We digress from our constant blather about caricature, cartooning and illustration to talk about one of our other favorite subjects… gadgets!
This year for Christmas The Lovely Anna got me the new Apple TV, Apple’s new incarnation of it’s “hobby” entertainment server for your living room. We have owned one of the original Apple TVs for a while now, and use it for The Animated Elizabeth‘s TV room where it works great for her demanding video needs associated with her autism.
The new Apple TV is a big departure from the old model on many levels, but first here’s a little history of the Apple TV:
The original Apple TV model was about the size of a Mac Mini computer, and had it’s own hard drive as well as built in wifi . It worked as a modified iPod for your TV… using wifi it would sync with your iTunes library (according to your choices for what would sync and what would not) on your computer just like an iPod, but it would also stream content from iTunes that was not saved locally. Thus, you had some content that you could watch even if your computer was not awake and/or iTunes was not open, but other content was not available unless you had your source computer on and iTunes open. This made the ATV a gateway to get your iTunes content from your computer to your TV, but it was hardly convenient. You could not seek out and rent or buy content FROM the ATV… that had to be done from your computer and then you could sit down in front of your TV and enjoy it from your couch.
Eventually Apple changed the software of the ATV to allow for all that streaming and syncing plus the added benefit of being able to access the iTunes store directly from the ATV, allowing your to purchase or rent content without needing to go to your computer. Later, they added the ability to access resources like NetFlix, YouTube, ect. for more viewing options.
Last year Apple took a much different approach with a new version of the Apple TV. Gone is the hard drive, and the unit itself became significantly smaller… it’s a little smaller than a slim paperback book. It’s output connections are as simple as it gets… one HDMI out (it also allows for optical audio out, so you can use the HDMI output as video only), an Ethernet port in case you want to use a hardwire solution to your internet connection as opposed to using the built in WiFi, and a USB port which so far is used for nothing. Like the previous ATV, you cannot use the unit with a TV that does not support HDMI video… no composite or component video outputs.
Since you have no local storage of media anymore, everything is streamed by the ATV to your TV/entertainment system. There is no syncing. You simply connect it to your home network and use the “Home Sharing” iTunes feature to access any content on any of the computers on your home network. “Home Sharing” is a simple sharing format where each computer with iTunes installed is able to choose any or all of their content to be “shared” over their network. There is no one iTunes master computer using this model… each computer that opts to be a part of home sharing through their iTunes program has whatever content they choose to share available for streaming to the ATV. The computers need to be awake and iTunes must be open for this to work, however.
More conveniently, you can quite easily browse the iTunes store right from your ATV to rent movies and TV shows for instant enjoyment. If they are available in HD (the 720p version, anyway) then you get them in HD. Most movies rent for $4.99 in HD or $2.99 if in SD, but a few “specials” are available for $1.99 or even $.99 and there are some films that get “previewed” via the iTunes store before they hit the theaters and rent for $10.99. You can rent TV episodes for $.99.
There is also an “Internet” menu where you can log in to your Netflix account and watch hundreds of movies instantly at no extra cost to your Netflix membership. This is an amazing deal… it’s almost unlimited how many films are available to watch instantly through your Netflix subscription. YouTube, Flickr and MobleMe content is also available through this menu if you want to watch that kind of thing.
The quality and speed of the downloaded content through iTunes is very good. HD shows look sharp and clearly “HD” quality with no noticeable artifacts or pixelation. It only takes a minute or so after you start the rental for the content to become available to play, and I have not witnessed a single moment when the show I am watching “freezes” because the buffering/download of the media cannot keep up with the running video. I have noticed some of the Netflix movies experience freezes and some pixelation at times, so that technology isn’t quite up to par with the native iTunes content… but it’s not bad and without paying extra to watch Netflix movies instantly on your living room TV a little pause now and then seems a fair trade off.
You cannot “buy” films or TV shows permanently via the Apple TV, as there is no hard drive to keep them on. You can still do so via your computer and then watch it from your Apple TV via Home Sharing. I’ve got mixed feelings about that. I’d like it if you could buy a movie you want permanently via the ATV and either always have access to watch it through iTunes or have it download to your computer’s hard drive for permanent storage, but it’s not a deal breaker. I still don’t like buying digital media and prefer physical discs for movies I want to keep.
The one thing I don’t like about this arrangement is the short time they give you to enjoy the movie you rent. Once you’ve rented it you get 30 days to start it. Once you start it, you only get 24 hours to watch it if it’s a movie, and 48 if it’s a TV show. If you don’t get to then end of it within that time, you are SOL. It expires and is deleted from your menu. I think that’s a little too short a time. It would be better is they could figure out how to make the program available to watch as often as you want for the first 24 hours, but it does not expire if you have not finished it after that period of time. Once you watch it through to the end, then it expires permanently. Maybe they can have a 36 hour expiration whether you’ve watched all the way to the end or not, just to prevent people from stopping it during the end credits and keeping it active forever. Usually I do watch a movie all the way through at home, but when I am traveling I often am forced to stop if my flight is landing and can;t start watching it again until I am traveling back home… and by that time the 24 hours have passed. The same rental model applies to movies you download for your portable device as the ATV.
Overall, though, I think Apple is on to something with the new Apple TV. It’s easy to use, has reasonably priced access to a gigantic library of content, allows even cheaper access to Netflix account content and is reasonably priced at $99. I’ve been enjoying it since Christmas.