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.