The Apple TV

For three years I have been using a first generation PowerPC Mac mini as my home media center — for those three years it has sat faithfully attached to different TVs and different external HDs. For three years it has broadcast HD quality 1 video on our TV in the living room. I would sound like your ideal candidate for the first generation Apple TV 2 but I never saw how it would be better than my Mac mini.

As I read reviews of the original Apple TV I got the distinct impression that it was OK, but not great and certainly a tad over priced for what it was. My Mac mini just worked and so in an extraordinary show of restraint, I just let things be. I have that old ass Mac mini hooked up to a 55” LCD TV via VGA and guess what? It still works.

True, it can’t play any of the 720p videos you find online and it dies if you try to play a Flash video, but you give it a nice h.264 encoded AVI and a little VLC love and everything is works swimmingly.

Then Apple released the Apple TV 2 and damn is it sexy looking. Oh, that price is very nice too.

When I unboxed the Apple TV I had huge hopes that it would allow me to get rid of the Mac mini under our TV — I thought perhaps I could just stream the media from the Mac mini to the Apple TV.

Can this Apple TV replace a 5+ year old PowerPC Mac?

Setting Up

Not knowing if I would want to keep the Apple TV or not I plopped it beside my Mac mini and hooked it up. I immediately ran into a bunch of problems with this setup:

  1. Our TV is mounted to the wall above our fireplace, below it sits the Apple TV on the mantle — all told it is about 4’-8” high. Which is great — except when you sit down and try to get the remote to work. In fact the only way to have the Apple TV within 3’ 3 is to place it on the mantle, or let it dangle in front of the fireplace. So getting the infrared remote to work properly while one is comfortably seated on the couch means pushing the Apple TV all the way to the edge of the mantle. This works well enough, but hardly looks good. I now see why so many people wanted an RF or Bluetooth based remote, the Apple TV could certainly use one.

  2. I run an Airport Extreme that is a few years old, but works just fine. 4 The optimal placement in our home for the Airport is below the TV, giving us the best possible WiFi coverage. 5 The Apple TV though sits 18” away from the router — meaning I get pretty crappy WiFi reception with it. 6 I dug out a 30’ ethernet cable (the only one we have) and hooked up the Apple TV so that I could get proper internet 18” away from the router. 7

  3. Entering passwords and usernames is more painful than a paper cut beneath your finger nail. I have yet to see a device that doesn’t have a keyboard come up with a good way to enter text. 8

  4. Home Sharing is a piece of cake — Apple got that one right.

Overall the greatest friction point of setup for most users is going to be entering passwords — there needs to be a better/faster way to enter text on the Apple TV. I would suggest that Apple make the setup process so that once you get the WiFi password in you can grab your MobileMe settings from your Mac via home sharing. Heck they could even add a preference pane in iTunes to allow you to input all your other usernames and passwords (e.g. Flickr, NetFlix). Making the setup process a hell of a lot quicker.

Further how sweet would it be if you could build an Apple TV rental queue on your Mac, so when you get home all your movies are ready to be watched.

Renting

I have rented two movies from iTunes since I got the Apple TV.

It took me about 5 minutes to rent the damned movie. The problem: credit card security. The Apple TV kept asking me for the credit cards’ security code — I had to enter it 5 times before it took. I don’t know why and I assume this was a one time problem, but even still it was a frustrating experience.

Once the movie was rented I had to “find” it before I could watch it — I thought it was odd that there was no option to watch the movie right away. Even so, once I found the movie on the home screen it started playing fast — actually damn fast. I was very surprised by this. Even more the quality was much higher resolution than I expected and than I am used to with the Mac mini.

We watched the entire movie with out a jitter or pause in the video, everything went flawlessly. Aside from the purchasing hoopla we had a great time renting the movie. Looking back I am even more surprised that with a standard Comcast cable connection in a multi-unit building I was able to stream an HD movie within seconds of buying it and having never experienced a jitter in the video. That may be worth the $99 for the device right there — also there were no teenagers on my couch with beeping a blinking cell phones, so put that in the pluses column.

A couple of nights later we decided to rent another movie — this time we were greeted with a message telling us that the movie would be ready to play in 1 hour and 40 minutes. This shocked us both, but apparently a lot of people see this bug and the solution is to just turn off “Send data to Apple”. Odd, but it fixed the problem and again we had no problems after that. I will say though that it took me about 15 minutes to get this problem fixed and as my wife reminded me: “We could be 15 minutes into the movie by now.”

We rented two movies and had errors with the device each time, if I wasn’t a techie I would have serious reservations about the device at this point. I don’t say this to be dramatic, but each time it would have been a tad cheaper and almost as fast to drive to the nearest RedBox to rent a DVD. 9 I don’t rent DVDs, I don’t go to the Movies — so for me to really like the Apple TV it needs to stay out of my way.

All told I have no doubt that each time you rent a movie the experience gets better and better, but realistically how many movies/TV shows will you be renting? The content is just too limited to make this a device that most are going to use daily for renting of movies and shows. Even if you rented all the time, how long could you afford to do that for?

YouTube

After we finished with the movie we decided to see what kind of entertainment we could scare up on YouTube. I used to be on YouTube a lot, but I hadn’t watched many videos from YouTube in sometime. We went through various videos in the ‘Top Played’ and ‘Top Rated’ categories. Aside from the varying video quality, we consistently ran into two problems: jittery and slow streaming.

If you have ever watched YouTube on your computer then you know what I am talking about. Finding and discovering videos is a cinch, but oddly enough the actual playing of the videos is pretty terrible. I am guessing YouTube is to blame for this given that we watched a 90+ minute movie without a problem, yet a 40 second cellphone quality video required 20 seconds of buffering and two pauses in the video. Either way it is unacceptable from a company of Google’s size and abilities.

YouTube has problems and I remarked several times that I wished the Apple TV had Vimeo support rather than YouTube support — not only does Vimeo have better playback, but the quality of the content is far superior. If you visit YouTube on the Mac and use the Flash player you will find the same experience on the Apple TV, you just won’t hear fan noise at the Apple TV.

Flickr & MobileMe

I don’t keep any videos on either of these services, but I do have a ton of pictures on them. Overall the experience is very good, the pictures loaded up in high resolution and pretty quickly. The slide show feature, set to a playlist makes for a nice back drop when you have guests over.

I don’t know how practical tying in these services are for home use, but I can imagine that if you go to a friends house it would be a great way to show pictures of a recent trip. Certainly provides a better way than burning a DVD or bringing a slide projector in would. Assuming that you don’t go crazy trying to type in your username.

Then of course the problem that you run into is that not everyone has an Apple TV…

The Remote

Most remotes face one or all of these problems: too big, too small, too many buttons, poor button placement, confusing buttons, ugly, or heavy. By now you have most likely seen the Apple remote’s svelte look. It is beautiful to look at and feels excellent in your hand.

This remote truly is the perfect size.

Then you start to use it and you begin to realize that it has exactly the right amount of buttons on it. Using this remote you get the sense that the guys who made the remote spent extensive time using and refining the remote. Thought and care was put into the design of this relatively simple looking remote. I know this because when I use this remote (a remote I had never used before mind you) I never once had to look down to see which button was which.

The Apple TV remote, aside from the lack of RF or Bluetooth, is the best damned remote I have ever held. This remote may even be the best feature of the Apple TV.

Replace the Mac mini

As I said in the introduction, I have been using a Mac mini as my media controller for at least the past three years (I think it has even been close to four years now). The Mac mini that is connected is slow, it spends its life with Transmission, VLC, iTunes and Dropbox running. Yes I download BitTorrent files with it — though I will not comment on which kind of BitTorrent files.

I have Transmission setup to start downloading any Torrent files placed in a Torrents folder inside Dropbox. Back on my Air if I download any BitTorrent files they are automatically moved to that folder in Dropbox. Basically my MacBook Air can trigger the Mac mini to start downloads in Transmission. I have a 1 terabyte drive connected to the mini and over 200 GB of videos on it to watch.

Unless my wife and I are out of town, not a day goes by that we don’t use the Mac mini to watch something. My sincere hope was that the Apple TV would allow me to tuck away the Mac mini in some far off corner of our house and use just the Apple TV to watch all the same types of media. 10 Sadly though, that cannot happen just yet.

I never intended on the Apple TV being able to replicate all the content I get from the mini, but I did hope that I could use iTunes to just stream everything else. Unfortunately that would mean converting every video with Handbrake. This would be fine if I had an Intel Mac mini, but I have an old PowerPC model — to convert say an hour long HD TV show it would take at least an hour or more. Meaning I would not get to watch many videos, instead I would constantly be waiting for the next one to convert on the Mac mini.

For now the Apple TV is just another device hooked up to the the TV — albeit a damn pretty device. My guess is that the Mac mini still handles a lot of the shorter, constant content that we watch and the Apple TV gets moved to a movie watching device.

Content

Apple has put together a large selection of movies, but there is not a large selection of quality classics, nor is there a large selection of movies that I haven’t already seen. 11 The amount of quality movies is rather disappointing and took my right to the Netflix page to sign up.

Unless you have a kid — there seems to be plenty of great content for them to watch.

I am truly disappointed in the lack of content. Apple needs to get some of the new movies on the device faster than they normally come out — why do we have to wait for movies to leave the theater before we can rent them with Apple TV? At least let use watch them the moment they leave the theaters.

TV Show content is really abysmal, only a hand full of TV shows are available to watch. This is the one spot that TV networks could have really made a great fortune as I know my wife will gladly pay to rent a show if she missed it. The networks really need to pull their heads out of their asses on this one.

Netflix

I didn’t have a Netflix account when I got the Apple TV, but I decided that in order to properly review this device I needed to get one. Luckily there is a 31 day free trial that you can get and that works just fine with the Apple TV. 12 In the last section I complained about the lack of quality content, with Netflix my only compliant is that there is so much quality content I have a hard time choosing what to watch.

If you have an Apple TV and you don’t have a Netflix account, you are missing out on the best part of the Apple TV. Hands down the Netflix support is phenomenal.

In actual use finding stuff to watch on Netflix is on par with what you would expect for the Apple TV. If you know what you want search works well and if you don’t know what you want browsing will flood you with great options. Most all of my favorite TV shows are available (Even the British Top Gear) and there are loads of great movie options. I can tell you right now, Netflix on the Apple TV is where it is at.

The playback of Netflix is not on par with Apple level playback. Netflix takes longer to load and doesn’t look as crisp as the stuff I rented from Apple. I didn’t time anything, but my gut response is that Netflix quality and speed is about 90% that of Apples. Which is still phenomenal and better than what I get on the Mac mini.

During playback I noticed a 1-2 second pause in video and audio once for every 22 minute episode that we watched. This is not terrible, but again this didn’t happen with Apple. One annoying this about the pause is that the video takes right off from where it paused, meaning that it takes you a bit to think about what had been happening before the pause started. It would be great if when a video pauses Apple would rewind the video by 2 seconds so that you really don’t miss a thing.

Overall though the Netflix integration alone makes the Apple TV worth it, couple that with the remote and you are getting a bargain in my book.

AirPlay

One thing I heard when I announced that I got an Apple TV was that AirPlay was going to blow my mind. For the first week I had the Apple TV I forgot to test AirPlay — oops. When I finally got back from Miami I had media on my iPhone and iPad and decided to shoot some video to the Apple TV using my iPad. My network is setup so that it is 802.11n only in the 2.4GHz (I wish the iPhone supported the 5GHz signal), I wanted to note this because I don’t know what the experience is like on slower networks.

I started playing a movie on my iPad and hit the button to AirPlay — the video didn’t start instantly, but it started up very quickly on the Apple TV. From that point on there were not jitters and not a single lag that I could see. The quality was restricted (I assume) by the low quality file that I use on my iPad (remember it is only 1024×768).

I can’t say that I see myself using this feature very often (if ever), but I could see a friend “bringing” over a movie to watch at my place using their iPhone/iPad. That would be pretty neat. I wasn’t blown away by this at the time, but thinking back at the zero configuration I needed to do for this does impress me a good bit.

Podcasts

I don’t watch many podcasts, but there are a few video podcasts that I truly enjoy. 13 Podcast viewing on the Apple TV works in much the same way as renting a show does — with the one exception that the podcasts are free. They load quickly and in high resolution (unless they are not available in high resolutions), you can even mark podcasts as a favorite to track the episodes that you have viewed.

One thing that is missing: integration with my iTunes. I would love for the Apple TV to see that I am signed into iTunes and to check for the podcasts that I subscribe to on my Mac — showing me what I have watched on there already. It seems like there is a syncing solution missing here, one that could really make the podcast viewing experience great.

There isn’t much else to say about podcasts on the Apple TV — if you like podcasts and you want them on your TV then that is what you get. If you don’t like podcasts then luckily for you the option is tucked away in the ‘Internet’ menu below Netflix and others.

Keeper

The Apple TV won’t be replacing my trusty Mac mini at any point in the near future, but it certainly is pretty cool. For $99 you get a tiny little black box that you would be hard pressed to say is anything but worth the money. There are certainly cheaper places to get a lot of the same content, but not a single other place to get as good of an experience and as quickly as you can with the Apple TV.

  1. Not 720p, but very high resolution.
  2. True I wanted one.
  3. Restricted by the length of Apple’s HDMI cable.
  4. I have the 802.11n model, but not the one that allows you to dual broadcast the 2.4GHz and 5GHz signals, nor can I have the guest network.
  5. More importantly excellent coverage at my home desk.
  6. You actually do need some distance between the router and the receiving device.
  7. This looks absurd, given that the coil from the cable is bigger in size than that of the Apple TV.
  8. Thanks for all the suggestions that I use the Remote.app for iOS. I am aware of it, but excluded it from this review as I assume not everyone has iOS to use this.
  9. Though to be honest I don’t know if our DVD player even works and I doubt it is connected to the TV.
  10. Because: a) the Mac mini is too big for where it sits. b) It has no remotes, meaning I use TouchPad on my iPhone to control the mouse on it.
  11. Those movies that fall into the category of see once and not again.
  12. Honestly I would be surprised if I cancel my account at this point, great service.
  13. Beautiful Places HD and Chase Jarvis RAW.
Originally posted for members on: January 14, 2011
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