Apple TV Notes

Early last week I brought an Apple TV home on loan, paired it to the house server (a mini) and have been fooling around with the setup a bit in order to figure out if it was good enough already.

To cut a long story short, I’ve been comparing it against my current media center, the “PS3”:Wikipedia:PS3 (to which I will refer to here solely as a media center), and it turns out that it is a slightly more balanced match than I originally gave it credit for, mostly due to two things:

  • The vastly simpler UI – that makes it a lot easier to find and view the media you want
  • “Proper” syncing.

I have been using MediaLink to stream my media to the “PS3”:Wikipedia:PS3, and the experience, though good enough, is tainted by two things1: it takes slightly longer to navigate the cross-media bar to find the stuff you want (the bar quickly becomes visually confusing, especially when negotiating deep folder hierarchies) and streaming can be hampered by network conditions.

It probably bears mentioning at this point that I’ve been fooling around with a couple of ways of improving Wi-Fi coverage at home for a bit, and that the “PS3”:Wikipedia:PS3 is temporarily placed well away from a Cat. 5 socket, so Wi-Fi is the only way to go.

And although it is sufficient for music and photos, 802.11g sometimes leads to stuttering video. So syncing the Apple TV worked a lot better than streaming to the “PS3”:Wikipedia:PS3 as far as video was concerned, and the Apple TV’s 802.11n link to my base station certainly helped with syncing and streaming some files off my MacBook.

Still, there were some (predictable) hassles that bear reflecting upon:

  • Format support (of course)2
  • Heat (predictable)
  • HDMI shenanigans (reported by some folk ever since the first batches came out)

Only the more recent files in my movie collection worked – I’ve recently adopted H.264 as the way to have my movies readily available without rifling through DVD cases, but all the pre-2008 stuff is in DivX format, and I haven’t had the time and energy to re-rip everything (I suppose I will do that once the kid starts discovering cartoons, but it’s a while away yet).

Yes, I know that there are several ways to “fix” that. But I stuck to the basics – all I did to the box was a factory restore (to wipe the existing content and get that “new box” feeling) and a straight-up update to Take Two.

After all, I frown on having to hack things to get them to work the way I want to – unless it’s trivial and inconsequential (which is also my stand where it regards jailbreaking, hackintoshes, etc. – none of those are inconsequential).

As to heat, although there is considerable technical achievement involved in packing the Apple TV hardware into such a compact enclosure, the thing is always warm.

Entirely too warm to the touch, and I don’t think wood furniture will benefit from prolonged exposure to it. Sure, it’s fanless and a lot quieter than the “PS3”:Wikipedia:PS3, but maybe some kind of convectional airflow would be in order.

Finally, the thing refused to talk HDMI to my plasma TV to auto-detect available resolutions – a known quirk that had me pressing Menu + Up to get it to cycle through until it was able to sync at 1080i. Of course, the “PS3”:Wikipedia:PS3 had no problems whatsoever (and it worked fine at 720p as well).

But what’s most important (at least to me) is that the overall experience still lacks that extra little thing that would make the Apple TV worth using over the “PS3”:Wikipedia:PS3. Yes, I have a fiddlier UI and worse media management, but the bottom line is that, at least for me (and at least for now) the Apple TV offers no compelling value over that.

I would loathe to call it a failure like Forbes did, but it certainly needs to evolve a bit more – despite its polish, Apple hasn’t got the living room environment figured out yet.

1 Actually, there’s a third thing – MediaLink itself, despite working fine for now, is an extra dependency I would rather do without – but discussing that would invariably lead to a very long and boring rant about Apple’s refusal to play ball with “DLNA”:Wikipedia:Digital_Living_Network_Alliance and their tendency for reinventing the wheel when it comes to media protocols, so I won’t go there. Honest.

2 I won’t go into purchasing media like TV series and such either, since that kind of service isn’t available for either device here in Portugal