Apple TV Love/Hate Relationship

So, @guzdial was asking about Apple TV on Twitter, and I cannot answer his last post in the length of a tweet, so I’m doing it here instead. He asked:

“can I easily share iTunes content from around the home network on it? I’d like share movies and TV on HD. What’s the downside?”

OK, so first: I didn’t really intend to buy an Apple TV. I needed a new A/V receiver, and the model I decided I wanted was a Denon, and for the warranty to be valid, you have to buy from an authorized Denon dealer, which means no discounts. The dealers work around this by throwing in free stuff, and the best “free stuff” offer at the time was a 40 Gb Apple TV. Since it’s just not possible for me to have too many Apple-branded gizmos, I figured “why not?” I’ve commented previously on a couple aspects of in this blog in the past, but I wanted to take on this question directly.

Now that I have one, I cannot for the life of me imagine not having one, or having something with the same kind of functionality. It’s like going from CDs to an iPod; it’s great to be able to have your whole music/movies/TV library all right there. It’s particularly fantastic with kids, since if they touch a disc it’ll never find its way back to a case later on, and they can choose a movie by the cover art even if they can’t read the movie title (not a problem anymore, though, as my 5-year-old is now reading really well). Anyway, once you get one, you simply cannot go back. I love having all the media on my computer available on my home theater in a fairly seamless way.

However, I also hate it. Why? Because it’s the redheaded stepchild of Apple’s lineup; Apple clearly doesn’t devote much attention to this product. It’s a great thing to have but it’s so frustrating because of what it can’t do and what it doesn’t do well—and it wouldn’t be that hard for it to do these things.

The first problem is that it has really weak HD capability. It doesn’t handle 1080p at all, and it only handles 720p up to 24 fps. This is a pain mostly because typical modern HD camcorders that shoot 720p generally shoot at 30 fps. This means you cannot watch your digital home movies directly on your Apple TV unless you either scale them down or downsample the frame rate. This is so mind-bogglingly stupid that it’s hard to imagine that a responsible adult made this decision. “Let’s sell a digital media product that can’t handle one of the major user-generated media formats.” OK, in fairness to Apple, the Apple TV predates the widespread availability of things like the Flip HD. However, Apple still hasn’t addressed the problem either. I believe this is a hardware limitation in the graphics chipset, but seriously, I would actually buy a new unit if it solved this problem. (For the record, ClipStart now handles this issue pretty well as it has an “Export to Apple TV” option. It’s still stupid that such a thing is necessary, though.)

The second problem is storage. 40 GB just isn’t very much. I know the new ones come with a minimum of 160 GB, but that’s not really very much, either. The most frustrating part is that there’s a USB port on the Apple TV. Why Apple won’t let customers attach their own USB drive to give the thing adequate storage is I simply cannot figure out. This means that my desktop computer has to be on all the time in order to serve media to the Apple TV. So, for instance, when I go out of town for work, I have to leave my computer on with me logged in while I’m away so that my iTunes library can be seen by the Apple TV. That’s stupid. If I could just attach an external USB drive, that would be so much more sensible.

Third is reliability and dealing with lack of same. I don’t get how this is such a problem; I run OS X as my primary OS on all my machines and I run all kinds of other weird things and they rarely crash. The Apple TV, on the other hand, crashes a lot. The problem is amplified by the fact that it’s such a pain to reset. There’s no power switch of any kind, so you have to get behind it and physically unplug it in order to reset it. This means you can’t really keep it in a cabinet or anything like that easily. (You probably wouldn’t want to anyway as the Apple TV also throws off a lot of heat.) Either the software reliability needs to be vastly improved, or they need to provide an easier way to reboot it.

Fourth is the UI. In many ways the UI is good—it’s very simple to set up and the kids can understand it and find what they want—but in other ways it’s not so great. Having thousands of songs and many moves doesn’t scale well to the very simple but very dumb Apple remote. Now, the “Remote” iPhone app is great, but I don’t always have my phone handy, whereas I always have a remote handy. Since it’s a Logitech Harmony remote, it could make use of many buttons, but of course the Apple TV software doesn’t support smarter remotes. Grr. The UI did improve some with the most recent software update, but it’s still not all it could be.

I cannot comment on how easy it is to connect multiple Macs to it, since we never do this. My understanding is that it’ll only sync with one iTunes library, but can stream from several. Streaming is fine, since we mostly stream since the internal storage on the thing is so tiny in the first place. I will note that we’re not streaming over wireless, however, as our house is relatively new and all wired with Cat5, so we stream over ethernet.

Would I get one again? Yes, we all love the functionality. If our current unit failed, we would replace it immediately. It’s definitely a nice thing to have. But it has so much more potential… and I don’t even care about being a DVR or playing blu-ray or anything, which many people seem to want. I have other devices for those things. I just want it to be better at what it does do, and that doesn’t seem to be too much to ask for.