The New Apple TV

We have a new Apple TV. Herein, my experience.

It’s almost ridiculously small. Considering it’s basically a TV-connected 8GB iPod Touch, that’s not a surprise, but next to a Playstation 3 and 52″ TV, it’s nearly invisible. I really appreciate the lack of a power brick. It has a 6W power supply, which is maybe 1/16 what the PS3 requires.

Note that the Apple TV is connected via Ethernet to an Airport Extreme, which is connected via Ethernet to a cable modem on Comcast. Also connected via Ethernet to that Airport Extreme: the aforementioned PS3 and a Mac mini, which would ideally be on its way out of the den and into my office, but apparently not just yet.

Also note: no cable or satellite TV at our house, just Comcast data. We had Comcast WHATEVER_PACKAGE_SUPERB for the initial six months after the cable modem showed up, but never watched anything other than things we could already stream online. I have no interest in paying for traditional television service because it’s packed to the very top with Idiocracy-style nonsense.

But good TV, we like. We watch it (completely legally) via The Intarnet.

Apple ID

You use your Apple ID to turn on Home Sharing so the Apple TV can access content on iTunes from a computer on your network. I was immediately frustrated because my Apple ID had a space in the username, but the on-screen keyboard for the Apple TV doesn’t include a space character. I tried a few things, got frustrated, and used the Apple ID site to give in and change my Apple ID to an email address. This made me a bit sad; my Apple ID has been around for a long time and I had to go change it on all my devices. Once changed, the Apple TV set up fine and I could see iTunes stuff from the Mac mini. Bittersweet.

iTunes Content

I have a Season Pass on the iTunes Store for Mad Men. It downloads on the Mac mini. It shows up nicely on the Apple TV. It also manages to mark viewed content as viewed, which is very nice. I ranted for around five minutes the other day while walking to lunch about how annoying it is to play content stored in iTunes on Computer A (master) using iTunes sharing from Computer B. In my experience, metadata like played/unplayed, play counts, ratings, etc. doesn’t get updated on Computer A, which makes it much less useful. I know why this is, but it bugs me, especially for podcasts. The Apple TV appears to do this, at least for purchased TV.

I haven’t rented anything directly on the Apple TV. I don’t know if I’ll do that anytime soon, since most of the movies I want to watch are on Netflix and most of the shows are on Hulu. Most of both are Not Available for rental from the iTunes Store.

Songs, podcasts, my own non-iTunes Store videos stored in iTunes, etc. all played back fine on the Apple TV. Unless I find otherwise, my assumption is that if iTunes can play it, it can show up on the Apple TV. Works for me.

Netflix

The new Apple TV is much better as a Netflix player than the PS3 because there’s no fan, no disc (though that goes away this month, I hear), and both startup times and responsiveness are much better. It’s just a few seconds from selecting “Netflix” to hearing “Previously on Veronica Mars…”

One thing I don’t like: a few times while streaming Netflix video, it’s suffered from a cycle like this:

  1. Playback freezes for maybe ten seconds
  2. Playback resumes for five or ten seconds
  3. Repeat

This has only happened during a weekend night, but I don’t know if that’s significant. The last time it happened, I immediately switched to the Mac mini running Safari, netflix.com, and the Silverlight-based player, and saw no further hiccups. That makes me think there’s something different about the Apple TV (either its software or the Netflix backend it requires) that caused the issue. Annoying.

Hulu

Ha! It doesn’t do Hulu. The Mac mini seems like it might have to stay put. Hulu Plus is not the answer for me, and I don’t know what answer it provides to anyone who doesn’t want to watch back episodes of The X-Files on their iPad. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

Hulu itself is great for watching recent shows, but Hulu Plus requires a subscription payment to still show you ads and not allow you to watch content you’re used to seeing on a mobile or TV-connected device. (Unless you have a Mac mini on your TV…)

It is deeply stupid to have to think about what device and signal path I have to use to watch an episode of freaking Glee.

I am well aware that the Apple TV will probably never let me view Hulu content without jailbreaking. I have made my peace with this.

Internet Radio

I listen to Groove Salad. It is great. It is a simple menu item on my TV now. This is awesome.

Flickr

It’s very easy to flip through pictures and slide shows from Flickr contacts. Images look nice and the UI is very responsive.

Except for those two times it crashed and the Apple TV had to reboot.

YouTube

I watched video from my friend Steven Bryant. I generally dislike actually using YouTube, but this looked good, was more or less easy to navigate, and provided a much more elegant experience than the YouTube web site or iOS app.

Except for that one time it crashed and the Apple TV had to reboot.

The Remote App

The updated Apple Remote app is on my iPhone. The gestures to control the Apple TV are not entirely intuitive, but the basics are fine. The big win is being able to use your iPhone to type on-screen, because using the IR remote is just as horrid as any other similar input method.

Incidentals

  • I haven’t noticed a method to control volume. This is good. Controlling volume in one place (the AV receiver) is much more intuitive and results in less frustration compared to the three places (app, OS, receiver) that I get with the Mac mini.
  • 100Base-T is all you get with the Apple TV. It’s meaningless, but I don’t know if Apple sells anything else without Gigabit Ethernet.
  • You have to use a dedicated menu item in iTunes (Advanced -> Choose Photos To Share…) to select images you’d like to view on the Apple TV. It seems weird, but since you never plug the Apple TV in (unless it’s broken), I guess the normal interface of select device, then select options wouldn’t work.
  • I mean it: it’s comically small.

I don’t regret the purchase, especially at $99. I’d like a few rough edges smoothed out, and I don’t know what to do about Hulu. I know there are other teeny-tiny media-to-TV devices on the market these days, but this is the one I have and it’s been good overall.

Windows Wireless

Dorks: I am about to trash Windows.

Non-dorks: Sorry, nothing to see here.

I think I first used wireless networking on a ThinkPad X31 back in like 2002 or something. The last time I regularly used a Windows notebook was maybe in 2004. Last night, I had the pleasure of helping set up a wireless network at my favorite Halloween scary place on some admittedly not-modern Windows hardware.

My observation: Using a Windows machine to connect to and use a wireless network remains an embarrassment.  The OS might manage it, or your manufacturer may have decided to put their own wireless management software in the way, but getting things to Just Work is fraught with peril.  Much more so if you’re smart and turned off SSID broadcast and enabled the best encryption your access point can manage.

The alternative is this:

Screenshot of Mac OS X 10.6 dialog for joining a wireless network

I sometimes use Windows 7 on a desktop and don’t hate it. I’m sure wireless configuration is better in Windows 7 (not that it could be worse), but I think I’ll stick with the alternative.

I Did Not Know: networksetup -setairportpower

I sometimes want to turn off my MacBook Pro’s Airport wireless to save battery, even though its battery capacity is kinda awesome.

I fiddle with the icon in the menu bar and get grumpy because that’s the way you make this change and ugh, I’m tired of that.  But guess what:

$ networksetup -setairportpower en1 on
$ networksetup -setairportpower en1 off