After Hours

Apple TV’s drawbacks outweigh its benefits


After more than a week of using, testing, and cracking open the Apple TV, I have yet to understand why anyone would pay $299 for a very limited, albeit easy to configure and use, media player.

You can see me testing and cracking open the apple TV in these galleries:
Unboxing and testing the Apple TV
Cracking open the Apple TV

I initially thought the Apple TV would be a great product. Here's a device that would let me store HD content on my computer and watch it on my widescreen TV. I could even purchase the TV shows I missed last week and watch them at my leisure. I definitely thought the Apple TV's benefits would outweigh its drawbacks. I was wrong.

Unboxing and testing the Apple TV

Pros:

  • Stylish, thin design
  • Quick, straightforward setup and configuration
  • Intuitive, user-friendly GUI

 

Cons:

  • Requires iTunes
  • Limited to one synced iTunes library
  • Limited to five streaming iTunes libraries
  • No USB device support
  • Extremely limited, overpriced iTunes content selection
  • Poor iTunes video quality

 

While I assume many of the Apple TV's limitations are designed to prevent piracy, the measures are far too restrictive for me. I should be able to access and play any supported media file on my computer, whether or not I use iTunes. Storing content on the Apple TV should be a simple copy and paste procedure. I should be able to stream content from an unlimited number of sources. I should be able to connect an iPod to the Apple TV's USB port and stream content--Microsoft's Xbox 360 does this quite nicely. At the very least, Apple should offer a wider selection of television shows and movies through iTunes and dramatically increase the quality of the content it does offer.

During our tests, we purchased Star Trek VIII: First Contact from iTunes. At $14.99, this decade-old title is way over priced. You can buy the two-disc DVD collectors edition, released in 2005, for $10.99 from Amazon.

I can pay $10.99 for two DVDs that include loads of special features, offer a DVD quality image, provide an interactive menu, and are completely portable. Or, I can pay $14.99 for just the movie, which according to Apple's Web site plays at "near DVD-quality". Sure, I have to wait a few days to get the DVD from Amazon, and I may have to pay shipping, but those are minor inconveniences.

Not only was I disappointed by our test movie's price, but the Apple TV's image quality was much worse than other CNET editors and I expected. Given that the Apple TV requires an enhanced definition or high-definition TV, I was confused by our test movie's poor quality, until I looked at the file size. A standard, single layer DVD is usually around 4.4 GB, including menus and special features. Our downloaded copy of Star Trek VIII: First Contact was only 1.19 GB--about 1/4 the size of a normal DVD. Perhaps Apple is trying to conserve iTunes bandwidth, but the image quality on the movie we tested was not worth the $14.99 price.

For those users who love their iPods, want an iPod experience on their television, and don't mind iTunes' limited, over-priced content selection and poor video quality, the Apple TV may be the perfect device. I can find better uses for my $299.

About

Bill Detwiler is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and Tech Pro Research and the host of Cracking Open, CNET and TechRepublic's popular online show. Prior to joining TechRepublic in 2000, Bill was an IT manager, database administrator, and desktop supp...

13 comments
pointzerotwo
pointzerotwo

Why not just buy the movie on DVD and rip it into iTunes? I've heard that's possible on a Mac with additional (free) software. Not sure about the PC.

pointzerotwo
pointzerotwo

Why not just buy the movie on DVD and rip it into iTunes? I've heard that's possible on a Mac with additional (free) software. Not sure about the PC.

Tesla444
Tesla444

Given the number of poorly designed and non-functional products out there, I would have thought that items 2 & 3 on your Pros list would carry a little more weight. You are looking for a box that is 'all things to all people'. That sounds great but look what we got when Microsoft tried to do that with their OS, a nightmare. Apple is good at picking a few good options and doing them well, then over time improving on them as they go. re your 'Cons': If I have iTunes why would I care if it is required, if I don't I can download it for free, so what is the problem. How many 'synced' iTunes libraries do most people have near their TV set and you NEED more than 5 streaming iTunes libraries? USB is on my computer. On the iTunes selection 100 million plus music enthusiasts would disgree with you. For some movies quality will be less for now, others that I have played on my AppleTV are spectacular. Apple try's to develop products that look ahead, not back, so watch for better compression algorithms and faster Cable speeds in the future and you will see the value in having an easy to use system. By the way, you never mentioned (in Pros), the access to Music, photo gallery and other personalized uses of AppleTV. And before you jump too hard in the future you might want to check out why the old movies don't have the quality, perhaps Apple is limited by its 'rights' agreement with the content provider & knowing this just buy some Movies on DVD and some on iTunes until the quality improves. This too will get better in time. This is too new a field to be making summary judgements on products like this. Let those of us who can support this 'technology transition', support it now, so future versions of the hardware and content will be better for others to enjoy. That's how it works! Good Luck with all the other NOT Apple TV's!

TechExec2
TechExec2

. A 1.19 GB movie is not even close to "near-DVD" quality. It [u]might[/u] look OK on a computer screen at 640x480 and certainly on a small iPod screen. Large screen TV? Forget it. Even highly compressed TiVo "best quality" video is about 2.5 GB per hour. Video in the living room [u]must[/u] be high quality. According to the specs, Apple TV can support up to 5 Mbps video (2.25 GB/hour), sufficient for high quality video for movies. So, Apple could fix this (assuming it doesn't violate contracts with content companies). If the Apple iTunes Store only offers low bit rate movies, Apple TV is dead.

georgeou
georgeou

Audio can be compressed 5:1 or even 10:1 from a CD with very little quality loss because the CD is uncompressed to begin with. But DVDs are already more 16:1 compressed to begin with and if you try to compress it another 4 times, something has to give and that's quality. It's basic computer science theory that it takes a minimum amount of bandwidth to deliver a certain amount of video detail and no one can get around that. iTune videos will not look much better than the DIVX/XVID versions downloaded via BitTorrent. Paying $15 for a low-bit-rate movie is ridiculous. It takes long enough to download 1 GB, just imagine how slow it will be to download 20 GBs for an HD version of the movie.

Fil0403
Fil0403

Then you buy and use something better than Apple TV.

TechniquePhreak
TechniquePhreak

He did mention that there is virtually nothing you can do with AppleTV that you cannot do with , say for example, Xbox360. Which is true. I've tinkered with just about every other NOT AppleTV out there, and almost all of them let you access Music, photo galleries, and other personalised info. Hell, you can even configure your Xbox360 to use GoogleEarth with a simple, free add-in. Can you do that with AppleTV? I love your "it's free, so why would you care" argument. Isn't that the same argument Microsoft made regarding integrating IEX into Windows? Do you remember how well that worked out for MS? Learn your history, bub. The facts are that AppleTV is over priced and extremely limited in functionality. What is Apple good at? Picking a few technology items that other poeple have already mastered, making them less functional but prettier, marketing them as some new, revolutionary device (see "lying"), and selling them for more money than the competition. Oh, and apparantly, at least when it comes to Steve Jobs, backdating stock options to make an extra $20M. Has he been indicted yet? Stop drinking Jobs' Cool-Aid...

pointzerotwo
pointzerotwo

You're right, you can probably achieve similar functionality with WMP and an xbox 360, but you still won't get the "iPod experience". I was just suggesting a work-around for the Apple TV's primary weakness as described in the original article: "For those users who love their iPods, want an iPod experience on their television, and don't mind iTunes' limited, over-priced content selection and poor video quality, the Apple TV may be the perfect device." Buying DVDs and ripping them into iTunes seems to be an easy way to work around the selection, cost, and quality issues, and make the Apple TV a "perfect device" after all. I don't own an Apple TV, but I'm considering getting one, and I'm curious about how well the ripped-dvd approach works. To me, the biggest weakness of the Apple TV is it's inability to display and time-shift live TV. But even that problem might be minimized with the increasing popularity of video podcasts, since most of what's seen on "live" TV isn't really live anyway.

Tesla444
Tesla444

("Apple cult of 'personality' ") - Thanks! I appreciate the complement. I've always thought that the PC world could use a little 'personality'. ("I've tinkered with just about every other NOT AppleTV out there, and almost all of them let you access Music, photo galleries, and other personalized info. Hell, you can even configure your Xbox360 to use GoogleEarth with a simple, free add-in. Can you do that with AppleTV?") - Sounds great, but I don't want to have to tinker, I just want something that works. My AppleTV is up and running smoothly with no tinkering. So you say I should buy an Xbox360? Hmmm! and free stuff too! and more tinkering no doubt? Actually, Google Earth works just fine on my Mac! You might want to try to use it on your PC, I'm sure it works fine! Why do you want to do stuff on an Xbox, isn't it for playing games?? I know IE has its issues, but is it really so bad you need to use the Xbox for computer stuff? ("I love your "it's free, so why would you care" argument. Isn't that the same argument Microsoft made regarding integrating IEX into Windows? Do you remember how well that worked out for MS? Learn your history, bub.") - Actually, you may have missed my point. It is free, my only point, so if you have it there would be little need to have multiple content managers, one is usually enough for most people. If you don't choose Apple that's fine too. - My comment about MS referred to their general strategy to allow wide open access for hardware and software which has given way to a Non-standard environment which invites problems for developers, retailers and users - and that hasn't worked out well for MS. There are lots who like this wide-open concept but it just made it harder over the years for MS to easily incorporate new features that would be commonly available. They have made a valiant effort but there are just too many options to make them all work perfectly. If you think this is good, OK thats great, but it seems obvious that the massive security issues, long delays (ie 3 years) in OS upgrades, etc are not good for anyone. I'm not referring to history here, this is NOW - just count tens of thousands of security breaches in Windows and you can see, in part, why this 'open-concept' has NOT worked! ("The facts are that AppleTV is over priced and extremely limited in functionality.") - I guess the market will decide if it is overpriced. If you want everything in every box of course every electronic item ever produced by anyone is 'overpriced' and 'limited in functionality'. Its just a device with easy to use functions for $X and people will buy it or they won't. You mentioned a 'lie' in marketing of Apple products - an odd word to use coming from a Windows perspective. If there are 'lies' in the Apple marketing you should pursue this with the authorities and have those 'lies' removed from their marketing. I for one would thank you for your efforts. You might then want to review other products in this category as well, I'm sure the industry would appreciate it. ("Oh, and apparently, at least when it comes to Steve Jobs, backdating stock options to make an extra $20M. Has he been indicted yet?") - FYI-As of Oct 2006 the SEC committee reviewing the situation has cleared ALL employees of any impropriety and it was confirmed that Mr. Jobs did not benefit from any such transactions. It may be that he might have if not for the investigation and he would had to suffer the consequences if that had occurred. But keep in mind, it is also a common practice in business today, so he isn't the only one. It's a bad practice for any public company, hopefully all will stop this now. - I am sorry you are so angry that Apple has been so successful and that Apple users are happy, productive people that live happy productive lives without having to worry about their computers' security, etc. every (any) day. - By the way, do you own an AppleTV or are you just making this up as you go, because its Apple? Thanks for your interest and Good Luck w/Vista et al! PS: The Cool-Aid tastes like champagne to me! Try it you might like it!

Dumphrey
Dumphrey

set them off to the side on their own vlan with a single unix server for production, storage, and printer shares.

jnorris
jnorris

I was "blessed" with the task of configuring a large number of Macs to work on a Windows network. This meant home folder and menu compatibility between platforms. Due to the Macs simplistic and inflexible network client I had an enormous amount of re-work to perform as well as having to work with expensive third-party vendors and software solutions. As far as I'm concerned Macs don't belong on any network where real work is being done. They may be arguably less vulnerable to viruses, but they impair your ability to enforce security on networks.

Dumphrey
Dumphrey

5 macs at my job and 45 pcs. I have fewer incidents on Macs then on PCs, but when I have one, they take significantly longer to resolve. I am competent on linux and Windows, and used Mac up to OS 8. But, I expected OSX toa ctually behave like BSD. And I guess toa certain point it does. But, it seems unable to conform to and use UNC path names like Linux/Bsd/Windows. It could be my ignorance, but MAc has made things so simple (It just works) that when things don't "just work", it becomes a total nightmare. Example, we have a 6 year old NetGear ps110 print server with 2 hp lasers connected. Windows computers connect just fine, linux computer connects fine, Mac OsX refuses. This is by using the default add network printer setup and unc paths. And I know the Mac has drivers for the Hps. We have the same problem connecting to the Heidelberg and the Minolta Fiery.

jnorris
jnorris

...must not criticize Apple...less for more is good...form over function...not Microsoft...Jobs is a genius...Jobs is God...Mac users are not techno-phobes...the Mac commercials are not lies...