Apple drops the ball with uninspiring Apple TV update

David Braue
30 October, 2009
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Last week I waxed lyrical about the great lineup of computers Apple has put forward for its Christmas season buyers, and offered optimism that an updated Apple TV would help the company consolidate its position in the ultra-competitive consumer tech market.

This week, Apple delivered that update, and I can say only that it is disappointingly less than I had hoped for – and far less than Apple needed to revitalise its Apple TV brand.

By all accounts, the 3.0 update simply brings Apple TV in line with Apple’s new iTunes 9, supporting features of marginal value such as its Genius Mixes and iTunes LP as well as iPhoto ’09′s Events and Faces features. There’s also easier Internet radio listening. And that, by all accounts, is about all that Apple has offered in its newest offering.

When it came out, Apple TV was revolutionary because it provided an easy way to get photos, music and movies onto your TV or stereo system. The addition of Remote – which lets you control Apple TV with your iPhone or iPod touch – was a brilliant touch because it meant the Apple TV could, among other things, feed music to a stereo system or for broadcast throughout the house, without having to turn on the TV.

The thing is, however, that the market has moved on a long, long way since then. PVRs are mainstream devices, and models that do everything the Apple TV does – but add TV recording, EPG and the like – simply don’t cost that much more. Heck, the DViCO TVIX M-6600N launched a few weeks ago costs $699 with a 1TB drive (less if you shop around; you could just as easily buy the driveless unit for $378.40 and spend about $100 more on a 1TB drive ) to get a HD-capable networked media player with dual TV tuner, support for DiVX and other formats, and so on. It even looks like an Apple TV, only with a status display on the front.

Apple is known for toeing its own line when it comes to its products, but at $329 for a 160GB model Apple TV is simply no longer feature competitive with the rest of the PVR market. Little wonder that the Myer circular I received yesterday lists 12 set-top boxes and PVRs and has a double-page spread dedicated to iPods, but does not even mention the Apple TV.

The reasons for this are increasingly clear. Apple TV does not, as many have suggested it should, support third-party applications (not officially, at least); it does not play video formats apart from those explicitly supported by iTunes.

It cannot serve as a networked repository for an iTunes library, but can only copy content from a library located elsewhere; and it cannot even accomplish a simple (and, elsewhere, ubiquitous) function like playing content from an SD card taken out of your digital camera or camcorder. Particularly given the limited selection of HD content available in Australia, its main redeeming features are only its seamless access to iTunes content and its ability to be controlled via the Remote application.

Untapped potential. It’s a shame, because Apple TV could be so much more, even if it never offers Blu-ray capabilities like I have argued it should. If it offered HD TV tuning, EPG and recording capabilities, Apple could help the device fulfil its potential as being the entertainment centre of customers’ lounge rooms; as it is now, it’s just a peripheral device with limited function and appeal. Apple seems to know this: it hasn’t even bothered to update its product images with a movie that’s newer than 12 months old.

Specced properly, Apple TV could easily match competitors on features, but with the added ability to play iTunes content. This would make it a competitive differentator that other devices couldn’t match, rather than a competitive limitation that restricts its broad-market appeal.

Some may say that recording raises sticky copyright issues; ironically, Apple is in a unique position to overcome this obstacle, since it already has a digital rights management ecosystem that is more than capable of restricting the reuse of recorded content. The Apple TV could, for example, automatically tick away in the background to produce an iPhone-compatible version of a recorded program, then automatically sync it through iTunes to provide a seamless watching experience that would be unmatched across the industry.

Heck, I would buy that. However, as things are, the only way to provide this functionality is to get a Mac mini instead of an Apple TV, then shell out for a separate tuner setup such as Elgato’s popular EyeTV. It works, but consumers shouldn’t have to jump through so many hoops – or install a full-fledged Mac in their lounge room – to get functions that are already packaged so effectively in so many other products. Furthermore, consumers will baulk at the four-figure price tag that accompanies such a setup.

For now, however, it appears that this is it. We will have to suffer through this Christmas with a feature-limited Apple TV, and hope Apple eventually decides to give the platform the attention it deserves. Heck, Apple could dig into its cash and buy TiVo, then merge them together to make it a major lounge-room player. The mind spins with the possibilities, but for now the mind just reels with the disappointment.

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