The title of this post will likely warm your heart, if you’re an Apple fan, or irritate the heck out of you if you’re neutral or a hater. Still, I write on and if you can stomach it read on because the ending may surprise you 🙂
I first want to point out this isn’t my first dip-of-the-toe in the waters of alternative entertainment distribution (i.e. non-cable/satellite). For about a year now I’ve experimented with a whole range of solutions having variously run Plex, Boxee, XBMC and some homegrown “media centers” on a computer connected to our main HDTV. All of these prior solutions failed, based on my criteria, as they didn’t meet the meets-min usability for our family – namely to be friendly, easy to use, and bulletproof for my 6 year old and preferably even for my 2 year old. Several of the media center solutions even failed the test for me, a tech geek, as they were too unstable or required too much administrative overhead in order to see the real benefit. I’m convinced most of these solutions are for the sort of guy or gal who would buy an old Alfa Romeo. You simply have to love working on it in order to find it a good experience.
Enter the new AppleTV. I rarely buy the first generation of a new Apple product – still don’t own an iPad, took me a couple years to decide an iPhone was worth it, and so on. And make no mistake – this new AppleTV shares nothing but a name with the “hobby” version and is indeed a first generation product. Yet as soon as the announcement of the new AppleTV was out I immediately entered a pre-order and started preparing for it by relocating the media center computer, picking up an extra HDMI cable, and so on.
So I was ready to plug the AppleTV into our system the moment it arrived. My first impression was how small it is, second was how cool the combination of matte and glossy black finish looked. As always Apple showed design chops even though the AppleTV will generally be hidden once installed. In my case I plugged in an Ethernet cable (Gigabit), an HDMI cable and the power and I was immediately greeted by a very slick and clean UI. The only thing I didn’t like during the setup phase,
and have to imagine Apple will soon address and Apple has already addressed, is the fact entering user names and passwords (for accounts like Netflix, YouTube, Flickr, etc.) is very tedious. Tons of scrolling and clicking. The same day the AppleTV arrived Apple released an update to the iPhone/iPad Remote application enabling you to do your typing on the virtual keyboard. Very nice! Here’s a summary of my opinion – read on for the gory details.
The most striking aspect of the AppleTV has been it’s stability. The family has used it for hours and we have yet to see a streaming glitch or UI problem. I presume the device is using it’s hefty amount of RAM to do unusually large buffering. Performance of Netflix streaming to the AppleTV is definitely more reliable than to any of the computers connected to the same network (which use Flash and Silverlight I believe). YouTube streaming works equally well.
iTunes rentals are pretty convenient but be warned it asks for the CVV code on the back of your credit card. For adults I think that is a fine solution. But to allow kiddos to rent content, if you’re a trusting parent, a user-settable code would be preferable.
iTunes rental image quality is outstanding at 720p. Yeah, our set is 1080p and so it isn’t quite as good as we could get with a directly connected 1080p source. But at 720p the image quality is superior to nearly all cable and satellite distributed content and is superior to the Roku based on the comparisons I’ve seen. Playing a rented iTunes movie and comparing it to the same movie streamed by Netflix really highlights the inferior technology Netflix uses even over a solid network connection. Of course for the price of two average iTunes movie rentals you get to stream all the Netflix content you can handle for a month…
We’re also using the AppleTV to stream content from our own library stored on a Mac Mini used as a server. We have DVDs, family movies, TV shows and a large photo library (used as our screensaver). Getting this to work is brain-dead simple since you only need to turn on Home Sharing on the AppleTV and computer to make this happen. I did notice, however, that the AppleTV does not see iTunes media on our NAS which uses Firefly. Home Sharing is apparently required and at least for now that is a closed protocol.
So what do I think about this $99 purchase? For this family of 4 (mom, dad, and children 6 and 2 years old) it is a great addition. It is immediately usable with no training required even for the 6 year old. It seems bulletproof. It successfully delivers the content we care about and, with the Remote app, even searching of contacts and content is a breeze. But in the end this review isn’t particularly about the AppleTV – it’s about the Revolution in content distribution. For the first time it is obvious that the technology needed to divorce ourselves from the communistic content control of the cable and satellite companies is ready for the mainstream. I’ve seen a few people slam the AppleTV as being “handicapped” so only suitable for “mom” or “grandma”. Frankly, that is the point of a revolution – it must be populist and hence meaningful and beneficial to masses. Apple has proved it is doable. I’m sure Google and the typical cast of characters will follow suit. Well, except Microsoft. They can never get anything right for consumers.