I review my first ever apple device
The third generation Apple TV is the first Apple device I’ve owned. This isn’t because I’m an Apple hater; rather I’m sympathetic to a company with such a distasteful and zealous following. As a Linux guy I can see the kind of awkward situation that might put you in, having to apologise for all the mouth breathers who nevertheless buy all your stuff.
The real reason I haven’t bought Apple stuff is simply that I’m not in their “market segment”. Unlike the bourgeois who seem to be able to pay for these products, often at 1.5 to 2x the price of a comparable item, I simply don’t have that kind of money. Their products also haven’t been doing what I’ve wanted them to either, whether by simple neglect or Apple’s desire to control everything. There’s often the additional problem of Apple products being a lot less remarkable outside of the US, where they really get all the little things right.
In the case of internet connected media players however, the situation seems somewhat reversed, at least price wise in this country. I could get a Raspberry Pi or similar “miniputer” and hack that into a media player. However I was hoping for a rather more complete solution. Something with a remote perhaps.
Even the cheapest comparable “miniputer” box would be pushing the $100 mark however (like the Odroid), and fully fledged media players not only leave much to be desired, they also have inordinately high prices for their function. The WD TV Live only has a 300Mhz processor and costs about the same as the Apple TVs 1GHz Cortex A9.
So I find myself in a position where even though I couldn’t make full use of an Apple TV, I’d still prefer it purely for YouTube, Vimeo and a vague promise of updates or perhaps a jailbreak. If I enjoy myself, I might even use this as a diving board into Apple’s walled garden.
The Apple TV feels and looks nice, although it’s actually smaller than the advertising would have you believe. I’m unsure if that’s good or bad. On the one hand you want it to fit in with your other gear. On the other hand it doesn’t impose itself too much. I’m not a fan of Apple’s “circled squares” but the materials and colour are good even if the shape isn’t. The circle bottom also looks nice. The device doesn’t have a wall wart which made me happy. It also says things about materials and recyclability which made me happy. I think the fanbois need to know that Apple hold themselves to a high standard when they mention these things on the pack. Instead of defending them for failing to meet what it says on the pack, you should be irate customers. I know I’d feel ripped off even though I never really cared about materials and recyclability, just because they made the claims on the pack.
Using the device, the first thing that hits you is that the remote is shit. It has four “directional” buttons, with an “enter” in the middle, then a “menu” button and a “play” button. They made it large enough so you can hold it and the buttons are on top, and the aluminium makes it heavy enough to feel like a proper remote, but that’s it. It takes one of those annoying button cells which no one has lying around, it’s too damn small, and the buttons are dumb. The “menu” button — which really ought to say “back” because that’s what it does — is contoured but the play button isn’t, which I’m sure is intentional but you can’t find the damn buttons because they’re flush with the remote, and the contours are too subtle to notice. Also, despite the weight and length, the remote is tiny — you can’t “hold” it and “press buttons”, you have to do one or the other. Every remote in the world has fixed this with the little nubs which you can feel, normal fucking buttons, and being regular sized for normal people.
The “directional” buttons are, if anything, even worse. The buttons are too hard to depress, while the “enter” in the middle is too easy. The enter is contoured inwards and the directional buttons are contoured outwards. I don’t know what the intention is, but what ends up happening is that your finger will often accidentally press the enter button while you intend to press one of the directional ones. But, as they say, there’s still more. The sleek and tiny design of the remote means that when you want to press the directional buttons you’ll be holding the remote pointing slightly upwards, which makes registering on the IR receiver a bit of a hit-and-miss affair. Don’t get me wrong, the IR is pretty grand, but when you’re holding the remote naturally and pressing the directional buttons, the IR will have trouble. Normal remotes fix this by having a little depression underneath the remote in the middle so the remote hangs at a bit of a downward angle when you hold it, and the IR LED is angled a bit downward.
On a more subtle note, it feels like Apple devices are built for right handed people only. I’m mostly right handed, but I’m left handed enough that I notice just how much more comfortable Apple stuff feels in the right hand. This is true of the Iphone, and it’s true of the remote. I don’t even know why it’s better; perhaps it’s simply the fact that you press “menu” an awful lot but barely touch the “play” button. There’s also a whole lot of work that’s gone into pairing and un-pairing remotes and I’m not sure that was a use case for an IR remote. Every bit of joy from the little black box was removed by the remote. The remote sucks.
My experience of the software is coloured by the quality of other media players out there today. Basically, if it doesn’t crash, it’s good, and the Apple TV is the best I’ve seen at not crashing. The Windows 95 days was probably the most likely time that I would’ve switched to Apple, and media player software is in its Windows 95 era. I have to say that the Apple TV’s software looks about as ugly as any other media player out there. The icons are photos in a circled square, and as such don’t ring bells for their function. It’s hard to tell which button does what, and the skeuomorphism is distracting. The whole thing rings a bit old fashioned, from the way the “selector” box moves from item to item, to the music screen.
The music screen! On the left there’s the album art, with a slight perspective towards the viewer, and on the right there’s text, without any perspective. There’s no symmetry; I would’ve put some perspective on the text and chosen a sharper font. Helvetica looks great on flat backgrounds in all caps, but the way it’s done here it looks silly, especially when the tracks change and the whole thing zooms past. The diamond on the progress bar also looks dated. The screen will also occasionally do this 360 spin and the album art will move to the right. This looks completely ridiculous, and I think the only reason it’s done is to prevent screen burn-in. This happens because...
There’s no visualisation while listening to music. There’s a “screensaver” which shows pictures from various sources, but even here the idea is dated, and all the 3d “FX” on the pictures makes me feel a little embarrassed. The PS3 does the best job of playing back music and movies (in fact for all content on a local network the PS3 is hard to fault), and the UI there leaves this in the dust. The visualisations on the PS3 are tasteful and the text on the bottom left is just plain nice. It says “I have a gigantic screen, I don't need all of it to show you what song is currently playing; here's the Earth”. On the other hand, there are yum-cha devices which have far worse UIs that aren’t so embarrassing. If I had to describe what Apple TV feels like, it would be like the new season of Beauty and the Geek.
A bunch of geeks turn up in foldable bikes, scooters, bathtubs and a dalek. They’re all funny and witty and look like classic hipsters but actually nerdy. The girls all turn up Ferraris and Motorbikes and are air-heads. Apple TV is like the girls. I’m sure they would’ve been the “it” things in the 90s, but now they’re just mildly embarrassing, not least because because they’re leaning on the old dichotomy of nerds and cool kids.
UI aside, though, the Apple TV works a charm. Youtube is good. Vimeo is good. In order to do anything on the local network, though, you’ll need an Apple ID and Itunes. You could also do Airplay, but that’s proprietary to Apple and will need an Iphone or Ipad to babysit the Apple TV. The Apple TV uses mostly standards compliant stuff with a sprinkling of proprietary extensions or DRM. This means that any “normal” tool that you would normally use to connect to the Apple TV won’t work. Instead, you must use Apple’s specific variety. You must listen to podcasts or radio on Itunes (the website), not via RSS feeds or shoutcast. You can’t subscribe to internet TV shows like in Miro. You can’t watch movies or listen to your music on your NAS. At least, not unless it’s connected to Itunes (PC app) or played via an Iphone.
There’s also no app store. The apps currently there are it. If they stop working, I guess the Apple TV is a brick. In Australia, there aren’t many apps. If Youtube stops working then the Apple TV is effectively a brick for me. I have no other Apple products and am loathe to install Itunes or have to port my library of music onto it.
In the end, in Australia at least, this basically means the Apple TV is purely for Vimeo, Youtube, and whatever else you’ve bought in the Apple walled garden. It works, it’s cheap, and it’s not bad. It’s let down by the software in the end — you can tell because second-hand second gen (hackable) Apple TVs sell for nearly twice the price on eBay of a third gen Apple TV, despite the third gen being better in every single way (twice as much RAM, faster processor, etc).
Using it for a while longer, there’s a few things I’ve noticed. The first is dead air. On a “pull” device like a PC, the “correct” behaviour is for the device to wait for input after it has done whatever you asked it to do. However, the default for a “push” device like a TV should be to “show you things”. The Apple TV is terrible at this. It seems to go out of its way to create dead air. Vimeo seems to behave better in this regard than Youtube, but as a whole everything tends to want to stop and wait for input as opposed to “show something interesting”.
All the apps behave in an inconsistent way and the controls do different things in each of them. They would’ve been better off removing the “play/pause” button entirely, and perhaps having a real “back” button instead, thus freeing up the menu button for menus, instead of for “sometimes back and sometimes menu”. For example, in Vimeo, you should press “play/pause” not “enter” (which gives more details), whereas in “radio” you should press enter (play/pause pauses the previously playing radio station). Youtube behaves differently again.
Despite everyone singing Airplay’s praises, I really dislike it. The big problem is that using Airplay yields control to the other application. The entire device effectively becomes unresponsive, except as the Airplay device. If you show a JPEG on your TV via Airplay, then lose your Iphone in the house somewhere, I’m pretty sure the Apple TV will show that JPEG forever. The Iphone must explicitly yield control. The second (but related) problem here is that the Iphone is now babysitting the Apple TV, and there’s really no need for this. The Apple TV is perfectly capable of playing a stream off a third device, but the Iphone will still need to sit there being a very expensive remote while the real Apple TV remote becomes useless. I just don’t see the logic here. The Nexus Q made way more sense in this way.