Last week Apple introduced its Apple TV and the reviews are in from the major publications. Apple TV occupies an interesting niche – it makes showing Internet video downloads on your widescreen (only) TV effortless, but only video from the iTunes store. If, like me, you aren’t an iTunes shopper it’s rather pointless, but there are presumably enough folks who are to make the experiment worthwhile.
So what is Apple TV? Basically, it’s an iPod for your TV. That is, it copies the iTunes library (music, podcasts, TV shows, movies) from one Mac or Windows PC on your wired or wireless home network to its 40-gigabyte hard drive and keeps the copy updated.
All of this works elegantly and effortlessly. But there are lots of unanswered questions that make onlookers wonder if Apple has bigger plans for the humble Apple TV.
For example, it has an Internet connection and a hard drive; why can’t it record TV shows like a TiVo?
Furthermore, it’s a little weird that menus and photos appear in spectacular high-definition, but not TV shows and movies. All iTunes videos are in standard definition, and don’t look so hot on an HDTV.
And then there’s the mysterious unused U.S.B. port.
Still, if you stay within the Apple ecosystem — use its online store, its jukebox software and so on — you get a seamless, trouble-free experience, with a greater selection of TV shows and movies than you can find from any other online store.
Part of the secret of Apple TV is that, like most of Apple’s products, it doesn’t try to do everything and thus become a mess of complexity. It can’t receive or record cable or satellite TV, so it isn’t meant as a replacement for your cable or satellite box, or for a digital video recorder like a TiVo. It can’t play DVDs, so it doesn’t replace your DVD player. Its sole function is to bring to the TV digital content stored on your computer or drawn from the Internet. Like a DVD player, it uses its own separate input on your TV set, and you have to change inputs using your TV remote to use it.
Apple TV isn’t for that small slice of techies who buy a full-blown computer and plug it directly into a TV, or for gamers who prefer to do it all through a game console. And it’s not for people who are content to watch downloaded TV shows and movies directly on a computer screen. Instead, it’s for the much larger group of people who want to keep their home computers where they are and yet enjoy their downloaded media on their widescreen TVs.
But, all in all, Apple TV is a very well-designed product that easily brings the computer and the TV together.
I’m here to tell you that Apple TV is nothing more than an iPod designed for your living room instead of your pocket. It is simply yet another way to consume content purchased from Apple’s nearly-ubiquitous iTunes Store, an online service that sells music, TV shows, audio books, movies, and other content.
If that’s not of interest to you, just stop reading and save yourself $300.
The Apple TV is a typical Apple product: It’s big on hype but short on functionality. It surrenders usability for design, and comes in the smallest form factor possible. It’s tied to Apple’s other products in a way that is arguably anticompetitive, though fans of Apple’s services and devices should have no issues with that. Ultimately, as a gadget guy of sorts, I like the Apple TV for what it does, but given my several years of experience with the Xbox 360, various Media Center PCs and Extenders, TiVo, and other devices, I can also see its limitations and understand that Apple has ultimately under-delivered here.
The Apple TV is good, but not great, and suffers from a few flaws that prevent me from giving it a glowing endorsement. It does a good job of getting content from iTunes and iPhoto onto a widescreen TV, but some loose ends end up preventing the product from shining.
Ads for laptop computers always seem to show smiling people sitting on the grass pecking away on their machines. As enticing as that is , my experience has been that most folks (including me) really treat laptops as portable PCs with the machines merely being easy to carry from one wall outlet to another. Therefore, I was interested to see Sony roll out the VAIO TX series ultraportables which actually have enough battery life to make true mobile laptop use a possibility. As is usual, there are a plethora of model numbers in the TX series, but here are some excerpts from CNET’s review of the Sony VAIO TXN17P/B:
The Sony VAIO TXN17′s biggest plus is its battery life. In our battery-drain test, we got 4 hours and 54 minutes from the system–making this one of the longest-lasting laptops we’ve seen. When we tested the previous model, the TXN15, last year, we got around 9 hours of battery life from it, but that was with an older, less taxing test. The included battery does stick out slightly from the back of the system, but it’s a fair trade-off for the extended running time. Working on tasks less battery intensive than playing a DVD will yield even more uptime, making this a great system for long plane trips or all-day on-the-road use.
(The CNET TXN15P/B review mentioned is here.) No matter how you measure it, it still seems pretty good for a laptop with a Intel Core Solo U1400 / 1.2 GHz processor, 2GB of memory, and a 80GB hard disk. These systems are clearly targeted at business with Windows Vista Business Edition installed and Sprint WWAN access (for the Sprint Mobile Broadband service) built in.
However, there being no such thing as free lunch, you have to pay a price for a 2.9 lbs laptop with good battery life and that is that the screen and keyboard are small:
Measuring 10.8 inches wide, 8 inches deep, and 1.2 inches high, the TXN17 is among the smallest ultraportables we’ve seen. It’s tiny enough to carry around without much hassle, but the small screen and the cramped keyboard will be uncomfortable for extended use. The Sony VAIO TXN17 weighs 2.9 pounds (3.6 pounds with the AC adapter), which is extremely light when you consider the system has a built-in optical drive, something many smaller laptops omit to save on weight and bulk. The Asus S6F features a similar footprint and an optical drive but is noticeably thicker.
The tradeoff with using an ultraportable laptop is the miniaturized keyboard, and the VAIO TXN17 is no exception. The flat-topped keys are an acquired taste, similar to those on a MacBook, and those without nimble fingers will find themselves hitting the backspace key often. The touch pad, by comparison, is plenty ample for every day use, and the media control buttons built into the hinge are accessible, even when the lid is closed.
The 11.1-inch screen has a native resolution of 1,366×768, which translates into small text and images when Web surfing, but not more so than other ultraportable systems. The display is nice and bright, thanks to new LED backlight technology, and displays video and image files nicely.
Finally, there is one other price to pay in that the models in the TX series are rather expensive with the TXN17P/B reviewed above currently running around $2450 at most retailers, although I see there there is a a retailer selling through Amazon that currently has it a couple of hundred bucks cheaper. One reason for that may be that the TXN27 models are now available with a U1500 1.33GHz processor and 100 GB hard drive, although they seem to be selling on Amazon, at least, for the manufacturer’s suggested retail price of $2700. As always, you may find a better deal at your favorite on or offline emporium.
I couldn’t resist stealing much of the title from Michael Arrington’s Barenaked Ladies: New Album. Free. No DRM. Now.
I’ve been writing about the Amie Street music site since their launch last July. Their model has the potential to disrupt the music industry from the bottom up: Bands and labels upload music, which is downloadable in DRM-free MP3 format. The price always starts at free, and as more people download the song, the price starts to rise, eventually hitting $.98. Higher priced songs are by definition more popular, and I’ve found that anything over $.50 or so is pretty good music. 70% of proceeds go to the band/label, and Amie Street keeps the rest.
This pretty clever for two reasons. First, even at $0.98 the price per track is fine compared to iTunes or the Zune Marketplace, particularly since there is no annoying digital rights management to keep you from playing the MP3 wherever you want. From What is Amie Street:
Are there any restrictions on the music I buy from Amie Street? Can I play it on my iPod?
* We have no DRM on our mp3’s, so once you buy them, they’re yours. Put them on your iPod, your computer, a CD you made for road trips, or anything else you can come up with. Come up with something good? Send us a picture. The best we’ve gotten so far is an MP3 playing on a “digital” refrigerator.
The second reason makes a strength out of adversity. The major record labels are deeply mired in DRM, so it will only be the smaller, independent labels that put their music on Amie Street. The novel pricing scheme encourages users to download and try new music from the lesser known groups and labels. It’s a win for them as the good stuff gets discovered quickly and eventually rises to the full $0.98 price.
As for the free Barenaked Ladies I promised, the Barenaked Ladies are a moderately well known group published by the Nettwerk Group who has just agreed to put their whole library on Aime Street. Their latest album, Barenaked Ladies Are Men, was just released on Aime Street, but the tracks aren’t free anymore due to the number of downloads. However as I write this some are still below the $.98 max. Probably not for long though.