And the truth (or at least, an attempt at redressing the balance)

Apple TV: …and all that could have been

Towards the end of December last year I won a £500 Amazon voucher and decided to splash out on some TV/audio equipment. Part of that splurge included the newest model of the Apple TV. It’s a little box of Apple’s curved-edge magic, weighing barely as much as an ashtray and smaller in size, and lets you stream your iTunes content from your computer(s) to the TV.

It’s not a bad piece of kit for the money (under or around £100): you can stream movies instantly, in HD, from Apple’s iTunes store. You can watch/play any media on your iTunes library. You can browse YouTube, Flickr and more. You can even get a 3D-rotating screensaver comprising photos of animals. Cute.

The problems, however, are what bring it down. Apple, famed for their focus on usability and design, managed to drop the ball almost immediately for the onscreen keyboard (required for entering your Apple ID for syncing iTunes, amongst other things). The keyboard doesn’t have a QWERTY layout (nor the option for one) and in one of its two guises, doesn’t even let you scroll ‘off’ one column of letters and back ‘on’ to the other side, meaning that if you want a letter on the other side of the screen, you have to painstakingly press ‘right’ fourteen times to reach it.

Of course, there’s an iPhone app to dock with the Apple TV so you can save yourself this pain and use the iPhone’s keyboard for input. Fantastic, if you live in Apple’s ideal world where every device you own bears their “Designed by Apple in California” legend. My Android phone has no such app available (presumably because Apple are wary of allowing third party devices to connect to their own unsullied beauties, and not because no Android app developers own an Apple TV) so I’m stuck swearing at the screen trying to type in an email address.

The next gripe: the internet. Rather than give us a version of Safari to play with (since the device either uses wireless or an ethernet connection in order to stream music), we get a kind of ‘sandbox internet’ – Flickr and YouTube are only available as quasi-apps, with strange, unuseful interfaces for searching and playing content (where once again, the onscreen keyboard hinders you). Google TV gives users a copy of Chrome and lets them go nuts. Apple, again, in its walled-garden world, is presumably ‘protecting’ me from the scary wider internet by only allowing me access to the things they think I want.

This means in turn that one absolute killer feature is missed – an iPlayer-on-demand. True, even if there was a browser, it’s unlikely we’d be able to run Flash on it (Apple again, remember?) to watch streaming video, but it’s a possibility that this could be added in at a later date. Similarly, no Spotify app or any exciting bonus features involving third party content.

Finally, the movie renting process. It’s mildly exciting to be able to stream HD trailers with barely 3 seconds of preloading, but the movies themselves take an hour before you can start waching, which was somewhat frustrating when we first sat down to watch Inception. The movies you buy on your Apple TV aren’t watchable on your iTunes account on your main computer, bizarrely, and I hear that for some reason, the reverse is not true – you can buy stuff from iTunes on your computer and watch on the Apple TV. I can’t see any reason why they would make it work that way, but then that applies to much of Apple’s decisions and me.

Oh, and while I’m complaining about video – the device forces you into using the video formats Apple approves of. You can only add movies to iTunes that are in a specific set of encodings, meaning that any home movies (for example) you might fancy watching on your TV are effectively off limits until you can be bothered to convert them, painfully slowly, into an Apple-approved format. It’d be nice if it came bundled with a few extra codecs, or at least the ability to add them at your own risk, to get around these frustrating limitations.

With all the above said, it’s not a bad device. The music streaming is the main reason I chose it and it does that well – although there’s no A-Z list you can skip through for artists and while it’s playing it doesn’t tell you what track number you’re up to. Also annoying is that for every album, the first track listed is ‘Shuffle’, which can be confusing when you want to quickly start playing a record in sequence.

Since Google TV wasn’t available in the UK when I purchased it, and it doesn’t offer the music streaming options, then this was always going to be the device for me. It’s just slightly sad that for all the possibilities offered by a device like this, its overall successes are overshadowed by Apple’s closed nature and desire to box off user actions into the things they deem suitable.