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Contrasted feelings, unpacking my Apple TV II

Just to set the scene, I’ve only been an Apple User for just over 2 years, so I still feel pretty novice: my love/hate relation with Apple products still oscillates widely from just loving the way it all works out-of-the-box to really hating how boxed-in it makes me feel. Apple TV II consolidated that that duality of feeling.

The biggest thrill with Apple products is usually unpacking it, and just switching it one WITHOUT reading any manual EVER.

This time, the packaging was merely OK: I felt a bit disappointed, as Apple had raised my expectations from previous products starting with an iPod in 2004 that really blew my mind. Even the little box my iPhone 4 came was so cute that my son asked my to keep it to decorate his room. Apple TV’s box has already been thrown out.

The switching-on ceremony however did stand up to expectations.

Only 10 seconds after having plugged in the power, Ethernet and HDMI cables, I was browsing through movies on my 46” LCD. Admitedly not everyone may have a spare Ethernet cable right next the TV, so I wonder how much more it would of cost Apple to through Wifi in [oops correction: there of course if Wifi, thanks Graham].

But back to those first few seconds. As usual the shear simplicity of the user interface is astounding. I just don’t get it: Why oh why are thre so many more buttons on other remote controls.

The only traditional TV player to have tried something like this (i.e. a 6 button remote) is NDS with Snowflake and they’ve been demoing for years – the situation must be dire to the extent they felt the need to recently release a press statement about some small operator in a very small market planning to launch with it.

Something counterintuitive is happening here, and I still don’t understand. I feel no doubt at all in my guts that this navigational paradigm is superior, yet the market is saying something else. Either one of us is wrong, or I’m missing something. Please comment if you have any ideas on this.

Back to Apple TV itself again, beyond being intuitive it is also kind of fun. Streaming isn’t yet rate-adaptive so when you ask to watch a trailer it takes a while to buffer, but that's only a few seconds for me, as I live in the city with a decent DSL connection, but I would guess means the AppleTV isn’t really much fun if you don’t have at least 3 or 4 spare megabits.

From a content perspective, I haven’t done a proper analysis of what studios are represented in which proportion (I do that when I’m paid by clients hint hint), but the overall impression is that for the French market at least, is that iTunes really has got a critical mass of exciting blockbuster stuff. There were scores of movies I’d like to see. What I know is once I’ve seen those, how fast does it refresh … time will tell.

Moving to the Internet section I was dazzled by the ease of linking to my Flickr account (nebul2, my photos are public). But frustrated that the connection didn’t work – very un-apple to have such a overt bug with no clear error message.

Linking computers was as easy as pie, but epitomised the duality of Apple. The light side of the force was that very ease: just share stuff on you computers WITH iTunes software … and it appears seamlessly on you TV. But the dark side of the force is just there: iTunes or be damned.

Things got even more contrasted when I tried the all-new AirPlay. Again from within iTunes on my Mac or indeed my iPhone, it was fantastic. But even on the Mac you can’t use any other software (maybe I missed something, but why are photos easy to send from the iPhone to Apple TV but not from iPhoto on the Mac?!?). I’ve always felt I understood the “walled garden” expression, but actually I hadn’t. Incumbent Telcos or restrictive mobile operators feel like Wikileaks compared to using AirPlay. It’s a step too far for me in Apple-only land.

I bought a brand new MacBook Air, at around the same time Apple introduced the Apstore to the Mac. << Don’t just download stuff from the Internet, [imagine the snake from the Jungle book saying this next part] trusssst in me, I’m Apple, I’ll let only get the besssst sssoftware that I have persssssonaly checked (and taken a cut from).>>

I again feel torn apart by the beauty of my new toy and the way its closing down into a scary world of big-brother Apple.

But here it must be that I’m just too old-fashioned. For my kids, the open Internet is reverting back to what it broke out of when the Compuserve’s of the world represented a walled-garden Internet.

Maybe Apple is just showing us a way back to the future, but I hope not, I love Apple but it’s getting harder to swallow, and yes you’ve guessed where this is going: I don’t want to end up like Adam.

7 thoughts on “Contrasted feelings, unpacking my Apple TV II

  1. Ben, to follow-up on your comments re: UIs. This is something we spent many months on at ARQ. Every trade show I’ve been recently to is a crashing disappointment with regard to innovation in the UI. Some stuff out there still looks 10 years old. The STB it may have a beefier chipset than a few years ago that allows 3D GFX and sexy transparancies etc., but on the whole a don’t see anyone really taking advantage of this in a proper field product.
    Having had a close up and personal walk through of Snowflake, to be fair the ideas there were great and they’ve really tried to bring fwd EPG/catchup EPG/VoD together in an integrated UI that minimises buttons, but I think operators are very wary about scaring off the majority of their customers who are only happy with very incremental changes (presumably user surveys/pilots are conducted for this sort of thing). The development costs of a Snowflake-type UI are not insignificant.
    I think only someone like Apple can do this because of the bar they’ve already set with their other products, which to be fair ‘broke the mould’ as far as usability was concerned.

  2. I have two Apple TV Is and two Apple TV IIs. I also install these things for quite a few of my clents. What a big step backward the Apple TV II was. The Apple TV I has 1080p output and we can buy movies and TV shows, from iTunes, directly on the TV. But it’s a much bigger box. The Apple TV II only outputs up to 720p and we can only rent content from iTunes on the TV. We can’t even see what is available for sale on the TV. To see what we can purchase, and to purchase it, we have to go to a Mac or PC running iTunes on the network.

    To try and produce a similar experience I’ve set up a Mac Mini, with a big Drobo disk, on the network and the Apple TVs stream their content from there. When I want to buy anything I either connect to the Mac Mini through Log Me In or I buy it on one of the Apple TV Is and wait for it to sync with the Mac Mini… We store our entire seasons of TV series in HD through the Mac Mini as that tends to take up quite a lot of disk space…

    Ian: The product you are looking for is called Google TV. The first version we’ll see of that, here in Europe, will most likely be Logitech’s Revue (or whatever it’ll be called over here).

    Ben: The 1080i content you’re getting through your Canal+ box is compressed. It’s HD… but it’s compressed for over-the-wire transfer. It’s like looking at a JPEG version of a high-resolution image. There’s a little something missing. We’ll have you guys ’round for dinner some time so you can see the difference watching the same movie in 1080p on one Apple TV and the same movie in 720p on another Apple TV…

    1. Wow that’s some setup! There is one major novelty with Apple TV II: it’s the huge price drop.
      About the Google TV comment, I’d not be surprised if Google curb the features Ian is looking for so as to look good in their negotiations with content owners.
      After following your Italian cooking lesson tweets, I’m really excited about the prospect of dinner in Asnières ;o)

  3. Ah, but it does support WiFi – I have mine running on an 802.11n network. The only pain is entering the network details via the remote control, but once you have the iPhone / iPad remote app running then text entry gets easy. It’s a pity it still only supports 720p, and the big drawback to the current device is the limited content unless you have a US iTunes account, or you buy (rather than rent) on a PC or Mac and then just stream locally.

    1. Ooops Graham, of course it does! What was I thinking …
      Re 720p, as far as I can judge the HD effect is the same as the 1080i my Canal+ box gives me. Need the full 1080p to feel any difference.
      But as I said my subjective feeling of the French content catalog was positive. Sure not everything is there, but enough stuff me or my kids would want to watch to push it beyond the tipping point of being worth the trouble …

  4. I agree, but the general assumption is that anything you got hold of yourself must be illegal. So even though Jobs had a go at DRM a year ago, iTunes still holds the fort for old-school digital content management.
    As soon a anyone wants get serious with the big content owners like say Warner, they have to promise to be good, and never let their users anywhere near what is assumed to be pirated.
    I think we need to hear the voices of Lessig, Doctorow & Co…

  5. It is so unfortunate that I am forever blocked from the Apple TV – Most of my content catalogue is not in a usable format. I have a mix of AVI container content with DivX/Xvid and a few MPEG4 encoded videos, and then my back catalogue of mixed camera phone vids. The future is a device as easy to use as this but with a wider container/codec support. Still waiting for that however 🙂