So then. Why am I buying an Apple TV? No, it’s not just because I’m an Apple fanboy who must own the very latest Apple gadgets – although I can’t deny there’s a small amount of that involved!
Actually, I already have an Apple TV, and I’ve been happily using it for several years now. The problem is that’s it’s getting a little long in the tooth; the fan and hard drive is noisy, and it’s recently started overheating which has made it unreliable to use as much as I’d like. At that time, Apple hadn’t given any hints they were reworking the Apple TV – in fact I, like many other Apple TV users, have felt a little abandoned by Apple with this particularly product. I started investigating hopeful alternatives such as Boxee and XBMC, both of which were available on a hacked Apple TV, but were better established on PCs and Linux boxes. Personally, I like XBMC for it’s functionality – but not much else. Boxee certainly has character, and has a nice clean look (until you start using the Apps!) – but it seemed like it was trying to do too much. All I really want is a way of using my iTunes content on my TV, with the ability to access additional content (such as rentals, iPlayer, etc).
Nothing really stuck, so I’ve ended up persevering with my Apple TV and it’s quirky problems.
That was until Apple announced the new Apple TV in September. Quite a few people grumbled at the specs, but I for one agreed with every new design decision they’ve made. Gone is the hard drive and fans – thank goodness! The HDD was pointless – I never kept anything on it, since my movies and TV shows take up several hundred GB’s of storage – and it seems wasteful to duplicate those files if they can be streamed from their existing locations.
What I did have was mixed reactions to the “new” user interface:
Deep down I was hoping, particularly with the new A4 processor, that the new Apple TV would somehow look iOS-ish. It doesn’t. In fact, there’s nothing new about the UI. Its exactly the same as the old Apple TV, but with some tweaks to make accessing shared media a lot easier. Then again, if it’s not broken – don’t fix it. The thing I love about my current Apple TV over Boxee and XBMC is it’s easy to use UI – it’s easy because it’s simple – and consistent. If it’s easy to use, then I’ll use it.
One of the other seemingly useless features of the original Apple TV has also gone: Sync’ing. Previously, you had to nominate one of your computers to act as ‘master’, and from there you could choose to sync content from your iTunes library – very similar to an iPod. The problem with this is it didn’t make sense. You might choose to sync a couple of movies, but when you sit down at your TV you’d see ALL your movies. You then might start watching one you hadn’t synced, and halfway through shut your computer off without thinking … suddenly, blip! The Apple TV would grind to a halt and only start listing the content you’d synced. It was confusing, and because it was tethered to one particular machine I ended up not using the feature. The new ATV seems much more sensible – they’ve scrapped the sync option – and in doing so forego the need for masses of storage – and have opted for a far simpler ‘Computers’ menu item. From here you can easily access ANY computer on your network that’s sharing media. There’s no news yet on whether the ATV will support streaming from a NAS or linux box with a streaming server, but I hope so. The idea of this tiny little box being a gateway to a server full of content, as well as easy access to our iTunes libraries …
Another shift Apple have made is to refocus the ATV to a rental model, rather than offering the ability to purchase and download films, TV shows and music. In some ways people may see this as a reduction of features, but I’ve been looking at this idea for some time: I rarely buy music on my ATV – it just isn’t the best interface for that sort of thing – and the only times I’ve bought films or TV shows is because I’ve been impatient, and they’re not available for rent. On the other hand, I’ve rented quite a few films on the Apple TV, and it works like a charm. It’s already paired with your iTunes account, so you just select the movie, hit confirm, and within 10-seconds I can be watching a movie. It really works, and it works well.
I currently have a subscription to LoveFilm, which costs me £10/month. I switched to LoveFilm a few years ago as I was fed up with paying almost twice that amount for Sky’s movie channels. My issue with Sky was that they never had anything on I actually wanted to watch – so £20/month was a lot of money to pay if I was only watching a few movies a month at best. LoveFilm were a good idea at the time, as you can build your list of desired movies – so whatever you get, it’s something you want to watch. Well, that’s the theory at least. In practice I find it frustrating not knowing what you’re going to get next, and I’ve lost count the number of times a LoveFilm DVD has sat on our coffee table for weeks until we watch it.
This is where Apple TV seems an attractive alternative. The movie rentals generally cost £2.49 (a bit more for a new release). This means I could watch four movies a month for the same price as a LoveFilm subscription. Admittedly, LoveFilm’s library is a little bigger than iTunes – but sometimes less choice is better! I’ve rented quite a few films before now just because I’ve HAD to add something to my list, not because I’ve a burning desire to watch that title. With Apple TV this spins around, and it’s ME choosing what I want to watch … WHEN I want to watch it. I like that idea – and if it costs about the same as a DVD rental subscription, then what’s to lose?
In my mind, one of the failings of this rental model is the TV Shows. Currently, Apple is trialling TV Show ‘rentals’ in the USA only. TV show rental makes even more sense than film rental. If I’ve watched a film I’ve been blown away by, I’ll probably buy the DVD. The same isn’t true for TV – I don’t want to own a TV show episode. I just want to watch it, and be on my way. The problem with the UK’s iTunes store is that is only lets you buy TV shows … and prices start at a ridiculous £1.89 for a single 30 minute episode, with season passes for a TV show costing sometimes almost twice as much as the DVD version! Clearly, the TV networks are as greedy as the film industry, and the BBC is no exception. In fact, in my view they’re the reason TV show purchasing wont take off in this country – we all have to pay our licence fee whether we’re watching live TV or not, so I’m loathed to pay £2.99 for an episode of Top Gear that’s available for free on iPlayer!
As an experiment, I recently caught up on the last 10 epiosdes of Big Bang Theory using episodes bought from the iTMS through the Apple TV, and the experience is superb – right up until the bill for £19!
It seems there’s still a fair way to go, but the rental model is an odd one to tackle in the UK. The problem is that the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 all offer their programming for free via their VoD services. This makes purchasing or even renting an episode of, say, the BBC’s Top Gear an unnecessary expense. My hope is that the new A4 processor in the ATV, along with the rumours about an Apple TV “App Store” and the announcement of the YouView project, we’ll soon have access to these services directly on the Apple TV.
Finally, a feature that has me thinking about the possibilities is AirPlay. In a nutshell, I’ll be able to pick up my iPhone or (should I ever own one, an) iPad – start playing a video or a music track, and then with the click of a button stream this directly to my Apple TV. While not a feature I’d use every day, it certainly gives me an extra use for my iPhone and iPod once I’m in the house. There’s also a possibly the iPhone will be able to stream BBC iPlayer videos to the TV – thus filling the gap mentioned in the last section.
So, there you have it. Those are the reasons I’m buying an Apple TV shortly after posting this article. There are other media players out there, and Boxee certainly looks like the closest competitor, but it’s currently only a software solution – until the BoxeeBox comes along … and why not have a box that’s tied into the iTunes Store? Paying for movie rentals isn’t as scary as it sounds – in fact it’s probably cheaper than you think. I think many of us forget about how much we pay for TV, satellite and film subscriptions. It’s a seemingly unrelated amount of money that just automatically comes out of our account each month … whereas choosing to rent a movie for £2.49 is more tangible, and it makes you think “that seems a lot!”. It really isn’t when you look at it … unless you’re a movieholic, of course.
All these features for only £99? A bit of a no-brainer, really!
Now, if you’ll excuse me I have to get my credit card …