SHIFT: Apple TV, take 2 — I’ll wait for version 3

via DVICE by S.E. Kramer on 2/7/08


Last year when Steve Jobs announced Apple TV at Macworld 2007, I wasn’t impressed. I expressed my displeasure at the fact that the media was basically giving a free pass to a product that I predicted would be an overpriced failure. My words provoked the wrath of many angry, defensive Apple-lovers. But Apple TV was a failure, and by Macworld 2008 Jobs admitted that the company’s expensive “hobby” had failed to catch on. He said, “It’s not what people really wanted… So we’re back with Apple TV, take 2.”

Apple TV 2.0 allows direct downloads from the Internet, Amazon Unbox-style, meaning no computer required. iTunes now offers movie rentals. In addition, Apple TV is less expensive than it was last year and includes cute new features like Flickr compatibility. But will it be the little white box that convinces people to give up their DVD players the way the iPod made them ditch their Discmen? In a word, no. Follow the Continue link to read where Apple messed up this time.

What, exactly, can it do?

It’s no exaggeration to say the restrictions on new iTunes and Apple TV content are confusing. Just check out this chart. It shows that while you can purchase SD movies from the Apple TV, you can’t purchase HD ones. On the other hand, if you rent SD or HD content on your Apple TV, you can’t transfer it to your iPod. And when you browse the iTunes movie store it’s nearly impossible to predict what movies will be for rental and what will only be available to purchase — there’s surprisingly little overlap. No particular restriction is a deal-breaker, but put together, they make for a system that’s hard to understand.

With Apple TV 2.0, Apple has mucked up its reputation for having a simple interface with fine print that few potential buyers will take the time to try to figure out. They’ll just take the restrictions as a sign that it’s still too early to commit to this convoluted digital stuff. While instant gratification is convenient, draconian rules are not. That iTunes only has 1,000 films to Netflix’s 90,000 is another very noticeable shortcoming.

Who’s it for?

Last year I complained that Apple was leaving out more than 50% of its potential customers by making Apple TV for widescreen-TV owners only, leaving old-school square-TV users to fend for themselves. That’s still true, and while far more people own widescreen HDTVs this year than last year there are still millions out there with square televisions. Apple TV’s clearly not for them.

But is it for high-end users, early adopters who have spent thousands of dollars on their 42-inch+ plasmas and LCDs? Not really. Apple’s promising those customers a limited number of HD movie rentals (none for purchase) at 720p resolution. We can argue all day about whether 1080p images are really better than 720p, but it’s clear that users who purchase the most expensive gear do care. Meanwhile, all of iTunes television downloads are in SD, even though most conventional TV shows come in HD for free over the airwaves. This means that if I purchase an episode of Lost on Apple TV it won’t even be the right shape for my television, never mind as high quality as an HD broadcast.

All this is to explain that Apple TV has no obvious audience: the box is not made for cheap TVs, but iTunes isn’t ready yet to deliver on image quality for expensive ones either.

It’s not Apple’s fault (entirely)

To clear up my own questions about TV-download boxes, I compared the offerings of Vudu, Apple TV, and Amazon Unbox on TiVo. While Apple TV does come off as a little expensive, it’s by no means a clear loser among its rivals. Vudu won’t let you take any content off its boxes, and Amazon Unbox cuts out Mac users completely. All three companies must contend with stubborn studio executives who supply content at the rate and consistency of an old, leaky faucet— it’s not like Apple wants to have such a limited and restricted selection of movies.

In a recent interview Bill Gates said that what he admires about Apple is that it can introduce fully “polished” products with great “usability.” I agree. Which is why Apple TV has remained such a surprise to me: Jobs’s goal with Apple TV 2.0 was to make the product more intuitive and easier to use, but it’s not at all clear that he has. It may turn out that the product works beautifully (our reviewer loved v. 1.0), but with no ideal audience and such a small variety of DRM-strapped content v 2.0 seems about as likely to go mainstream and introduce downloadable content into the country’s living rooms as last year’s model.

For the next version…

In order to achieve its goals, Apple TV needs to do three things. First, it should provide rental and purchasing options whose price and availability are easy to predict in files that are simple to transport. Second, it needs to “just work” with the TVs that are out there, offering both the best HD and upconverted files for widescreen HDTVs while feeding standard-def video to the square ones. And finally, Apple, I’ll repeat a question I asked last year: You ship laptops with AC adapters. Would it kill you to include cables with Apple TV so it works out of the box?

Vudu price slashed to keep up with Apple TV

via Engadget by Paul Miller on 1/24/08

Competition is a good thing, and now that the Apple TV is actually turning into a solid offering in its space, Vudu is cutting the price on its box to stay relevant. Originally launched at $399, you can now snag a Vudu to rent your movies and TV shows straight into your living room for $295. The best news is that if paid the full price for one of these things in the past 30 days, you can call up Vudu and get a $100 movie credit. Who knows if it’ll be enough to mitigate the aggressively-priced and now competitively-featured $229 Apple TV, but it looks like consumers are winning already.

Apple TV deletes DMA deficiencies

When Apple first released details about what is now called Apple TV, I wrote that it would create a DVR dilemma for the Cupertino company, one that it decided by bypassing DVR functionality (at least for now). The result will be a product that avoids many setup foibles and complexities of digital video recorders while allowing use of the increasingly versatile streamlined Apple Remote. There are three main reasons why Apple’s digital media adapter will trump its predecessors, but it may not yet be enough to catapult digital content into the living room the way the iPod did into our pockets.

First from a technology perspective, Apple TV is one of the first digital media adapters to support the draft 802.11n standard. If the PCs from which it is obtaining media also have this fast a connection, Apple TV should be able to obtain digital content much faster than previous products. 802.11n should certainly be fast enough for standard-definition compressed video and reliable enough to carry movie trailers from Apple’s Web site without stuttering.

However, as good as 802.11n is, few if any unlicensed wireless technologies are completely immune to interference and range limitations, which is why the inclusion of a hard drive is a great boon for this device class. As I wrote when I looked at Brookstone’s hard disk-based SongCube last fall, there are many advantages to using a “sync and store” scenario for digital content devices on a home network. These address the reliability and performance of local storage while eliminating the need to manually update a device with the latest content. Managing this cache, however, can require a bit of configuration; Apple will need to make some tradeoffs here.

The second advantage Apple TV will have over other digital media adapters is commercial video content, or at least easy access to it. Because Apple has become the leading seller of Hollywood TV shows (followed by the recently launched Xbox Live video service), consumers can queue up TV shows or movie purchases and have them delivered to the big screen. Apple is clearly hoping to jump-start a virtuous circle here, in which the availability of a clear path to the television spurs demand for digital content, which spurs demand for AppleTV units.

It’s a more direct relationship than Apple has enjoyed with the iPod, which didn’t rely on the iTunes store for its meteoric rise. The Walkman provided a clear model for the success of the iPod. There is no such precedent for Apple TV and consumers have yet to express the collective need to move PC-based content into their living rooms. In fact, in some ways the Apple TV model reverses that of the iPod, and is one in which digital content purchases will have more weight in spurring device sales than vice versa.

Third, AppleTV will enjoy distribution in Apple’s phenomenally successful retail stores. Previous DMAs have proved flummoxing to retailers that wrestle with whether to put them in the networking or AV departments. Demonstrating AppleTV effectively may not be simple even for Apple, but its retail stores’ simpler focus and knack for attracting those interested in the digital lifestyle should help AppleTV’s entry in the fledgling category.

Unlike the iPod (but like the iPhone), Apple TV will be cross-platform from its first day on the market, continuing Apple’s embrace of the tremendous base of Windows users. But there will be other requirements that the first iPod didn’t have — broadband and a home network, the latter of which exists in about a third or fewer American households. In suck homes, AppleTV will test whether the challenge to bridge the PC and TV has been due to lack of design, lack of content, lack of appropriate shelf space or, in Apple’s worst case, lack of interest.

Apple TV gets a full blown specification list, sort of

Whether you’ve dropped your hard-earned $299 for Apple‘s forthcoming Apple TV, or you’re just waiting to find out a bit more details on the thing before pulling the trigger, AppleInsider reportedly has the dirt we geeks adore. According to Apple’s website, the device sports an elusive “Intel processor” and a 40GB hard drive, but we all know there’s a lot more to this 7.7- x 7.7-inch box than what Steve is letting us know; thankfully, some folks in the know have supposedly dug up just what’s under the silver lid, and it seems that you’re paying three hundred bones for some rather antiquated components. Getting us started is a 1GHz Pentium-M-based chip, codenamed “Crofton,” which has been underclocked to run on a 350MHz bus, and it’s purportedly based on Intel’s Dothan core, which includes 2MB of L2 cache. Additionally, an NVIDIA G72M with 64MB of DDR2 RAM is included for video purposes, and a quarter gigabyte of 400MHz DDR2 system RAM is soldered to the logic board. Also of note is its inability to function as its own wireless router / extender, despite the built-in 802.11n antenna, and while you’ll find a USB port flanking the rear, it’s presumably only there for “services and diagnostics purposes.” So, in the end the Apple TV should still have plenty of horsepower to handle its well established duties, but it’s certainly not packing a great lot of pizazz beneath the hood — according to this report, anyway.

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