Aaron Sumner

Requiem for an Apple TV

Sometime last week, while I was out of town, my Apple TV bit the dust. The status light blinks amber; some online searching suggests that the hard drive and/or logic board went kaput. Either way I don’t think I’m going to mess with trying to get it fixed, and I don’t see myself shelling out $230 for a new one given some of its general inconveniences.

I’ve had Apple TV since January, 2008; enough time to see it through a couple of major software revisions. There’s been a lot to like about Apple TV–streaming from iTunes on other computers and watching video podcasts in particular–but when all was said and done I think I had more frustrations than successes with it. Sometimes it was just minor frustrations that left me scratching my head, like podcasts I could never remove from favorites. Other issues were more major, like the fact I had to register my Apple TV with my iMac (which houses all of my music and a lot of video) three times for proper syncing.

Installing Boxee helped. I liked being able to play just about any video format I could throw at it, and I streamed hours upon hours of music from Pandora. The Apple TV hardware just never quite had enough juice for Boxee, though. I couldn’t stream Netflix, and streaming baseball via MLB.tv never quite worked as advertised. I won’t knock Boxee for their issues with Hulu. That’s just a case of short-sighted TV network execs who don’t understand where media is heading. (Not that I fully understand, myself; but I do know that some of us still want to watch TV on demand and on a regular TV screen, not a laptop. That and Jay Leno isn’t funny.)

I know Apple calls this product their “hobby,” but if they don’t give it more attention than it’s been getting then I don’t see it ever becoming a viable player in the set top device market (which I think it set to explode). I wish Apple would open up their hobby to others through an app store for the device. Casual games are a hit on the iPhone (not to mention the Nintendo Wii) and could explode on the Apple TV as well. How about an Apple TV port of iChat? Just plug in your USB webcam and participate in video chats from the comfort of your couch.

Knowing Apple, I don’t see this happening. That’s why I’m moving on.

So what’s next?

At this point I’m leaning toward replacing my dead Apple TV with a Playstation 3. I like the idea of streaming Netflix, and I guess I like the idea of having a Blu-ray player (though I think that movies over physical media will look antiquated in a few years). It would work with my Logitech Harmony remote with an adapter. The PS2 had a great game library, and I imagine the PS3 has a good one as well (make your recommendations in the comments). I could plop it into the entertainment unit right where the Apple TV’s been and be ready to go. To my knowledge, the only media I could stream to it would be Netflix–no Boxee or similar media wrapper that I know of means no MLB.tv and no podcasts. Probably no iTunes streaming, either. And this whole deal with being seemingly overly reliant on Sony’s network to even work can’t be a good thing, right? And anyway, nobody’s got the thing in stock and may not for a few months. That could be a good thing–it’s keeping me from making an impulse purchase.

Is the Xbox 360 an option? No Blu-ray player, and I really don’t care about online gaming. I think I’d be using it as a straight-up media center. I know I can stream Netflix to an Xbox 360, but does it play standard DVDs? Works with a Harmony remote, right? Again, no Boxee-type support, but on the plus side I could walk into just about any store and pick one up today.

My third option is to build one myself. I don’t know that I’d have the patience to make this work on an ongoing basis–I can’t even tolerate desktop Linux interfaces for more than a few hours before giving up on them for another decade. I don’t know that Windows Media Center would treat me much better. This option would probably be relatively cheap, though, at the end of the day.

Maybe a Mac mini? Or would that require too many audio/video adapters to make it worth the trouble? Would the direct integration with my existing iTunes setups negate that hassle? The benefits of this option and the BYO option would be as much hard drive space as I care to attach and Boxee for the general media browsing experience. It would be nice to be able stream MLB games to my television, too. Not cheap, though–600 bucks for the basic hardware, plus the cost of a digital audio-to-Toslink converter. And I could just control it with VNC, I figure, though the Harmony remote should be able to control Boxee and/or Front Row, right?

Hmm, decisions, decisions.

. Questions or comments? Let me know what you think.