Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Apple TV Part 2 Continued Mistakes...

The Original Apple TV
So, I have had an Apple TV for almost 2 years now and was happy to hear that the device will be updated in hardware form this coming month.   But the new device still does not answer some glaring questions that bothered me about the first device.  Never before have I seen a device more Jailbroken that belonged to Apple than the Apple TV.  It is as if the powers that be at Cupertino listened but did not heed the changes that really needed to be made for the device.

First the positives about the new device.  The most underrated part of the device that was not heralded enough in my opinion is the Airplay feature.  The ability to record video, pictures and music on your iPhone or idevice and play it back on your stereo or TV wirelessly is just sensational.    It is a very good option, but still lacks a little focus in some parts.  For example, how long can you stream from a battery operated device?  Of course this ability screams for a number of secondary and independent devices that will probably come to the forefront from third party developers.  The one essential thing that I can think of is of course storage.  With the lack of storage on the new Apple TV, one cannot really see this as a replacement device, but as a $99 conduit.  That may be a major coup for Apple in that it would answer a lot of questions about the enigmatic USB slot that remains pervasive in this iteration of the device.   But even if Airplay answers the storage question and a device comes along that can stream your library of movies, music and photos there are still barriers to this device.  And here comes my major concern about the miss that this new device entails.

The new Apple TV
First, Apple has seen fit to only allow streaming from devices that are running iTunes.  I do not know if that will change in the new device, but it is a major faux pas in my opinion.  Windows 7' s media offerings do not make that distinction.  If it's video or audio and it's on the network, it's fair game.  This is how it should be and in effect, makes the purchase of a NAS drive all the more enticing on a Windows Media Server.  However a NAS drive is not an iTunes server, thus my current Apple TV does not recognize it at all.   For me, this is heresy !  I am trying to rid myself of all DVD's once and for all.  I would like to eventually rip every single DVD that I have in my possession and leave them on a drive that is probably 1-2 terabytes in size.   I would like to put some type of device in a guest room, living room, bed room or any room that has a TV set or computer screen and allow the device to read from the NAS drive.  I would like to do this without having a computer on all of the time (hence the NAS drive).   Currently, the only device that I have seen that may be able to do this is the Western Digital Media Drive.  But I do not have enough reviews on it to render that an option.  What disappoints me is the fact that I bought the Apple TV with the expectation that this would be the major media hub for an entertainment center that I am building.  It is fast approaching that it may not be.

But streaming and storage are two things that concern me about this new device, but other smaller issues are also plaguing this device.  Let's talk about the Sync feature.  Plug in your Apple TV and open iTunes on your computer and the device starts synching immediately.  What's the problem with that you may ask?   Well, let's say that you have downloaded a 1.5 gb movie in HD from the Apple TV directly.  And let's say that you have limited drive space on your 250gb hard drive on your Mac.  The iTunes-Apple TV relationship dictates that it start synching immediately.  Thus you will be 1.5 gb down on your iMac drive just by starting iTunes and having your Apple TV on at the same time. 

Let's take a look at another scenario.  I recently started watching a TV series that is in 13 parts.  I watched 5 of them on my Apple TV, but due to the relationship with the computer, they have to remain in iTunes on the Computer due to the synching features.  If I decide to save hard drive space by erasing the entire series from my computer, all of the episodes get erased from the Apple TV as well.   So why not just turn off synching?   Well, some software engineer at Cupertino decided that if you wished to turn off synching that meant you wanted to erase your entire Apple TV library.   !!!! 

What should have been allowed is this.  And I think that the "jailbreakers" who rooted the device have done this with other file types.  Allow selective transfers to the Apple TV and perhaps Smart deletes, such as if a show has not been watched on the AppleTV, ask before erasing it if upon synching, it doesn't show up on the iTunes directory of the computer.

But the above pales in comparison to my biggest pet peeve of all for the current Apple TV.  The continuing lack of additional codecs.  First of all, I have been reading on a number of blogs and respnonses to this debate that DIVX and MKV are the codecs of bootleggers!  You know, the torrent freaks.  Take a look at the torrent sites and you will find that over 90% of files are in this format.   But I have something to say about that.  For one I use the DIVX codec for the plain and simple reason that it is small and allows the ability to put a number of different movies and shows on 1 DVD.  When I am travelling, it is great to have say 4 or 5 movies or TV shows or an entire series on 1 DVD instead of carrying a host of different files on the laptop or a bunch of DVDs.   DVD players are now being made that read DIVX thus reducing the number of DVDs needed.  There is no such player for .M4V or .H264 (At least none that can read from a DVD or CD as of this writing).  Secondly, I own a Phillips DVD player that allows USB cards.  This is just brilliant as it plays the AVI codec without a problem.

The Apple TV does not allow DIVX, AVI, MKV or anything that does not play on iPhone's Quicktime.  What is strange is that there is a Divx codec available for Quicktime that works flawlessly, but that was never transferred to either the iPhone or Apple TV.   Thus what you have is a crippled device that requires the majority of videos, movies etc. to be transcribed into H264 M4V formats.  This is a royal pain.  So much so that I have held back on transcribing many of my DVD's to this format due to the fact that the masses have just not caught on to doing this on a grand scale.  Granted the file formats are smaller and the quality is better, but for the most part a lot of hardware is still catching up to this codec.  I thought about buying an Elgato device to speed up the transcription process, but the actual principle of having to buy another device to do the job of one device seemed a little daunting and lacked any clear rhyme or reason.  Add to that Microsoft's Windows 7 solution addresses this issue in their Media Server components and we have another faux pas for this little device.  One could say that at $99 this is a reasonable omission, but what about those of us who paid upwards of $300 for the original device?  This should have been included.

Steve Jobs detailing what customers want in Apple TV.
Storage issues, too tight a link to iTunes and the lack of codecs leads me to wonder if Apple will ever come to terms with this device and its customers.  I saw the slide in which Mr Jobs pointed out what he was hearing from his customers and what they told him they wanted.  But I think that the slide shown was probably very selective in terms of answers.  Every person that I have ever spoken to who owns an Apple TV has complained about the Codec issue as being the weakest aspect of the device.  You see, it is not only "bootleggers" who need additional codecs and do not want to transcode - that has always been too simple of an excuse.  There are millions of people out there who have video cameras, such as Flip Recorders, Cannon Digital etc., who do not want to transcode their video before editing so that it can show up on AppleTV.  Many have .AVI codecs or other non-proprietary codecs.  These potential customers are being missed by Apple.  I for one have movies from vacations that I have not edited because of this issue.  It is a pain to transcribe gigabytes of home movies before they can be edited for the Apple TV.  These customers were either ignored or did not present with a loud enough voice.

So on the one hand you have a new device that may equal a new conduit and a new revenue stream due to simplicity.  On the other hand you have a new device that fails to answer the shortcomings of the first device.   For now, the strongest point for the Apple TV for me has been the movie rentals.  But others such as Roku, Microsoft, Samsung and Sony are already doing this sort of thing.  So integration with other devices may be the next forward step.  But if Cupertino fails to listen to its customers, there is no question that this device will remain just a hobby.