Apple TV – Steve What Have You Done?

Today was the September Apple Event, when Steve Jobs stood up in front of the worlds media and showed them what Apple will be selling this festive season.

This year, as expected we got a revamped iPod range, with a touchscreen iPod Nano, an iPod Touch that picks up features from the iPhone 4, and a revamped version of iTunes. To support all of that we also have iOS 4.1 on the way, which hopefully will work a lot better on my iPhone 3G, and a preview of iOS 4.2.

But the big news was the demise of the original Apple TV.

The Apple TV was always a bit of a Marmite product, loved by some, loathed by many.

Many people bemoan it’s limited functionality, in particular the limited number of media formats it supports, and the fact that the only device that can play media from the built in 40Gb or 160Gb hard drive is the Apple TV itself. However within it’s limited parameters it does exactly what it says on the tin, and does it very well.

I have to say here that we have one of the 160Gb models, and it gets a good deal of use. It holds a large proportion of our main iTunes database including hours and hours of music, several TV series for the children, a number of digital copies of movies, plus quite a few video and audio podcasts. We’ve also on a number of occasions rented movies and watched them using the device.

The new Apple TV is a bit different. It is a massively smaller device – about 80% according to the Apple website – and they’ve done this by leaving out the hard drive totally. Essentially this is now a media extender. As now it can stream content off a networked Mac, and as a new party piece can stream content off an iPhone or iPad. You can still rent movies, and now TV shows on it, but rather than download and watch, Apple seem to think that you can watch them streaming straight off the Internet.

Now I don’t know what the broadband connection is like in Palo Alto, but my first response sat in semi-rural England is you must be joking.

We’re fairly lucky, we’re pretty close to the telephone exchange, but thanks to the lousy BT infrastructure we can get between 5 and 7.5Mbps. Our ISP is pretty good but still, watching the current HD trailers is a bit of a struggle on our connection. The idea that watching a HD movie in the same way will be in any way a pleasurable experience is laughable. Plus with the limited broadband deals that many people use the idea of “watching as many times in 48 hours as you like” rapidly wears off when you realise that it’s download the file over and over again every time you watch it – the current Apple TV downloads the file ONCE and then deletes itself at the end of 48 hours.

Granted if you live in a cable equipped urban area or are lucky enough to be in a 20Mbps ADSL area you might be better off, but still the idea of “All Streaming, No Hassle” is anything but for large numbers of people in the UK, and I suspect similar numbers of people who live outside urban areas in the USA as well.

For us, the only realistic option is to stream from another device on a local network – in our case that will be the main Mac hosting the iTunes database. That’s all very well, but it’s a total pain – the Mac has to be booted up and logged on so that the new Apple TV can access it – the new Apple TV may have wonderfully low power consumption, but it’s worth nothing if you’re having to run a Mac or PC to provide the content.

And just one final little annoyance – the new box is now so small that the connectivity choice is HDMI or HDMI – I’m using composite cables…

So, yes Steve Jobs, I’m terribly impressed by how small it is, but it’s really a retrograde step for existing Apple TV users like me. Having said that, if you’d announce a media server that could host up a central iTunes database…

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