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Apple TV Is Here – Prepare to Be Underwhelmed

After months of anticipation, speculation and mastication (What, you didn’t eat in the last few months?), the Apple TV has finally been unveiled. If there’s one thing you can say for Apple’s reveal, it’s that the new Apple TV is better than the old Apple TV. Then again, that’s not saying much at all.

Let’s talk about what it is before I go tearing it apart. The Apple TV is a nice little device that measures 4″ x 4″ x 1″. It can stream files straight from iTunes, from your computer or from the internet. You’ve got two non-iTunes choices for video: YouTube and Netflix. The Apple TV can connect to Mobile Me and Flickr for other content as well. The Apple TV does video at 720p resolution. While audio specs are still unclear, it seems safe to assume that you’ll be able to coax 5.1 surround sound out of the device, since that’s what iTunes HD videos are set to. Additionally, the Apple TV has 802.11b/g/n capabilities built right in, all for the price of $99.

The hardware is a bit lacking as far as future proofing goes. Since Apple TV only plays content from Netflix and iTunes, there’s no need to worry about 1080p just quite yet, but you may be looking for an upgrade a year or two down the line. It seems like the folks at Apple really hate high definition. They boast that all their devices can play HD content, but even the iPad isn’t really HD.

If you’ve got files from your computer that aren’t from iTunes, especially video files, you’ll probably have to convert them to play properly. The Apple TV plays the usual assortment of iPod compatible audio files, and the same goes for video. It’ll play H.264, MPEG-4 and M-JPEG video encoded with stereo audio in M4V, MP4 and MOV formats. All those AVIs and MKVs you’ve got lying around will need to be converted or just watched on your computer.

The one thing that people seem to call out as the saving grace of the Apple TV is Netflix. Since you can watch movies and TV shows on Netflix, you don’t have to shell out to get them from iTunes. It’s a nice feature if you don’t already have Netflix capability on your Blu-ray player, television, videogame system, receiver or whatever other devices you’ve got hooked up. Having Netflix on something that connects to your TV is like having a remote control at this point. Sure, it’s nice, but what doesn’t come with it by now?

While Apple makes you pay for television and movies, the company has lowered prices to $0.99 for TV show rentals. This still seems expensive to me, especially considering that a 26 episode show will end up costing you $26 to rent. The same thing will be only a few dollars more on when it’s released on Blu-ray. You can argue the convenience of getting your show right away, but then you’ve got to take Amazon into consideration.

In what’s almost certainly a direct response to Apple’s new pricing model, Amazon introduced its own $0.99 HD television shows. The difference is, when they come from Amazon, they’re not rentals. You’ll be able to purchase episodes of your favorite television show for the exact same price as it will cost to rent from Apple.

If you don’t mind spending a bit of extra cash, you could get something like the WD TV Live, which costs $50 more but plays back a huge range of video files. Or, there’s the upcoming Boxee Box, which will run $199 but gives you access to free content in addition to paid content.

Now let’s assume you’re a customer who wants to do everything the Apple TV can do, and you’re happy with the hundred dollar price point. You could shell out $99 for the Apple TV and then $1 for each TV show you want to rent, or you could pick up the Roku HD-XR, a player that handles Netflix, Amazon Video on Demand, and plenty of other online content. That’s the same $99 and the same $1 per show, but you’ll own instead of renting.

While the iPhone and iPod were somewhat revolutionary for their respected industries, Apple TV just falls flat. Capability-wise, it’s the same as a product that’s already on the market, but with a worse pricing structure in place. Go Apple.

2 comments

  1. Apple has been “underwhelming” us since the release of the iPod – the last truly innovative product we’ve seen from them. Everything since has been “not ready for prime time” devices.

  2. Let’s see, a big champ like Netgear has 2 products coming out, plug in any media, hard drive, blu ray rom and it plays, at 1080P no less. Then there’s the little inexpensive one from Amex Digital that makes amazing promises, 1080P and the price was $40 if I recall?

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