Thursday, April 9

My (brief) adventures with AppleTV

So I bought an AppleTV yesterday. I had been advised against it by two different people, especially since my primary intended use was going to be for playing videos from Hulu through the Boxee plugin. I'd been told that the Flash video playback on the device was no good, and both of the people to whom I spoke had either uninstalled Boxee or gotten rid of the device altogether.

However, I'm stubborn, and I figured my standards couldn't be too demanding. Hulu on my iMac looks awesome, even through Boxee, so how much worse could the AppleTV be? I still watch cable and DVDs through the coaxial input on my TV, after all! Also, my TV is a 4:3 CRT, and I haven't even been exposed to the fancy-schmancy High Definition stuff that's all the rave these days. I just wanted to see it for myself, so I went to the Apple Store after work yesterday and picked up a 40GB ATV.

I thought that my set, with its HD component video inputs, was capable of displaying 720p HD— but apparently it isn't. I had to settle for standard-def 480i output from the device, which was the first disappointment of the evening. I set the machine to sync with my iMac's iTunes library, then I sat down to eat dinner with my wife (who was finally discharged from the hospital yesterday! hopefully she stays well for a while this time).

After I finished cleaning up from dinner and loading the dishwasher, all of the lights in the house suddenly turned off. They flickered back on briefly, but soon the house was dark. Thankfully, it wasn't yet 7pm, and Daylight Saving Time meant that there was still enough light coming through the windows that we weren't entirely enshrouded. My AppleTV adventure was cut short, though. I turned on my (battery-powered) EeePC in order to look online for the power company's phone number, only to realize that the outage had also turned off my modem and router. I ended up using Google's 800-GOOG-411 service to get ahold of them anyway, and was told that it was a known outage that should be resolved by 7:46pm.

Around 7:30, the lights came back on. I turned the AppleTV back on and resumed the iTunes sync. I let the AppleTV play the latest episode of the FLOSS Weekly podcast while it finished syncing and I surfed the Web on my netbook. This was the best use of the device I'd had yet... the ability to listen to podcasts & surf the Web while downstairs in the living room and not holed up in front of the iMac in my home office.

After the sync was finished, the AppleTV wanted to update itself to the latest Apple firmware, which I allowed it to do. Then I created the USB patchstick with my SanDisk thumb drive so I could hack the box and install Boxee. It installed and ran just fine, so I fired up Hulu. The video there was incredibly choppy. It got better when I turned off the 480p high-resolution stream in my Hulu account and restarted the stream of Monday's episode of Chuck, but it still wasn't smooth. This was very frustrating, and the Boxee CBS player had the same problem. Oddly, the Comedy Central player was better, but still not great.

Boxee was awesome when I set it up to play video files over the network from my Mac. I had a House episode I'd downloaded recently since my cable box's DVR cut off the end of the show, and the XviD file played great streaming through Boxee.

However, my main attempted use for the AppleTV was going to be a replacement for cable, watching all the shows I like with Hulu and through Apple's iTunes Store. I wanted to make sure I got all my video legitimately, through paid or ad-supported Internet means, and not have to resort to downloading all my shows from the shadier corners of the Internet. Since Hulu wasn't satisfactory as a cable replacement (and Big Bang Theory doesn't have any legal Internet distribution, anyway), I restored the device to its factory settings and put it back in the box to return it to the Apple Store.

It made for an enjoyable evening of hacking around (I even enabled ssh access to the AppleTV, which was pretty fun just for the hack value), but it's just not viable as a replacement for cable. I'll probably need a full-scale Mac mini for that, but if I'm going to run full-on OS X I don't want to be using a CRT with overscan, anyway. I'll wait until I can afford both a mini and a new flat-panel TV with HDMI input, which probably won't be for a while.


Harry said...

Wait for it... I TOLD YOU SO!

Now I realize why you thought your TV could do 720 (hence the confusion on Twitter). Component CAN do (analog) HD, but it doesn't mean your set is just because the inputs are available... Instead of arguing, you could have just asked me instead. I kinda have to be an expert to stay employed. :)

I'm actually in the same boat with the new Mac Mini I just picked up. I really don't want to go and buy a new HDTV -- ever actually. So I'm settling for a lower resolution output. None of my content is HD, plus I go to great lengths to avoid higher definition video. Everything works great otherwise.

augmentedfourth said...

I figured you'd speak up here :) If you've got your mini hooked up to an SD 4:3, how do you deal with overscan? Did you install DisplayConfigX to fine-tune the resolution?

Harry said...

Boxee allows for video calibration -- altering the edges of the Boxee screen to better fit your television screen. Since neither of us run HDTV, this was an important adjustment in the Boxee software, both for the Mini and for aTV.

I just got everything hooked up tonight actually, and it works great. The only real issues I have is how Boxee handles DVDs. But its like I said, Boxee isn't XBMC.

augmentedfourth said...

Yeah, I know you can do that in Boxee... I was talking about OS X. Do you have a hard time seeing the menu bar? Or is the machine dedicated to Boxee only?

If I were to do this with a mini, I'd probably want to run iTunes/Front Row as well, and install one of those programs that lets you use the remote to start multiple apps (FR, Boxee, maybe Firefox...).

Do you have a mouse & keyboard in your living room?

Randal L. Schwartz said...

Happy to provide content for you as the host of "FLOSS Weekly". Thanks for mentioning us!

Harry said...

Boxee only. No keyboard / mouse. Just remote in. Don't need all the extra hardware in the living room taking up space.

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