Thoughts on the Original Apple TV

Tue 28 September 2010 by Kevin van Haaren

I've got an original Apple TV, the one that shipped with a hard drive and component TV outputs. I'll be getting the new Apple TV, supposedly on Thursday, that only streams media — from your own computer or from the internet. I wanted to document my complaints about the existing Apple TV so I can do a comparison of the two systems.

My current Apple TV connects to a 32" HDTV (720p) via HDMI. Sound is via the digital optical cable to my receiver. It's connected to the home network via wire, however my computer is downstairs, and my Apple TV is upstairs. The two locations are joined via a powerline network. I reviewed this setup in TidBITS way back in 2007. TL;DR version is the powerline setup is faster than 802.11g wi-fi and I still don't have 802.11n wireless at home. I'm hoping to connect upstairs and downstairs via an ethernet cable (which would give me a gigabit connection between the two) before the new Apple TV arrives. My internet connection is a 6 Mbps (down) DSL connection from (one of the best damn ISPs around, even while being owned by Best Buy).

Back in December I cancelled my cable TV subscription. It cost $60 a month. The digital signals on cable TV were terrible. They had frequent drop-outs where everything would turn completely blocky and the audio would drop out. You can watch a poor analog TV station to a certain degree, espeically if the audio was decent throughout, but on digital even small dropouts are really annoying. This is a huge reason I think downloads are the better solution than streaming, especially over the internet.

Since cancelling my cable the Apple TV has become the dominant way for me to watch and listen to stuff from on my media center. What I previously watched from cable I buy from iTunes. My TiVO records over the air (at better quality than cable provided), but I typically only watch it a few times a week to catch up on shows. I listen to more podcasts than I ever listened to the radio. The Apple TV is on almost all the time that I'm at home.

Despite the continuous use the Apple TV drives me crazy. The interface is poorly thought out (the TiVO interface remains the best media center interface I've used.) Here are the top annoyances I've found with the current Apple TV.

Syncing is flaky

This is a combination of issues with iTunes and the Apple TV. There isn't a way to iniate a sync from the Apple TV side. Just the iTunes side. Even using something like Keyboard Maestro with it's iPhone interface that can be used control iTunes makes it hard to start a sync remotly.

Apple decided to fix this problem by completely doing away with syncing. I'm not convinced this is the answer, but perhaps network streaming from a local machine will be sufficent. I think it might work if the Apple TV can do a wake-on-lan and launch iTunes on the remote computer automatically so it doesn't have to be awake and online all the time.

Slow interface

Navigating menus on the Apple TV can be painful. Reponses to button presses on the remote can take forever to register. With no feedback if a button press was accepted this leads to pushing buttons over and over, and then having them execute all at once.

Opening the My Movies or TV Shows list is slow as it tries to build a screenshot of the first frame of each movie. It doesn't appear to cache any of this data so it's always rebuilding these snapshots. If you add "album art" (the same phrase is used for iTunes music, movies and TV shows) you can stop it from rebuilding these frames all the time.

The single most frustrating behavior to me is when the Apple TV can take 10-30 seconds to resume playback of a long podcast. If I pause playback of a podcast, then press play, the further I am into the podcast the longer the resume takes. Short music tracks don't seem to have this problem, neither do video (video podcasts work fine as well.)

Different remote control behaviors for audio vs. video playback

When playing audio, pressing the forward button once jumps to the next track, pressing it in video playback puts it into fast forward mode. The audio choice makes some sense for music playback, but i'd really prefer the button to do the same thing all the time. And the jump to the next track operation sucks when listening to podcasts and you want ff through a bit of it.

The reverse button changes similarly in video vs. audio playback modes.

Can't rate songs as they play

iTunes has allowed you to rate music with 1-5 stars for many years. You can't rate songs from the Apple TV interface. With the introduction of Ping I'm hoping they allow both star ratings and Ping "likes" from the Apple TV.