Welcome Back to Apple-land

by Matthew Bookspan Apr 17, 2007

This week, I write this article from my new abode in San Francisco, California. It’s fun to be back in the Bay. I start working in Silly Valley tomorrow. I will begin using my first work-based Mac in over 14 years. My new machine is a 15” MacBook Pro, maxed out to the hilt (3GB/160GB/++++). I am very excited indeed.

It will be nice to try out the new keyboard as it is much different than my MacBook’s. Further, I am looking forward to having an expansion slot so that I can add a wireless broadband card. Working from anywhere removes barriers and increases productivity, especially when commuting.

I went to my first Apple store in Northern California today in Corte Madera (Marin County). I wanted to demo the new Apple TV. The product is very slick, although I definitely will not be purchasing one anytime soon. The following are my impressions of the product, not a formal review.

Why not make the purchase (besides a little thing like a budget)? Well, as slick as Apple TV is, it doesn’t have some pretty key functionality for me. In fact, it is too dependent upon my Mac and iTunes. I want a home theater device that is more integrated with my watching experience, not just my computing experience. I am sure that the Apple fanboys will get upset that I am putting down another Apple product. Wah.

What functionality is the Apple TV missing? Elgato Systems’ eyetv hybrid built into it. I want direct recording and watching of HDTV content, sans Mac. However, I want to sync that content with my Mac as well as subscribe/sync to my iTunes Store/local content. Yes, I want it all.

The most disappointing aspect of the Apple TV is the quality of the video content available from the iTunes Store. Of course, I was viewing the video content from whatever the default demo is at the Apple Store (according to the folks at the store, it was from iTunes).

Still, one would expect that the demo at the Apple Store would make the new Apple TV so compelling that I would want to buy it without thinking. Instead, I sat there thinking about the purchase for a short while, ultimately leading to the clear decision of “no.”

The content that the Apple Store had set up on the Apple TV was from the iTunes Store. It included movies like The Incredibles, National Treasure, and more. When I selected either of the two aforementioned titles, the level of pixelation (at 720p on a Sony HDTV display via the HDMI cable) was astonishing. It looked worse than viewing content on a 10-year-old VCR.

Of course, this is not the best set-up for an Apple TV. From what I have read, I can push 720p content to it from my Mac. I also know that not much (if any) of the content on the iTunes Store is available in 720p. Regardless, the experience I expect from the Apple Store should compel me to want the item. And it did not, especially given the Apple TV’s focus on video content.

To be fair, the audio and photo content looked and sounded spectacular. The Apple TV menus were responsive and the device was visually slick for a set-top box (STB). However, those features are not compelling enough for me to purchase the device. I’d rather have an Xbox 360 and use Connect 360 with it. This way, I’ll have the audio, photos, video, and gaming (not to mention the ability to watch HD-DVDs as another option). All for $120 more (including the software).

I am curious, what do owners of Apple TV think? Is it meeting their expectations? Are my observations off-base? And why, oh why, did this Apple Store provide such a crappy demo? Every other product in the Apple Store has incredibly compelling demos (iMac, MacBooks, iPods, and more). I do hope Apple fixes this so that the demo is more convincing. Until then, I’ll wait for v2.

Finally, it was fun to see so many readers get wound up from last week’s article. I applaud the zealotry. I also had many a chuckle with how banal people can be. Nevertheless, it’s the Internet and folks like to share opinions. Good for them.

Comments

  • I have to say, your column is rapidly becoming my favourite on AppleMatters. Keep up the good work.

    simo66 had this to say on Apr 17, 2007 Posts: 78
  • If there was a simple and convenient way to ri.. uhm… import ones DVDs into iTunes while being able to select from a few options (which tracks, languages, subtitles, DTS or Dolby Digital…) and still be able to switch around those options while viewing the content on AppleTV… I guess the unit would make much more sense. I despise DVDs. They are ugly, flimsy, take up too much shelvespace, and are often a chore to even get out of their case. Having them all on the Mac would be as liberating as it was for music. I do not really care about the recording feature. TV is pretty much dead anyway. I guess Apple will not be able to provide the DVD feature for legal reasons, as will be most other commercial makers. So please, freeware coders, start your engines.

    Bad Beaver had this to say on Apr 17, 2007 Posts: 371
  • As for why Apple doesn’t take care to present AppleTV at its best - no idea. Maybe they want to avoid consumers being disappointed by the abysmal iTMS-quality once they come home and set it all up. Would totally ruin the out of the box experience. If you set it up like they do, they can always claim “you saw it was bad when you came to get it”.

    Bad Beaver had this to say on Apr 17, 2007 Posts: 371
  • Mmm. Whatever Daniel Eran says, iTS resolutions are a serious problem.

    Benji had this to say on Apr 17, 2007 Posts: 927
  • I don’t see why would the demo (if it was really 720p) at the A store look that awful. After all, the content is buffered in the 40GB drive before H264 decoding. Even if it was wireless N connection, the AppleTV still has to buffer enough anyways to avoid sporadic pauses.

    I have played with various movie encoding in my line of work (including all Apple-varieties, Xvid, Divx, FFMPEG, etc) and much of this pixelation or resolution blockiness is caused by the compression rate vs pipe-throughput ratio.

    A 1Mbps-encoded H264/AVC would have less “bits” to quantize/decompose each pixel blocks (say 8x8 pixels up to 64x64 pixels). Therefore, don’t expect good results at that rate.

    A 4-6Mbps H264/AVC seems to be ideal for 480p to 720p rez movies. They will take more space in the range of 2-3 GBs depending on movie duration.

    Anyway, I think AppleTV v.1 isn’t yet optimized but will work just fine on 480p (DVD resolution) up to 720p. The movies in the demos might be straight transfer from DVDs (who knows).

    Robomac had this to say on Apr 17, 2007 Posts: 846
  • So far I must stay that the AppleTV has met my expectations. I feel that it does what it advertises and does it well. I’ve already converted several of my favorite DVDs to MP4 and play them through the AppleTV on a regular basis.  On a 50” Panasonic I could not detect any degradation that made the movies unwatchable. They’re certainly not HD quality but then again neither are the DVDs. Overall I’m very pleased with my purchase. Although I did educate myself and make sure I knew exactly what I was getting…and it met my needs.

    I know so people don’t want to be tied to iTunes.  Personally I don’t mind. Apple has gone further than the other options in allowing cross-platform usability. I haven’t seen the xbox360 in action but I would venture a guess that you can’t use if all you have are Macs. Someone correct me if I’m wrong.

    I am also surprised to hear about the lack luster demo. Wonder if it has more to do with the personnel running the store. Steve seems to be all about selling the strong points and it doesn’t sound like your demo was selling the positives of the device.

    I look at the AppleTV similar to how the iPod first emerged. We all heard from the naysayers about how it was too restrictive (some say it still is but Steve is working on offering the non-DRM files soon), too small, short on features.  But look at how far they have come and how many people have adopted the iPod as their music player when other products are available with bigger feature sets and lower prices. Give the AppleTV time and I’m sure we’ll see it grow into much more than it started as.

    jtwurth had this to say on Apr 17, 2007 Posts: 1
  • I too was ‘underwhelmed’ when I played with ATV at the store. I read about it extensively before I ever saw it and understand it’s limitations. I think it has a place in the scope of things right now but I like several others am waiting for V2.
    On the subject of xbox360, unless you happen to be a major time gamer it doesn’t make any sense to put it into action in the same space as the ATV. Much more costly and loud and big and hot and requires a monthly subscription and oh yeah, it’s from Microsoft. That’d be like kissing your sister. Patooey, ick, yuck. I’ll wait.

    Kageysea had this to say on Apr 17, 2007 Posts: 9
  • iTS resolutions are a serious problem. -Ben

    Well, if you are playing an iTS-sourced movies, those are pegged at about 1.25GB each. For a full 2-hour movie that roughly equates to about 1Mbps of compression rate using H264/AVC.

    If done correctly, and I’m sure movies are quality-screened before uploading to the iTS servers, they should be very good. Not the best, but watchable in any case with minimal annoying blockiness.

    But don’t expect videophile-quality just yet. Like I mentioned above, 1Mbps is an A-OK rate to test the waters. It will not get your socks off or keep you on the Lazy Boy leather recliner, either.

    Soon, when the pipes are big enough in a few short years, movies may be bumped up to 6-10 Mbps where H264/AVC is tested to offer HD resolutions and frame rates. Meaning awesome 720p’s and excellent 1080p’s at 24-30fps.

    We’ll all get there together so no hurries for me. I am out to enjoy AppleTV v.1 until then.

    Robomac had this to say on Apr 17, 2007 Posts: 846
  • We’re not talking the gap to videophile quality here. Many of the videos you can buy from iTunes look really bad when scaled in Quicktime or any other player. Some look fairly terrible even when played at native resolution, actually. Admittedly in the UK, there still isn’t video content from iTunes, so this is not the hugest problem. Personally if I had the moneys, I’d get one of these for ripping DVDs to iTunes, which would be v convenient. But i can’t see the general populace embracing that usage without a simple way to do so from within iTunes.

    Soon, when the pipes are big enough
    Surely you mean the “tubes”?

    Benji had this to say on Apr 17, 2007 Posts: 927
  • I am just checking out a solution I found on versiontracker. Sadly it is pretty limited in the trial version before forking over $30 - and not exactly fast on a G5. It pretty much does what I requested in my first post though. Interesting.

    Bad Beaver had this to say on Apr 17, 2007 Posts: 371
  • The most disappointing aspect of the Apple TV is the quality of the video content available from the iTunes Store.

    The problem here is not the AppleTV.  It’s the iTunes Store.  For all the talk about supporting HD, the only HD content that Apple officially provides are HD movie trailers.

    The quality of the movies are woefully inadequate and terribly overpriced.

    I’m guessing it’s only a matter of time before this all changes and iTunes starts offering HD movie purchases (or rentals).  Despite the significant technological hurdles, it seems like a necessary and logical step for allowing the AppleTV to reach its full potential.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Apr 17, 2007 Posts: 2220
  • He’s right. It’s not the AppleTV, but iTunes content that’s the problem. The iTunes Store needs to get more HD content post-haste. Most video content on there is optimized for a tiny iPod screen.

    However, you are partly right in that the Xbox 360 has a few more compelling entertainment center features for the moment (aside from the shameful menu navigation)—but the price you quote is a little low to take advantage of all the shinies you’d like.

    Don’t forget that Xbox Live Gold has a subscription cost in addition to the content cost of downloading any movies/music/etc. So $400 for the 20GB 360, $20 for the Connect360 software, $50 per year Xbox Live, and $200 more to upgrade to the to the HD-DVD you were talking about… just to put it in perspective.

    I do want to play Gears of War, though.
    : )

    vb_baysider had this to say on Apr 17, 2007 Posts: 243
  • Bad Beaver, are you referring to Connect 360?  If so, I agree with you that it’s a very compelling solution if you already have an X-box 360 and a Mac. 

    HOWEVER, it does not support Quicktime, which is a pretty significant shortcoming for Mac-based software. 

    From what I understand, this is a problem with the software and not the X-box 360, which should support Quicktime.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Apr 18, 2007 Posts: 2220
  • No, I am referring to a piece of software called “DVD to MP4 Converter”.

    The 360/Quicktime issue is political I’d guess. For some reason, MS has a preference for their own formats/containers.

    Bad Beaver had this to say on Apr 18, 2007 Posts: 371
  • Surely you mean the “tubes”? -Ben

    Ja, that too!

    Just a little tip from the Robo, I have been using a video format exporter, transcoder, demuxer app called MPEG Streamclip by Squared 5.

    I found this to be amazing but you will need to have the Quicktime MPEG2 plug-in (and I’m sure you know how to get one legally for $19 from Apple..ahemmm!)

    MPEG Streamclip assumes you’ve already done the prerequisites of obtaining the VOB or TS video/audio stream file, Mediafork or MacTheRipper can do this task quite easily, although MacTheRipper does a much faster job.

    When done right (and painfully slow, I might add) the movie is very high quality even on a big LCD/plasma panel. Nice.

    Robomac had this to say on Apr 18, 2007 Posts: 846
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