I own a lot of Apple products. In fact, today I decided to add them up and it turns out I own 21 Apple products in all. That number would be even larger, but I’ve sold some items over the last few years. Despite my clear position on the far end of the Apple Fanboy scale, I never bought an Apple TV. I had never even really considered owning one.
Enter the new Apple TV, a svelte device that replaces the larger and largely useless previous generation of Apple TV. This thing is small. Even the box it comes in is small. I can’t help but think of John Maeda’s Laws of Simplicity, “the smaller an object is, the lower the expectations.” Given the limited number of TV shows available for streaming, Apple is smart to lower expectations. But, as Maeda points out later in his book, “pity gives way to respect when much more value is delivered than originally expected.” This is where I’ve landed with Apple TV.
Why I Bought One
I have to admit that when the new Apple TV was announced, my reaction was “meh”. I already own a Tivo which I’ve been reasonably happy with. It lets me stream Netflix and Amazon movies, among others. I also own a Wii, an iPhone and an iPad, all of which can be used to stream Netflix, so I didn’t really need it for that. You can rent TV shows on Apple TV, but the selection of shows is very limited. For example, I can’t rent Mad Men or Breaking Bad, so this device was not going to replace my cable TV subscription any time soon.
So why did I buy Apple TV? Well, I was in the store for a Genius Bar appointment when I saw them on the shelf. That little box fascinated me and I figured that $99 isn’t much to risk. Besides, if I didn’t like it, I could just return it. No harm, no foul.
You have to wonder how many times a Genius Bar appointment turns into a sale for Apple. My guess? An awful lot.
Why I’m Going to Keep It
- Photo Slideshow
One of the first things I did after plugging in the Apple TV was to set up my photos. It’s a pretty painless process of selecting a photo library (iPhoto or Aperture). After you’ve selected your photos you can start viewing slideshows. These are beautiful slideshows that use all of Apple’s great transitions and effects, from origami to Ken Burns effect. There are probably 30 different effects available. Combine the slideshow with your iTunes music and the effect is nothing short of stellar. The kids and I sat, mesmerized, while we watched photo after photo appear on the screen. I never knew how many great pictures I had. Consuming photos on the TV is an experience that has to be seen to be appreciated and moreover it’s an experience that can be shared with the family.
- Airplay & Remote App
I’ve had an Airport Express for a while now, so I’m not new to the Apple Remote app. However, I’m liking the app even more with Apple TV. I can find just the right music to accompany my slideshow or skip songs that I don’t want to hear, all from the convenience of my iPhone or iPad.
- Better Netflix Experience
May I just say that the Netflix experience on Tivo sucks? It does. Netflix on Apple TV is a far different story. DVD cover art is displayed beautifully on the screen in CoverFlow style. It features recommendations, browse by genre and search. Tivo has none of this. Also, the quality of the streaming seems better, but that could be my imagination.
- Airplay to get even better with time
Airplay is going to get better when Apple releases iOS 4.2 because you’ll be able to stream from your device right to your TV. I could see iPhone and iPad becoming the primary remote(s) for this device.
Apple TV is far from perfect. Here are some of the annoyances I’ve run into while using it.
- Streaming music stutters when playing slideshows
When viewing slideshows with music, the music stutters on every 3rd or 4th picture transition. I’m hoping that this will be fixed in an update.
- Sometimes it just won’t connect to my Mac
There have been times when I just can’t connect to my Mac, so I’ll fiddle with the settings until it magically appears again. I have no idea why this happens, but it is very annoying.
- Yet another remote
Apple TV adds yet another remote to your arsenal. For me, that means I have a Tivo remote, an iPhone running the Remote app and the Apple TV remote. Sometimes it’s hard to remember which remote to use when, especially between the iPhone and Apple TV remotes.
And there’s confusion at the intersection of Home Share (Apple’s iTunes sharing feature) and Airplay. What does forward and back do on each remote? Change the music or change the photo in the slideshow?
- Must pipe sound through the TV unless you have an AV receiver
To add to the layers of complexity, you need to pipe your music through your TV. For the most part, this has been okay because I enjoy watching the slideshows, but what happens when I just want to listen to music without turning on my TV? I think Apple is assuming everyone has an AV receiver. I don’t, so this is just annoying.
What You Should Know Before You Buy An Apple TV
- It doesn’t come with any cables. At minimum, you’ll need to buy an HDMI cable. If you buy one from the Apple Store it’s gonna cost you $20.
- It only works with HDMI TVs (though I suppose you could buy an adapter)
- Audio out is Toslink optical only. This really surprised me. I had hoped to connect a mini plug audio cable to my Tivoli radio. No such luck.
- There aren’t many TV shows to choose from yet, but if you bought a bunch of shows and movies through iTunes you can stream them to the Apple TV.
- To get the most out of this device, you need to be part of the Apple “ecosystem”. There’s nice integration with iTunes, iPhoto and Aperture. Without one or more of these apps, the value is not as great. It wouldn’t hurt to have an iPhone or iPad either.
- Maybe none of this matters if you can find your one killer use case for this device.
Overall, I was surprised how much I like Apple TV. For me the killer use case is being able to access all of my 20,000+ photos from my TV. That feature alone is easily worth the $99 price.