Apple TV Deserves a Little Love
Apple seems to be firing most of its ammo at the mobile sector lately, and that makes plenty of business sense. But has Cupertino's quest to grab its share of the mobile market made it forget its "hobby" in the living room? Apple TV has largely languished, and the Mac mini isn't quite perfect as an HTPC. With Google reportedly coming up with its own set-top box, Apple may need to revisit TV land soon.
As the iPad frenzy continues to build to a frothy mess, I'm wondering if Apple is turning a corner and driving to the land of mobility -- with nary a glance in the rearview mirror to the living room it's leaving behind.
Long-time readers will know that I'm a big fan of the HDTV, as well as my Apple TV, and even recent readers might remember my skepticism over a personal need for an iPad (yes, I'm still on the fence, and no, I haven't bothered to pre-order one yet). What concerns me now, as an unabashed fan of most Apple products, is that Apple's TV "hobby" might end up being one that starts gathering dust in the garage.
The Apple TV still works pretty well right now, so why do I care? Lots of reasons.
First, Apple has tweaked the Apple TV interface a bit, making it marginally more pleasant to use, and yet over the years, the company has only dropped the price while upping the storage capacity by just the tiniest little bit. While the new 160GB model is much larger than the original 40GB model, it's still far too small for a good many enthusiasts. Yes, consumers can stream a lot of content, but with modern digital cameras, it's all-too easy to build big libraries of photos, not to mention HD personal videos. As for streaming, it works really well -- until my MacBook falls asleep or iTunes isn't open and I have to leave the living room, wake it up, and/or launch iTunes. Never mind when I pack up the MacBook and take it with me.
Sure, there's network attached storage devices I could hassle together or invest in a Mac mini to act as the always-on and ready-to-roll media server, but this, in 2010, should be far simpler to handle than it is. And while we're at it, any new TV show I buy on my Apple TV simply won't transfer successfully to my MacBook. I've wasted hours searching various forums online, I've tried workarounds that worked for some of the people with this problem (but not all) and have come up short. This little problem shouldn't be a big deal for a company with Apple's skills, but I just don't think they're paying attention.
So what's my workaround? Don't buy anything directly from the Apple TV. Rent? Fine. No problems. As for buying, I buy from my MacBook and go from there. It's a minor frustration.
Then there's the lack of upgrade options for Apple TV owners. While it's possible to upgrade the hard drive, it's a royal PITA. My point isn't that this stuff isn't possible, just that it shouldn't be this hard. As for buying a new Apple TV, as near as I can tell, the processor is still the same as it has been for years ... and while the Apple TV interface is still pretty darn good and certainly pleasing to the eye, frankly, it could be snappier.
Apple has been letting its Apple TV languish.
It's Not All About the Money
Sure, there are some problems here. First, where's Apple's major growth been over the last few years? It's about mobility. Super-selling MacBooks and MacBook Pros, plus the iPhone, iPod touch, and the App Store. We've on the brink of the iPad, and a new iPhone will very likely hit this summer. Mobility is a big and lush market, and Apple is looking to claim much of it. It's hard to fault Apple for this plan -- any business follows the money.
Then there's Apple CEO Steve Jobs. If he wants to make the biggest impact possible with the Apple way of life, the way to do it is through mobile devices. I can see that. I can understand that. I'm just saying, why can't one of the most profitable companies with a massive bank account toss a little chump change to the living room?
I Found Myself Pricing Out a Dell!
Meanwhile, the competition is heating up. One option I considered was buying a Dell Inspiron Zino HD. They start at just US$249 (compared to the Apple TV's $229), and they have a handy HDMI out port. Sure, it would be running Windows, but hey, it comes with a 250 GB hard drive, which would easily trump the 160GB in the Apple TV, and it's easily upgradable. Besides, iTunes is iTunes, right? Who cares if it runs on Windows? Problem solved.
Then I started looking more closely. The base model doesn't come with a wireless card, and stringing an ethernet cord through the house is next to impossible. To add a wireless n-capable card, that's another $45. To get Windows 7 Home Premium, that's another $30, which means I should up the RAM, too. So you can see where this is going. In short order, I was looking at well over $370, if not higher. To get a Inspiron Zino HD with a Blu-ray Disc drive, I'd have to shell out over $500. At this point, I might as well just buy a Mac mini.
At least with the Dell, though, I had the option of buying a Blu-ray drive!
Of course, I can understand Apple's reluctance to deliver Blu-ray drives, so it's not really on my short list of must-have built-in products here. I'm pretty darn happy with the "HD" videos for rent and for buying. Could they be better? Sure. But for me right now, they're good enough.
Then there's Google reportedly joining forces with Intel and Sony to produce a set-top box for HDTVs. If Google produces a good Android-based Google TV, hey, I might have to buy one. The thing is, once a consumer makes a spendy move, they tend to stick with it for a while. My Apple ecosystem is starting to erode here, Apple, so I hope someone is listening.
Back to the Mac Mini
There's a rumor that Apple may be getting closer to delivering an HDMI port on its next-generation Mac mini. This bucks Apple's trends, but HDMI is very consumer -- and living room -- friendly. While you can use converter dongles with Macs to get to HDMI, there's no audio. If you've got speakers or a surround-sound system, you can figure all this out, but aren't most consumers just looking for a decent experience that's easy to implement?
If this HDMI rumor is true, this is pretty exciting stuff.
Then there's the logistics of running a Mac mini connected to your HDTV ... now you've got to start thinking wireless keyboard and mouse. Not a deal-breaker, but it requires some searching and thought, not mention increased expense.
Finally, we have Front Row -- an awesome little application that lets you view media from your Mac, and it even works with the little white Apple remote control. But as an application, it flat-out sucks compared to what you can do with the Apple TV operating system. Apple has ignored it.
What I Want
All Apple has to do with all of this is simply produce a Mac mini that'll kick butt in the living room, and boom, they have a solution. Or Apple could beef up its Apple TV, which is probably the better option when it comes to ease of use.
There's one thing I didn't mention about the Apple TV: While it's got a relatively slow processor, it's brains are pretty smart -- it does a fantastic job of scaling TV shows and movies so they look great at non-native resolutions. So for the living room, it's still got a nice edge on a Mac mini.
Either way, it'd be nice for Apple to quietly throw us couch potatoes a bone or two until the living room market grows strong enough to warrant a bigger piece of Apple's attention.
MacNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at Gmail.com.