So last night, as an early anniversary present, Sarah got me the new Apple TV. Not the rumored buy-a-whole-TV-from-Apple Apple TV, but the third-generation set-top box from Apple. My first impression is that this is an interesting little piece of machinery, and will largely replace my first-gen Roku, plus do a whole lot more.
The Apple TV is a very minimalist piece of hardware. It’s black, not much bigger than a hockey puck, and has no markings or logos other than a low-visibility logo on the top, and a light on the front that isn’t visible when it’s not illuminated. The back has jacks for power, ethernet, HDMI, optical audio, and a mini-usb that is for “service use only,” whatever that means. Other than the dust cover on the optical audio jack, there are no moving parts; it does not contain a mechanical hard drive or a fan. The whole thing is very low-key.
That’s the weird impression I get about a lot of Apple hardware and software. You plug everything in and think “ok, now what?” And then suddenly, it becomes irreplaceable, because it Just Works. That’s the way the iPad was. I got it, fired it up, and thought, “okay, I have a web browser and all of my phone’s apps on a big screen. So what?” And then a week later, I was using it constantly, for everything. It’s the big appeal of ubiquitous computing; there’s no dazzle or show, but it’s something that’s always there, and totally utilitarian.
So, what’s it do? Well, I plugged it into my TV, and when it fired up, it asked me how to connect to the internet. I’m out of ethernet in my living room, so I pointed it to my wireless router. (My first minor complaint is having to type in the password with the remote arrow keys on an onscreen keyboard, but that’s what I get for not having a wireless password of ABCDE.) Then it asked me for my Apple ID and password, which is what I use to buy content on iTunes. And then, main menu.
The obvious use for the Apple TV is for consuming content you’ve purchased within the walled garden of iTunes. So if you’ve bought movies or TV shows or music in iTunes on your computer, or your iPad or iPhone, you can navigate the menus on the slick interface and see all of that stuff, and stream it to your TV. The unit does not store any of the content on the box itself. (It does have 8GB of SSD storage that it uses for buffering/caching, but those details are hidden away to the user.) Of course, if you’re living in some rural outback shithole with a 56K modem, this is an issue, but for me, it isn’t. All of this works fine, and of course you can do stuff like peruse the iTunes store from your living room, and click on things to rent or buy them. Part of the reason for doing all of this is to make it easier for you to throw money at Apple with very simple clicks, and this part, of course, works very well. And any of your purchases here are added to your Apple ID, so when you go to your iPad or iPhone or MacBook, you’re going to have the same purchases available.
There are a number of other non-Apple streaming services available from this menu. The obvious is Netflix, and if you’re already paying them, you can log in and stream all of their stuff. There’s also MLB.TV, Vimeo, NBA TV, Flickr, and the biggest win for me, YouTube, which was not available on the Roku. I spend a lot of time watching obscure UFO conspiracy theory documentaries on YouTube, so I will now be able to watch them on the big screen. The one missing feature, for obvious reasons, is Amazon. That’s a huge one, since we use Amazon Prime, but the PS3 offers that now, so all is not lost. Another minor quibble is that there isn’t a way to add any channels. I don’t know why I miss this feature though, because the Roku has it, and has a million channels to add, all of them being garbage.
The big feature that is not as obvious is that the Apple TV will stream whatever is in your iTunes library. This means that even if you never bought a single thing from Apple, you can still stream all of the stuff you’ve ripped or stolen off the internet, from your computer to the TV. This is big for me because I rip a lot of my DVDs so I have crap to watch on planes. Once the Apple TV found my laptop on the local network, I had a catalog of movies waiting for me when I plugged in. Also, a lot of comedians have been doing this Louie CK model of a $5 downloadable concert, and I have all of those sitting in iTunes, ready to roll. My former CD collection, which is now all ripped and sitting on my hard drive, is also available. Also, iTunes works as a conduit to iPhoto, so I can look through all of my pictures on my computer on the TV.
The other interesting thing is AirPlay. Basically, the Apple TV acts as an AirPlay receiver, and any iDevice that supports AirPlay or has a program that does can pipe its output to the TV. This is an extremely freaky and endlessly useful feature. For example, if I’m sitting in the living room with my iPhone in hand, looking at a baseball game in the MLB At Bat app, if someone hits a home run or whatever, they will post a recap video. I press play, but I click a little AirPlay logo and choose my TV set, and suddenly, I’m watching the video in 42″ glory, instead of on the tiny screen. A bunch of games and apps support AirPlay, and will pipe their audio or video to the Apple TV. This is also cool if you have the Apple TV plugged into a receiver, so you can use your stereo’s speakers as an output destination for audio from your computer or iOS device.
What gets even more mind-blowing is AirPlay mirroring. If I’m on my iPhone, I can mirror my entire display to the TV wirelessly, regardless of what I’m doing. The one downer to this is that the only device I currently have that supports AirPlay mirroring is my phone; neither of my laptops or my first-gen iPad have the GPU power to do this. But it’s interesting, because if for example, I had a company that was an all-Apple shop, I could put an Apple TV on a projector in a conference room, and when a presenter needed to connect, instead of fucking with cables and adapters, they could just beam their stuff right into the projector. (And of course, this is password-protectable, so your neighbors can’t suddenly shoot pornos at your TV at three in the morning.)
Like I said, this thing comes with a remote, and it’s a tiny piece of shit IR thing that I will probably lose in a week. If I was smart, I could reprogram my all-in-one that drives my DVR so it would also work the Apple TV, but I’m lazy. Luckily, there is a free app called Remote that I already have on my iPad and iPhone, that enables me to use them as glorified remote controls. So when I have to search for something on the TV, I can use the keyboard on the iPad to do it. (I suppose I could also bluetooth in my real keyboard to the iPad, like if I had to type a dissertation into the Apple TV, but I’m not there yet.)
All of this works perfectly and is an entirely disruptive technology if you’re using all Apple devices and have a bunch of crap in iTunes. If you prefer registry fondling and DLL conflicts to usability and getting work done, I have no idea if the Apple TV plays well with the Windows version of iTunes. And I’m certain there are some hidden DRM nightmares that prevent you from doing certain things, although the system seems perfectly capable of taking torrents you pirated off the web and playing them in 1080p glory. (Not that I would ever do that, Mr. MPAA intern scouring the net for possible lawsuits.) If you have philosophical issues with iTunes, cloud computing, wireless networks, and not owning physical copies of media, this isn’t for you. But for me, it’s an almost perfect solution.
There are some minor issues, like the lack of an app store or method of adding channels. The Apple TV uses the same processor as the iPhone, and a customized version of iOS, so I would suspect some kind of app store in the future, with the ability to add games and whatnot. (There have been some jailbreaks for the first and second generation that enable you to do some freaky stuff like this, but nothing for the new version.) Or maybe the philosophy is to keep the platform as just a receiver, and focus on iOS and Mac apps that use AirPlay. There’s huge potential for kick-ass games that use AirPlay as the main display and your iOS device as a controller.
Anyway, it’s a cool little present. Now I just need to go buy a new iPad to get mirroring to work. Maybe that’s how they’re able to sell these things for so cheap.