It’s been a little over a week since Apple’s second-generation Apple TV has been in stores. You may have a read some early reviews, which were decidedly mixed. Engadget said that the Apple TV “has a lot going for it,” but David Pogue called the Apple TV “dazzling but limited.” So what’s our take?
I had a chance to test the new device for a couple of days, and I have to say: I just don’t feel it. What I mean by that is that this simply doesn’t feel like an Apple device.
There are five things that particularly didn’t work for me:
The UI needs an overhaul. I know what you’re thinking, how could Apple possibly build bad UIs? Well, the second-generation Apple TV, much like the first iteration, is based on Front Row. Front Row was great when it launched, but it just feels outdated now, and its shortcomings are becoming painfully obvious when combined with new living room hardware. Oftentimes, it doesn’t seem like it’s optimized for TV screens at all.
Take the movie selection, for example. Apple TV simply displays a grid with 21 DVD covers on screen and doesn’t even bother to tell you the title until you select a movie. That’s great for the five Hollywood blockbuster movies whose DVDs you’ve seen at the Best Buy checkout counter, but I found it pretty frustrating to discover new movies this way. Even more painful is the fact that the movie covers are so crammed that you have to wait for titles to slowly scroll across the screen if you happen to be interested in a movie with a title longer than 17 or so characters. “Alice in Wonderla,” anyone?
The remote doesn’t work for me. The Apple TV remote is the same model that you can buy as an accessory for your Apple computers, but it just didn’t work well for this application. Sure, it’s fine to browse through the iTunes or Netflix media catalog, but it’s not good for searching, or for entering your user name and password, for that matter. The directional pad made it really hard to enter text. I kept selecting letters while trying to scroll through — and the fact that Apple presents the device’s on-screen keyboard as a long list of letters, as opposed to a regular keyboard, didn’t really help with this either.
Home sharing is a mess. The Apple TV makes it possible to stream music, movies and photo slideshows from any Mac or PC in your home network, but the hoops you have to jump through to make this happen are pretty ridiculous. First of all, you need iTunes up and running to serve media to the Apple TV. That’s no biggie, really, except that you also need to be signed into your iTunes account to make this happen — and that’s where my nightmare started.
The Apple TV quickly informed me that I have to enter some additional information to make my Apple ID work with home sharing, and iTunes also lamented. I proceeded to add a security question and my birth date. Then iTunes asked me for my credit card number. Yeah, you read that right: I had to give Apple my credit card number in order to have the Apple TV stream music I own, photos I shot and video I recorded myself within my local network.
After that, I only had to install a new version of iTunes, reboot my computer (what is this? Windows?), and then enable sharing. And nothing happened. My computer simply didn’t show up within the Apple TV menu. So I resorted to some googling, only to find out that sharing my media library on my local network isn’t actually the same as “home sharing.” Only, if you believe iTunes 10, then home sharing is all about copying purchased files between computers, not about streaming content.
I’ve tested a number of media streaming devices from many different companies in recent months, none of which really blew me away. However, one feature that all of them mastered fairly well was accessing content from your local network, including my network-attached storage (NAS). Apple TV, on the other hand, doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of anything that doesn’t run the latest version of iTunes, and even iTunes sharing is unnecessarily complicated.
Local media is amiss. The Apple TV has a USB port, but don’t bother plugging anything into it, as it won’t recognize any attached hard drives. Instead, you have to upload all your content to your PC and then use home sharing. That’s a nuisance, especially when you want to quickly show off video recordings from your Flip camcorder. Even some of the new Roku devices, which always billed themselves as streaming-only, can now play content straight from a connected HD camcorder. So why can’t Apple get this to work?
Where are the apps? The new Apple TV is based on iOS, the same platform that also powers the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch. However, the only application that Apple added at launch was Netflix, and that’s something every washing machine can now access. I still believe that Apple is eventually going to offer access to the iTunes app store, but it would have been great if the company had previewed some of these capabilities by adding at least a few nice apps to the device, much in the same way Google is teasing us with the current Google TV apps lineup.
I know what you’re gonna say: Things would have been much easier if I had kept my Apple ID up to date or if I always installed the latest version of iTunes as soon as it comes out. But that’s not the point. The point is that Apple used to make stuff that was easy and elegant. Stuff that worked out of the box, that made you think: Right, this is how it should be done. That’s the reason I switched to Macs many years ago, and that’s the reason I keep buying Apple hardware.
However, I didn’t get that feeling when testing the Apple TV. Instead, I was confronted with two options of media sharing within my local network that sound like and essentially do the same thing. That’s not Apple; that’s Windows, at least in spirit.
Now, I don’t want to give up on the Apple TV entirely. I still have hopes that the current Apple TV UI is just a big diversion, and that Steve Jobs will pull an entirely new interface out of his hat some time early next year. A new UI with lots of shiny apps, which could make up for many of the device’s current shortcomings. And once that day comes, I’ll definitely give Apple TV another spin.
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