment about.
Windows Media Center is a piece of software. It can be installed on various computer hardware configurations,
sometimes with more success than others. It typically requires a reasonably recent computer to run well. It's
purpose.... to be as close to the only thing you need in the living room as possible (besides the TV obviously). If
you've got a DVD or blue-ray player for the computer, you can use it to play those movies. Put in a video capture
card, and you can use it to watch tv and record tv shows. It'll even download a TV guide for most locations. You
can watch your ripped tv shows and movies stored on the hard drive.
Basically, Windows Media Center is installed on a computer, and depending on what hardware/capabilities that
computer has, it can actually do quite a bit.
In short, what does it do?
- Movies - watch your own, whether ripped or from a dvd/etc.
- TV - same as above. You can also record tv shows.
- Music - listen to music on the hard drive or over the network
- Photos - brows your photos on the hard drive or over the network
- Scores and stats - get them through SportsLounge
- Internet TV beta - video from MSN video
So in the general sense, what's the same about the Apple TV and Windows Media Center?
They both allow you to access digital media stored on your computer. That means videos, movies, pictures, and music
that are stored on your computer are brought to your TV.
Two major things. First is in the way/manner things are set up, used, configured, and presented. The 2nd is in where
they extend beyond being able to simply bring digital media from your computer to your TV.
Windows Media Center mainly adds more functionality, replacing some of the other devices you may use. For instance,
it will also become your DVD player and your PVR/DVR. It adds a few extras like the stuff in the "Sports"
category which I personally find useless, but others might use and enjoy.
Apple TV on the other hand doesn't replace your DVD player and PVR/DVR. Instead, the way Apple went about
enhancing your TV Show / Movie experience is to offer TV Shows and Movie rentals through the iTunes store. Rather than
going to the store to buy a season of a TV show and then rip them to the computer, you can buy the episodes right from
your Apple TV. Movies can simply be rented through the Apple TV instead of going to the local Blockbuster. It also
offers the ability to look through Flickr photos, and browse through YouTube. Personally I like those features,
although for some I'm sure those extras are just wasted menu items.
Power vs Simplicity
Windows Media Center is more powerful. Really, it is. It can just plain do more things. Let's pick on the Apple
TV for a minute and list a few advantages to Windows Media Center.
- You can view/record TV (with a TV Tuner card)
- Blueray support (with a blue-ray drive and the required software)
- DVD support (with a dvd drive)
- DivX, XviD, and other codec support (must install the codecs and/or a codec pack)
- Full featured Media Center remote - can program power/volume to your tv/receiver (you may have to buy the
- Possibility for more video/sound outputs (dependant on sound/video card)
- Able to install plugins/addons.
- Hardware can be upgraded (it's a computer after all)
- Easy to add content over the network (just add shared folders as "watched folders")
The Apple TV on the other hand does lack a lot of the above options, but in return it's not only cheaper than a
computer capable of all those things, but is also more simple. It doesn't do as much, but what it does, it does
very well in true Apple style.
Consider the remote. The Apple TV uses the typical 6-button apple remote. The Media Center remote on the other hand
has a whopping 41 buttons. Granted it does more, but give a little kid or an old granny the Apple remote and
they'll be using the Apple TV in no time. Do the same with the Media Center remote, and it's going to take a
lot longer to figure out. There really should be a lengthy manual for the Media Center remote.
The Apple TV menu is also very easy to navigate. The Windows Media Center menu is quite honestly a Zoo. Want to
watch one of your ripped tv shows or movies in Media Center? Common sense would lead you to believe that they'll
end up in the "TV and Movies" section. Guess again though.... they're in "Pictures &
Video". Not only does it almost seem as though menus and submenus were randomly placed, but it's almost as
though they tried to make it counter-intuitive in Media Center. If that wasn't enough of a slap in the face, with
all the customizing and tweaking you can do in Windows, they also went to the trouble to make sure you can't
rearrange the menus. Yes there are ways to add menus (known as strips/tiles) when you want to add a plugin for your own
program, but while that'll help keep your added plugin menus clean, it does nothing to fix the existing menu mess.
Granted, you can't rearrange the menus on the Apple TV either, but you don't need to. They just make sense.
The Apple TV is also easier to set up. Microsoft actually did a decent job with Media Center and if Windows is set
up properly, the Media Center setup is pretty easy too - just not as plug n play as the Apple TV.
Here's a fancy fun-loving chart to help you compare what each has feature-wise.
||Windows Media Center
|Watch TV shows stored on your computer
|Watch Movies stored on your computer
|Listen to Music stored on your computer
|View Pictures stored on your computer
|Watch/record TV from your TV cable
||NO (unless hacked)
H.264, MPEG-4 , AAC, MP3, AIFF, WAV
(if hacked, large codec support)
|Just about all of them (using a codec pack)
||HDMI or Component
||Flexible (depends on video card)
typically DVI or VGA
||HDMI, RCA Stereo, or Optical
||Flexible (depends on sound card)
typically 3.5mm jack or optical
||801.11n or Ethernet
||Flexible (depends on network card)
||Anywhere from virtually silent to loud
Buy TV shows online
Rent movies online
You'll notice that for Video/Audio output, I gave the edge to the Apple TV despite Media Center technically
being more flexible (and having more options) based on the computer. This is because the Apple TV outputs will hook
right up to virtually any new TV. However for Media Center, the typical outputs included on a PC's sound and/or
video card are often less TV-friendly and in many cases require either a special adapter or a TV designed with PC
outputs in mind.
Apple TV Experiences
The Apple TV is affordable, easy to hook up, and easy to use. Bring it home, plug it in, start it up, and really
you're up and running within a couple minutes. It reminds me of the old Apple iMac "There's no step
3" ads. There isn't a lengthy setup procedure. It's simple. At $230 ($250 CDN), it's cheaper than just
about any HTPC you're going to find.
The remote's a no-brainer. I'd never actually used an Apple remote before the Apple TV, and it's really
intuitive to use. You basically have 4 navigational buttons (left,right,up,down), a middle button that serves as a
pause/play/ok, and a menu button that's essentially the "back" button. When I was levels deep in YouTube
content, I kept hitting the menu button to back up and thought "there's got to be an easier way to get back to
the start. waaait, there probably is", and almost instinctively held in the menu button at that point and voila! I
was brought to the main menu. Apple's still king when it comes to allowing you to do tasks with a very simple and
easy to use interface.
The main reason I wanted the Apple TV was (as you might assume) to watch TV shows and movies on the TV. We've
ripped just about all our DVD content to a computer where we can access it from all the other computers in the house,
and wanting to be able to watch it on the TV itself makes sense. I've never had an iPod and have only used iTunes
in the past for listening to my mp3's on the Mac. Having to use iTunes on a computer to provide video to the Apple
TV was probably the biggest challenge for me.
First, I had to re-encode just about all our ripped content. Almost all of it is in DivX or XviD format which the
Apple TV won't read. Fortunately, Quicktime Pro has an Export option called "Movie to Apple TV" which
converts whatever video you're watching to a format that is guaranteed to work on the Apple TV. If Quicktime can
play it (it can play most codecs if you've installed the free Perian package), it can convert it. The down side is
that you can't adjust any settings when using the "Movie to Apple TV" option. The first episode I
converted (a 350mb DivX episode) became a 400-500mb episode after my first conversion with Quicktime, despite having
*lowered* the audio bitrate. Granted it did it quickly, but that's not what I wanted. A better option (possibly the
best) for converting is a program on the Mac is called VisualHub. Unfortunately it's not free, although it's
only $23 USD which is quite reasonable. There's a free demo version which is pretty useless. VisualHub allows you
to export to various formats, including iTunes/AppleTV. The GoNuts quality level resulted in a pretty large file size,
similar to the Quicktime one. Choosing "Normal", selecting "H.264 Encoding", and
"Advanced/2-pass" on the other hand resulted in a file that was only 340mb. I opened every one of the files
(original, Quicktime converted, VisualHub GoNuts, and VisualHub Normal), got them all playing simultaneously, and for
the particular file I did, didn't notice any real difference between them, so I stayed with the VisualHub Normal.
Re-coding on the system I'm using took about an hour per 1 hour episode - pretty lengthy but seems to maintain the
quality of the rips and decreases the file size a little.
Another re-coding option for the Mac is to simply use Handbrake (free) to rip from the original DVD's again. The
latest version (Leopard-only) has a setting to code for Apple TV. I haven't used it just yet, but I'll be sure
to give it a try and update this at that time.
Importing to iTunes
First, Apple TV and iTunes have to be set up to talk to one another. This is initiated from the Apple TV, which will
give you a 5-digit code. You simply write down the code, head to your computer with iTunes, find the Apple TV device,
and enter the code. Now you're set up and can start syncing/streaming. There are also options so you can choose
what type of media you want synced. Since we have about 500GB of video and the Apple TV hard drive is only 40GB, I set
only music, pictures, and podcasts to sync, leaving TV shows and movies to stream.
I then started importing videos to iTunes as they were re-coded. They all originally ended up in the Movies section,
so I did a "Get Info" on each, went to the "Video" section, and set the "Video Kind" to
"TV Show", then filled in the Show, Season Number, Episode ID, and Episode Number.
Going to the Apple TV showed only 2 episodes - 1 under Movies and 1 under TV Shows. The rest were missing, so I went
back to the computer and restarted iTunes. All the episodes then showed up correctly on the Apple TV.
Basically, sorting your media in iTunes will affect how it's displayed on the Apple TV. Unfortunately, you must
have iTunes open whenever you're using the Apple TV if you plan to stream content. This in itself isn't
necessarily the end of the world, unless you have multiple accounts using the computer in which case you'll
probably need to use fast user switching to keep iTunes from closing on the main account when somebody else logs in.
This is in comparison to Windows Media Center for example where you can share folders on a remote computer and then as
long as the remote computer is on, it'll sync, regardless of who is logged in and what programs are running. If you
sync instead of streaming, you only need iTunes open for the syncing. This would obviously be the preferred method for
most people since the computer then doesn't need to be on all the time for.
The only thing hindering full syncing is the size of the hard drive. The 40GB drive simply isn't enough to hold
a lot of video. It's fine if you have a small movie selection, but start adding TV shows and at an easy 5-10GB per
season, that 40GB is going to fill up *very* fast. The 160GB hard drive is a better option, but it's still not
going to be enough for the majority of TV/Movie enthusiasts. Only by hacking your Apple TV (and voiding the warranty)
can you hope to increase the storage capacity. If Apple made software changes to allow a USB storage device to be
attached (there is a USB slot, it's just disabled by default), larger hard drives could be hooked up which would go
a huge way to making things better for customers.
Buying TV Shows, Music Videos, and Renting Movies
While I didn't actually buy any TV shows or Music Videos, I navigated through and took a look at them. While
I'm more inclined to buy a DVD and rip it myself, the ability to buy video online and watch it right away is
definitely a nice feature that I'm sure many will use. Being in Canada, the options for movie rentals doesn't
even show up in the menu. Apparently, there is a workaround for Canadians who want to be able to rent movies from
iTunes which involves simply getting a US iTunes Gift Card, redeeming it through the US site, and creating a new US
account with a different email address and fake US-based "real" address, then entering "none" for
the credit card. You'd undoubtedly also have to change the location in Apple TV to United States instead of Canada.
to get the movie list to even show up.
There's also a menu option that pops you straight to YouTube, although still within the Apple TV interface.
It's actually pretty slick. You can search, or browse by various categories like "Most Recent, Most Viewed,
Highest Rated" etc over periods like "Today, This Week, All Time", just to see what's hot. The only
downside to content viewed this way is that a lot of it is poorly encoded, which in a window on a computer usually
looks alright, but on a large TV, can look pretty bad sometimes. There's absolutely nothing Apple can do about it
though - the quality of it's going to depend both on the person who recorded it, as well as the quality that
YouTube is willing to spit out. Despite this, it's nice being able to look through YouTube videos on your TV, and
again the interface for doing so is pretty slick.
The other stuff
Music, Podcasts, Pictures, and Flickr are the remaining options, and I haven't touched on them here. While
they're nice features to have and I'm sure some people will have loads of fun with them, I personally don't
use my TV for this sort of thing to any large extent.
Apple TV Peeves and Pros
Apple TV peeves
(or "Things that'll make you wish you picked Media Center")
- Limited format support - If you have movies or TV shows that you ripped in DivX, XviD, etc, get ready to pull out
the originals and re-rip them again. All video is limited to h.264 or MPEG-4 (simple), and can't have too high a
bitrate or resolution. Audio's also limited, but to common formats anyway (mp3, aac, aiff, dolby digital
passthrough). You can also use Quicktime or another program (VisualHub for example) to transcode your existing rips,
but at the cost of at least a little quality, and time.
- No plugin support - No codecs, no plugins, no customizing no nothing. The only changes to the software come from
Apple's periodic updates.
- No upgrades - The unit's sealed up. You could get in there, but you're not supposed to and you'll lose
your warranty if you try. Updates to the software and supported codecs could potentially be limited down the road if
the processor, video card etc start getting taxed since they're not upgradable.
- Small hard drive - the base model is 40GB. Anyone with an average movie or video collection will not be able to
sync all their videos. This would be fine because you can just stream everything, except that there's also....
- The iTunes requirement - iTunes must be open on the computer that's streaming. That means that if you stream,
iTunes is going to have to always be open on the computer that's doing it if you want the most possible uptime on
the Apple TV. Not the end of the world, but an annoyance that you can't shut down the computer without cutting off
the Apple TV's access to stuff. Also, importing videos, listing episodes, etc all has to be done within iTunes.
iTunes must become the center of where you handle all your media if it isn't already.
- Limited video management - As a few people will attest to, if you have a very large movie collection, you simply
have to scroll a really long way to go through them all. It's not bad for a small collection.
Apple TV Pros
- Clean menu - Simple, easy to navigate, designed well.
- Reponsive - Doesn't suffer from the same random delays as Media Center
- Apple Remote - only 6 buttons, and yet very well thought out. Navigating YouTube was a breeze.
- Small & Quiet - Silent, and isn't an eye sore. Much better than most HTPCs.
- Flickr & YouTube - Personally, I don't care a lot about Flickr & photos, but the YouTube part of it is
pretty cool. Something there, popular, and extra that just adds to the whole experience.
- Decent codec choice - While I'm not thrilled that DivX/XviD aren't supported (nor can you add codecs),
MPEG-4 and h.264 are in my opinion pretty good standards.
- Easy updates - the update to Take2 was quick and painless. Hopefully Apple rolls out more updates as time goes
- Can buy TV shows and rent movies (eventually). Just like iTunes was as the start - use it for your own media,
and/or use it to buy some. Even if you don't use it, the option is nice anyway.
Windows Media Center Experiences
Windows Media Center is an application bundled with certain editions of Windows Vista. While it can be used with a
keyboard and mouse, and/or on a regular computer display, it's really intended to be used with a remote, and
connected to a TV. Media Center helps to bridge all your hardware together to create a system that's the center of
your home entertainment. With the right hardware, and properly set up, every bit of information that ends up on your TV
screen will be through the Media Center interface. That means everything from whatever happens to be on your favorite
TV station, to recorded tv shows, to ripped movies, to DVD's.
Depending on what you want out of your system, the price for the hardware can get pretty steep. You can buy Media
Center PC's, but depending on how much power you want to get out of the system, you may very well have to build
The first thing you need is obviously a system capable of running Windows Vista. For smooth playback, I'd
recommend a Dual Core processor. I originally tried it on an Athlon XP system and it was painfully slow with a lot of
periodic freezes. Changed to a dual core system, and it had a much easier time keeping up. I actually got away with
only 512MB of RAM. 1GB would be desirable, but really if you're not alt-tabbing, multi-tasking, etc, you can get
away with 512, since Media Center is presumably the only program you'll be running. You'll probably want a
video card with at least DVI output, and then you'll need a DVI-to-HDMI cable to connect it to your TV. Alternately
if you have a VGA input on your TV, you could get a video card with the VGA output, but the quality will suffer. If you
plan to watch or record TV through the Media Center PC, you'll be in the market for a TV tuner card. Media Center
supports many of them, and you'll have to check around and buy based on both quality and features. They're not
all the same. For example, some won't accept digital signals from a digital cable or over-the-air signal. Quality
can vary drastically and it's worth doing some reasearch before you buy. Sound can be tricky. Some TV's have a
"PC input" or something similar for sound that uses a 3.5mm jack. You basically just connect your
speaker/line output to it via a cheap cable. If you're looking for something better, the next easiest thing to go
to is an optical out to go to your receiver. Many motherboards now have optical out built-in. If not, you'll have
to start looking for a sound card that's got one. There's also the option to go with RCA-style audio to either
the TV or a reciever, but again you've usually got to find a sound card that's got the adapter to do it.
Finally, a DVD or Blue Ray drive, a hard drive, and you're probably set to go.
There's a Media Center remote. If you didn't recieve one with your system, you can usually buy OEM ones.
It's pretty essential, and comes with a USB IR receiver as well as a couple other goodies for controlling other set
top boxes. There are a lot of buttons, but if you get lost somewhere in a menu along the way, there's a big green
button in the middle that will always take you back to the start. You can program the volume and TV power buttons on
the remote as well. If you bought OEM you probably don't have instructions, so you can find some here.
There's a bit of a process to the setup. The display has to be selected and configured. There is a *very* nice
section that will help you set up the brightness and contrast on your TV. Audio setup is quick. Setting up the TV
listings can be a little time consuming, and sometimes they're not completely right, but all in all it's not
too bad. Either before or after setup, it's often a good idea to install a codec pack if you plan to watch any
ripped tv shows or movies.
Your Own Content
Media Center has something called "watched folders". Basically, these are folders you can point media
center to, and it will keep an eye on them. If it finds Videos, Music, or Pictures in any of the watched folders, it
will throw them into your Picture/Music/Video libraries in Media Center. As long as the data in your music is set
correctly (Artist, Song, Album info), Media Center will organize it pretty well, even if you have it in a mess of
folders. When you go to listen to it, you can sort it by artist, etc. Video on the other hand you want to organize
yourself pretty carefully. Whatever the folder tree looks like in you watched folders is the way it's going to
appear. I definitely recommend starting with main folders, for example "Movies" and "TV Shows". In
the "TV Shows" folder, create new folders for each Series. For example, "Seinfeld",
"Friends", etc. Within each series folder, create a season folder like "Season 1", "Season
2", etc. From there, put each season's videos in, and try to have a simple standard naming convention for
them. Something as simple as "01 - The Pilot" is fine. Something longer like "Seinfeld - Season 1 -
S01E01 - The Pilot" on the other hand is kind of long, a little unnecessary, and won't look quite as good when
browsing through the episodes. Any videos should be stored on the Media Center PC. Even with a wired ethernet
connection, Media Center slowed to a crawl any time I tried to browse videos stored on a watched folder on a different
computer as it pulled thumbnails from each of the videos.
I had a TV tuner, but there was a longer delay when changing channels compared to when the antenna was hooked up
directly to the TV. The Media Center computer also amplified the noise/defects in our over-the-air reception compared
to the tv's built-in tuner, so I didn't really give it much use (moreso a shortcoming of the tv tuner, not
Media Center). I'd suspect that people with clean signals (or even digital signals) would have a much better time
with it. I did love the built-in TV guide though, and had the quality been there, I would have used Media Center for
all my TV watching. I didn't try recording any TV, mainly because it I wouldn't want to watch it again. The
built-in DVD player worked alright except that it always wanted to continue movies where they left off - it didn't
give the option to continue or restart.
All in all, between the software and the hardware, Media Center is likely to run you a hefty chunk of money. The
menu system is a joke, but it *is* nice to be able to set up every bit of the content you watch to run under 1 program
and 1 remote. All in all, it's fairly well polished, and with some tweaks (especially to the menu system),
Microsoft may very well end up with an outstanding product one day.
Windows Media Center Peeves and Pros
Windows Media Center Peeves
(or "Things that'll make you wish you picked Apple TV")
- The Media Center Menu - I touched on this in another section, but the menu is a piece of junk. It's not
intuitive in the least. The classic example I always use is that your ripped TV shows and Movies are not in the
"TV & Movies" menu - they're in "Pictures and Video". That's the most obvious example,
although the entire menu system reflects that mentality. The majority of people will also find a lot of other menu
categories they'll never use, which just add to the clutter. It's one big mess that for the most part
doesn't make sense and that you also can't configure/change to make better.
- Slow navigation - I had this happen on both of the machines I used Media Center on. Every so often (and on a
regular basis) the computer seems to get "busy", often for no apparant reason, and the menu navigation just
hangs for a few seconds. Very frustrating when you're trying to navigate quickly. Had it happen constantly on both
a slow machine as well as a relatively quick dual-core machine.
- Watched folders - They're clunky. If you're very careful about organizing your videos, pictures, and music,
and keep those folders "clean", it's not so bad. If you're like most people though, things will be a
huge mess until you spend hours organizing it. It would help if it would allow you to break things into categories like
"watched music", "watched video" etc.
- Slow navigation over the network - Watched folders with videos that are on a different computer on the network
cause massive slowdowns while Media Center pulls thumbnails for the videos while you're browsing. Network access
also makes many of the small access delays a lot longer.
- Cost - No doubt about it, it's more pricey than an Apple TV, even if you go with a bare-minimum system that
will just barely run Media Center and doesn't have the extra frills like a TV tuner etc. You're basically
buying a computer that is going to cost a good chunk of coin, and will typically be hooked up to the TV in the living
room full time.
Media Center Pros
- Codecs - Throw something like the K-Lite codec pack on there, and you've just enabled Media Center to play
videos encoded in just about any format.
- The Media Center remote - For all the buttons it has, I've seen much worse. The commonly used buttons are well
placed and easy to use, the remote lights up, and the power/volume buttons can be programmed based on your other
remote, meaning you may be able to eliminate the others. "The green button" as it's called was actually a
pretty smart idea and makes navigation a heck of a lot easier.
- Ability to customize hardware - If you want a higher resolution, better video card, better tuner, better sound
card, faster system, blue-ray, etc, all you have to do is..... upgrade! Sure you can only upgrade to the extent that
Media Center supports, but even that allows a lot of leeway to improve the system if and when you need to.
- You can watch/listen while browsing - You can keep whatever program/movie you're watching (or whatever music
you're listening to) running while you browse the menu for something else. It can either play full-screen in the
background (slightly faded) which actually looks really nice, or in a tiny window in the bottom left. This means that
you can browse your media while you watch it.