Friday, June 05, 2009
The Apple TV Experiment
A few days ago I picked up a used 40gb Apple TV off craigslist for $150 (retail price $230+tax). I talked to the seller for a few minutes as we did the transaction, I looked it over and he counted the moneys. He said it was a good device but he just found himself never using it. He didn’t have a lot invested in iTunes and he just preferred using his computer to use Hulu and view his divx files. I neglected to mention the hacks available for the apple TV, but he owns a PS3 and so I told him to look up Tversity as a way to view his divx videos on his TV. So is the Apple TV a good enough product to stay in my living room, or will I follow in this seller’s footsteps and put it right back on craigslist?
First of all, let’s take a look at my TV setup. It’s pretty simple, just a 40” Samsung LN40A550 HDTV and a Playstation 3. The PS3 takes care of DVD, Bluray, games, and can even stream media served by the Tversity service running on my computer. It looks neat, has a nice bluetooth remote, and is pretty good at being an all-in-one device. However, the user interface takes some time to get used to, it can’t access iTunes content (which is most of my good music), and most importantly: it’s loud! We have it in a TV stand with closing doors and the PS3 will heat up quickly and start blasting fans to cool itself. This interrupts a lot when trying to watch a movie, especially quiet ones. And while Tversity is a great product, it does have some downfalls.
Tversity is a service that will re-encode your divx/xvid/whatever files on your computer into a DLNA-compatible format, which is what the PS3, Xbox360, and others look for in a media server. It’s nice because you can have a file in almost any format and not have to convert them all into another format to view them. But it’s not perfect. While I can use it to play about 95% of the files I have, there are videos that don’t work. The files have to be indexed similar to iTunes, which means folders have to be scanned and this pwns my computer when the process begins. So basically, keeping the service running on my computer is a hassle.
The Apple TV in its original state, is self-admittingly, a “pet-project” of Apple. It’s designed to be an iPod for your TV. It syncs the same, holds your music and movies on the internal hard drive, and with the 2.0 software, you can download and rent movies right from the box itself without a computer. The 1.0 software was better at this concept, and was very similar to Frontrow on the mac. With the “Take Two” (2.0) software, the focus is more on buying shit from iTunes. For example, in the Movies menu, “Top Movies”, “Genres”, “All HD”, “Search”, and “Trailers” all refer to online streaming movies and your actual content is all the way at the bottom. It makes for extra scrolling and makes the menus annoying. It’s the same in the Music, TV shows, and all the rest. It’s kind of neat to have the Apple Movie Trailers at your disposal any time you want, but I haven’t tried the movie rentals or purchasing content from it yet.
Streaming content looks really good over the Apple TV. It has good vertical sync and high detail even on low resolution shows. It can do up to 720p. It will choke on 1080p. Maybe if a new version which can handle 1080p is released I will update to that. The Apple TV’s best feature is that it’s whisper quiet. It is always on and always warm, but it never gets hot and we can keep the TV stand doors closed while using it.
What I don’t like about Apple TV is, of course, that little tiny remote. I have a hard enough time keeping track of the Samsung and PS3 remotes and not only is this another one to keep track of, but it’s tiny. I’ve gotten used to the bluetooth remote of the PS3, and the Apple TV being infrared is like a step backwards. The display when playing music is annoying to me as well. In an effort to avoid screen-burn, the display flips the cover art from the right side to the left and back every 30 seconds or so. The screensaver does this too. I find it highly annoying and even unnecessary with modern TVs. Since the Apple TV doesn’t even work with non-HDTV sets, this is a feature I hate.
So the Apple TV is great if you have a lot invested in iTunes. I keep my music organized with iTunes so it works with my iPhone, but my movies and TV shows are in xvid format stored in a directory format. To play these, the Apple TV must be hacked. Hacking the Apple TV is pretty easy these days. You simply create a “Patchstick” USB drive using a simple program and restart the Apple TV. It boots into Linux and writes over some files and installs others. About 300 megabytes of downloading later, you have the XBMC Media Center and Boxee. XBMC was originally created to turn the first Xbox into a media center similar to the 360, and now the project is open source and cross-platform. It allows you to play media of almost any format (xvid included) and does NOT require the Tversity software. It uses plain and simple Windows Samba service, which is great because my computer no longer has to re-encode video on the fly. Boxee builds on this by adding social networking to the software. You can see what your friends are watching and view recommendations. Previously, hulu.com content was available but that has been taken off due to legal requests.
Boxee’s problem is that it’s too intense for the Apple TV’s 1.0GHz processor to handle it. It’s too slow on the Apple TV and so I find myself using XBMC to watch divx video on the TV. XBMC is also better than the Tversity/PS3 combo I was using before on the PS3. It plays anything that’s shared on samba, including DVD iso’s. So now I can play video without having to worry about opening the TV stand doors and everything I have can be played. And since it’s not being re-encoded, it looks even sharper. With a little bit more time, I can probably get a bittorrent script working to download in its idle time.
There’s still room for a lot more hacking and messing around with the Apple TV. I need to get SSH working and it would be pretty cool to get a complete installation of OS X installed on it. I think it would be neat to have the 40” TV as another PC in the living room. I don’t think it will run very fast though, after looking at Boxee. Still would be fun to try it though, and there’s enough functionality with XBMC to justify keeping it around. I don’t think there is a perfect Home Theater PC setup without a lot of cash. The PS3 had a nice remote and features at the expense of the user interface and noise. A HTPC is usually similarly loud, and expensive. The Apple TV is cheap, quiet, and has enough features to justify its cost. After it’s hacked, of course…