The Apple TV announced on September 1 is a new product, different in some ways from its predecessor, so the most obvious questions to ask are: What’s different and how will those changes resonate with the prospective consumer? Later, after additional use, I’ll write a more in-depth review. Also, check out Adam Christianson’s unboxing video.
Size comparison with a magazine
The first reaction a consumer is going to have is to the size of the box. Large boxes in electronics suggest large, complicated devices with lots of connectors, cables and buttons. Like an A/V Receiver. Small boxes suggest something easy and pleasant, like an iPod. The new Apple TV box is friendly in that regard.
In unwrapping the box, I noticed that every piece of plastic has an easy to grab tab. Some manufacturers use twist ties, but Apple uses clear plastic, and it’s always easy to see or feel where to grab. No sharp metal here. This is a great touch by Apple.
At the next stage, however, there are some concessions to consumer electronics practicalities. The first hurdle is that there’s no HDMI cable included, so the consumer is really wise to peruse the small 34 page booklet and look at the “Connect” chapter, specifically page 10 that covers “What You Need.” Presumably, the Apple salesperson will advise the customer about the need for an HDMI cable, and the customer will go home with one in hand. That’s if the purchase is made in an Apple retail store.
Fortunately, Apple wisely laid out what the consumer needs to know in that booklet. It’s clearly written, but does go into necessary detail. If the emphasis is going to be on simplicity, then it’s sufficient to manifest that simplicity on the screen and not skimp too much in the booklet. That’s because American consumers have a long history of difficulties connecting devices like this and often need some troubleshooting help. And so, very clear setup instructions are obligatory, and that’s exactly what Apple did.
iTunes login agreement
The other thing the customer must know about, however, is that an Apple ID is required to make use of the box at all. An Apple ID is a associated with a credit card number, and so the reasonably well informed customer, expecting to rent TV shows, may anticipate that. Even so, it’s in ultra, ultra-fine print on the box.
That’s the minimum requirement.
If the customer wants to buy and maintain content on a PC or a Mac, and stream it to the HDTV, then iTunes 10.0.1 is required. In this case, the last minute update to iTunes to support the product doesn’t serve Apple well. I’ve met some people who are still running Leopard, so the expectation that a customer will be very up to date in OS and iTunes isn’t realistic. I’ll temper that with the notion that the new Apple TV can be used, out of the box, with no computer whatsoever if streaming from the Internet is all that’s desired. That’s one of the significant changes for this product.
All this gives one a feel for the headaches any company has designing a consumer TV electronics product.
After one connects, first, the HDMI (and optionally, Ethernet cable), and then, second, the power cable, the system boots up and asks for the language preference. When that’s done, the system looks for a connection mode, then comes right up with the main menu. There’s no exotic Core Graphics animations or cute music. It just waits for network services, then gets down to business.
On the TV stand - almost invisible
Believe it or not, here’s the point where many consumers hose up because they didn’t select, with their remote, a display option that corresponds to the input connector. In other words, if you connect the Apple TV to, say, HDMI input #2, you need to tell the TV (or the receiver) to actually display input #2. The instruction booklet mentions this seemingly obvious but still critical point in several places.
Good set up instructions have their uses.
I should note that when I connected my Ethernet cable, I didn’t have it connected securely. As a result, my next step after the language selection was the (forced) wireless network selection. Reinserting the Ethernet cable securely did nothing to rectify the problem, namely overriding the Wi-Fi network selection. So, with some concern, I disconnected and reconnected the power. All went well. So I would say that Apple needs to make a small fix there: if a customer connects an active Ethernet cable at this point in the setup, erase the Wi-Fi selection option and proceed with the wired connection.
Some customers may wish to go beyond simply renting TV shows and movies (and YouTube and Flickr). They may want to stream content from a PC or Mac. Apple has simplified that process as well. No more geeky, alarming four digit codes to authenticate the connection. Instead, one uses Home Sharing and both enables it in iTunes and connects on the Apple TV with the Apple ID — a user name and password that the customer is most likely to be familiar with. This is the second significant change for the better. (If necessary, review the Home Sharing essentials.)
Home Sharing Setup in iTunes
So instead of displaying “My TV Shows” and “My Movies” mixed in with the old TV and Menu columns, Home Sharing stands alone in its own column under “Computers.” That avoids confusion and is another noteworthy improvement.
Because the new Apple TV can be used out of the box without a computer for streaming only but can also be used in concert with iTunes, where one can still purchase content, the device is instantly easier to use. Non-technical home users, attracted by the US$99 price can be content never having to manage (and backup) a library of video recordings. More advanced users can clip it to the back of their HDTV and use it as a streaming gateway from the Mac or PC. In that regard, Apple has properly understood its audience to consist of two types of users and has responded accordingly. That’s perhaps the most significant change to the new Apple TV.
Home Sharing Setup on Apple TV
I have an LG Blu-ray player (BD 390) that’s Netflix capable. Unfortunately, the connection is authenticated by using a code that’s generated on the player, then must be acknowledged by logging onto Netflix.com. It’s kind of like the four digit authentication that Apple used on the old Apple TV, then dropped — only worse.) This authenticated connection expires all too often and must be re-established. It’s annoying.
The Apple TV, uses a method, like the connection to iTunes. The user logs on the first time to Netflix with the Netflix user (e-mail) name and password. I suspect this is stored on the Apple TV just like the Apple ID, and so the user won’t need to become aggravated and re-authenticate from time to time. We shall see.
LG’s movie page
Even more important, however, is how the Apple TV displays one’s Netflix Instant Queue. The LG player’s presentation of each selection seems amateurish to me. The Apple TV presentation is just like rented TV shows and movies and looks more sophisticated. Leave it to Apple to show a lot of taste here.
Apple’s movie page
Out of the box, the new Apple TV makes huge strides that improve the customer experience. Apple has understood its audience, and it shows in the packaging, product design, instruction manual and operational features. For now, for those who have one of the old Apple TVs, it’s running too hot for taste, and they may be salivating over the rumored potential for iOS apps down the road, I’d say sell it, give it away, or move it to another room. This new Apple TV is too beautiful and too well designed to ignore.
For non-technical consumers who are looking to take control of their TV viewing by using the Internet, the product is easy enough to set up. No installer guy needs to come to the house, and there’s no need for a DVR because one can watch on one’s own schedule anyway. And there are no commercials to skip over. At this point, if one is satisfied that Apple is the way to go, I can say this is a winning product.
The final decision is the choice of content, and that can be a challenge. In the coming weeks, I’m planning to take a look at how the Roku box and perhaps others compare in terms of the UI, cost and content.