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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

October 4, 2010 at 3:57 PM

Apple TV review, with pics

Today’s column is a review of Apple TV. Here’s a version with a few pictures of the devices mentioned and their remote controls:

With the appropriate level of awe and reverence, I carefully removed Apple’s latest magical product from its apple-sized box and marveled at its sleek design.

Within a few minutes, the Apple TV device – a $99 puck that wirelessly connects a TV to the Internet, and became available last week – was streaming video into my living room.

TVbox.jpg

The Apple TV connected to the Wi-Fi network in my house, plugged into the TV with an HDMI cable and, voila, there was a virtual video store on the screen.

Had Apple done it again? Did it revolutionize TV and reveal the future of video entertainment?

No, not really.

Compared with the growing pile of gadgets that already connect TVs to the Internet, the Apple TV is fairly limited. It’s the smallest and most stylish of the bunch, but like with a high-heeled shoe, you’ll trade some capabilities for those looks.

Apple TV displays a nice interface on the screen. You can search and read about videos you can stream from Netflix (for $9 per month) or buy or rent from iTunes. Apple is trying to get more shows on iTunes, but for now its video selection is more like that of a convenience store than a Blockbuster.

The name is a little confusing. Apple TV isn’t a TV at all. It’s mostly a wireless adapter.

Unlike a PC – or the Google TV devices launching later this week – the Apple TV doesn’t have a browser or the ability to surf and select content from across the Web. Apple TV connects only to a handful of preselected Web services, including YouTube and Flickr. But you’ll mostly use it with iTunes and Netflix.

This is not Apple’s version of the TiVo. There’s no way to connect a TV cable or antenna and no program guide. Apple started down that path in 2007 with the first version of Apple TV, which didn’t sell very well.

The new Apple TV is closer to AirTunes, Apple’s system for streaming music from a computer to a stereo with a $99 AirPort Wi-Fi adapter. Like AirTunes, AppleTV is a decent solution if you’re a heavy iTunes user and want an easy way to connect to your home-entertainment setup.

If you’re looking mostly to stream Netflix, you’ll want to also look at options such as TiVo, game consoles, Blu-ray players, Wi-Fi adapters or TVs with built-in Internet connections.

Most every “connected TV” device has a standard suite of services, including Netflix, and some let you load more services and applications. In comparison, Apple TV feels like a closed pipe, or a turnstile. It’s an alternative to a trip to the video store, but it’s nowhere near a replacement for cable or broadcast TV.

More people are getting TV content from the Web, but it’s still not mainstream. During the past three months, about a fourth of U.S. consumers downloaded content, including 15 percent downloading to PCs, 6 percent to game consoles, 4 percent to phones and 2 percent to set-top devices such as Blu-ray players or Apple TV units, according to NPD research.

One reason Apple’s content is limited is that networks have wised up and are selling first-tier content through their own premium channels. They started the Hulu streaming service, which is offering a $10 premium plan with first-run TV shows this fall, but not on Apple TV.

I’m not too concerned about the TV shows, but I do like being able to stream photos from a computer to the TV. This doesn’t work very well on Apple TV, from my experience and that of a bunch of people on Apple’s support forums.

I never could get Apple TV to display my photos, even after nearly two hours on the phone with Apple technical support. The device showed photos from Web services like Flickr just fine, but I wanted to see pictures stored on a PC across the room, not on a data center in Quincy.

The support call was escalated to a nice supervisor who had me using the Windows Command line and MSCONFIG to alter the Windows XP PC I was using and disable its anti-malware software.

When that didn’t work, he noted he’s not really that up on XP (the most widely used PC operating system in the world?) and suggested I disconnect it all and plug the Apple TV directly to my new 802.11n router in the basement with a cable.

He also said the Apple TV wouldn’t stream content from the iTunes server on my home server, and only stream from a PC on the network.

After that, I plugged in a similar gadget Sony just released, its $130 Network Media Player. A few seconds after I entered my Wi-Fi password, it found and displayed the content on my server, along with Netflix, a bunch of other services and a “coming soon” spot for Hulu Plus.

Remotes.jpg

Another company, Roku, loaned me one of its new wireless TV adapters, which range from $60 to $100. It’s a slightly larger box that does most everything Apple TV does, except Roku doesn’t even try to share content on the home network. It’s mostly for Netflix.

The Sony and Roku boxes displayed full 1080p content, while Apple TV only does 720p.

But still, the main reason I wouldn’t buy an Apple TV is because I can’t stand its remote control. It’s a 4-inch aluminum wafer with minimalist buttons. You could think of it as the sleek wing from a tiny airplane, but it made me think of a parsimonious slice of Brie, or a shim that fell off a Prius.

The remote doesn’t feel nice enough to fondle and fiddle with while watching a show. It’s too small to palm and is easy to lose between couch cushions. It’s also delicate; within a day in my house it already had little dings marring its case.

But the Apple TV did a perfectly fine job playing a Disney show for my family. Just like the six other devices already connected to my TV.

Comments | More in | Topics: Apple, apple tv, Digital TV

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