Living with an appletv

appletv.jpgI’ve been living with an AppleTV now for over a week and I guess that means I’m better equipped to review it. It’s not really a surprise to discover that I’ve got one since my status as a mac cult member is well established. But this purchase resulted in a feeling I don’t normally associate with an apple purchase – temporary buyers remorse.

You see, I have had an xbox operating as a media centre for many years and it is quite honestly the best product Microsoft NEVER released. XBMC is the best piece of software ever written by the open source community (other than linux) and it’s ability to keep up with today’s media requirements on a piece of hardware that costs under $200 AU. Granted, the hardware is noisy as hell and is bigger than Uluru but the software is genius. So why would I consider another?


Well, the noisy hardware on the original xbox is getting on in years and isn’t able to keep up with higher encoding methods that require more cpu power. Plus it’s outputs are poor at best – I’ll be shocked if someone figures out a way to use HDMI on it (not even the first gen 360 has one). With HDTV becoming almost a reality, the end is nigh for old xbox and that is showing up in the fact that the developers are working on ports for linux (and maybe even appletv). Therefore I vaguely started to look around for a replacement and in a fit of shoppers excitement I came home with a shiny new 160GB AppleTV (I did have permission though).

So here is my thoughts on the AppleTV vs XBMC and the original Xbox:

Out of the box the AppleTV is pretty much useless for anything other than music if you live in Australia. Americans get to purchase Movies and TV Shows while we have to settle for the paltry selections of HD Podcasts. The first time you boot up it looks for the network than trys to sync with the nearest itunes library. After entering the number AppleTV provides in to your itunes to pair them, it then proceeds to sync your library over to the hard drive on the apple tv. You can choose not to sync at all and just stream, but it’s in your best interest to sync – especially as you can tell it what to sync (all or some). If you want to see movies you’d best have some mp4s in your collection or download some of those afforementioned vidcasts.

In comparison, Xbox out of the box is pretty much useless for anything other than gaming and listening to music that you have ripped directly from the cd on to the xbox. It’s not going to use any existing music libraries you may already have. It won’t play any movies and it certainly doesn’t know about podcasts.

Like both of the products, they only become good when they are hacked. Both can be manipulated software-wise without having to open the hardware and both of them take less than an hour to become the media centers you wish they were when you bought them. The xbox hacking community is more mature than the AppleTV one which is pretty obvious considering how much of a head start they had. Hacking the AppleTV means filtering through a lot more forum posts and wiki entries but they are still together enough to have auto installation capabilities for new software.  Why would you hack either one you ask? Well if you want to play media of any format – eg divx, xvid, iso, mpg, mp3, mp4, mkv – then you need to make some software modifications.

As an end user of both hacked boxes, the XBMC is the more cohesive platform. Everything is integrated in to one look and feel and plugins can extend it’s options. In contrast, the AppleTV is still a battle ground between developers. There are a few players all trying to deliver similar products which each offering a feature the other doesn’t have. This means you have to install them all to get those features and you have to swap around depending on your goal. This means it’s still a little fiddly but that will probably end when they either all join together or get bored and let the other one sweat harder. But rest assured – both xbmc and AppleTV can play the same types of media.

In terms of expansion, the AppleTV has it a little over the XBMC since it is a barebones install of OSX. This means it can run quite a few OSX Applications such as Joost and Mythtfrontend with little modifications. It can even record live tv directly to it using the EyeTV product! The XBMC platform relies heavily on perl scripts and no one presumes that a windows app will work on it. They are both easy to use and pretty media centres and their presence has influenced each other. It’s hard to believe that so many of the people working on these products do so for free.

The AppleTV has HDMI output as well as component out and digital out.
It is also skinny and sexy like all apple products and talk about quiet! It would be perfect behind a mounted lcd screen on a wall just displaying photos – the ultimate photo album. I won’t go in to the hardware on the xbox since I did that earlier, but in this round the AppleTV shits all over xbmc.

So why the buyer’s remorse? Well when I realised I’d just paid double the amount for a product I already had and only got a few extra features I was like “What have I done”? Even now I think it was quite extravagant, but I can see cool things happening in the AppleTV future that will make it all worthwile. It integrates with the rest of my apple products in ways that I appreciate, such as playlists being updated now from not only the imac, the ipod and now the appletv. It resumes media I’ve watched on the ipod or imac so if you are on the train watching a podcast, get off, walk home, sync the ipod, sit down in front of the tv and resume it on the big screen. Nice!

So in summary:

  • don’t bother with an appletv if you have an XBMC enabled xbox or live a sad existance without an intel mac
  • If you are a hardcore mac user and have an ipod and imac this is totally the product for you
  •  If you need a nice frontend for mythtv then this also is a great product – probably cheaper than the mini pc you planned to buy and way less hassle in regards to software
  • Don’t buy a xbox 360 with plans to make it a media center – re-encoding is a shit ass solution.

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