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Bruce McCarthy is Founder and Chief Product Person at UpUp Labs, where he and his team are at work on Reqqs - the smart roadmap tool for product people.

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Thursday
Mar292007

Apple TV works for me

It has its limitations, but Apple TV is doing exactly what I hoped it would for me - and doing so with ease and elegance.

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My aging Squeezebox was no longer squeezing out the tunes
My mission in buying an Apple TV was to replace my aging Squeezebox wireless digital music player with something that could play our growing library of copy protected iTunes music. Apple TV does that beautifully and it also gives me access to my digital photos and to video content from the iTunes store - all wrapped in the kind of intuitive interface you'd expect from Apple.

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Apple's elegant and easy packaging did not disappoint
Predictably, I even liked the packaging. (See my thoughts on poor packaging.) It's simple, containing no loose material, nothing unnecessary. It's easy to open, right down to the plastic sleeves the remote and the Apple TV unit come in, which can be peeled away with one hand. The documentation is a single black booklet that walks you through setup and initial use.

I bought a small Samsung TV to use with the Apple TV in our den. I couldn't help but laugh at how ungainly the packaging was for the TV compared with Apple's, and how much more documentation there was for a device that's been around for over half a century than for something on the cutting edge of technology.

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Connections were simple and quick
The unit itself is handsome and solid. I connected to the new TV with HDMI and separately to the Cambridge Soundworks powered speakers that the Squeezebox used to feed using analog audio. (The speakers have digital coax input but Apple TV's digital output is optical. I've ordered a converter.) Despite the analog signal, the sound from the speakers is light years beyond the sound from the TV.

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Setup was a breeze with the remote
Setup was as easy as PC Magazine's detailed review made it sound. In just a couple of minutes, I had connected to my secure wireless network, connected to iTunes, and started the process of sync'ing the unit with the iTunes library on my iMac. (Apple TV also works with PCs running iTunes.) Apple TV has only a 40 GB hard drive - about 33 GB of which is free - and my iTunes collection is 39 GB and growing. I think about the unit as essentially a big iPod, though, so it was easy to pick and choose my familiy's favorite playlists to sync and leave the rest of our collection behind. And you can actually stream anything you like directly from your Mac in real time, so I don't feel at all limited.

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I got music streaming from my iMac in minutes
I tested the streaming early on because not much content had sync'd to the unit yet and I found the experience to be nearly identical to playing things from the Apple TV hard drive. With my 802.11g wireless network, there was only a moment's buffering delay before music started to play and no noticeable stuttering in video streaming. This is much better than I could ever achieve with wireless streaming between my two ReplayTV units. This lead me to wonder why Apple bothered with a hard drive. Homes where the computer isn't always on or the network is not as fast could benefit, though. (See the 2nd paragraph on this page of the PC Magazine review for details about how this could be exploited.)

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Spousal Aceptance Factor was quickly achieved
Apple TV spent all of Sunday playing our favorite playlists, newly envigorated with the protected content from the Apple. Mission fully accomplished on that front. My wife and I also spent an evening checking out movie trailers (downloaded on demand from Apple, I think), a music video, a short Pixar film, and the musical episode of Scrubs. All played nicely on our small screen. SAF (Spousal Acceptance Factor) was also quickly achieved.

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Six from BSG looks good on the 19" screen but  I wouldn't try  TV on anything bigger
This brings up the reason we didn't hook Apple TV up to our main TV. Apple TV puts out 480p, which is as good as the Wii or a progressive scan DVD - both of which look great on the 27" HD Samsung we have in the family room. I previewed a bit of my current favorite sci-fi TV show and National Treasure on a similarly-sized screen at the Apple Store, however, and I must say the video quality was disappointing. Admittedly I was standing too close and was in a brightly-lit store, but I found the picture grainy and fuzzy - not at all what I'd expect from a DVD. This appears to be more a limitation of what's available currently via iTunes than a limitation of Apple TV, though, and I expect it will be rectified over time.

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It's impossible to resits stopping to look at the photo montage screensaver
I also sync'd up my favorite photo albums from iPhoto. I rarely print photos anymore, preferring to post them online for friends and family. I figured it would be nice to be able to see them away from the computer as well, though, and I was right. You can pick any album to display as a slide show (complete with Ken Burns effect) and it will pick music from your library to accompany the show. Also the screensaver can be set to display your pictures in a moving montage while you listen to music. I can just picture my parents enjoying this the next time they are over. The pictures looked great on the screen, reinforcing my thoughts about the capabilities of the hardware.

Speculation
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Gratuitous comparison of Apple TV and Samsung remotes
Some see in AppleTV a competitor to cable and satellite TV. I have at least one colleague who eschews cable for iTunes content. I only watch about 10 hours of TV a week; at iTunes rates, that would cost me about half what I pay to Comcast. The rest of my family watches a lot more TV so it wouldn't be economical for us, but it certainly could be for a single person or a couple without heavy TV-watching habits. And Apple says about 70% of prime time content is now available via iTunes. The video quality is still lacking, but that will improve and I could see this making sense for some people. Why pay for tons of channels and content you never watch and then pay for DVR service to capture it (not always reliably) so you can watch it when you want? Why not make it purely pay-as-you-go? I wish I could pay Comcast on an a la carte basis. As I've discussed elsewhere, this makes sense for content like TV shows you will watch only once or twice. The iTunes price for movies ($9.99) is still set more for ownership, though, than for rental, and I can imagine my hard drive filling up quickly with content I don't plan to watch again but can't bear to delete because I paid for it.

People have compared Apple TV unfavorably to the XBox 360 which allows you to purchase and download content directly rather than having to go through your PC. I expect this, too, will show up soon. Apple TV runs a modified version of OSX and it appears to be downloading movies trailers directly from the net, so I see no reason why you couldn't just buy a movie and download it after watching the trailer.

Suggestions for Apple TV

  • Let me buy a movie with my Apple TV remote if I like the trailer as described above.
  • I want to play my home movies on it. Like many people I have hours and hours of video but I haven't invested the time to edit much of it down to something watchable. I have iMovie and I know how to use it. Apple TV would be the perfect way to enjoy it from the comfort of my couch. Today some extra work with QuickTime Pro appears to be needed before I can play my home movies on Apple TV. This should be software-only upgrade in the near future.
  • Don't stop playing my tunes if I go to look at pictures. AppleTV will continue playing whatever music you've told it while you browse your playlists, albums, artists, etc. But if you navigate out of music and into photos or some other part of the menu, it stops the music abruptly while you browse. Can't I do both at once? My Mac can. It shouldn't stop playing music unless I tell it to or start playing something else with an audio component. In fact, I wouldn't even play the music associated with a photo album if I am already playing some other music, but perhaps that should be a preference setting.
  • I need volume control. I don't want to cram a lot of extra buttons onto the very elegant and simple Apple TV remote, but the one control it doesn't have is volume. I'm using the volume control on my powered speakers (which is a dial, not on a remote) and when someone comes into the room to talk I want to turn down the volume on the music. (This is also, sadly, sometimes necessary because Apple's Soundcheck feature does not do a perfect job keeping the volume even among songs.) So if Apple could make one or two buttons on the remote programmable (perhaps via a learning feature or a Harmony-style interface), I could control the volume through the same remote and be much happier.

Related links

http://www.businessweek.com/technology/content/feb2007/tc20070206_576721.htm?chan=technology_technology+index+page_today's+top+stories
Steve Jobs calls for an end to DRM

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KgOhVM7GN5o
Funny Xbox 360 video

Reader Comments (6)

You are the first person I actually know to set up the Apple TV. Sounds like a very smooth installation. Just curious - do you use Apple's wireless hubs for your network or another maker?
March 29, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterBen Brophy
It was smoother and quicker than setting up my Wii!

I use a Linksys G wireless router for my wireless network. I've used them for quite a few years now with relative success. I believe the hardware underneath is the same as Apple's G router and I've never had a PC vs. Mac issue with Linksys.
March 29, 2007 | Registered CommenterBruce McCarthy
As a Vista Media Center user (recent adopter) with XBOX 360 extenders, I've also been frustrated.

Apple TV seems to solve the purchase of content better (the stuff on MCE is, at best, useless) and manages libraries of video content better (again, not an MCE strong point) - but sadly lacks on the integration with other tools, a decent remote, and an ability for me to manage my library in multiple locations (unlike MCE).

The first company (MS or Apple) to solve this properly, wins the prize, IMHO.
March 29, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAlistair Galbraith
Apple does make the purchase of content easy. I am very used to buying things through iTunes and sync'ing with my iPod. Apple TV is no different.

And I can access my iTunes library from any other PC on my network, change ratings, make playlists, etc. What other sorts of library-management do you want to do from other locations, Alistair?

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I was thinking about my desire to have a programmable button on the Apple TV remote for volume, and I realized I'd like to turn the TV on and off, too. Maybe that's getting too complicated.

But wouldn't it be cool if I could program the remote by choosing my hardware from an onscreen menu *with the remote* and have Apple TV send out the signal for the remote to learn automatically? *That* would be a cool feature!
March 31, 2007 | Registered CommenterBruce McCarthy
The library management issues fold into two problems.

- Distributed updates (manage a library in multiple locations)
- Distributed setting saving (pause on one player, resume on another)

I use my iPod with a docking connector in my car to listen to music on the road. The "order by least recently played" playlist is a great help to leave me with fresh music. If I listen via my home Sonos system, or even via the iTunes player on my desk PC, this count isn't updated - as the library is actually held on a media server in a closet.

I can't modify a playlist, add tags, or add new music without a "remote desktop" style connection to my media server Mac.

A distributed media solution should allow people to manage their music collections centrally, but without having to be *physically present* at the central location.

A simple "watch folders" function, with recalculation of the library from the tags in the files themselves, would go a long way to solving this.
April 2, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAlistair Galbraith
I read that if you are playing a movie on your iPod and you dock that iPod with your Mac, you can pick up watching that movie on Apple TV at the exact spot you left off. So apparently there is some memory of settings and such that is retained and shared.

I see what you mean, though, about decentralized management. With all of the various devices in contact (some all the time, some sporadically) it would certainly seem feasible. Having a central management point does not preclude sync'ing up usage data, to use your example.
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I have also read elsewhere that one can export home movies from iMovie HD to Apple TV format. I will try this and report back!
April 2, 2007 | Registered CommenterBruce McCarthy

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