Thursday, April 24, 2008

Apple TV 2.0 Still Far From Being a Media Star

Apple excels in personal media, communications, and computing devices because their user interface and integrated hardware/software platform serves up the best experience for its owners. For that reason, I've found Apple TV is a surprise disappointment since the linearity and deeply embedded menu user interface in Apple TV is retro early 80s computing, albeit with nice fonts. With this media device they have fallen short of the standard they have set in personal computing.

Almost everything with Apple TV is an embedded text menu. Okay, there are some non-interactive pictures and icons but you really cannot point and click, drag-and-drop or more effectively organize with them. When you start up the Apple TV, you get a text list of seven items and moving the selector (or might as well be a cursor) down the list will produce a cascading list of items you can access with the right arrow on the remote to select yet more text.

The style of this interface reminds me of DOS in 1982 or the various shell programs (like Peter Norton's shell) you could install on your IBM XT to make it a more user friendly text menu system of navigation. It was slow and arduous back then and still is today.

Add to that the fact that searching is a one letter at a time process in .Mac galleries, Flickr, or YouTube that is slow and painfully unforgiving - push the wrong button and your back to letter "A" and the drawing board - this interface seems positively anti-Apple. It is almost as if a neophyte group of old Microsoft DOS programmers invaded Apple and said they would write the AppleTV interface.

The embedded linear menu system is almost forgivable on a TV but the spelling out of words in search one letter at a time is unforgivable. It neither embraces the advancement Apple makes with touch screen technology nor does it employ "ease-of-use" concepts the basic GUI Apple introduced more than 20 years ago.

One of my main objectives in buying 160GB Apple TV was to create Web Galleries where my family members and friends could go view and possibly download and print my photographs. I thought surely Apple will use its rich integrated environment between iPhoto, .Mac, Apple TV, iTunes and even iPhone to deliver ease, fun, and an awesomely simple viewer experience. Not so.

We are given few options for presenting the photos in the web gallery, no templates to speak of and I couldn't preview the final design. You have to anticipate what the outcomes will be while they are neither explained nor easily offered during the assembly and uploading process. The first few attempts at Web Gallery produced bad captions, random viewing order and "Ken Burns" that slaughters the cropping for pictures. Apple needs to figure out a "smart Ken Burns" effect in iPhoto. iMovie, and for Apple TV.

Then, when it came to viewing my web gallery on Apple TV, the apparent default was for Apple TV to randomly select music from my iTunes Library. And not just music but podcasts, audio books and sound effects. It makes no sense. I simply wanted to assign a song to a particular web gallery that was appropriate for the subject matter. Randon in this case makes non-sensical chaos of image and audio.

When I pointed out this randomizing problem to friend who is also a Apple TV owner, he said, well you have to set up a special folder in iTunes with just one song, sync Apple TV to iTunes then go to settings in Apple TV and pick that folder to play that song "randomly" and that's how you are suppose to do it. Suppose to? That sounds like a kluge and not a thoughtful design implementation made easy for the consumer.

Clearly, Apple has a lot of fixing to do here before Web Galleries and My Photos are useful.

Most of Apple's effort with their web software and Apple TV hardware efforts have gone toward getting you to rent or buy their content from the iTunes store. And thus, that is where you will find the graphical eye candy. Movies have their standard DVD box covers and posters to lure you to buying them but it is all very linear and multi-threading of downloads is still not possible. And it is slow as molasses in Mississippi in the summertime.

Apple obviously has voided the users chance to use the Apple TV as a jukebox for the movies Apple TV owners have purchased over the years on DVD. By some strange and weird definition, they've come to characterize ripping a DVD (not unlike ripping your CD collection to iTunes and your iPod) as a criminal act. Boy, it is funny what can be construed today as criminal.

Apple has limited the users ability to record and store TV programs and timeshift them off cable or broadcast stations. I think most people today are looking for their digital media devices to converge but with Apple TV, they've missed by a mile.

Another huge drawback to the Apple TV is that you must be able to sync your media content to a hosting Mac laptop or desktop. Under this arrangement, the hard drive on the host computer becomes a bottleneck for the media content you will be amassing for Apple TV. In most cases, a person with a 60, 80 or 100 GB hard drive on their host computer will never use even half of the capacity of a 160 GB Apple TV. And from a technology perspective the limiter Apple places on giving the user direct access to store, capture, and back-up Apple TV directly without have to duplicate huge amounts of space on a host computer is severe.

Expansion? It seems Apple TV remains a closed system. You cannot add hard drive capacity or link it to other useful devices to enhance its limited capabilities. I look at the back of the slender sleek box and see a USB 2.0 port but what is it there for? It would be great if I could use it to plug in a huge backup drive, and enhanced remote device that would speed the navigation between the deeply embedded menus, or even better a EyeTV USB device that would allow me to record digital broadcast programs onto my Apple TV drive. But there it sits with nothing to feed it. Why?

The potential with Apple TV is there but the question is what is holding Apple back for making Apple TV an insanely great product?

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