Strong iTunes library integration
Great iTunes Store integration
Easy set up
Too few features
Limited video options
Limited file types
No playback above 720p
As movies and TV increasingly are delivered over the Internet, there's a gap - the gap between the computer and the living room TV. The experience of watching streaming TV shows just isn't as good - or as a high quality - as sitting back on your couch and enjoying video on a big-screen HDTV.
But consumer electronics companies have only recently begun offering ways to bridge that gap by integrating web features into TVs and set-top boxes. Apple has also been attempting to bridge that gap since 2007 with its Apple TV set-top box.
The Apple TV is capable within the narrow goals Apple has established for it. In fact, it does what Apple promises very well. But is that enough?
Apple TV Set Up and Use
Setting the Apple TV up is as simple as we've come to expect from Apple products. Connect it to the TV, add it to your WiFi or Ethernet network, perform a few configurations on the computer that contains your iTunes library, and you'll be up and running. In my maiden voyage setting the device up, I was up and running in about 10 minutes.
The Apple TV connects to your iTunes library and, based on your settings, syncs music, movies, podcasts, photos, and other iTunes content to its internal hard drive. Syncing happens quickly and navigating the Apple TV's menus is a snap. The device comes with an Apple remote which is fine for use, but even better is control via an iPhone or iPod touch running the Remote app.
This does pose the first question about the Apple TV, though. Why does it sync content, rather than stream it over my local WiFi network? My iTunes library is bigger than 40GB, so that means some things have to be removed whenever I add other content. I'm sure there's a good reason (for movies, it may have to do with bandwidth; but then why not sync movies only, and stream music?), but I'm not clear on what it is.
While connection to your iTunes Library is great, one of the major selling features of the Apple TV is its integration with the iTunes Store. Via the onscreen menus, you can browse all content at the iTunes Store - movies, music, podcasts, etc. Using your existing iTunes account, you can buy movies and music, rent movies, and download other content.
The Apple TV's Shortcomings
This, of course, is one of the Apple TV's key features. Getting web-delivered content to the living room TV has value. And the Apple TV does it very well. However, it has some limitations.
First, the iTunes Store's selection of movies to rent or buy is much lighter than its selection of music (which has practically everything most people could want). While Apple has made substantial gains in this area in the last few years, it's simply not expanding as quickly here as it did with music, resulting in the iTunes Store not always having the movies you want, or not having them available for rent, or not having them in HD. These limitations make the Apple TV is less useful.
When you do find a movie you're interested in, the deliver is great. It's very simple to buy or rent movies via the Apple TV and you can begin watching them before they're completely downloaded. The experience here is much better than trying to watch movies on a computer.
However, the Apple TV is touted as working only with HDTVs (not entirely true, but that's what Apple says), yet it only outputs 720p, the lowest HDTV resolution. It's hard to imagine Apple not supporting 1080i or 1080p, especially when it's such a media-forward company.
When the iTunes Store doesn't have what you want, you're basically out of luck. There's no integration with free online TV services - think Hulu (though you can get this by modifying your Apple TV with boxee) - or even paid online video services (Major League Baseball offers a games-over-the-web service that you can't use with the Apple TV). And since you're locked into formats that work with iTunes, if Apple can't get greater traction for its service in Hollywood, the selection available to the Apple TV will continue to be limited.
The Future of the Apple TV
This is especially vexing in light of the increasing integration of Netflix's Watch Instantly streaming service into HDTVs, Blu-ray players, and game consoles. I have both a Blu-ray player that streams Netflix and an Apple TV. While I've rented a movie from the iTunes Store via Apple TV once and played music through it occasionally, I watch Netflix via my Blu-ray player a couple of times a week. It's less expensive (the price is built into my existing Netflix subscription) and easier to navigate (the Apple TV's method for browsing iTunes Store movies is a bit overwhelming). In this face of that competition, and that consumer electronics are increasingly integrating web services, the Apple TV seems to be falling behind.
Perhaps it's unfair to fault the Apple TV for not having features that were never promised, but the Apple TV seems that it would be substantially more useful - and a more compelling purchase for more people - if it included DVR features. No doubt Apple has thought of this, too. It would be interesting to know why that feature isn't available.
Steve Jobs has repeatedly called the Apple TV a hobby. People tend not to take their hobbies as seriously as their jobs. That seems to be the case with the Apple TV.
There is the outline of a compelling product - even moreso when the device debuted in March 2007, a time when fewer companies were looking at bridging the divide between Internet-based content and the living room TV - in the Apple TV. And, given Apple's ability to realize huge gains in existing markets (remember, the MP3 player market had existed for years before Apple introduced the iPod and came to dominate it), it seems that the Apple TV could go the same way - assuming Apple wants to invest the effort and money.
To get there, it will have to improve the Apple TV beyond what's available now, starting with a much more robust feature set - and potentially a move away from the iTunes Store being the sole supplier of content. If Apple can do that, it can transform this hobby into a business. If not, like many hobby items, this one may end up gathering dust in the garage.