My new Apple TV arrived this weekend. FedExed straight from mainland China. I’d heard a lot of griping about the new UI from various people. I was curious to see what I thought. I’ve had (and loved) an old 140 g 1st gen Apple TV for years. It’s been great – especially as a place to store the kids videos. Before it seemed like we were always replacing expensive Disney DVDs as the kids would try to put them in the player on their own getting them all scratched up. Or worse, the baby would simply put the DVDs in the garbage! Having them all on a single hard drive was much, much nicer.
I’m not sure this is really a review of the new aTV since I’ve only had it running for a couple of days. But it does have a lot of thoughts about UI. (Sorry for the bad photos – I just took them quickly with my iPhone)
The first problem I encountered is that the Movies and TV Show applications show only iTMS rentals or purchases. Most of the pictures along the top are pictures of movies Apple wants you to buy. This is kind of annoying, especially compared to the 1st gen aTV. There the left half of the graphics were the most recent covers of the movies in your iTunes library and the ones on the right were the new movies Apple wanted you to get. Worse, my kids didn’t quite understand the change. (Fortunately no movies were accidentally rented – something that had happened a few times with my old Dish and a toddler with a remote control)
This is probably my #1 annoyance. I know why they do it, but it still seems a bit conniving somehow.
Worse you now have to go down a slew of sub menus to get to your iTunes library. I guess it’s not all that bad. But it does really suggest that Apple sees all your ripped DVDs as distinctly second class citizens. For that matter there seems to be a subtle yet noticeable depreciation of the old iTunes as hub design. I can appreciate why they are doing that as iOS becomes more and more mature such that people just don’t need iTunes anymore. I’m probably one of the few, but I actually like having a central hub like iTunes that is home to my movies, apps, music and so forth. It makes backup easy and I like having that central hub that controls where everything goes. I’ve never bothered getting iTunes Match because iTunes simply works so well for me. From what I can see the cloud just isn’t quite ready for prime time yet. (Especially if you have some connections with bandwidth caps such as I do at my work)
Now while all your iTunes media is treated as a second class citizen there are some big pluses over the original aTV. My original aTV really was only designed to work with a single computer. The new one works with all the computers on my network (assuming Home Sharing is on for them — and I think Apple really needs to up the limit of machines that can be authorized with Home Sharing) Now under Computer all the systems authorized with Home Sharing pop up. You can play any movie or other media file off them. Much nicer than what we had.
Combine this with Air Sharing and you aTV hooked to a nice stereo system and TV become tremendously useful. So, for instance, my wife who syncs our camera and her iPhone to her iMac can display photos and I can display all the pictures I’ve taken with my iPhone.
However we seem to be led much like Dante was led out of hell. It’s two steps forward and one step back. While all the movies show up now groupings are ignored. On my first generation aTV I could group movies into subgroups using the standard iTunes tag. This was wonderful when you have a hundred or so kids movies often involving the same characters. In my original aTV all those Air Bud movies on the right showed up in a “folder.” Ditto with Superman, Toy Story, and not to mention all the cartoon TV shows like Duck Tales. (Which I store in Movies so the kids can find them more easily)
I really, really miss that ability to group. (Maybe it is there, but thus far I can’t see it) Instead my kids now have this ridiculously huge list to traverse.
There are genres still and you can view movies broken down in that fashion. I use that to separate out the children’s films from the home movies from more general movies the kids are allowed to watch like Star Wars. I keep all the movies they aren’t allowed to watch like Blade Runner as TV shows. This was a necessary hack in one of the early versions of the aTV software but I continued to use it since I find the TV show vs. movie distinction problematic. For instance my son had all the Buzz Lightyear cartoons (a TV show) but we wanted to keep it with Toy Story. Likewise I had Twin Peaks but wanted the movie prequel kept with it. Also some movies like the Bond series, Bourne or Indiana Jones are so much like a television series with multiple seasons that it makes sense to keep them like that. I suppose now that groupings are gone that keeping them as TV shows gives even more benefits.
Netflix is fantastic. Better than I expected. I’ve used it a bit on my phone and computer. However it’s so nice now. We got rid of our Dish back in November (and haven’t missed it) but I think for the first time Netflix really seems like a true alternative. It’s streaming selection still sucks although you can use Handbrake to time shift the disks you rent so they don’t stay unwatched on your counter for months. (Maybe I’m the only one that happens to) External Bluray disk drives can be found for $40 so ripping a movie to play on your aTV is very doable now. (Be wary of file sizes though – I delete the movies when I’m through watching them though so that’s not much of an issue for me) The only downside is that using MakeMKV and then Handbrake to rip takes a very, very long time. (i.e. basically start it before you go to bed) Unfortunately I’ve not yet figured out a foolproof way to start Hadbrake ripping when MakeMKV is done. That means you run it all night and then start Handbrake to run an other hour or two before your movie is available.
I can see why some might just want to rent off Apple’s pages. However Apple (or more likely the studios) haven’t learnt the lesson Apple taught them with the original iTMS. The price is just too high. Why on earth would I pay $4 or $5 to rent a movie I can get for less than half that at RedBox? Or if I’m willing to wait, simply get it off Netflix’s disk service? (Only $8/mo for a single disk out at a time) Plus Apple’s selection has all sorts of weird gaps. (No Star Wars for example)
As I mentioned the selection on Netflix streaming still sucks. You’ll not be happy if you go streaming only. That said the UI Apple came up with is ridiculously great. Especially for kids shows. They have a lot of special kids menus to avoid having Scooby Do mixed in with some weird suggestive foreign film that ended up on your suggestion list for reasons you can’t fathom. They have one menu that simply has a picture of all the main characters, like Scooby Do, that a kind might want to watch. It then has all the media – television and movies – associated with that character. My kids absolutely love that. I wish the web interface to Netflix was half as good as the aTV one.
The other applications I’ve not really used. I’ve no plans to subscribe to the NBA or NHL. Interestingly football is a noticeable absence on the device. No NFL and more significantly for me no college ball. (I can only justify so many hours per week for sports now that I have all sorts of responsibilities – so I just have my college team I follow regularly along with a few of their major opponents that season) I really, really wish that Apple could get at least ESPN to have an application. I mean Steve Jobs was the largest stockholder at Disney (which owns ESPN). If Steve Jobs couldn’t even accomplish that before he died then I have little hope Apple will be able to let the device truly replace TV. If I could watch the ESPN college games on my aTV I’d be in heaven.
We’ll see what happens come late August when I can’t watch my college team play.
With regards to the other applications it’s pretty annoying you can’t hide the ones you don’t use (or hide the rental apps so your kids don’t rent them — you can secure that of course)
YouTube is still on the AppleTV and it’s still somewhat disappointing. You can’t refine searches to only search for HD content. Non-HD content looks particularly horrible blown up on a TV. They still have the most popular YouTube videos and typically I still can’t fathom why any of them are popular. Apple’s added Vimeo which they appears to be pushing as a YouTube alternative. (Yes the Google/Apple feud is still on – they’ve integrated Vimeo support into the Mountain Lion betas) I’ve only done a little searching through Vimeo and nothing leaps out as me as great. Maybe someone can tell me what I should look for. It might be a way to upload family videos though. I don’t (yet) know their terms of service.
Sadly Apple didn’t include Hulu. I can understand not including Amazon’s stuff since they are an Apple competitor (and honestly doesn’t really offer anything Apple + Netflix doesn’t already offer) Admittedly Hulu has been losing content of late. It isn’t nearly as good for watching current television as it was a couple of years ago. But if you really want to watch a lot of old television it’s great. I don’t know why Apple couldn’t make the deal when so many of the Apple TV competitors have it. My suspicion is that Apple’s making a special deal with Netflix and that’s why we don’t see Hulu or Walmart’s Vudu competitor to Netflix. I wish we had access to both but maybe that’s just asking too much. (And there’s always time shifting with Netflix disks and Handbrake)
A lot of people are complaining about the remote. However the Apple TV can learn any remote you want to use. (I just have it use my DVD player’s remote since I never have them both on at the same time) It’s also much bigger than that annoying small white remote that used to come with Macs and the 1st gen aTV. What I wish though is that it just had a couple more buttons. A skip forward and back 30 seconds button would be so nice. (I used those all the time with my old Dish DVR) I also would like a volume control on the remote. So just expect to get a programmable remote you’ll be using with it.
Honestly though if you are going to use it just get the Remote app for your phone. It’s so nice and lets you type using the onscreen keyboard on your iPhone. If you’re using YouTube or even searching for a movie on Netflix you’d go crazy without it. I wish the skip 30 sec feature would come to the Remote app but you can scrub along the time line so quickly that it’s not that big a deal. With the aTV3 and its multi system support the iPhone as remote works even better. I can nab media off any other computer in seconds or even use AirPlay to simply stream what is on the phone screen to the TV. (However I’ve found that typically the resolution isn’t as good as I’d like on a lot of media off the phone) The syncing between iTunes and the original aTV was so-so. I found myself having to reset the wireless router pretty regularly. Thus far I’ve not had any trouble with the aTV3. (I’ve heard it has far better antennas than either previous version) It’s fast enough and stable enough that I surprisingly don’t even miss having the internal hard drive. (Auto-syncing new media to the local 140 gig hard drive was a must-do with the original aTV – otherwise you’d have an annoying wait if you didn’t lose signal halfway through)
I should probably talk about picture quality. I only have my 1st gen to compare with. It did 720p only and then 1080p for photos. However even photos look tons better on the aTV3. Movies look fantastic – either those downloaded from Apple or ones I’ve ripped with Handbrake (either DVDs or Bluray). I’ve not tried the two online places you can do photos from. Right now I just sync iPhoto libraries with it and that’s more than good enough for me. I know it’s no Bluray picture but it is noticeably better than what I got with the original aTV. Admittedly my TV isn’t the best (a 2cd gen LCD which has black burn in if you leave a menu displaying) so it’s hard to judge this too carefully. Maybe one day I’ll get a new TV.
Sound is great. Dolby Digital 5.1 is supported. Although I’ve heard mixed things about DTS support. (Personally I can’t tell the difference between DTS and DD – the differences I do hear seem more due to how the soundtrack was mixed differently) My receiver doesn’t do DTS so it’s not a big deal to me. Sound via the HDMI cable is supported, although I just use the optical cable to my receiver. It has ethernet cable support although I’ve not tried hooking it up via cable yet due to my TV’s location.
The only other minor things to talk about are the selection “ring” around the icons. It’s not noticeable enough. I wish it were about 8 pixels larger. The color of the Apple TV is much better than the light grey of the 1st gen. It called attention to itself and reminds me of manufacturers occasional flirtation with faux aluminum DVD players and receivers. Don’t do it. We don’t want to see our equipment. We want it to disappear. Even Microsoft caught on and has a black XBox. I’m glad Apple did as well.
Overall I’m pretty happy with it. If I notice anything odd over the next few weeks I’ll talk about it. It’s pretty amazing that we have something like this for only $99. There’s a lot more Apple could do. I think a lot of us are hoping an application store will be announced at WWDC. We’ll see.
- Fantastic picture quality
- Great access to all your computers media
- Best Netflix experience I’ve seen
- Air Play lets you play most things on iOS on big screen
- Your TV and Movies separated from Apple’s
- Bad remote
- No Hulu, Amazon, Vudu etc support
- No turning off apps you don’t use