I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with the Apple TV. At different points I owned three different original Apple TVs, selling each on eBay and then re-buying a few months later. It was a vicious cycle. When Apple announced Apple TV 2, against my better judgement, I pre-ordered one (and continue to use it today). Apple has always described the Apple TV as a hobby, I’ve always described it as their “almost there” product.
The streaming “box” landscape is vastly different today then when the Apple TV 1 launched, and will become even more competitive in 2011. Roku, Western Digital, Microsoft and Sony (amongst others) all offer solid competition to the Apple TV 2 (I have or had owned all of these). Each of these devices seem to be on different parts of the player spectrum. Roku today is very Internet streaming heavy, although local LAN streaming is promised to be coming soon. The Western Digital TV Live Plus focuses more on local LAN streaming, with some Netflix thrown in for added flair. The Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and Apple TV 2 seem to fall in the middle of this bell curve, offering a good balance of local LAN streaming and Internet provided content. The Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 have been covered ad nauseam elsewhere, so I’ll focus today just on my relationship with the Apple TV.
In a lot of ways I think Apple got the Apple TV 2 right. The hockey puck streamer ditched the hard drive for flash storage, component connections for HDMI and optical audio only, purchases for rentals, and added Netflix to its content offering. They also found the right price point as well, just $99. The end result is a drastically smaller and less power-hungry set-top box, a welcome addition to my already crowded entertainment center.
A number of people were upset at the loss of the hard drive, personally even with Apple TV 1 I rarely placed any content on the internal hard drive, everything would stream directly from my iTunes library. I did this for a number of reasons, but the biggest being my computer is always on anyways, so why bother syncing. Plus, no moving parts means less heat and less to break.
Now, why I call it an “almost there” product: limited video codec support and iTunes. In a way these are both related. I am under no delusion that in Apple’s eyes the Apple TV is just an additional way to sell iTunes content, nor do I fault them for that. Apple has every right to create a product where the main purpose is to extend their ecosystem. The Apple TV is a way to get iTunes content, either from your local PC/Mac or directly from the iTunes store, on your TV. I think here iTunes is the thorn in the side of Apple TV. The program itself has become very bloated, it has gone far beyond the music manager and store, taking on such roles of syncing and social networking. My other problem is the requirement to have iTunes running to stream content to the Apple TV. Apple should move some of these functions to services that can run in the background. This would solve the issue of forgetting to start iTunes after a reboot, and also lower the cpu/memory footprint by not requiring the full application running just to stream content. An example is how the Xbox 360 works with Windows Media Center. Select services run in the background allowing the Xbox to act as an extender, I don’t have to start the full Media Center experience on my PC to connect the Xbox 360. To me, that’s just a nice user experience that Apple is overlooking.
The second issue is partly related to iTunes: codec support. Don’t get me wrong, I really like h.264, and I agree with Paul Thurrott’s analysis on the codec, however, I have a ton of video in Xvid and MKV. For the most part these videos play fine on the Xbox 360 (MKV through Media Center) and the PS3, so I refuse to convert the videos just for the Apple TV. The limited codec support may be Apple’s way of protecting their sales from the iTunes store, the task of converting video is not something grandma can do, but she can rent a show or movie from iTunes with 3 clicks. The other part is Apple never caters to the hardcore geeks out there, they make an experience that works and they stick with it, but the option would be nice. To show the frustration with lack of codec support as well as the potential of the Apple TV, check out the multipart series by Erica Sadun at TAUW. Erica has put a ton of work into getting additional codecs to stream on the Apple TV. Erica’s work shows that it can be done, but it’s far from the elegant user experience and setup we expect from Apple. Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4
With all that said, I’m still extremely happy with this iteration of the Apple TV. It has one of the best Netflix Watch Instantly interfaces, and has become our go-to rental source when we’re in between Netflix discs or want a new release subjected to the Netflix 28 day window. Airplay has also become an interesting addition, and while I wish they had just used the DNLA standard, I’m interested to see how they continue to evolve that technology to include third-party video apps. I’d like to see additional streaming options, such as Hulu Plus, but I won’t hold my breath. All in all I’m interested to see where Apple takes this hobby, I’m hoping this refresh of hardware is just the beginning.