Monday, October 25, 2010

Cool Monday: Apple TV

So, I broke down and got one of the new Apple TVs recently, and I've been making pretty good use of it for the past week or three. It's a neat little device, and while it's not necessarily all I would hope it could be, it has a fair amount of promise.

Physically, it's really tiny. I had seen pictures, but I was still surprised at how small it was. In addition to being surprising, it offered a practical benefit - there was no need for me to doing any shuffling of boxes to get it set up. It tucked away easily, and was a simple matter of plugging in the power and the HDMI cable (which, predictably, did not come with the device).[1] I've read some people observe that choosing to make it black (rather than the usual apple silver/white) also makes it blend into a media center more effectively, and I suspect that would probably also be true if we had more of a stack. As is, the Xbox 360 and Wii kind of mess up that idea of devices being black.

The remote is also noteworthy. Bigger than the older mac remote, it also has enough buttons that using it makes sense. It's still small enough to be easy to lose, but at least it's big enough to be hard to accidentally leave in a pocket. You can also use your iphone/ipod touch/ipad as a remote, and that's neat, but I find myself gravitating back to the actual remote 95% of the time.

Anyway, enough about the device, and on to actually using it.

Unlike it's predecessor, the Apple TV doesn't actually have a lot of onboard horsepower. It's designed to stream content, not store it, and by itself, it's not terribly useful. You can use it to rent TV shows and movies from apple (*cough* rip-off *cough*), watch Youtube videos (those which you can navigate too successfully - not always an easy task) and listen to many internet radio stations. All nice, but not really worth a hundred bucks. For it to really be worth your while, you need something else: either Netflix, or your own media library.

For Netflix, it's pretty sweet. I have a couple other machines capable streaming Netflix (Tivo, Xbox 360 and Wii) and the apple TV definitely has the best interface for it - notably it makes good use of the screen for recommendations and navigation, so I'm not quite as shackled to my playlist as I have been. If nothing else, it makes me glad that I can let my Xbox gold membership (which is required to do netflix) slip and still have an excellent Netflix option.

Now, if it was just Netflix, it would be hard to justify why to get an Apple TV rather than Roku box, but there's a bit more. Apple TV also can use itunes content from other machines on your network. This is, I have to say, a little more exciting on paper than it is in practice, but it's decently sweet. The most recent itunes update allows any machine on the network to share itunes content with other machines using itunes, and the Apple TV taps into this. I suspect this might be a little cooler if I had a dedicated media PC, but just playing around with it and my laptop has allowed me to listen to music or watch TED talks that are sitting on the hard drive upstairs.

It's not flawless. The way that my lists and folders translate across to the Apple TV seems glitchy - a lot of my lists seem to have vanished, and it's hard to pin down why. I think it's mostly related to nested folders or smartlists, but whatever the cause, it's a little frustrating, because without lists the sheer volume of music is basically unmanageable. However, it's clear that if I had a swath of movies sitting on a hard drive, it would be quite convenient.[2]

There are still some oddball elements. You can't control volume with the remote, which is a pain since it means I always need to have the second remote on hand when watching. The sharing software is subject to some strange limits - machines going to sleep or otherwise doing other things seem to take them off the list of options.

Tellingly, some of the best reasons to get it don't exist yet. Sometime in November, Apple will be rolling out the 4.2 patch for the ipad, allowing video playing on your ipad to play on across your apple TV. That's pretty sweet and pretty promising if true, specifically if it allows me to get hulu plus[3] from my ipad to my TV. And hopefully hulu itself will be available at some point, and between my wife and I we've concluded that that's th epoint when it will be worth it for us.

Anyway, in summary, the utility of the Apple TV box depends a lot on your situation.

If you don't have a lot of local media (ripped DVDs etc) and you don't subscribe to a service like Netflix, then I would definitely not recommend it. Apple rentals are overpriced, and the other features are kind of nice, but not worth $100.

If you don't have a lot of local media but have been curious about Netflix to your TV, then definitely consider it. The monthly fee for Netflix is not too bad, and if you watch enough streaming content, the apple TV quickly pays for itself when compared to buying DVDs. Netflix's selectionis not comprehensive, but it's gotten broad enough to be pretty impressive. However, I would be remiss to not suggest that there's also a similar device, the Roku, which is only $60, and can stream more content (Amazon, Hulu plus and Pandora most notably). Right this minute, if you only want to stream content the Roku seems like a much better idea. However, most of these streaming services have a vested interest in getting themselves onto multiple platforms, so within a year, I expect the Apple TV to have a similar range of streaming. However, that's just one man's bet, and there's no guaranteed timeline. If you are only interested in streaming, the Roku may be a better call.[4]

If you don't have local media and you already stream through another device, then a lot depends on the device. If your device doesn't do HD then this is an upgrade. If your device charges a monthly fee over and above your Netflix subscription (Xbox) then the Apple TV will quickly pay for itself. If your device has a terrible interface (Tivo) then this will make your life vastly easier. However, excepting subscription cost, it's hard to put a price tag on these improvements, so this decision is much more subjective (and similarly raises the question of whether you'd be better off with a Roku).

If you've got a lot of media on your home network that you know you can access and share through itunes (knowing is important) that you want to get down to your TV, then this is a great deal. Much less hassle and cost than buying and hooking up a dedicated media PC. Instead, you can just put the media PC on the network, and keep it as far from your TV as you like.

If you want to stream AND have local content, then this is pretty much a killer 1-2 punch.

All in all, I'm happy with my purchase, and I expect it will be worthwhile for others down the line, but a wait-and-see response is probably still appropriate, at least past November.

1 - It has an optical port for sound, but I haven't messed around with it yet - HDMI does fine with sound to the TV, but I admit its presence makes me a little tempted to try out some speakers.

2 - So, the potential limitations of itunes sharing is one thing that concerns me with Apple TV. The good news is that since it's the same sharing that your computers use, you can usually test it out on your computers before buying an Apple TV.

3 - We just dropped our Netflix subscription from 3 disc to 1 disc, and the cost difference basically covers the cost of Hulu Plus. Maybe not for everyone, but it's a pretty good deal from our perspective. With the exception of a handful of shows, most of my TV view in is on Netflix or Hulu these days.

4 - But I went Apple because, honestly, I expect them to still be in business in 2 years, even if Apple TV doesn't do great. Roku has one product, and if the market doesn't do well, I worry about support. But again, one man's concerns.


  1. Thanks for the review. I'm assuming its wireless? And out of curiosity are you running Wireless N or G?

  2. Yep. We're running G, and while I've got no reason to think it wouldn't work with N, I admit I haven't checked.

  3. Here's the problem I have with it all and why I'll probably wait until Google brings out a similar offering.

    Living in Canada we're subject to different content laws than in the US and some of the things I've encountered with itunes is kind of bizarre and frustrating.

    Example: I recently bought Season 9 of Top Gear which was about $1.25 an episode and at 6 episodes that's not a bad deal. The issue is that one of the special episodes - the Top Gear Crew driving to the North Pole - was left out. Google searches say that this ep is in a special edition pack, but the itunes special edition pack specifically excludes that one. I had to resort to torrents to get it.

    With Canadian content laws as they are, it's hit or miss whether or not I can find a particular TV show or Movie on itunes, the big thing I want is TV, I rarely watch movies outside of the theatre. The big problem with TV is that I'm conditioned to get my TV for free. I'm fine with being subjected to ads in that exchange, but I won't be subject to watching when a network decides I should be on my couch. I watch my TV on demand.

    Now if apple can throw up TV on demand supported by ad revenue I'll be happy enough to use it, but when the show I want to watch isn't on the apple TV network, my media center PC can find it on the torrents with a 20 minute wait for the download. Not instant I know, but waiting about the same time it would take to run to the rental store isn't that hard to swallow.

    I'm not sure Apple will be able to do the ad-supported TV before Google, I don't doubt that both companies will get there soon enough, but I think this is one case where Apple simply won't be able to rule the roost.

  4. @Helmsman Oh, man, yeah I had not considered the Canada angle. I can't imagine this had much to offer up north, at least not yet.


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