In defense of the AppleTV

specs_dimensions20080925Last week the 3.0 software update for the AppleTV came out.  On-line there was a lot of grousing about it, and that has inspired this post.

The Roku SoundBridge that we had in the family room was taken out by Thor.  We didn’t realize how much we liked having a digital music player there until it was gone.  We let it go for a few months, but it felt like something was missing.  In the meantime, my buddy JD was talking about how much he liked his AppleTV and was going as far as dropping cable due to it.  While out visiting, I got to see Evo and Sheila‘s AppleTV playing music with the photo montage screensaver gliding by as we chatted.  All that together, plus some reading up, planted the seeds for my purchase of an AppleTV with the 160GB drive earlier in the year.

Upfront I should make it very clear, what I was looking for initially was a replacement digital music player, and the AppleTV provided that.  I considered it a bonus that it had the ability to show photos, youtube, and video content on a screen more conducive to group watching that any of our laptops or monitors, our 42″ DLP HDTV.  Overall, we’ve been extremely happy with it.

Maybe its because we came into it with the proper expectations.  It is in a really weird product space that not many consumers understand.  Many companies have entered it with similar (and even less featureful) products and left the space.  An example would be my once beloved Turtle Beach Audiotron.  Others keep plugging along like Logitech’s Squeezebox line.  Apple has called it their hobby, and I think that may be because its difficult to tell consumers why they might want one.  Or it could be I’m just the weird person who wants it and consumers in general don’t want one.  I do think its poorly named, though.  The name implies, to me, you can watch TV on it, instead of purchased/downloaded/sycned content.  I can see people thinking its a DVR based on the name.

A lot of the bitching I’ve seen about the AppleTV has been about what its not.  Its not a Media Center PC, it isn’t a DVR, it can’t play every format under the sun, its underpowered, it can’t play DVDs, it can’t do better than 720p, it has to be slaved to iTunes, etc.  Except for the format issue, I don’t care about any of the rest of them.  In fact, the fact it syncs to iTunes like any other device is one thing I like about it.  When I’m modifying playlists, etc, for my iPhone and other iPods, its reflected in the home media player.  Anyway, how it is now, works for me and my family, and we get a lot of use and enjoyment out of it1.

99% of the time we’re playing music and enjoying the mosaic of photos that goes by.  Actually, the photo montage screensaver has increased the enjoyment we get out of our digital photos.  Every once in while we see a photo we’ve almost forgotten about and its a pleasant surprise. The other 1% of our usage time is playing back video that I’m slowing ripping from our DVDs library for the kids. Having whatever they might want to watch without switching DVDs or getting them scratched or forgetting them in the car, etc, is pretty nice. I ripped all the Disney Classic Cartoon Favorites we have so far, and the kids can easily watch any one of those in any order.  Its playback is good enough for what I’ll use it to play back, despite people’s wanting of more.  Maybe in the future we’ll want more, but it does what we need, again.

Anything could be better, so what could be better for me?

  • Mostly supporting a wider array of formats.  It plays MP3s and AACs fine, so I’m good on audio, but the video is kinda limiting.  However, I can rip right to the MP4/M4V/h.264 format it wants but random longer non-youtube things off the web require conversion.
  • Maybe some better cooling.  That box runs hotter than hell when its playing back video.

Just a couple of general thoughts on the 3.0 upgrade:

  • The 2.x software had some quirks and slowness, and I’ve noticed in the past 5 days a lot of that are cleared up.  It still stutters when iTunes connects to it, but the going catatonic while you sync when is playing has gone away.  Overall, syncing is more pleasant.
  • The menus seem to be MUCH faster
  • The menu placement of “My Music/Movies/Etc” being first is much better. I’ve got the AppleTV to play my stuff, not always rent stuff.
  • I’ve been loving the Genius Mixes on my iPhone and iTunes, I’m so glad to have them on the AppleTV

The Remote app that Apple released for the iPhone and iPod Touch is also a great addition.  You can use it to follow control the AppleTV with an interface similar to the iPod app on the iPhone/Touch.  It also will pop up a keyboard for when you want to enter text into things like the YouTube search box.  This is really useful when using it with the next thing I talk about…

There is one other feature I’ve set up, but I haven’t had a chance to fully use is the fact that the AppleTV can act as an AirTunes host.  When paired with my Airport Express (and it is in turn paired with some speakers) we can have the start of whole house music.  Next party we have I’m going to put this to a practical test.  Walking around controlling the tunes from my phone through the whole house… It doesn’t take much to excite me these days.

In any case, my main point here was to address that the AppleTV does work as it is for some people.  It’s not a media center, and that was okay for me as I wasn’t looking for one.

[1] And…because of my nature, I have hacked it to run boxee, but I didn’t use that all that often. So there is some under the cover upgradability that isn’t too bad.