Contemplating the Uses of the Apple TV

Wouldn’t you know it: as soon as I finally start this site, I take a day off of my recent cooking binge.  I possess neither ingredients that add up to anything I want to eat, nor the energy to acquire the same.  So, instead, I will pontificate upon the Apple TV, from a different perspective than I’ve seen in any of the many Apple and technology-focused sites in my RSS reader.  Let me wreck the ending for you: I have one of the new Apple TVs.  It is my first one.  I vaguely remember a past Apple TV announcement that led me to excitedly calling the nearby Apple Store and having one put on hold — but upon reflection, I let it pass.  This time, I ordered it online, thinking I might cancel the order during the four week delay between the announcement and the delivery.  But instead, delivered it was, and I’m not sorry to have it.

Before I go on to explain why I wanted it and how I use it, let me recommend to you this Gizmodo article, which I think is largely on target.  And yet, I have a Tivo HD connected to the internet, and so, pursuant to its advice, I don’t need an Apple TV.  My Tivo streams both Netflix and Amazon VOD, and I have used it for both, but only rarely for either.  One reason was that trying to stream Netflix through it would lead to frustrating interruptions constantly — right up until it crashed the entire machine, ending anything that might have been recording at the moment, and fixable only by literally pulling the plug.  Awesome.  I have since resolved this by disconnecting the wireless adapter, moving the router into the living room and hardwiring the Tivo (and the Slingbox — I told you, I like my tech toys).  The Netflix and Amazon content available through the Tivo is a reasonable approximation of the TV and movies available through iTunes.  But, unlike 99.8% of the potential Apple TV customers of the world, I’m not so interested in using the Apple TV to stream TV and movies.  If I were super-interested in that, in fact, I’d probably go to the extra financial pain and set-up effort, spring for a Mac Mini, buy one of those cute little remote-sized keyboards, and have all the streaming content I could ever want, Hulu included, on my TV.  But, again, while I’m sure I’ll watch a movie through it occasionally, that’s not why I bought it.

Listen, I’m neither crazy nor profligate.  The thing is $99, and it has uses in addition to the streaming of for-sale iTunes content.  Before I acquired the Apple TV, I had an old model Airport Express — 802.11g, not n.  This, I used quite a bit.  For years, I was very happy with it, and then the drop-outs started and wouldn’t stop.  Networking problems are SO frustrating.  If you are reasonably technically competent, it’s not hard to try a bunch of the obvious solutions — changing the channel, playing with the Airport settings, etc.  If that doesn’t work, it’s not likely that any tech support in the world can help.  I *suspected* that upgrading to n would help, as most of my network is n (Time Machine router), but I wasn’t sure enough to go out and upgrade the Airport Express.  And if I were inclined to do that, how much does the new Airport Express cost?  $99, just like the Apple TV.  The Apple TV fully duplicates (and then some, as I explain below) the streaming functionality of the Airport Express.  It does not, obviously duplicate the router or printer-sharing functionality, but then I’ve used those features exactly never.  Same price, but more useful (for my purposes).  Score.

I’ve been using the Apple TV primarily to stream music … and photos, which I’ve never done before.  And which, with baby on the way, I might want to do more frequently in the future.  I do believe that Tivo would have done this, but it would have been a pain, involving the installation of software that I didn’t want and possibly requiring me to duplicate some photos and move them out of iPhoto in order to do it.  Streaming photos from iPhoto to an Apple TV, of course, could not be simpler and involves no software aside from what I was already running.  I can run the photos as a screensaver on a TV while listening to music, so that once I choose my initial settings, I don’t even have to choose to stream photos.  It just happens.  In addition — and this wasn’t clear to me from the Apple TV descriptions — I can use it exactly like I used my Airport Express: to stream audio to my receiver, controlled directly by iTunes or the iPhone, without the TV on.  I use both the HDMI and the digital audio outputs on the Apple TV.  When I want the on screen control — made so much more useful by the ability to use my iPhone as the remote, instead of Tivo-style cursoring over to each letter individually — I can have it by selecting the applicable HDMI input on my receiver.  But if I just want to stream audio, and control it via my MacBook Pro or iPhone, I can do that too, by choosing the digital audio input on my receiver, and selecting the Apple TV speakers within iTunes.  (The TV doesn’t have to be on to use the HDMI input, so while I find it useful to use separate inputs, it isn’t strictly necessary.) The only slightly inconvenient thing is that I have to “switch libraries” on the Remote iPhone app depending on which method I choose, which is slightly odd, in that they are all coming from the same library — the one on my computer.  It took approximately 45 seconds to figure this out.  This stuff could not be easier to set up, if you know anything about home theater wiring — but I do think that some people could find it confusing.  I have good intuition about these things, and obviously a great working knowledge about how Apple products tend to work.  I also wired my home theater system myself, so I know exactly how it works.  There are lots of people out there who can’t connect a DVD player, a receiver and a TV together, and those people could have an issue, I suppose.  (No judgment!  I can’t read a map!)  The other setup tweak is that you need to turn on Home Sharing everywhere — on the computer, on the Apple TV, on the iPhone.  I previously had no need to do this — the Airport Express didn’t require it.  The Apple TV prompts you to do this; reading the manual isn’t necessary.

And the dropouts?  Gone.

Finally AirPlay — although its full functionality isn’t 100% clear, it sounds very promising.  It seems that it is even possible that one will be able to stream ANY video from a MacBook Pro, including internet video, that isn’t Flash-based — unless the provider blocks it.  Meaning that Hulu probably would never stream that way, even if it didn’t use Flash.  C’est la vie.

So, there you have it.  My long-winded explanation (justification?) for buying an Apple TV, when I already have a Tivo and rarely download TV or movies anyway.

One final note that I haven’t seen elsewhere, re: picture streaming.  Only photos stored in iPhoto, and none of the video, will stream.  In order to stream video, you have to convert it to an iTunes-usable format, and then it will stream whatever lives in your Movies section of your iTunes library.  The iPhoto video content might as well not exist as far as Apple TV is concerned.  At least, that’s been my experience.  Maybe converting the format and re-storing it in iPhoto would make it work, but it seems unlikely.

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