Digital Media Adapters Part 2 – Apple TV

By Patrick Moorhead - December 30, 2010

This is part 2 in a blog series about “digital media adapters” (DMA) or “Internet-enabled living room devices.”  In Part 1, I introduce the term DMA, which is essentially a living room device that gives access to commercial and personal movies, music, pictures, and even access to the web in some cases.  In part 2, I will take a look at the recently announced and much talked-about Apple TV.  Can the Apple TV match the success of the iPhone and the iPad or will it be remembered as a cool entertainment experiment?

The Apple TV was announced on September 1, 2010 and is actually the second generation of Apple TV devices.  I am one of the few and the proud who actually bought the first version Apple TV.  The 2nd generation Apple TV is a tiny device at less than 1” high and less than 4” wide and deep, almost portable. So let’s drill down…

Video Content

The Apple TV’s primary use case is to rent movies from iTunes and stream them to your HDTV, which it does pretty well. Apple also offers those with Netflix accounts the ability to stream movies. The Netflix interface is the latest generation meaning you don’t have to choose the movies on a PC, you can actually do it from the Apple TV.  That’s nice.

I could also stream movies from my PC that I bought from iTunes as long as I had “Home Sharing” enabled on the PC’s iTunes, the PC was up and running, and on the same network.  I also could stream home movies I took on digital video cameras as long as they complied with Apple TV’s narrow video specifications.  In many cases I needed to recode video using a package like Cyberlink MediaEspresso.

One of the biggest issues I experienced with Apple TV was video lags.  I had it connected over 100 Mbit wired network to my cable modem but during prime-time, I had my rental stop numerous times because of network congestion.  This was a deal breaker for my family.

Apple TV will also play YouTube content.  Even with the remote without a keypad, it was easy to type.  I will get to iPod/iPhone remotes later.  Videos looked great as they use the HD stream if possible, BUT I couldn’t get to my own videos without searching on myself.  Very, very annoying.

One final note on video… the Apple TV video peaks at 720p on H.264 and 640×480 for MP4 video.  I noticed the lack of video quality, but I am very picky on video.  The MP4 video resolution is even below DVD resolution (720×480) which is disappointing.  Many wasted pixels on my 1920×1080 HDTV.

 

Music content

I played music from my “home-shared” PC running iTunes.  My playlists were there just as they were in iTunes on my PC.  The album art showed up consistently and was very responsive. I am not much of an audiophile, so I won’t comment on the quality.  It sounded just fine to me.

Of note, a user MUST have a PC available to play any music.  This was disappointing, given the number of robust streaming services available from Pandora to Slacker to Last.FM. As we will see in other DMA’s the Apple TV is the ONLY device that didn’t offer the capability.

Photo Content

Apple TV connects to photos on the PC the same way it streams music from the home PC.  Choose first on the PC which photos you want shared on iTunes.  Responsiveness was very, very fast and looked very professional with the built-in transitions and optional music.

One thing I’d like to see changed is the ability to choose folders.  I was looking at 10s of thousands of photos at a time and it was very hard to find the pictures and albums I wanted.  If anyone out there knows how to change this, please let me know.

The Apple TV also supports online photos with Apple’s own MobileMe service and Flickr.  Unfortunately for me, a Google Picasa user, I didn’t have that choice.

Game content

There are no games available on the Apple TV.  It would be cool if I could run the iPad games……

Web

As there isn’t an integrated browser, the web is not available on the Apple TV.  For me that means no Picasa and no Pandora, my preferred web photo and web music services.

Social Media

There is no integration of Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Bebo, etc., on the Apple TV.  I personally don’t need to do that now on a 60” HDTV but I am sure some users do.

Networking

The Apple TV supports up to 100 Mbps hard-line network connection and 802.11n Wi-Fi.  That’s more than enough bandwidth as long as your cable or DSL service isn’t throttling you which I illustrated before in renting videos.

Simplicity

Hands down the Apple TV is the simplest streaming device I have used.  I entered my Apple ID, downloaded a software patch and I was renting movies. I opened up iTunes on my PC and I was immediately accessing my music.  Apple TV even detected the max resolution and frequency and preset that for me, albeit only 720p.  Not all DMAs do that.

One HDMI cable is all you need and all the choice you get for connectivity.  That’s limiting for legacy TVs but as simple as it gets.

The remote is very simple given it only has a few directional buttons. It’s also very sleek and looks like it belongs in the living room.

Connectivity to Other Devices

Apple got a lot of attention when they announced the AirPlay for video feature.  If you have an iPhone, iPod, or iPad with iOS 4.2, you can stream the video almost instantaneously to your Apple TV.  It worked for me on iTunes purchased or rented movies and YouTube videos.  Unfortunately, videos I took with my iPhone do not stream.  That’s a real disappointment given it would save me so much time and hassle to watch my videos if AirPlay streamed my locally captured videos.  I am hoping this gets fixed soon.

One really awesome feature is the iOS remotes.  If you have an iPod, iPhone or iPad, you can basically control the Apple TV.  It comes in handy when entering text as you just uses your iOS mobile device to enter text.  Additionally, when looking for content to play off a PC, you can see the art on the iOS mobile device itself which makes it infinitely easier.  I love this feature.  Just download the free “Remote” app from the App Store and you are good to go.

Price

At $99 the Apple TV is one of the least expensive digital media adapters on the market.  That is, of course, if you don’t count TVs and Blu-ray players that are integrated with services like Netflix, Pandora, and Picassa.

Conclusion

The second generation Apple TV is one of the simplest, least expensive digital media adapters on the market today. It is optimized for the Apple world of iTunes movies, iTunes music, and iTunes and MobileMe pictures.  My only challenge, a major one, was hiccups in streaming movies off of iTunes and Netflix.  I don’t know if that’s my cable company’s issues,  that Apple TV has limited on-board storage, or a combination of both.  I didn’t have hiccups on the first generation Apple TV that had a hard drive. I don’t have hiccups renting from Time Warner Cable on my set-top box with a hard drive.

If you have chosen the Google world of Picasa photos, Amazon VOD, and Amazon music, or even the Microsoft world of Zune and Windows Media Player, the device isn’t optimized for you and I wouldn’t recommend it.

At $99, Apple TV does make a difference to the industry, particularly rental video. Renting a movie on my cable box is a frustrating and time consuming experience, particularly looking for the right movie.  Apple TV simplifies that.  Can you make a bad decision at $99?  Probably not.

Next, I will take a look at Google TV from Logitech.

Patrick Moorhead
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Patrick founded the firm based on his real-world world technology experiences with the understanding of what he wasn’t getting from analysts and consultants. Ten years later, Patrick is ranked #1 among technology industry analysts in terms of “power” (ARInsights)  in “press citations” (Apollo Research). Moorhead is a contributor at Forbes and frequently appears on CNBC. He is a broad-based analyst covering a wide variety of topics including the cloud, enterprise SaaS, collaboration, client computing, and semiconductors. He has 30 years of experience including 15 years of executive experience at high tech companies (NCR, AT&T, Compaq, now HP, and AMD) leading strategy, product management, product marketing, and corporate marketing, including three industry board appointments.