Whatcha-Mac-allit

imageHere’s what it’s like trying to describe what the Apple TV is to someone who has no idea. Starting first with one simple, brief sentence: It’s a set-top box that hooks up to your television and lets you play all kinds of Internet video as well as stuff from your computer.

The problem is, most people don’t know exactly what you mean when you say “Internet video.” So they always have to ask: You mean YouTube? Yes, definitely. How about stuff from sites like Hulu? Um, no, not easily. Well how about movies and TV shows you can rent from iTunes? Yes, not only that but BitTorrent video, too. What’s BitTorrent? Um, stuff you stole, basically. It also displays your digital photos, too, straight from your iPhoto library. And it features music-sharing via AirTunes, which lets you hear music from your iTunes music library on your home theater setup. Oh so it’s probably a digital video recorder too, right? Um, no, it’s not. Well, it kinda sorta sounds like a media PC, so can I play a DVD or Blu-Ray discs? Sorry, no, not that either.

So basically, in spite of its elegant, compact industrial design (the Apple TV has the look of something extremely elegant and succinct) this product is a freakin’ mystery to most people. But, having owned one now for about three months, let me tell you: it’s a winner. I had little idea what I was really getting into when I bought it, but now I’m a huge, huge fan of my Apple TV. In one respect or another, it’s in constant use in my home.


Some Explaining to Do

That ineffable quality, though, is a huge hurdle to overcome — it’s very difficult for products to succeed when people don’t understand what the heck they are. In fact, it’s a challenge that’s not too dissimilar, in my view, from the uphill battle that TiVo once had to overcome in establishing itself. A decade ago, it was actually quite hard to explain what a TiVo was or what it did; now most of us understand almost implicitly, as a generic verb, even. Regardless of whether someone owns a TiVo or a generic DVR, we all get it when someone says, “Don’t forget to TiVo that for me.”

The question, I guess, is whether it’s realistic to expect the Apple TV to clear that hurdle of understandability the same way that TiVo did. It seems highly unlikely. As a way of consuming media, TiVo always had a certain inevitability to it; when most of us used TiVo for the first time, I think we all knew instinctively that this was the future of television consumption. On the other hand, the passel of features stuffed into the Apple TV, while admittedly suggesting a modicum of inevitability, seems too fractured and incoherent to really declare itself as the future. While awesome in aggregate, the Apple TV has more of the feeling of an interim step towards something more coherent and still to come.

Why go that road, though? Why should Apple try and explain all of these features to users? My advice is just to make the Apple TV a kind of “TiVo-plus.” That is, add the DVR capabilities that I bet a majority of Apple TV users (including me) want anyway, and layer on all of these other wonderful but not easily comprehended features on top of it. Then you have something that people understand — always a good first step in making a sale — and they’ll think of the Internet video, home photos, music streaming, YouTube, and everything else the Apple TV does as bonuses to be appreciated after the sale.

Stalinist Photo Shows

One more complaint about Apple TV: it needs an ex-girlfriend filter, possibly powered by face-recognition technology. While idling, the Apple TV is more often than not running a slideshow from my iTunes library, a soothing visual tour of the past several years of my life as recorded by digital photography. Soothing except for the fact that a good number of those photos feature my ex-girlfriend — irrespective of how one’s relationship might have ended, it’s not usually a great thing to see one’s ex so centrally in the living room. Especially if you’re seeing someone new. That’s something I think anyone can understand.

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12 Comments

  1. I think one reason the Apple TV has had difficulty getting traction is that, let’s say you already have a satellite receiver, a games console, a DVR and a DVD player plugged into your TV: the Apple TV doesn’t completely replace any of them. At least the TiVo clearly replaced your VCR.

    Apple are probably right to think that eventually we’ll get most of our video over the internet rather than through the airwaves or on a shiny bit of plastic, but I think people are reluctant to buy yet another box to plug into their TV, with all the extra cables that involves. So yes, I agree, if it had been sold from the start with a DVR included and a great Apple user interface for it, I think it might have been a real runaway hit, not just because people understand the function, but because then it’s not adding to the clutter in your house.

  2. What do you do most on your AppleTV? Music? Movies (which kind: iTunes? other?) TV shows?

    I am still completely confused how this gagdet works. I don’t buy any movies/tv from iTunes. I don’t BitTorrent. I do have plenty of DVDs, and a Netflix subscription. The only other thing I can see using it for is to play music (but I have an Airport Express for that) or photo slideshows. So… what makes this thing so cool?

  3. Apple TV is quite a powerhouse little product. Problem is it is really limited. I do watch iTunes videos and copy DVD’s (that I own) to my machine, but still, some integration with the emerging online video sources would be great. Also, movies and TV shows can really be limited. If all this caught up, it could be a competitor to a lot of other mainstream services.

    All for the ex-filter as well.

  4. LOL on the ex-girlfriend. I’ve got pictures of airplanes and screenshots from various applications that I’ve saved over the years. They invariably show up in my living room as well.

    The best is a picture of the first Sarah Connor killed in Terminator Onw that for some reason made it to my Flickr account. It’s always great seeing her pained expression sandwiched in there with all the photos of my kids and family.

    As far as Apple TV goes, I completely agree with the DVR aspect. I’ve had mine for 8 months or so and don’t use it as much as I’d like – basically just because of time constraints. But I’m finding myself needing to upgrade my Media Center PC and I’d MUCH rather just upgrade the Apple TV to a DVR product.

    To answer the question of what I use it for:
    1. Renting movies – easier and quicker than Netflix.
    2. Music – used to listen to my library through Media Center PC. Now that I’m all Mac this is easier on the apple tv (and ultra-fun to control with my iPhone!)
    3. TV Shows – shows I missed recording I just buy. It’s a nice backup and much better quality than On-Demand from my cable company.
    4. YouTube videos – when nothing else is on.

  5. Regarding those photos of your ex — have you tried iPhoto’s “Hide Photo” feature? (I’m assuming those settings are respected on the AppleTV, though I’m not completely sure.) It’s a pain to go through your entire library and mark the requisite photos, but if you’ve tagged them or named them similarly (“[their name]” or “us”; things like that) it might save some time.

  6. I wholeheartedly cannot agree with you more (is this proper English b.t.w.). However, I do have a love-hate relationship with this device.

    I love it for
    - it’s ease of use
    - access to all my music
    - splendid quality on my BeoVision televion
    - integration with iTunes (syncing or streaming, who cares, it just works)

    I hate it for
    - iTunes not being available for renting/buying movies/tv shows properly from my home country (can bypass that using gift certificates but Apple, please get your act together)
    - limited format support; I’m in the process of converting all to Apple TV format but it is tedious
    - HDCP and DVI support. Probably also not to blame on the Apple TV itself; but as part of the experience it is annoying when you want to buy a movie, you’ll get the HDCP error message (Can only be played on Component…).

  7. I have to admit that I don’t really get the Apple TV. Not because I don’t know what it does, but because we’ve been able to do this for years with similar setups and with media center PCs (which is what my fiance and I have), so I’m not sure I get what the big deal is. We had something very similar to the Apple TV, prior to getting a media center PC, and it just didn’t do enough for us.

    Actually, having a whole other computer hooked up to the television is awesome, because we also install PC party games on it, can group-browse the net (when one needs to wiki for the sake of winning an argument :P), watch whatever on whatever, etc. Plus, we can easily upgrade the hardware, which I’m guessing isn’t the case with the Apple TV. The Apple TV has 160GB of hard drive space, if memory serves. Ours has 500GB, and we can put in a terabyte, when needed, as well as hookup external drives via USB or firewire. I don’t know…it just seems to put the Apple TV to shame, really..

  8. @Lella: Everyone I know who is happy with a media center PC is a technogeek. No exceptions. The one non-geek I know who bought a media center PC stopped using the media center functions after about six months, and now uses it solely as a PC. The average person I know doesn’t want to group-browse the net, or play PC party games, and most especially Does Not Want to deal with the hassles of running a full-fledged PC hooked up to their TV in the living room. They just want a simple, foolproof, low-hassle way to watch video on their TV. Period. This is why TiVo succeeded. From what I’ve seen, the same problem exists to a greater or lesser degree with the PS3 and the XBox 360; they’ll do media playback, but getting it to work is too complicated for the average person to want to deal with.