Apple TV, what it could be

I recently bought an Apple TV. I’ve had a Mac Mini connected to our TV for 2+ years, but it never got the use I was hoping. The Apple TV is quickly becoming a big hit in our house due to its ease of use. It’s a great little device, especially considering it’s just a “hobby” for Apple.

I have several suggested improvements for the next generation of hardware and/or software. I have no expectation Apple will either see or pay attention. I’ll also not attempt to turn the Apple TV into something Apple clearly doesn’t want it to be. So no push to support every codec under the sun, no tuner/recorder, no blu-ray player, etc. Might be nice but a waste of time to suggest.

This has been in my drafts folder for a while. It’s way too long as-is, so I’m getting it out there.

Software Changes

Network sharing: Allow local computer users to share (play) media stored on the Apple TV. Basically, make it act like iTunes and iPhoto already does. This should follow standard restrictions on protected content, again just like any computer. This should also allow one Apple TV to share the content of another Apple TV. We’re having so much fun, getting a second may be tempting someday – but only if all content were accessible at all times.

Podcast improvements: I’m having a blast with video podcasts. First, we need better searching. The current Apple TV search is titles only, while an iTunes search is much more thorough. Also, allow subscribing to podcasts directly on the Apple TV. (General theme: do as much as possible through the Apple TV interface, not requiring constant access to the host computer’s iTunes.)

More codec support: I’m not suggesting XviD, WMV, etc. I think the Apple TV should support every codec available on the Mac desktop using QuickTime. This would allow users to play DV files, videos made on digicams, etc, without going through lengthy conversions. Some of these are better kept on the host computer to save space; the intention here is to save conversion time. Some large codecs might require more CPU power, or a hardwired ethernet connection, but most should be fine.

Also, for conversion, some simple batch-convert process for video. We can batch-convert music to MP3/AAC in iTunes, why not video? I know there are third-party solutions to this, but it should really be integrated. NEVER MIND – Advanced->Create Apple TV Version. I haven’t tried this yet; curious if it’s the same as Quicktime’s Export to Apple TV (a very high quality/large file size conversion with no options).

Manually set the poster frame: This is a lame one, but I’d like it. Pause a movie on your favorite frame, then set the poster frame. Also, manually add chapter markers the same way. These should be synced back to the host computer.

Sync while playing: The Apple TV can’t seem to sync with the host computer while playing video. That’s silly.

The ability to play more HD formats, specifically 720p/30 and 1080i/p (24 and 30). Most large (and more smaller) HD TVs are 1080p now. All my home video is shot 1080i/30 (or 1080i/60 if you count fields). It’s a shame I need to scale that down to 960 x 540. There might be a hardware component to this as 1080p video stutters even on somewhat modern computers.

Ditch the stupid .m4v format. I don’t get this one, although it has little to do with the Apple TV itself. .mov is a great container. Why the new format? Was it to say Apple was producing an open format? Try changing some tags in a large .m4v file. Takes forever. A .mov? Barely noticeable. Yes I can use .mov fine, but the quick exports from iMovie, Compressor, etc, all go to .m4v. Plus .mov can have multiple audio tracks, closed-caption tracks, etc.

Support multiple tracks of .mov files. Following from the above, allow the user to choose which audio track to play when watching a movie. When I RIP DVD’s for flights I include the main audio and any commentary tracks, all in the same file. In Quicktime Player I just select which I want to hear. The same should be possible on the Apple TV. (And imagine how many more movies Apple would sell if they included director/actor commentary tracks?)

Multiple users. This is a big one, and an easy one. We have three people in our house – why would we want the same set of favorites, or the same playlists, or the same YouTube account? I’m not suggesting a completely separate library (although some might want this). My wife doesn’t need to see my WWDC videos in her listing, and our daughter doesn’t want to see anything other than Sesame Street and Curious George.

EXIF/IPTC tags while watching photos. While watching photos, we’ll sometimes wonder when the photo was taken. How about a popup of basic data? (And oh, by the way, iPhoto should embed this info into photos instead of storing the data elsewhere. Major multi-year pet peeve here.)

Be a wireless access point (and for some a repeater). My Apple TV is on Ethernet. Why can’t it be another access point for my home LAN? For those using the Apple TV on WiFi, making the Apple TV be a repeater might be nice, although throughput would drop in half so mixed feelings here.

Hardware changes

Apple will inevitably ship a new hardware version of the Apple TV, unless they kill it off of course. I’ll assume the device will have a better CPU and graphics card to support 1080p, etc. So that’s a given.

Gigabit ethernet and 802.11n WiFi. Obvious – move those video files faster.

A desktop (3.5″) hard drive!!! This is my biggest complaint about the first generation Apple TV, and the Mac Mini as well. Why on earth did Apple see it necessary to use a 2.5″ laptop drive in a non-portable device? They saved roughly six-tenths of an inch of space (height) on the device. Hip hip hooray. But they lost a ton of storage space – for a device where storage is key. Many 3.5″ drives are plenty quiet (I’ve had a Tivo for eight years, never heard anyone complain). A quick check at my favorite drive vendor shows 160GB laptop drives roughly the same price as a 500GB desktop drive. Apple is using desktop drives in the Time Capsule, and I’ve never heard anyone complain it’s too large. A perfect example of form obliterating function.

Bluetooth – to support more devices, remotes, etc. See theoretical changes below for more rationale.

External hard drive support – I think this is possible, but unlikely from Apple. They like closed devices. I disagree with their decisions here but accept them as part of the big picture.

Theoretical changes

SDK. Apple has the iPhone SDK, and it’s a huge success. The Apple TV is running OS X too. A real SDK (combined with the better processor and GPU likely coming anyway) could turn the Apple TV into a competitive gaming platform. I don’t play games myself so I don’t care, but it would make the device very popular. Integration with the App Store, etc. Apple would limit SDK functionality (muck like the iPhone), here to prevent the Apple TV from becoming too much like a computer and competing with their own Macs. That’s ok.

Through that SDK they could open the Apple TV to other content providers. (Whoa, is that the third rail I sense?) I don’t see Apple’s content being all things to all people. Access to NetFlix, Hulu, more photo/video sites, etc, is necessary. Apple has conquered music. They haven’t conquered video, and they won’t. Apple has not positioned the Apple TV as a loss-leader to content (like game consoles do). Open it up to the wider world, and Apple will own this market.

Give the remote an accelerometer. Just like the iPhone (and just like the Wii from what I understand). Would be fun for gamers, and probably useful for something. Otherwise the current remote is fine. Simplicity is Apple’s forté, and most do-everything remotes are horrid.

Subscription video service. Ok, this isn’t really a software feature. I think Apple did the right thing by avoiding subscription music. Video is another beast. Netflix’s video subscription is proving popular, at least among the tech crowd. Already multiple hardware boxes support it. If Apple could get the studios on board they could have a great offering.

Ok, I’m done.

5 thoughts on “Apple TV, what it could be

  1. I loaded Boxee and XMBC (via http://code.google.com/p/atvusb-creator/) within minutes after unboxing the Apple TV.

    I found XBMC a mess. Technically interesting, but not for the masses. I need my Apple TV to be easy to use for everyone in the house (well, everyone over two years old) and XBMC doesn’t cut it.

    I’m eager to try Boxee. It’s installed, but you need an account to make it work. I finally got my invite but I’ve had trouble activating the account on the Apple TV. I’ll keep trying.

  2. I just got my apple tv and set up boxee and xmbc on it right away. I enjoy the apple tv and boxee actually makes it even better because you can watch internet tv (hulu, etc.) The one issue I’m having is with internet video, the play back is skipping/dropping. I have it set up on our wireless network and am thinking about running an ethernet cable to it, but that won’t be easy.

    Do you think that it would be worth the effort to run the cable, or find other solutions?

  3. Gary: Yeah, I’m looking forward to trying Boxee. Next chance I get I’ll figure out the login issue.

    WiFi can do weird things. Even on 802.11n the speed can throttle way down when too far away from the router or due to interference. But then again, if you’re streaming HD movies from your in-house computer via WiFi that’s probably moving data faster than your internet connection is even capable of.

    When running into odd/questionable WiFi issues, I crack open the 100′ ethernet cable to see if hard-wiring is worthwhile. Monoprice.com has 100′ CAT-6 cable for $11 if you don’t have a preferred vendor.

  4. I agree- this is a VITAL piece of a plan Apple seems to be squandering. I also suggest A) an “AppleChannel” with all the crazy ads in playback, all the “how” to video”s and other presentation type formats” B) a “MyChannel” where I can screen share my desktop with the HDTV that I have – this could also be a VERY VERY VERY valuable business application as MANY hig end corporate conf. room no longer have “projectors – they bring in HDTV’s – C) MUCH better sycning back and forth and BETWEEN Applt TV’s… We have 11 on our 5 acre property and more distributed among other offices and homes and apartments and even MOM’s which brings me to D) accept special image mail from trusted sources…so say a niece or grandaughter can just email aunt so and so or grandma a picture right from her iPhone!!!! E) add it as a device capable of being managed by pro management tools like Apple Remote Desktop- would help me alot – to set global access protection and iTunes credit card pay per view credit info….AND EVEN BETTER bring us to E) if they DID do that they could work an Apple A Day program- use Apple TV’s in classrooms that can access all the INCREDIBLE APPLE-U programs that are INCREDIBLE…my 11 year old son and 25yr old Slacker nephew dragged me in to the living room to watch , not baywatch genre gals,but a podcasted TED talk by a leading brain researcher who was fully awake and aware during her OWN STROKE – studying the whole thing as it happened to HER- as the PATIENT – thus advancing Brain science in ways not even fully grasped yet. And they were so fully engaged in it , one would have been as stunned as I was. We spemt rest of the day discussing how to get into MIT, and how does someone really study a brain…”like wow” THis is without a question the tru rosetta stone between our childrens abilities to sythisize and our brain-trust’s abilities to deliver and lodge a cogent and potent kernel of knowlegeinto so many, many young minds in so many different, socio economic, geograohic and even technically saavy learning centers. I would be willing to work to see how it could be done. Meanwhile I am stuck at F) which is what happens when I try and now sync my apple tv with 20 purchased movies with my big server that has 60 movies already without losing ANY…. and G)) they need an app like they made for airport management to alt least look at multiple ATV’s. but hey that my 2¢ (oh yeah and play native dv files like FinalCut Pro iports…THAT is annoying.