Tuesday, January 9, 2007

The Apple TV Post

Like every other tech blogger in the solar system, I'm writing a post about Apple's dual product announcements this week. The first, Apple TV, was widely known to be coming (although speculation generally centered around the name iTV), and it is basically what you assumed it to be: a box looking very much like a slimmed-down Mac Mini with high-def video outputs that syncs up wirelessly with your iTunes videos. The interface looks to be a version of Front Row, which is already bundled on Macs, and it comes with the iconic, simple 6-button Apple remote. It doesn't include PVR functionality, it doesn't play games, it just puts videos up on your TV at up to 720p. As for technical capabilities, Apple's page lists it as having an Intel processor and a 40G hard drive for a local content cache. The specific processor model isn't mentioned, so we're left to wonder if it's something from the Core/Core 2 line or an embedded chip like the XScale paired up with a specialized DSP to do the high-def video decoding (likely, since it will sell for only $300). As for software, the interface is, as I mentioned before, an enhanced version of Front Row, which implies that the Apple TV may be running a version of OS X. OS X has never been used in an embedded device before, and there's no official word of a port to ARM (possibly ruling out my XScale idea), but Apple's other major announcement, the one which has caused a least a dozen breathy "whoas" around me in the lab since I started typing this post, is the iPhone, a handheld which runs a version of OS X. Anyway, the possibility for collaborative development on the 2 devices makes it quite logical to share a "Mac Embedded" base between the two.

There are certainly some cool things about Apple TV that are worth praising. Front Row is a beautifully simple interface (if you haven't tried it, ask a friend with a recent Mac and you'll see), and the Apple remote is pretty hard to get confused by (it's also tiny, which means it may slide into your couch a little too easily). It'll stream video wirelessly or via ethernet from multiple Macs or PCs in the house, which is another plus. On the downside, it does not appear that you can actually buy music, movies, or TV shows from iTunes using the device itself. It's also an intentionally limited device: it ONLY plays back your iTunes content. It's a little disappointing that it doesn't act as a PVR as well, but it's understandable given that, to do so, it would need a bigger hard drive (especially for high-def content) and getting it to play nice with Digital Cable or Satellite (and allow direct recording of digital steams) would be a nightmare with all of the conflicting locked-down implementations for digital content delivery.

So, Apple TV isn't a direct competitor to Tivo, but it does occupy the same nebulous "set top box" space. Interestingly enough, so do the next-gen game consoles, and there's actually quite a bit of feature overlap. Both XBox 360 and Playstation 3 support playback of downloaded high-def content (even though the 360 is limited to a paltry 20G drive), and the PS3 additionally has a built-in Blu-Ray player. We can consider both the 360 and the PS3 to be more "complete" entertainment systems, with the inclusion of games and, at the very least, DVD playback on both. It's difficult to say exactly how the Apple TV stacks up against them, though. It's cheaper, certainly, and it can't do as much. What it does do, though, it is poised to do well: which is to say that it functions as an easy-to-use dedicated player for stuff from the iTunes store which is, at the moment, by far the most complete source for downloadable TV shows and movies. The 360 offers downloadable videos as well (but is hobbled by a lack of secondary storage and a tiny selection), while the PS3 will gladly play Blu-Ray discs, and any drm-free high-def video that YOU take the trouble to provide it.

Honestly, it's a bit hard to see how this one will shake out. For me personally, I like being able to transcode video from any source I like and watch it on the PS3, but for someone who isn't in the habit of downloading torrents and encoding them just the way they like, Apple TV is a lot easier to use. Anyway, Apple has officially entered the living room fray with a device that is defined, for better or for worse, by its simplicity.

Stay tuned for an upcoming post about that other Apple launch.