Apple TV 2

05 Sep 2010


As I’ve waffled about before on the Journal, I’m on the never ending search for the right digital media centre setup. For quite a while now, the PS3 has given me what I want, due to it’s ability to do many things in one package. The only areas where it lets me down is that its too fussy about video formats, and a lack of folders to organise videos on its hard drive. It wins over a HTPC for me, because it’s designed to be controlled by a remote, rather than keyboard and mouse.

I also own an original Apple TV. While its 160gb HD isn’t enough for a movie collection, it is for my music, and it grabs new albums from my Mac without me having to think about it. I can then play anything I want via the lovely Remote App for iOS. Musically, it’s a setup I’m very happy with.

Recently, I’ve become rather lazy though. Lazy enough to not want to go through the chore ripping and encoding of my DVDs, and have just downloaded movies from the iTunes store instead. This it very much at odds with my anti-DRM principles, but having a ‘Season Pass’ for Doctor Who this year felt SO GOOD. With the exception of the week delay to get episodes (presumably a BBC restriction) it was convenient, took zero effort, and gave me high quality, legal downloads. I know I’m getting too comfortable in the iTunes ecosystem, but it feels like an easy life. Maybe junk food is a good analogy here? It takes more time to prepare a meal from scratch, but is worth the effort in the end.

I’ve also been experimenting with streaming content on the NAS to the AppleTV, via an always-on Mac. The trouble is, with those files encoded to suit the PS3, they don’t all play well with the AppleTV. The prospect of re-encoding isn’t a pretty one. Something more flexible is needed here.

So, I waited with excitement for the announcement of the new Apple TV this week. The rumours of an iOS based box started me thinking about the possibility of a really flexible device. I could get a BBC iPlayer app, and a Plex or Boxee app to play the contents of my NAS, as well as the DRM stuff I’d bought. I’d convinced myself into thinking that the new iOS Plex App was for this purpose!

It turns out that while the new AppleTV is iOS based, it doesn’t allow the installation of other apps. You could argue that Apple might add this ability later, but I’m not optimistic. The original AppleTV had a plugin framework too with it’s ‘.frappliance’ (Front Row Appliance) files, and it was never used officially. This seems like a real lost opportunity for Apple, but it also makes the new AppleTV even more of a ‘iTunes Storefont’ than it was before. A box for their media, not mine. It’s very similar to Ping, Apple’s new music social network, which is based on iTunes store purchases, rather than Last.fm, which is what I actually listen to.

The rental-only model is a pain too, and my feelings were summed up by Dan Cederholm

Renting is great and all, but not when my kids watch Toy Story 2 645 times in a row.

I prefer to own films, even if they’re DRM restricted. The concept of AirPlay is appealing however and I can see that the Netflix integration is too, but we don’t get it in the UK, and neither do we get a great variety of rental choice on the iTunes store. So, all in all, I’m a bit disappointed. It’s small, good-looking and inexpensive, but doesn’t seem to fulfil the needs of family Hicks.

More promising is the rise of Plex, the Mac-only media centre based on XBMC. On top of a sparkling new version 9 this week, have announced that they’re partnering with LG to integrate their software into a new range of tellys and blu-ray players next year. I don’t plan to upgrade my telly, but I’m hoping that these new resources will see Plex continue to grow.

In the meantime, it’ll be interested to see what the hacker community make of the new Apple TV. Maybe a ‘jailbroken’ ATV with Plex, Boxee and iPlayer is still possible!

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