I have been looking forward to Apple's new Apple TV (formerly known as iTV) since before they announced it. I have been downloading a lot of current-season TV shows and watching them on my PC, so the idea of being able to plug a little box into my beautiful 50" TV and watch it from the comfort of Cindy & Jason's insanely comfy couch was very, very appealing. I was even looking forward to the possibility of shit-canning that annoying TiVo box in the next year or so, if they delivered a compelling enough product and could keep up their expansion of available shows.
Well, today the Apple TV was officially announced, along with preliminary details on how it works. To be honest, I'm a little disappointed. Granted, it delivers the basic functionality it promised, but none of the functionality I figured they would include as an end-to-end solution, and the price point is just a little too high to make it all that appealing.
Lets take this review bit by bit, for those of you who are interested.
When it was originally announced, it was just supposed to let you stream content from iTunes/iPhoto to your TV. Which is a great thing, but not $300 great. But a TV input isn't the only thing the iTunes suite would need to be a full end-to-end solution. So I was hoping the "under $300" price point was a high estimate and that the iTV would weigh in at around $150, so you could afford to get one for more than just the one TV in the home. If they had surprised us all by including DVR functionality, I would have gladly forked over the $300, but since their business is in replacing network TV and cable, not assisting in it, I figured that one was a long shot.
The next big hole in the iTunes suite is storage. People have insanely large music collections, and iTunes video files are getting bigger and bigger all the time (without even touching hi-def yet), so people who buy off-the-shelf PCs or Macs are going to run out of storage space in no time. So I figured the "one more thing" that would accompany the iTV player would be an iTV server - something akin to the Home Server (with with better UI/hardware) that would let you plug in multiple desktop-sized hard drives, and give you seamless UI for sharing the disk space between all the iTunes users on your network. This would also eliminate the problem you would normally face with the iTV player not being able to see the iTunes accounts of more than one user on a given computer, since it would have access to all of the accounts on the iTunes server. With hard drives getting bigger and cheaper every year, this would be an excellent way of insuring that people could buy their fill of iTunes content without having to worry about running out of space.
[This is especially important since Apple currently doesn't have a mid-level desktop machine that isn't built into its own monitor. The Mac Mini is cute, but its storage capacity is a joke, and the Mac Pro is a beautiful piece of machinery, but carries far too big a price tag for the average Joe. But I'll cover my desire for a mid-range Mac in my upcoming "2007 Industry Wishlist" later.]
Those were my expectations for iTV.
What They Delivered
Apple TV wasn't exactly what I was expecting. Instead of it being a robust server and a low-cost viewer, it ended up being a lot more like a wireless HomeDock Deluxe than an end-to-end solution.
It does have a 40GB hard drive and an unspecified Intel processor to make an argument for the $300 price point, but since it supposedly still lets you stream your content from other computers in the house, I fail to see the benefit of having a hard drive in the thing at all. I stream iTunes TV shows from my desktop to my laptop all the time and it's smooth as butter, so why would anyone need to cache it on their Apple TV hard drive?
And if the hard drive really was important enough to kick up the cost that much, why is it such a small one? There's no reason they couldn't have made the Apple TV twice its size and used desktop components to get a decent (upgradeable) disk in there. After all, it's going to be a pain in the ass to stack something that skinny with all the ~18" wide components that everyone already has under their TV, so it's not like the tininess factor comes into play like it does with iPods.
So as far as the hardware goes, I'm not yet convinced that the hard drive is a useful thing, and the price point seems too high to get more than maybe one per house (which is sad, since most houses have 3+ TVs). But I have yet to see all the functionality, and they could be aiming at just the ubergeek crowd instead of the average consumer (which is strangely un-Apple-like), so I'll reserve my final judgment until I've played with one in person.
On to the software.
Sadly, I'm just as disappointed with the Apple TV software. I was expecting the Apple TV to be an even-sexier version of the FrontRow software that has been shipping in the latest generation of iMacs and Mac Minis. That beautiful "content type" carousel, the simple, click interface, and possibly the addition of iTunes games would have been sweet. But instead they have decided to take FrontRow back a step. They have replaced the slick, comfortable front page animation with an ugly text-and-icons equivalent, and added some really distracting scrolling of apparently unrelated album covers in the previously simple selection pages.
Now, this is all based off of a demo that may or may not be complete, so it's possible that the issues that are annoying me won't be as bad in the real thing. My opinion of Apple TV will go up three notches if they just do the following:
Keep the same slick splash page that FrontRow uses. Separating Movies from TV and Music from Podcasts makes no sense, particularly since that is not how they are handled in iTunes. And the slick landing page was one of the great things FrontRow had going for it on a first impression basis.
Cut it out with the unnecessary animation. Showing the artwork for the selected show/album is great, but that artwork should only change when the item selected changes, and should not be doing that annoying spinning thing that's going to drive people crazy after a while. At very least, there should be an option to either have the images fixed or fluid. It's great that you have this kick-ass animation engine, but overusing it is worse than not having it at all. If you really want to show your animation chops, give us the option of switching from the text-list to the groovy jukebox browsing UI that iTunes now has. Not only does it make it a more touchy-feely experience, but it then gives the text the full screen width to write itself out, instead of scrunching it to half its width to make room for less useful visuals, like the current setup. That's the kind of thing that would make my parents fall in love with an Apple TV (ok, and me too).
For the Photo browser, give the control to the user. Don't automatically turn it into a snappy musical slide show. Just show the first photo and let us use the remote to navigate between them. Offering the ability to kick it into a slide show is nice, but the default should be a standard photo browser, so we can step through the photos at our own pace while we show them to our friends/family and be able to back up, take our time on a good one, or skip ahead on the bad ones. It's our content, let us control it.
Same thing goes for the screensavers. It's great that you have this fancy animation engine, and giving people the option of having one of those slow-motion-matrix-with-photos screensavers is nice. But PLEASE don't do it at the expense of just a normal, full-screen screen saver. I'd actually be willing to buy one of these for my mom just for the photos/screensaver aspect, if it could actually compete with the similarly prices LCD photo frames. But if there are too many photos on the screen for her to focus on any of them, then it's pointless. Really, how hard could it be to use the same screensaver options here that you have in the normal OSX options?
The idea of Apple TV - making your TV a part of the iTunes experience - is an brilliant one. And while I would have much preferred an end-to-end solution with a robust content server and a low-cost viewer, so I could hook up the whole house and not have to worry about space, the current offering is still a relatively tempting gadget. I may or may not end up getting one, depending on how many of my software complaints are addressed in the actual version of this. But at $300 and with less user-friendliness than I expected, I'm going to be hard pressed to get one for my mom like I was hoping to.
The thing is, since I already have a video iPod and a Universal dock, there really isn't that much the Apple TV can do that I couldn't already do. It does it in a marginally slicker fashion, to be sure. But it costs more than my iPod/dock combo does and it can't move from room to room as easily, so it's going to be a hard sell.
If anything, I might break down and buy a used Core Solo Mac Mini to plug in to the TV. It wouldn't be that much more expensive than the Apple TV, would have the slicker FrontRow interface, and has the nifty benefit of also being a frikkin' computer.
The Apple TV may not be what I expected, but it's a step in the right direction. Even if I don't end up buying one now, I have a feeling the 2008 version of this is going to kick some serious butt.