It’s rare that Apple announces a product without slathering the object of that announcement with superlatives—Great! Fantastic! Awesome! Amazing! Yet the original Apple TV—after it became clear that it had failed the iPod is to portable media as _________ is to on-demand TV comparison—earned little more from Apple than an indulgent shrug and the “Hobby” label.
And we know some of the reasons why. Unlike a lot of Apple’s products, whose usefulness is immediately apparent, the Apple TV takes some explaining.
“See, it’s a go-between device that bridges your computer’s iTunes library and your TV, and, oh yeah, the iTunes Store, where you can buy some stuff, rent some other stuff, and get even other stuff for free. Sure, you can use media you didn’t get from iTunes, but you may have to convert it and put it in your iTunes library and… well, yeah, of course it has to be in iTunes because…. Look, just try it and you’ll see.”
Getting media you didn’t own was difficult. When the Apple TV first shipped, the iTunes Store was well stocked with music—much of the time you could find exactly the tunes you were looking for because the music companies were fully committed. Not so the movie and TV studios. They had (and continue to have) ideas other than becoming just another division of Apple Inc. The hoped-for flood of movies and TV shows turned out to be a trickle as the studios released too little, too late (and for too much).
Then there were the customer expectations. What people wanted from Apple was a device that did it all—DVR, Blu-ray player, 1080p, Internet media server, cat groomer. What they got was a far more limited product that tech-savvy people could understand and enjoy, but wasn’t ideal for Mom and Pop.
And for those people who did purchase the Apple TV, there were the performance issues. The thing ran hot, it could become unresponsive, it lost contact with the computer it was supposed to be synced with, and when it did sync, the process was slow and could negatively affect your computer’s performance.
Given these issues one might consider the label “Hobby” generous.
But now we have the second coming of the Apple TV (). How likely is it to move the device from piffling avocation to committed profession? To find out, let’s examine what has and hasn’t changed.
Performance. When I first acquired my Apple TV the family couldn’t get enough of it—largely because I had the wherewithal to populate my iTunes library with the media they love. However, after routine lockups, syncing problems, inaccurate errors, and a reluctance to respond to the remote, the family couldn’t speak the words “Apple TV” without first preceding them with “Stupid.”
I’ve had a chance to play with a new Apple TV and the device is far more responsive. Over a wireless connection, HD movies, TV shows, and trailers load quickly. Flickr slideshows come to the fore in next to no time. You can move among menus swiftly rather than having to repeatedly mash a button on the Apple remote in the hope that the Apple TV eventually blesses you with its attention. In short, the device behaves like you’d expect—push a button and it does what you ask with little delay.
Getting it. The new Apple TV remains a device that’s not easy to explain to non-techs, but Apple’s done two things to make that job easier and matter less—added Netflix streaming and dropped the price to $99.
A lot of Moms and Pops have Netflix and they like it. While it may be a leap for them to watch streaming Netflix content on their computers, it’s but a small step or two to do the same thing on a TV attached to an Apple TV. Of course, Mom and Pop may already have Netflix access thanks to its integration in a TV, Wii, Blu-ray player, or other set-top box. Still, Apple’s Netflix implementation is impressively intuitive and may tempt some to move from other, more complicated devices.
And at $99, you don’t have to fully understand what it does. It has the Apple brand, so there must be something cool about it, right? It plays TV shows, movies, and slideshows? Well, that sounds good. Netflix too? Wow, nice. And it’s only $99? What the hell, I’ll give it a try.
Expectations. When you have a difficult time explaining what a device does do, you leave the door open for complaints about what it should do. And that will likely continue to be a problem among techies. There will always be people who want the Apple TV to be something it isn’t—the full-featured, replace-everything set-top box that plays DVD and Blu-ray discs, records and plays TV shows, streams every kind of Internet media, plays games, and does it all in glorious 3-D 1080p HD quality.
You can’t make the most extreme of these people happy. They have other avenues and devices for getting what they want, but that doesn’t mean they won’t drive by shouting their disappointment. Again, more clearly explaining what the device is good for will dull the edge of the worst of these complaints.
Lasting limitations. That said, reasonable people will continue to chafe at the limited nature of the Apple TV. For example, even though syncing could be a problem with the original Apple TV, at least it—coupled with the Apple TV’s hard drive—made it possible for you to enjoy your media without the need for an alive and awake computer. Now that the Apple TV has no hard drive, you must leave your Mac running and iTunes open if you want access to your music and movies. As long as the Apple TV doesn’t support some kind of storage—attached via USB, more internal flash memory, and/or network-attached storage (NAS)—it remains a solution that requires one device too many when playing local media.
Also, set-top boxes are expanding to embrace streaming Internet content—Netflix, Hulu, Pandora, Amazon, CinemaNow, MLB.com, Rhapsody, Napster, and MOG. The incorporation of Netflix on the Apple TV is terrific, but it hardly overshadows the Apple TV’s focus on the iTunes Store. And that continued focus means that viewers remain subject to the whims of the movie and TV studios. For instance, on the new Apple TV you’ll find TV rentals from only three networks—Fox, ABC, and the BBC. I’m certain Apple would love to add every other network found on your cable or satellite box (including the premium cable channels), but Apple doesn’t have the power to make that so. At the same time, the company is reluctant to provide alternate paths to this content, as those paths don’t lead to media sales.
Coming full circle then, is the new Apple TV more than a hobby? For the time being, probably not. Its continued reliance on iTunes and the iTunes Store make it a less-than-universally-desirable device.
Of course there’s always the possibility that we’re seeing just the first step in The Bigger Plan—the one where the Apple TV embraces its iOS roots and becomes the iPad for TV, allowing you to install any app you like (including games as well as media apps). Should that day arrive, goodbye hobby, hello necessity.
Apple TV (2nd gen., late 2010)
Read our full Apple TV (2nd gen., late 2010) review