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Apple TV

1666 words on ,

A few more notes on the new Apple TV toy now that it starts shipping.

AppleTV and me

Telly featuring winter olympics 2006 That is of course the most practically relevant question for me and influences my perspective. It’s short answer is No. I don’t have a TV in my room. And the newest TV I have access to is about twenty years old (grandma’s good old Telefunken if you must know). While it has the tacky charme of 1980s fake wooden plastic surfaces it is quite large and is perfectly capable of displaying moving images. A DVD player, VCR, MacBook and C-64 supercomputer can be attached to it – though not all at once and when it’s in a good mood it will even display teletext. The only problem about it is that despite excessive attempts to do so, nobody managed to figure out how to re-order the different channels and the instruction manual can’t be found.

In short, just from a technical point of view, I am not in the market for an Apple TV gadget because I couldn’t connect it to anything. In addition, my interest in television isn’t big enough to justify spending non-trivial amounts of money into buying a ‘HD’ machine. In fact, we are discussing to just cancel our cable TV subscription because most of the 30 channels we pay for are brain damaging crap.

And still, after reading a number of comments on the Apple TV of early adopters and ambitious geeks, I start to think it is an interesting toy.

Paper form

I don’t know much about home entertainment devices. But I’d say that just by its specs the Apple TV doesn’t look to impressive in terms of what it can do: Play music from computers in the network, play films from computers in the network, do slideshows with photos from computers in the network – in case each of them is in an Apple approved format, that is.

Sure – all this is neat and I’m sure the interface for it will be pretty and work reasonably well if you limit yourself to small collections of songs, playlists, videos and photo albums. Already for larger numbers of those I expect navigation to be painful with Apple’s remote control. But the question is whehter this will be worth €300. Even when charging myself a fiver for each time I hook up the MacBook which can do the same – and more – up to the telly, it will take a while until the Apple TV is ‘worth it’. Particularly as it will not replace the DVD player and plugging the iPod into the stereo is rather simple.

The Innards

People have been quick to open their Apple TV devices and have a look what’s in there. I seems to have been clear to everybody but me that they’d find some bog-standard Intel CPU, a nice graphics chip and what looks like a pretty standard copy of MacOS X in there. (Oh, and the power supply which is neatly built into the case – I hope it doesn’t use much power in standby mode.) And that, I think, is very interesting and encouraging. It suggests that switching to OS X and Intel is really paying off for Apple in a very wide area.

To me it also suggests that OS X is good and adaptable enough to run on such specialised devices. Which, I imagine, isn’t just a good sign for the development of the OS but should also make the Apple TV relatively easy and cheap to implement for Apple. And all that while maintaining a well tested road to updates and new features.

It also means that the system is relatively open for third party hacking. And people are making progress at a good pace. While Apple’s default cofiguration of the Apple TV isn’t particularly appealing, this shows that – technically – making it do pretty much everything you can come up with is within reach.

Playing media files that aren’t officially Apple sanctioned should be doable thanks to QuickTime plugins or applications like VLC. Similarly the Apple TV should easily be able to double as a small home server for your files or possibly as a low-power machine for remote access. From what I have read you can all these things today if you are willing to open the machine and manipulate its hard drive with another machine.

And people are working hard – with first steps towards success as it seems towards putting that USB port to good use. And there are many good uses that come to mind. From charging and synching iPods, to attaching other drives, to an eyeTV, to a camera, to a keyboard and mouse. The possibilites seem to be countless.

Dream on!

Of course all this depends a bit on Apple. At the current state the Apple TV doesn’t support any of that. And Apple doesn’t have a history of being particularly open minded about other people fiddling with their products. On the other hand, it appears that they didn’t really try hard to keep people from tinkering, so perhaps there is hope.

And with my fantasy running wild, many ideas pop up for things that seem like they should be within reach of the Apple TV’s hardware with just its setup keeping them from becoming a reality:

Conclusion

All right, I admit that I don’t expect to see most (or even any) of these in the Apple TV. At least not now. The current Apple TV with just 256MB of RAM and yesteryear’s processor may be a bit to handle some of those tasks – or all of them at the same time – with ease. And Apple has a newly introduced Airport base station and a popular little Mac mini the sales of which such a fully featured Apple TV could cannibalise. (In fact, I’d argue that the current situation where the Mac mini has a rather unnecessary DVD drive and the media centred Apple TV hasn’t seems slightly absurd.)

However – and that I think is the crucial point – the Apple TV as we have it today seems terribly close to be a viable replacement for many other devices. And I assume that thanks to using standard components and Mac OS X Apple should be able to move into any of those directions with ease when releasing the next revision of the hardware – or even by releasing a software update.

Let’s hope they will use this for the benefit of their users rather than just to pressure other electronics companies by threatening to take over some of their market. But I wouldn’t hold my breath.

March 28, 2007, 0:31

Tagged as hardware, Mac OS X.

Comments

Comment by d.w.: User icon

I actually have a television that’s capable of taking advantage of (or should I say capable of being taken advantage of by ;) ) an TV. That said, I appreciate the fact that it seems to be (by design?) quite the hackable little device. I do like the form-factor. I already keep a VGA cable plugged into my television and we quite often plug the MacBook into the TV for use with Front Row on weekends.

Really, the only thing that is holding me back is even quasi-official support for other codecs. The real test will be after the first set of system updates for the box go out — will Apple aggressively clamp-down on the modders? If not, I’ll likely buy one and install something like Perian on it myself.

March 29, 2007, 22:40

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