Apple TV – A Year in the Life

March 4, 2008

Apple TV

Being the unreconstructed Apple fanboy that I am, this month makes it officially one year that I’ve lived with an Apple TV — and it’s been an interesting year.

Unlike some folks, I liked the Apple TV straight out of the box. The form factor (basically a half-height Mac Mini) was nice, it took five minutes to hook up to my home media system, and another five minutes to set up.

Functionality wise, it was nice — jacked into my surround sound system, it made a dandy player for my iTunes playlists, along with nice animations of images from iPhoto. Even better, it made a reasonable and useful tool for watching video podcasts, something I seldom do at my desk.

I’m not one for buying TV shows or movies from the iTunes Music Store, so I didn’t get to play with that much (other than watch the occasional trailer), but it was simple enough to use VisualHub to transcode video to Apple’s h.264 format for use on the Apple TV. Unfortunately, this added an extra step to my usual media viewing, so I didn’t do it much, but it worked okay.

It was nice.

A few months later, the first software update rolled around, smoothed a few things out, and added the ability to watch YouTube videos on the device. I don’t know about you, but I am the kind of nerd who will be watching TV and decide he needs to go look at (or more likely show someone else) a video on YouTube.

So it was nicer.

Eventually, of course, I had to hack the Apple TV box — it was inevitable.

Once hacked, the Apple TV went immediately from “nice” to “great” — the ability to mount network shares let me access my fairly large video collection, and adding Perian made it possible to play them directly, without transcoding. Toss in a couple of nifty plug-ins to help organize and pretty up the metadata on the videos, and the Apple TV became my go-to media player.

Take Two

Naturally however, when Apple introduced the new “Take Two” software last month, I had to wipe down the hacks (“revert to factory” – took maybe five minutes) and install the software update.

“Take Two” is a great update — adding the ability to browse the iTunes Music Store directly for Movies, TV episodes and even podcasts was very nice. The addition of reasonably priced movie rentals is even better — even though I’m not willing to purchase movies from iTMS, I am willing to rent them — particularly HD movies, and the experience is smooth and painless, as long as you can live with a 24 hour rental (I can, but I understand why many cannot — particularly those with young kids at home).

The rest of the system is much improved also, with a significantly nicer interface that is a little closer to that of the current generation of iPods.

Best of all, it was a free update — in runs fine on the same hardware I purchased a year ago — there’s something you don’t see often.

“Take Two” makes the Apple TV a lot more useful for the vast majority of folks — those who aren’t going to hack the box, don’t have a large collection of digital video sitting around, don’t watch geeky video podcasts and want something more for their money then being able to play their iTunes music on their home theater system.

The Apple TV is now a reasonably inexpensive ($225 for the 40 gig unit) device that virtually anybody can hang on their TV and use to rent movies without driving to the store, watch TV that they might have missed, and occasionally use for music or to show a photo album.

Inevitably, once the hacking community has caught up with the new system a bit more, I’ll doubtless hack mine again, but that’s just me. The Apple TV is now a useful home media product for everybody, not just the geeks.

Even better, it’s one of those rarest of things, a technology purchase that’s just gotten better over time. The new incarnation of the system software is a dramatic statement by Apple that they have not forgotten the device, and I suspect that it will just continue to get better as time goes by.

Apple TV – 160 Gig ($329)
Apple TV – 40 Gig ($229)

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