Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Apple TV Review, or iTunes 7.1 sync options for Apple TV are way to simple

I never reviewed the Apple TV once I got it. This was partially due to me not being a professional reviewer, I don't exhaust products when I get them to write up an immediate review, I use them as an end-user and final thoughts or issues only then really percolate to the surface. Also, I started using Apple TV with an SDTV+component video but no widescreen setting so video looked squished, it was unfair to give a review. Within 2 weeks of getting the Apple TV, I replaced the SDTV with an HDTV, a 52" Mitsubishi 1080p set. Since then, I have been very happy with the Apple TV. Let me get the good stuff out of the way:
  • Video quality is better than DirecTV on the HDTV. This is particularly true of widescreen content. I am talking about SD content, like Stargate SG-1, which is letter-boxed on DirecTV (the widescreen setting on the DirecTivo apparently does nothing here), so I have to zoom the the DirecTV input in some way, and it looks terrible. Stargate SG-1 from iTunes looks fantastic by comparison, it fills the whole screen without me doing anything. I have since dialed down the DirecTV subscription to the $35 family pack (which includes local channels) and have started to buy TV Shows from iTunes.
  • The UI is mostly great. Text is crystal clear, a lot of information is presented on screen about content at all times, and it is very easy to use. It really does make the Xbox 360 Dashboard look bad, even with the Xbox 360 Spring Dashboard Update. What am I talking about? The Xbox 360 Dashboard just doesn't optimize for lower clicks. This is especially bad getting out of a deep menu. Apple TV doesn't have this problem at all, and it "feels" faster to get around. The Spring 2007 Dashboard update makes menu speed much faster, but its not the display speed that is truly broken, its just the amount of navigation you have to do. Apple TV doesn't have this problem except for the Sources menu, which is why I say the UI is "mostly" great, and I will expand on this later.
  • Photos screen-saver is beautiful. This is just sublime, and totally unexpected. You just sit there watching to see what comes up next, it's really exceptionally done.
  • Ripped DVD video quality is excellent. This may be limited, I haven't tested this a tremendous amount yet, but here goes. I ripped Dune (Extended Cut) using Handbrake 0.8.5b1 with the Apple TV Preset. This means a 3000 kbps encoding bitrate. I then put the original DVD in the Xbox 360 (connected via component video), synchronized the scene playing to the same one on Apple TV (connected via HDMI) and watched part of the movie in split-screen on my HDTV. Then I started toggling back and forth between full screen for each input. Quality wise it was no contest, the file on the Apple TV appeared quality wise to be identical, but the Apple TV looked far better because the black level was deeper (even with the HDMI Brightness set to High). The 360 was washed out by comparison, with much worse color separation, it was stunning. I verified both inputs were identically configured on the TV (real nice thing about this TV, it saves all settings per input, sweet). Maybe I will do some more of these side by side tests, but this result was extremely surprising. With the Spring 2007 Dashboard Update I changed the Black Level, which I am pretty sure is new, form Standard to Intermediate, and the DVD I watched last night looked better, I could tell the letterboxes (it was a 2.35:1 ratio) were darker, so maybe this Apple TV "advantage" has disappeared, the video quality part, but the speedy access to movies without a disc is means...
  • Apple TV is silent and doesn't throw off as much heat as Xbox 360

All that said, I am frustrated with iTunes 7.1 and the overly simplistic syncing interface to the Apple TV. Why? You have to understand how I am using it.

Keep you hands off that DVD kid!
If you have a young kid(s), you know the punishment that DVDs take going in and out of the player. It seems kids (speaking from my experience and others I have seen) very quickly understand that shiny circles makes pretty pictures on big box when you put it in white box (Xbox 360, your player may vary) under the TV. What they don't understand is that fingerprints, chocolate, juice, and snot do not go together with the shiny circle since they get that stuff on everything else. And then actually placing DVD in tray is a recipe for scratches, assuming they scurry out of reach with disc in hand. Little kids also can't understand why you can't skip FBI warnings, trailers for movies you own but don't want to watch now, or any other preamble before watching the "show" as my son calls it. Actually, it makes no sense to me either why you can't skip all that stuff. With kids then you want:
  • Quick access to the show you actually want to watch
  • Hands-free access to the show
  • A large assortment of shows on hand as tastes can be fickle
  • To watch the same thing over and over again

Mom and Dad also watch Movies and TV shows, but the pattern is different. You generally watch shows and movies as they are released, and then not again for a while or possibly ever. Now that we are level set, how do we use iTunes and Apple TV to solve it?

Why do you sync again?
You can sync or stream content from iTunes to Apple TV. Streaming is so good, why sync? You can only scrub so far through streamed content before you run out of buffer, synced content is all on the hard drive. Streaming requires another machine to be on, once syncing is done, no other machines need to be on. So if syncing is a good option, how do you manage it?

Syncing Movies
iTunes syncs content to Apple TV in fixed priority order, the user can't change it. The order is:
  1. Movies
  2. TV Shows
  3. Music
  4. Podcasts
  5. Photos
If the content in any one category would fill the Apple TV Hard Disk Drive (HDD), then the next category down in the list doesn't get synced. Having good sync options and optimizing for your media is the only way to increase the probability that the content you want is on the Apple TV, it's certainly not a guarantee. Let's look at are options for Movies:

First thing you should notice is that you have to manage everything in groups, like unwatched or selected movies. This may be the Achilles heal of the iTunes sync interface, but I get ahead of myself. What options to those drop-downs contain?

This looks reasonable, I usually want unwatched movies synced, let's see what are options are on the second drop-down:

Ah, well I can surely survive individually selecting movies in this interface, but maybe I can get better control over the content with Smart Playlists, go all rules crazy on it, but...

Huh? Where are my playlists? What is this special batch of playlists? Why only these? It's inexplicable. Well I guess I am going to leave this on Selected movies, let's see what I can do with TV Shows.

Sync TV Shows This looks pretty familiar:

There is a subtle difference though. Movies syncs all unwatched movies and selected movies, but TV Shows syncs all unwatched episodes either All TV Shows or selected. There is no way to automatically get just unwatched episodes and then all episodes of certain TV Shows, it's maddening. Here are the drop-down contents:

Again the silly playlists restriction. If I had my own playlists, then I get to sort of what I want, maybe all of it. What do I want? Control over individual shows. Let me choose whether I want all episodes of a show, 5 episodes, or only unwatched, synced to Apple TV. Let's see what you can do with podcasts:

Sync Podcasts

Similar, but yet again different from either TV Shows or Movies. Why? I think the partial answer is in the way the content is acquired. You manage Podcasts entirely from the Podcasts section of your iTunes library. They automatically download when available if you have Subscribed to them, which means if they are configured for syncing to Apple TV, you don't have to do anything to acquire the content past subscribing, its just there. Keep that in mind. One more thing, where is the option to only sync the video in a mixed audio/video podcast feed?

Various Other Sync Problems
I have reported all of the following to Apple using Bug Reporter, aka RadarWeb. Scott Stevenson @ Thecacao has a good write-up on how to use this influential tool. I have been logging issues to Apple since November, and there is no doubt Apple actively uses this tool. Anyway, here are the other sync issues:
  • Some content changes do not trigger a sync to Apple TV. For example, if you have ripped some TV Shows from DVD and forgot to assign an Episode Number on the Video tab of the Info sheet before synching to Apple TV, changing the Episode Number will not trigger a sync. You have to un-assign the show from Apple TV and re-assign it.
  • iTunes restarts sync to Apple TV during a sync operation when a change is made Say you are synching a movie, it is > 1 GB, and you happen to change the Apple TV sync configuration during this operation. Even if the movie you are synching is still to be synced to the Apple TV after your config changes, iTunes kills the sync and starts over.
  • iTunes doesn't automatically initiate a sync to iPod on data changeHey this has nothing to do with Apple TV right. No, it's because of Apple TV this becomes so glaring. If iTunes can (usually, see above) detect changes and sync to a connected Apple TV, why can't iTunes do the same for iPods?
  • Tunes device list should include other Macs or PCs running iTunes for syncing It is inevitable that you are going to be able to purchase content in some form directly on the Apple TV. This means bi-directional sync (I would also say multi-master) is going to have to work. I say that your notebook or laptop computers should be treated as Apple TV's with screens. I want my iTunes Server (where all the backup and large discs are) to sync content not just with Apple TV and iPod, but treat all mobile computing devices the same. I more often use my MacBook Pro for mobile video than an iPod, no reason I shouldn't be able to sync them. And since you can wirelessly sync to Apple TV, this is a no-brainer.

Time for Some Solutions
Can most or all of these issues be solved? I am sure that the switch to subscription accounting for Apple TV means updates are inbound, I hope sooner than later, and surely some of these issues are being worked on. The release of EMI DRM-free tracks this month is going to mean a new version of iTunes, hopefully Apple TV will get some love. How would I change iTunes or Apple TV?
  • Make the sync and acquisition management of TV Shows and Video Podcasts as close to the same as possible, which means..
  • You should be able to subscribe to TV Shows, just like Podcasts, even though you haven't bought a Season Pass.
  • Management of TV Show/Podcasts acquisition settings should be at the TV Show/Podcast level
  • Treat laptops as Apple TVs with dedicated displays so you can bi-directionally sync content to them
  • Content changes in iTunes should auto-sync to all devices, and all changes to content should trigger this action, not a magic set
  • TV Show Season Passes need an overhaul. Enabling a "Subscribe" option would partially fix this, you are always going to have people deciding to watch a show through iTunes after the season starts. Also, there needs to be a Complete My Season option. I bought an episode smorgasbord from The Office, I want the rest of the season, I am not paying for a full season pass with 20% of the season already bought, and I am not paying full price either.
  • Eliminate the Apple TV Sources menu. This option allows you to choose whether you are looking at content from Apple TV, or another machine running iTunes, this is your streaming option. My question is, why does this exist at all? Once I configure iTunes on a machine to connect to an Apple TV, why doesn't Apple TV just show the content menus merged together from all the connected sources on the network? Why do I the user have to make this artificial choice at all? Here is how it works. You turn on Apple TV. It sees what machines are on the network. It shows you local content immediately, and then lazily adds content in from streaming sources. If the same content exists in both places, Apple TV prefers its hard drive of course. I don't even think the user needs an indicator where the content is coming from, but you can certainly add an icon if you want to. I am going to log this as a Feature Enhancement request.
  • When TV Shows are supposed to be released the day after broadcast air date, it better be there. Currently Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis appearing on iTunes are running behind broadcast, sometimes by 2 weeks. There is no excuse for this, in fact, there is no reason for these shows to not be released as soon as they are ready, forget about broadcast.
  • Need a movie rental option and movie purchases (everywhere, not just iTunes) are overpriced. The need for a rental option is obvious, but if it's as draconian as the Xbox Live Marketplace rules, I would still not be renting. What rules? Movies bought from Xbox Live Marketplace have to be watched within 24 hours once you start them, that just doesn't work for me. Movie purchases are crazy overpriced. Again, this is everywhere. HD-DVD's at Best Buy are $24.99-29.99, iTunes movies are $9.99-$14.99, regular DVD purchases are $9.99-$24.99. What is the point of buying? To have the content on hand if I decide to watch a second time. I discount the "collector" aspect because I think that is an outmoded way of thinking.
  • Include a top-level Radio option. No I don't mean satellite radio, or an FM receiver in the Apple TV. I mean There should be Internet Radio stations to listen to directly on the Apple TV.

Clearly Apple has a lot to do here, at least according to my view. This is not to say that the Apple TV isn't good at what it does, it is, but it could be a whole lot better.