About eight years ago, I started to see the realization of the dream of using a PC for recording and playing media. You know, that thing called a home theater personal computer (HTPC)?
The concept of the HTPC goes back to the early 90’s with the Amiga computers followed by something called the Macintosh TV produced by Apple. Back in 1996, I was associated with another university that purchased a Gateway Destination PC, the product that arguably introduced the term HTPC to the world. At the time, people weren’t sure if there was a true desire to have a PC in the living room.
So back in 2004, I bought some hardware and software that would allow me to record TV from my cable system. Other software at the time, such as iTunes, allowed you to play your music and catalog it on your hard drive. Great promise was also being shown with the Windows XP Media Center Edition, though the interface was clunky and was very much centered around TV recording. Apple had its Front Row software, that included a DVD player that could be controlled by a small remote. There was no TV recording function however. A Mac Mini with Front Row was a very elegant HTPC, and it was the prototype for what Apple would eventually release as the Apple TV. So would there ever be an HTPC that did everything? Well, aside from hobbyists trying to make custom configurations work, the HTPC is dead – at least the one we think of in a low profile or otherwise modified personal computer.
So why did the HTPC die? Well, in a word clunkiness. The HTPC was always clunky, what with trying to get software to work in concert with all and sundry media devices. It was at times nightmarish. As good as Media Center was, it still sat atop Windows XP. Windows Vista and then Windows 7 Media Centers aim to improve on the experience, but there are still interface and remote control issues that seemingly PC manufacturers could never solve. Apple did solve those issues to some extent, by having Front Row as the (nice and simple) interface, and including a simple remote. The question then became how do you add additional emerging media sources such as YouTube and Netflix. This got Apple to thinking of a better way, as they are wont to do. Development of Front Row ended and it was not included in the Lion (OS 10.7) update. The “hobby” that was Apple TV got an update in 2010 that showed the promise of the platform. A small hockey puck of a device that was the guts of a traditional PC on an ARM processor. It’s a low profile computing device much like an iPad with a related lineage to iOS.
And I love it!
The first Apple TV looked desirable with a built-in hard drive that would hold audio and video media. It was relatively expensive at $300. The future for the 2nd generation Apple TV was in a more network connected model. “Movies, movies, movies” was what Steve Jobs famously said at the unveiling. The $99 box became a “no brainer” that did so much. I jumped in with both feet.
The Apple TV 2 doesn’t eliminate the need for a computer, but it does relegate it to a media server running iTunes. A function I’m happy to let my Mac Mini perform. Though it can be any computer running iTunes (even Windows). You simply use the Home Sharing feature and supply your Apple ID. This authentication is the key to all things media on the Apple TV from ordering movies, to using the iTunes Match service, to using those iTunes libraries with Home Sharing.
So let’s get to the love. First off, the interface is the best there is. Smooth and clean navigation along with attractive menus to show your content or media services. even on screen typing works smoothly – as smoothly as a four direction remote can work. A bonus is that Logitech universal remotes work the same as Apple remote codes. If you need more control, the i-devices like the iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad can employ Apple’s Remote iOS app that provides a touch interface to your Apple TV. The cloud enters the equation though an ethernet or wireless connection to the Internet. The Netflix interface is first rate as is the Flickr, Vimeo, YouTube and other services. Consistency is the hallmark of the Apple design. Also, there are numerous nice touches such as a screensaver of your Flickr photostream while you listen to music. Your iTunes library of music, movies, and TV shows streams without hiccups using your local network. Apple’s design of the device is again apparent when you see there is an internal power supply. It uses a standard power plug and not a power adapter.
The final feature in the plus column is the one with the real future. It’s called AirPlay and it allows the aforementioned i-devices to send their output to the Apple TV. Have a YouTube video on your iPhone you want to share with family members? Send it via AirPlay to your flat screen using the Apple TV. Want to present using Keynote on the iPad? Connect via AirPlay on an Apple TV to the room display and put the presentation on the big screen. Were you listening to a podcast in the car on the way home from work? Pick up where you left off by sending it to your home stereo using AirPlay. Apple recently announced that the next version of the OS for the Mac (dubbed Mountain Lion) will support AirPlay mirroring, which means you can send what’s on your computer to your Apple TV.
It wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t mention the minuses of the device. You have to accept becoming a part of the Apple ecosystem which many people bristle at. There is no support for flash or USB external drives, and there is no component output, just HDMI.
Having said that, there is much speculation about what’s next for Apple TV. Rumors are that not only will we see a new iPad (gen. 3)soon, but maybe an updated Apple TV. That might mean the promise of more apps or services that could be ported from iOS. Games? Possibly. Or how about even an HDMI input for overlaying Apple TV over your cable or satellite signal. Walter Issacson wrote that Jobs had the TV thing solved. We may see the fruits of those ideas very soon.
I’ll of course be publishing more about the other media playback devices in my house, and even the concept of “cutting the cable cord”, but the Apple TV is a close second to watching cable TV in our home. The FiOS/DirecTV folks could be a little nervous.