Why I won’t be connecting an Apple TV to my home theatre anytime soon…

 

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If you’re a Mac geek like me, then you’ve no doubt heard that Apple has started to ship their famed Apple TV box, which lets you enjoy iTunes movies, TV shows and music videos on your HDTV. I’ve read some online articles that make it sound like this box is going to revitalize the sagging “download-to-own” market and that it will be The Next Cool Thing To Own, like the iPod did for music.

Sadly, it won’t… and here’s why.

I’ve been mulling over this problem for months now since I finally got my own 50″ plasma HDTV awhile back. I immediately upgraded my Dish Network to DishHD and now I wonder how I ever lived without HD before! I found a floor model of Toshiba’s HD-DVD player in a store shortly after that and got lured into starting a small HD-DVD collection, plus taking advantage of a lot of Netflix HD-DVD rentals.

Then a funny thing happened… Netflix finally launched their Watch Now program in January, where you can watch movies streamed over the Internet. Of course, like almost all of the broadband services, it’s tied to Windows XP because Microsoft is the only one to figure out a DRM (Digital Rights Management) scenario that Hollywood likes.

Thankfully I have an MacBook Pro Core 2 Duo, one of the latest Apple laptops with Intel processors inside. Couple that with Parallels Desktop, which lets me run Windows XP as a program inside my MacBook Pro, and the VGA input of my Samsung HDTV and I’m able to watch full-screen streaming movies via Netflix!

Now, to be fair, the quality is “almost” DVD and the sound is 2-channel stereo (or Dolby Surround where applicable), so it’s kind of a big step backward from the HD world I had just entered. But there is a big thrill in seeing the near-future coming into my HDTV right now… Netflix gives you hours of streaming video as part of your existing plan, too! In my case I pay $17.99 per month for 4 DVDs out at a time (an old plan that doesn’t exist anymore, but I was there from almost the beginning)… that gives me 18 hours of streaming video on top of the 4 DVDs at a time, which is a great deal.

Best of all, the Netflix system is pretty much real-time… there’s a very brief pause after you select the movie you want to see (maybe 15 or 20 seconds tops), then the movie streams without a single glitch from there on!

And that’s my big gripe with Apple TV, and why I think it’s doomed to fail (or at the very least, not be as groundbreaking as the iPod). I’ve bought exactly one non-music piece of content from the iTunes Music Store, which was the music video to MICHAEL JACKSON’S THRILLER, back when they first started selling video. The quality was pretty horrible, especially when played to my standard-def TV via the video iPod… to their credit, they’ve improved the quality a lot since then and increased the frame size from 320×240 to 640×480.

But the main problem with Apple’s video setup isn’t the quality, it’s the fact that you actually have to download the media to begin with. Sure, it’s handy if you missed an episode of your favorite TV show last night and you can’t access it some other way (keep in mind most networks now make shows available for free viewing on their websites!). But if you really want to buy a whole season of a TV show, or your favorite feature film, does it make sense to spend almost as much money as you would for the same thing on DVD later on?

I’ve got a lot of storage space around my place, but the internal hard drive of my MacBook Pro is still only 120 GB, with about 24 GB left after all of my software, iTunes music and work files. If I stored video on there, that space would get eaten up quickly.

The one thing I’ve noticed about having so many choices for entertainment now is that it’s made most of it pretty disposable for me… I rent movies via Netflix because I just want to see the damn movie and I could care less about owning it. I don’t even care about all the extras anymore, mostly because I’m sick of filmmakers and stars pontificating endlessly about how great it was to work together or how they think their movie is the best thing ever made. I’ve gone back to old-school, where I just want to see the frickin’ movie, man. On the rare occasion that I find something that I really like, well… maybe I’ll buy it on HD-DVD (or Blu-Ray, now that the wife and I have added a Playstation 3 to our massive home theatre setup!) or even regular DVD, someday.

I actually placed an order for Apple TV when they were first announced back in January. But as I began watching more and more streaming content via Netflix and surfing the web to find even more stuff that I could watch right now by hooking my laptop up to my HDTV, I realized that the biggest limitation with Apple TV is that it’s essentially a slave to iTunes. Where that was a positive for music, it’s a negative for video. You can’t buy new content with Apple TV and store it only on the box… you have to buy & download it on your computer and then sync it with Apple TV, much in the way we do now with the iPod. Sure, Apple TV can play content stored on other drives in your home network, but it’s limited strictly to the MPEG-4 format used by iTunes. Want Windows Media or RealVideo streams? Sorry. It was one of the many reasons that I cancelled my Apple TV order weeks ago, a few days before it was made public that it wouldn’t be shipping in February anyway.

It’s not often that I criticize Apple… my friends know that I’m a total Mac geek, not to mention an early adopter who usually has all the latest Apple toys. But this time, I decided to save the $299 and put that money into the next version of the Mac Mini, which I plan to install in my home theatre setup permanently. Then I can install Parallel Desktop & Windows XP and have the best of all worlds… streaming or downloaded content from every available source, without having to disconnect and drag my laptop down from my home office when I want to watch something. Or be limited to only a few hundred overpriced choices on iTunes, which requires me to wait for everything to download. Maybe it’s because I turned 40 last year, but I’m just too impatient for that, even with the fastest DSL speed.

Here’s hoping that Apple will wise up and release a version of the Mac Mini, made strictly for home theatre use. That’s when they’ll really start a revolution like they did with the iPod…

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 21st, 2007 at 12:46 pm and is filed under Apple Talk, Gadgets, Movies, Technology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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