The New AppleTV and Ping

Thu 02 September 2010 by Kevin van Haaren

Apple's iPod event was yesterday. As usual rumors abounded before hand, and failed to come through. The funniest was Apple didn't rename Apple TV to iTV as every-freaking person in the world predicted. Apple TV also didn't become a touch driven interface (touch provided via the Magic Trackpad Apple introduced). This is a good thing, mostly. I don't recall hearing too much that Apple might roll-out a social networking deal (Ping), so I guess most people missed that too.

I'm going to confine my comments to just 2 things: Apple TV and Ping. Most of the rest of the announcements were typical. Shuffle and Nano changes are neat, like most people I think the Nano would be a cool watch, but I hate wearing watches so I can't bring myself to get excited about it.


I've signed up for an account, played with it for an hour or so, hate it. I'm not a huge social network user. I've got a twitter account for spewing forth my idiotic observations to the void and that is tied to my Facebook account (if the void has to put up with my idiotic observations, so do my family and friends.) My Facebook profile is mostly empty. It's got my name and hometown. My birthday is a lie. My high school and college - not filled in. To find me you have to remember how to spell my name correctly.

I frequently post about music on Twitter, typically when I'm downloading stuff from E-Music or found an album I just can't stop listening to. My tastes are very wide-ranging. Classical, Blues, Rock, Alternative, World music, I've got something from every genre imaginable.

Ping is completely worthless for this type of interaction. The whole purpose of Ping is the iTunes Store. There is no link between your iTunes music library and Ping. The only way to comment on a track you like is to leave a review of that track on the store. The only way to like a song is via the store. In other words, even if you've bought all the albums from your favorite artist via the iTunes store, the only way to tell other people how much you liked them is to jump to the store and click the like button there.

If you're like me (and everyone should be!), you've purchased tons of music from other sources. I've been a member of e-music since the good old days of "download as much as you want for a flat fee". It was awesome. I bloated my music collection by several gigs during those days. To this day I still download 2 or 3 albums a month from e-music. If e-music doesn't have something I want, I'll check iTunes and Amazon MP3 store (before iTunes went DRM free, I'd check Amazon first. Now I check Amazon's $5 album specials and I love their 99 classical tracks for $5 specials.)

If it's an artist that isn't in the iTunes store, then you can't like them in Ping. That's right, nobody on Ping likes the Beatles, those haters.

Next issue is right in the same line. There is no web site for Ping. Not even through Apple's Mobile Me server. Only usable in iTunes. This means I can't use it from work, or even a friends house. Once again, tied to tightly to the iTunes store. Plus this means it's very difficult for me to encourage non-iTunes users to look at my music tastes, and gasp buy some of that music from iTunes -- bringing them into the fold. Short sighted thinking from Apple.

Apple TV

Apple did a better job with the upgrade to the Apple TV. I've got the old Apple TV, and I've already ordered the new one (I'm such a sucker.)

Back in January I killed my cable connection. I use my Tivo HD to record HD over the air signals for the shows available that way. Cable shows I really love I buy subscriptions to via Apple TV. I buy the standard def versions (they fill my wide screen TV but they look like upscaled DVDs rather than even 720p HD) so I pay in the range of $20-$40 for a season of shows (I've only purchased about 7 shows this year so far, so that's a pretty huge savings over the $60 a month I was paying for HD cable.)

Because I killed my cable connection, the Apple TV has become the most used component in my media system. Haven't used my DVD player in years (I rip the DVDs I buy and put them on the Apple TV), Tivo is just recording over the air, haven't fired up the xbox in a few months.

Even though it's the most used component doesn't mean I love it. The thing has problems galore, and is barely usable. I'd probably have switched to a mac mini connection instead but the Apple TV was limping along (and i upgraded the hard drive in it to 320GB, which helps.)

The biggest problem with the Apple TV is how freaking slow the hardware is. It plays H.264 video great, but that's about it. Moving around the menus is horrible. Half the time I switch my system from the Tivo to the Apple TV I have to turn the TV off and back on before the video will show up. Random reboots (very rarely when watching, but frequently if I've left something paused for a long time to switch to watching the Tivo.)

The new Apple TV does away with the old hardware. They've adopted the A4 chip for it's CPU, the same chip that powers the iPhone 4 and new iPod touch. They've eliminated the hard drive, and got rid of the component connections. These changes let it drop the size to a 1/4 of the previous Apple TV size, plus they dropped the price to $99.

Software-wise the interface remains mostly the same (with the elimination of locally stored stuff) adding on Netflix streaming and a system for accessing TV show episodes from your favorite tv shows (this ties into their new, limited to a few networks, $.99 tv show episode rentals).

Dropping the price to $99 is the biggest point in Apple's favor. This makes it much more competitive with the Roku boxes used for Netflix and Amazon streaming. Hopefully the A4 chip fixes some of the speed issues (although not mentioned, it would be nice if they doubled the memory. Current model has 256MB of memory. 512MB would go a long way towards fixing some of the speed issues.

Dropping the component connection is a typical Apple move. They were the first to abandon a whole slew of interfaces (floppy, Apple propritetary keyboard ports, SCSI) for newer USB and Firewire technologies. It's right in line with their dismissal of Flash as "old technology". It pisses people off for awhile, but goes away as everyone else catches up with Apple. Even Flash stories have changed from "Apple will die without Flash support" to "look how crappy Flash is on these other mobile devices." No component connectors saves Apple on space and money at the cost of a few individuals with older TVs.

I have a bigger issue with dropping the hard drive. I actually like syncing to my Apple TV. Currently my media center connection to my main computer is fairly slow connection between floors so when I do stream, especially video, it can occasionally get laggy. rewinding and fastfowarding also get a bit weird on a stream.

The new Apple TV still includes an "Apple use only" USB port, the same as the original Apple TV. This was used to hack the old Apple TV, so hopefully it will be possible to do so on the new one.

The biggest disappointments to most people was that Apple didn't appear to adopt the iOS operating system, and there are no 3rd party apps available.

I'm pretty sure Apple is using iOS, and has been using iOS, on the Apple TV for a long time. iOS and regular Mac OS share a great deal of underpinnings, differing mainly in how apps run (sandboxed in the case of iOS), user permissions (very restricted for iOS) and interface (mutli-touch for iOS).

My guess is that Apple TV uses iOS, with a different interface (in other words, sandboxed apps and restricted user permissions but AppleTV menu system). Touch interfaces will never work on a TV. Touch interfaces are TERRIBLE when what you are trying to touch is not immediately under your finger. Try turning off your iPhone screen and touch where you think an app is. Turn the screen back on and see how close you were. You were probably off a bit. Probably enough to have launched the wrong app. While voice over works wonders for vision impaired, it requires a lot of gliding over the phone to find out what is going on. This will be insufficient for the majority of TV users. I've found even touch sensitive remote controls are terrible unless they are gesture based, rather than target based (use gestures like swipe down to move the cursor down, swipe right to fast-foward, etc...) Most people don't want to look at their remotes to rewind the good scene they just watched.

Apps would be nice. The absence of Pandora on Apple TV was pretty noticible to me. But they would have to be dedicated to the AppleTV, not just allow the existing apps to run. The non-touch interface just wouldn't allow existing apps to translate to the AppleTV. But until this new form factor settles out, and the iPad is further along, I don't see Apple dedicating resources to this until next year. So we might see apps in 2011, but I'd guess 2012 more realistically.

So as far as I see, the Apple TV is still a hobby. A more significant hobby. Hopefully they got the hardware right this time, the price point is pretty darn good, and the software is where they'll focus next.