A week with the Apple TV

Apple claims that its new Apple TV “is like a DVD player for the Internet age”, which is exactly why I wanted one. It is also the standard to which I will be comparing and judging it. Since electronics manufacturers and media companies seem to have learned nothing in the last twenty years and are now full tilt into another hideously stupid format war, I’m hoping I can flip them all the bird and use the Apple TV in lieu of a new HD-DVD or Blue-ray player for my high definition viewing. After spending a week with Apple’s opening salvo into this market, it looks promising, but still has a way to go.

As with many new Apple products, a lot of press (or blogging, at any rate) surrounds the Apple TV. I agree with nearly everything in MacRumors’ review of the device, so no need to rehash it here. It’s also worth noting ArsTechnica’s usual thorough coverage for screen shots and so on. The innards of the box also seem to be extremely hackable, which I like. One thing I don’t quite get with all the coverage is all the bitching about no cables being included. When was the last time you bought an AV component that came with cables you actually used? My original DVD player came with RCA cables. Where are they now? In a drawer, because I hooked it up using S-Video and fiber optic audio. So, to Apple: I fully support you not including crappy cables that I’d toss.

The first thing to get used to about the Apple TV is that operates essentially like a glorified iPod. This surprised me a little bit. I was expecting more of a “stripped-down computer” experience, not a “pumped-up iPod” experience. Whatever you want to call it, though, it is a fairly slick experience. The benefit of the iPod-like interface is that it is simple. It’s obvious how to use the thing and you can do quite a bit with minimal controls. The drawback of the iPod-like interface is that it is simple. I want this box to do more than it does. Fortunately, what I want it to do can all be done with software changes, so future revs of the software may deliver it.

Some of the things that have impressed me over the week, in no particular order:

  • Contrary to the initial announcement, the Apple TV supports both 1080i (which means I can run it in my TV’s best resolution) and 480p (which means you can run it on a non-HD set). The picture looks great in 1080i, especially photos.
  • Part of the set up features a key registration/code entering step, which suggests there is a sort of “publilc key” trust relationship going on between the Apple TV and your iTunes. I guess what impresses me here is that it’s done in a way that seems obvious and painless, which is not always easy to pull off.
  • Setup was even easier than I expected it to be.
  • The number and types of connectors on the back of the Apple TV are exactly correct. That is, if I was building the thing, those are exactly the set of connections I would have added. (Well, I would have added firewire as well, I suppose.)
  • The Apple TV can work both by syncing with iTunes and playing the local copy or by streaming playback directly from up to five different machines. Even over my 802.11g network, DVD quality video streamed very well. This greatly reduces the drawback of the Apple TV’s smallish hard drive.
  • My universal remote had no problem learning the codes from Apple’s remote. Once the codes were recorded in my universal remote, I could even use the “pair remote” feature. This must mean that each Apple remote transmits an identifier unique to the device as well as the command, and that the “pairing” tells the Apple TV to only listen to signals with that identifier. Since I recorded the signal from the Apple remote to my universal, it must have recorded this id as well.
  • No dongly power brick thing. Just a plain power cord.
  • Picture quality is much better than my attempts to hook my laptop up to the same TV via the DVI connection.

I can also suggest the following improvements to Apple:

  • In picture mode, allow browsing by film roll, like you can in iPhoto.
  • When viewing pictures, allow rating of pictures, like you can in iPhoto, and sync the vote results back to the source machine. My wife and I like to rate pictures together and the big TV screen would be an extremely useful way for us to do so. I don’t use the music rating as much, but presumably it could work the same way.
  • Improve what is on screen when music is playing. For the life of me, I’m not sure why the standard iTunes visualizer isn’t an option. It seems like an obvious choice. Add it.
  • QuickTime files can contain multiple audio tracks (director’s commentary or other languages, for example). In the QuickTime Player, you can turn these channels on and off (in the Pro version, anyway). Add capability to control this from inside the Apple TV.
  • Many have said it: given the fact that a) the Apple TV exists as a front for the selling of content from the iTunes store and b) that the Apple TV can play trailers and other samples from the store, the fact that you can’t actually order anything from the store though the Apple TV seems really dumb.
  • And, the big one: surround sound. In spite of containing hardware that can handle it, the Apple TV’s support for real surround sound is limited and mysterious. Some of this can be fixed with software, but it would also require that Apple license some technology into QuickTime, which it doesn’t look like they will do any time soon. Apple, if you are really trying to make the Apple TV “like a DVD player for the Internet age”, you are going to have to give it at least the capabilities of a DVD player from the last century. I’d love to be able to tell people that the Apple TV works as a valid alternative to HD-DVD or Blue-ray, but its lack of real surround sound appears to be the only reason that I cannot. I realize that you’re trying to embrace the most compatible format so that all receivers can be supported, but that isn’t what your competition is doing.
  • It’s not entirely obvious what the best way to rip a DVD for display on the Apple TV is. It appears that MediaFork (previously HandBrake) is working like mad to get a version out that can at least turn 5.1 DVDs into the funky semi-surround sound that Apple uses in its trailers. They should be releasing in mid April or so.

While neither impressive nor depressing, it’s worth mentioning that the box runs surprisingly hot, which may not bode well for those trying to hack an upgrade to the hard drive. Another odd thing is a lack of a power button. Like an iPod, you can put it to sleep (holding down the play button for five seconds), but it never really turns off (it even syncs while “asleep”).

Since I use a universal remote (with lots of spare buttons) and the Apple TV uses Mac OS X and includes a version of Perl, a hack that I’d love to see someone do is to build a program that detects arbitrary remote control signals and, based on which signal it was, execute a certain script. For example, my remote has a “System 5” button. I’d like to be able to hit this button to cause /usr/bin/screencapture to execute, taking a snapshot of the screen. Naturally, this would require various other hacks (like ssh) to be in place to configure the whole thing, but I think this would be a very powerful mechanism. I don’t know enough about IR communication to make it work, though.

In all, I’m pleased with my Apple TV purchase, but not as pleased as I’d like to be. Time will tell how often Apple makes software improvements and how significant they are when they do. How they handle the surround sound problem will probably mark the difference between a killer success and a marginal one.

Another more thing

Everyone and their mother is sounding off on Apple’s announcements yesterday. Who am I to buck a trend? I won’t bore you with the details of the announcements, as these have been covered elsewhere. I’m only going to mention the two things that struck me about the announcement that I haven’t seen mentioned much.

First, big media is apparently even more afraid of Apple than I thought. Apple is looking to change video distribution, but the best content providers will allow is music videos and some TV shows, and even that only using one-quarter the pixels of standard TV resolution. You can bet Apple was looking to score deals for more impressive content, this being the year of high definition and all, but couldn’t convince anyone to play. Interestingly, this makes Apple weaker on the music front in some respects, giving media companies more leverage for better iTunes music deals. I suspect this is going to get a bit ugly, and this might be why Wall Street was in a selling mood after the announcement, in spite of a monster quarter for Apple. The fact Pixar and Disney are parting ways won’t help, either.

Secondly, there were signals before, but the introduction of Front Row is the first crystal clear sign that Apple is looking to enter the media center market. Their incremental entry strategy is a bit puzzling. I think the reason for it, and the reason they didn’t use yesterday’s announcement to introduce media center hardware, is that their media center box will be based on an Intel CPU. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if it was the first Apple box to do so. It may turn out that this box is just a rev of the Mini, if Apple is only interested in playback and not DVR (which seems likely, given my first point). I’ve been eagerly waiting to put a Mac under my TV, so I’ll probably be first in line to get such a box. In the meantime, it will be interesting to see the inevitable clamor of people trying to get the new Apple remote to work with older boxes.

Concept for Mac mini A/V dock

The interest given to articles about modifications to the Mac mini, such as moving it into a micro ATX case with some large IDE drives or overclocking it, suggests that there may be a market for a “docking station” of sorts that has the same dimensions as a typical audio/video component. The mini could be plugged into this station, then added into the rack of a typical home theater with ease, to act as a media center. It would have the added benefit of allowing the mini to be easily removed from the rack for more portable uses from time to time.

Let me stress that this product does not actually exist. I have the idea, but neither the time nor talent to see it to fruition. I present it here so that others might. It might look something like this:

Dock concept

I would only buy such a thing if it contained the following:

  • Few or no external controls. All features should be controllable by software in the mini. Perhaps a power button (which would also power the mini), but that’s all.
  • Port replication, as usually found in a docking station. This would include power (allowing you to ditch the power brick that came with the mini).
  • In addition to replication of the DVI connector, the station would wire the mini to built-in adaptors for VGA, S-Video, composite video and (most importantly) component video (Y/Pb/Pr), with ports for each arrayed on the back of the dock. If it didn’t have the component video, I wouldn’t buy it. Ideally, it would send signal to all of these at once, but being able to pick one at a time with a software control panel would be acceptible.
  • Video input of some kind wired into the firewire bus, smilar to a built-in EyeTV 500.
  • Two (or more) large, fast harddrives would be built into the dock, wired to the firewire port. It should not be rocket science for the user to replace these drives. Possibly the dock would supply just the drive bays, and the user would supply their own drives. These drives should be on the quiet side. The addition of a quiet fan to cool the drives would be acceptible.
  • One or both of the USB ports would not be direct pass-through ports, but connected to an internal hub. This hub would offer four connections on the back of the dock, two in the front, and several internal. It would also be hooked up internally to a number of other components built into the dock. I will describe these in reference to other, existing products, but in actuality, they’d be built into the dock hardware, not just third party products shoved into the case. The features of these additions would be:
    • Something like an iMic, with the RCA and other i/o connections coming out of the back of the machine.
    • Something like the Transit, which supplies DTS, with several optical audio ports in the back to allow recording and playback of digital audio to/from multiple sources.
    • Some sort of general purpose IR receiver, perhaps like the Keyspan Express Remote.
    • Some kind of combination flash memory reader.
  • A front panel display, showing:
    • Temperature of drive bay
    • State of firewire ports
    • State of USB ports
    • State of card reader
    • If the audio modes (RCA vs. optical) need to be switchable/one-at-a-time, their current state
    • If the video modes (DVI vs. component) need to be switchable/one-at-a-time, their current state
  • Possibly some additional cooling for the mini. Maybe this would be additional airflow around the bottom and sides. Not sure how/if this would work.
  • Size similar to a home theater DVD component: 17″ wide, somewhere between 9-13″ deep and just slightly taller than the mini’s 2″.

This post has been referenced by some other sites. From the comments here and on those sights, some extra commentary seems appropriate:

  • Size: I guess I didn’t spell out the idea that this is meant to integrate (i.e. be the same size as) with standard audio/video components in a home theater rack, as many posters wondered why it was so large. Like many a/v components, it is likely that this one would contain a lot of empty space. People who don’t care about integration with a rack system may be interested in a sweet looking, more stack-like system mentioned in one of the comments on engadget.
  • Non-stackability: Some mentioned that you cannot stack another component on top of this one, limiting its use in a rack. This is true, but intentional for reasons I didn’t mention. It turns out that items on top of a Mac mini interrupt the airport and bluetooth signals. I suspect they may also cause heat problems, but don’t know that for sure. Speaking of which…
  • Heat: I mentioned heat breifly, but some commenters correctly point out that some serious thought would need to be put into heat management. This would need to include some path from the vent in the the back of the mini into the body of the dock.
  • Cost: I didn’t think at all about cost, but if you add up the cost of buying similar components, it adds up pretty quickly. I guess the measure of affordability is if the dock costs less than it would to buy the similar components individually (which, right now, anyone who wants a Mac mini home theatre needs to do).