Thoughts on the new Apple TV (seeing it live with iTunes) and Xbox 360

Peter Svensson is a technology writer for the Associated Press, and the Seattle Times picked up his article his article comparing the new Apple TV peripheral with the Xbox 360:

“Apple Inc. has graced the public with another smooth, white, exquisitely designed gadget, this time aiming at making it easier to play iTunes movies and songs on the living-room TV set.

“Too bad, then, that where looks really matter – in the quality of the video on the TV screen – the $299 Apple TV comes up very short. It’s as if Apple had launched an iPod that sounded like a cassette player.

“After having my eyes gently caressed by the Apple TV’s menus, the Xbox interface is like a slap in the face. It’s garish and confusing, and you have to press more buttons to get where you want to go.

“But the Xbox does your HDTV justice. Microsoft’s Xbox Live marketplace has some movies in HD, and these look absolutely stunning – better than most broadcast HD, and almost indistinguishable from HD DVD or Blu-ray discs, which provide the best video quality available to consumers right now.”

Balance this with a couple of excerpts from Walt Mossberg and Katherine Boehret’s review “From PC to TV — via Apple” in the WSJ.

“We’ve been testing Apple TV for the past 10 days or so, and our verdict is that it’s a beautifully designed, easy-to-use product that should be very attractive to people with widescreen TV sets and lots of music, videos, and photos stored on computers. It has some notable limitations, but we really liked it. It is classic Apple: simple and elegant.

“In our tests, Apple TV performed perfectly in Walt’s house over a standard Wi-Fi wireless network with a Pioneer plasma TV and six different computers — three Windows machines from Hewlett-Packard and Dell, and three Apple Macs. Setup was a breeze, the user interface was clean and handsome, and video and audio quality were quite good for anyone but picky audiophiles and videophiles. We never suffered any stuttering, buffering or hesitation while playing audio and video from distant computers.

“There are some drawbacks to Apple TV. It won’t work with most older TV sets, the square kind that aren’t capable of handling widescreen programming. … Also, the tiny, simple Apple remote control can’t control the volume on either Apple TV or your TV set or audio receiver, so you have to keep reaching for the TV or audio receiver remote. And you can’t plug in an extra hard disk to add storage capacity, even though there’s a USB port on the back and the built-in 40-gigabyte drive is too small to hold many TV shows or movies.

“But, all in all, Apple TV is a very well-designed product that easily brings the computer and the TV together.”

As you may know from past blogs entries, we use a Windows Media Center at home. So, I decided to go and have a look for myself at the local Apple Store.

When I asked the smartly dressed staff at the Store about the quality of the AppleTV, he rattled off the basic information and specs I’d read online. I don’t have that much premium iTunes content (nor do I actively use it to manage my music and vide library, as I use a Windows Media Center with Media Center Extenders), so I was less interested in watching movie trailers from on my TV.

My interest was managing broadcast TV content that comes in to our Media Center today, and how one would get live TV into a Mac for use with the Apple TV. The employee had an answer, suggested adding the SRP$230 Plextor ConvertX PVR. (It also comes in a a Mac flavour, which includes Elgato EyeTV software to pause and record live video on to your Mac.)

And further, he suggested that I could share that content and view it over my network with my AppleTV and then offered without prompting that “it was more economical than looking at a Media Centre PC or a TiVo.”

Hmmm… not sure about his math: that’s a $530 premium over the cost of a new Apple Macintosh.

What I did notice was the quality on the large HD screen in the store. The trailer content was very rich, but there was not an option to view the regular fare fro iTunes. You’d think that they would have a stable of programmes to view and demo. As echoed in the AP review above, CNET notes in their review of the Apple TV, the “current crop of iTunes movies and TV shows look much worse on a big-screen TV.”

“Unfortunately, the excellent streaming performance is offset by a drawback that’s more the fault of iTunes than Apple TV: generally disappointing video quality. Movies and TV shows in iTunes are currently available in what Apple calls “near-DVD quality”–a maximum of 640×480. Perhaps “bad analog cable quality” would be more descriptive–all of the videos were quite soft, lacking the sort of fine detail we’ve come to expect from well-mastered DVDs.

“To be clear, none of the video quality problems are necessarily the fault of the Apple TV. It’s the movies and TV shows that you’re buying at the iTunes Store that are falling down. Even with the higher resolution (they were formerly optimized for 320×240), iTunes videos are still optimized for the small screen and the storage capacity of the iPod. And they look fine on that 3.5-inch screen, or even a 15-inch laptop screen. But these same videos just can’t scale up to a 50-inch plasma without suffering. Ideally, Apple will someday begin selling files that are optimized for true DVD resolution (720×480) or even true HD resolution (1280×720), and do so with considerably less compression.”

That’s a challenge for DVR recorded TV: most of the content and recorders is in standard definition – there are HD offerings, but we’re still an SD DVR household like the majority of television viewers with a DVR. But there is an expectation when something is DVD-quality, or HD format from the get go: you expect to be able to maximize your investment in a larger TV screen, especially if you purchased into an HD-compatible system.

From what I have seen, here’s what I like, from start to finish: the packaging, documentation, design, set-up (but c’mon, include the basic cables here) and stylish user interface. Overall, this is a user out of box experience (OOBE) that I now anticipate from Apple… and further what I expect from our own Zune team.

Perhaps the Zune team will have some influence on our (with all due respect) Media Center team, and the willingness to further enhance the customer experience with our Media Center Extender, which other manufacturers implement… that doesn’t make for a Zune-like experience (I almost typed Zen-like).

If you’e an iTunes user, the AppleTV appears to be a good match especially if you want to extend iTunes into the living room. As we have a Media Center PC which records and stores our TV and media content, Media Center Extenders (both dedicated, but frankly we use the Xbox 360 more) make more sense.

Xbox Live is good addition to offering movies and TV shows in both SD and HD TV. Perhaps we’ll see more emphasis on similarly priced (or even lower-cost) Media Center Extenders that extend the experience and take advantage not only of the recorded Media Center content, but the Xbox Live Marketplace for movies and tv delivered to the Media Center PC.  And the larger 120GB hard disc offering coming soon for the Xbox 360 (see here for more details) will provide a better basis for archiving and downloading content, especially HD content.

Read the arstechnica review of the Apple TV here

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