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Review of Apple TV

2008-03-05 17:13:01

I've been kicking around the idea of getting an Apple TV for a while. I have a Tivo, and it supposedly can do things like show my digital photos and home on TV. But I've tried to set it up a few times, and various things either don't work at all, or are torture to configure. Part of the problem is that I have a Mac at home, and although Tivo does claim to support Mac, it doesn't actually seem like they do. (I even bought Roxio Toast so I could copy shows from Tivo and burn DVDs or save them to an iPod. That actually works, but it's something I rarely care about doing.)

I have over 10,000 digital photos, almost all family stuff going back to 1999. But I also have a few thousand family film/slide pictures I've scanned in going back to 1962. It's fun to look at them, but it's more fun to look at them with the whole family. This is the thing that was interesting to me. If my photo library was just a click away on the TV remote, it would be a lot more likely that we would site with the kids and look at them.

The same applies to our home videos, but they are mostly still sitting on digital tape, waiting to be imported and cleaned up. Until very recently, I didn't have anywhere near the disk space to hold all those hours of kids birthday parties and family trips. But I recently got a home network storage device, so maybe I'll decide to get organized and get that stuff online finally.

I was in the Apple store today, getting a video out cable for my ipod nano, and I started playing with the Apple TV they had there. I've been putting a some of my DVDs on my ipod, so I can have a library of things to watch on plane trips. (The video cable was so that I could put some kids shows on the ipod, and take it with us on our upcoming winter vacation. It's easier than bringing a pile of DVDs, and eliminates the risk of them getting scratched up. That's the theory anyway; I still have to choose about 12 hours of programming to load onto the ipod, and then put it on there.)

The new user interface on the Apple TV is really nice. It's very simple, very clean. I like that it is white text on black background, instead of the shifting blue/green/red hazy loop that plays in the background on Tivo. So I decided to buy it on semi-impulse. If thinking about something for 6 months and reading about it before you buy it is impulse.

It was pretty easy to set up. I plugged the component video into my TV (my TV only has one HDMI input, and that's used by the DVD player.) I plugged an ethernet cable from my network in, power it up and it came right up. I had to type a 7-digit code into my iTunes on my home computer, and then the Apple TV started getting music, movies and photos from my iTunes library. It was at this point that it really hit me how freaking cool this thing was. Right on the TV, I could see all those movies I had set up for my ipod. "Wow, I could just totally watch Star Wars right now, without going into the closet, finding the DVD, and opening the DVD player."

I know, "opening the DVD player." How impatient can I be, right? But seriously. Have you opened a DVD player lately? You press the button to eject the disc drawer. Then you wait there for 57 million centuries while the thing decides if it should open. You're not sure if you pressed the button all the way, so you push it again, but OH! it started to open, so now you just closed it again. HA! How hard is it to open a drawer? This is why consumer electronics suck in general, and this is why Apple (or anybody who tries a little bit to put themselves in the shoes of the consumer) is going to eat (or is now eating, I suppose) Sony's lunch. It seems like a very tiny minority of consumer electronics pay any attention at all to the user experience.

I feel like this is really the inflection point, where digital audio was about 8 years ago, when your music suddenly was at your fingertips instead of on a shelf in the living room. It's taken a while for video to get to that point; mostly I think it's just a function of how cheap storage has to be. Terabyte storage is now affordable to have at home. Certainly portable media players, like the ones from Creative, have been around for years. But until you have enough reliable disk space, you're not going to make a serious effort to encode your whole movie collection.

So I've been burning a lot of CPU time encoding my personal movie collection onto the Apple TV. Gosh, now I wish I had an 8-core machine instead of a little 2-core! Here's something that's going to drive Intel chip sales: all those millions of movies people are going to be encoding for their iPods, Apple TVs or other media players. Encoding a 2-hour movie takes an hour on my two-core machine; it would take 15 minutes on an eight-core Mac Pro.

Regarding the movie rentals on Apple TV, I was initially annoyed at the 24-hour time limit on watching a movie. But in practice, it hasn't been bad. I just don't start a movie unless I know I'll be able to watch it right through. For me, that means late at night, after the kids are all asleep. It is definitely true for me, though, that I would rent more and watch more if I could watch a movie in 2 or 3 chunks over the course of 4-5 days.