I got a nice gadget under the Christmas tree this year: a second generation AppleTV. Short take: I am way more impressed than I thought I would be.
This fall we experimented with hooking an old MacBook Pro up to the TV in the living room and using the FrontRow UI to watch movies, but the user experience was less than ideal. Knowing the limits of the machine, I copied movie files locally to it so that it had no network lag, but there were still occasional hiccups and delays as it tried to play back movies through FrontRow. Also, because it was essentially working as a disconnected island, only the movies and TV shows I copied to it were available. Oh, I could try to share data from my main MacBook, but for some reason things were so sluggish as to be unbearable.
I had an idea that it might be nice to try an AppleTV someday, if for no other reason than for the simplified UI, integrated rentals/Netflix/Youtube, and smaller form factor. But I had filed it away as a nice-to-have. So I was delighted when I opened it up on Christmas morning. (Thanks, hon!) By Christmas evening I had set it up and was putting it through its paces.
First notes: make sure you have an HDMI cable handy. (Duh. Fortunately I did.) We tried out the UI, which makes FrontRow look like a college art project, and were impressed. Then we tried playing back some of the short movies from my MacBook. This was the first hiccup–startup times were long even for brief movies; for half-hour TV shows I was usually waiting 15 minutes or more for playback. What was going on?
A little network diagnostic (aside: I cannot recommend iStumbler highly enough) and I found the cause. I have an Airport Extreme 802.11n base station, but the rest of my network configuration is somewhat unorthodox, including a pair of older Airport Express units that only speak 802.11g and which rebroadcast the main network via WDS. On a hunch, I turned off the configuration option on the Airport Express units to let wireless clients connect, and restarted them. The signal to noise ratio on the main base station improved about 10% immediately, and AppleTV performance was likewise improved–TV shows began playback immediately, movies after a second or two. Problem solved–and now my network is generally snappier.
And now is the interesting bit. I’ve had the AppleTV for about four days, and am now for the first time contemplating something that would previously have been unthinkable: ripping my DVDs to hard drive storage. It’s all about convenience and being able to access the movies (and TV shows, and Looney Tunes cartoons) on demand. Of course, in the eyes of Hollywood, this makes me a criminal, but then I’ve never had much sympathy for the studios’ position in trying to keep their hardcoded crypto secret. So I’m checking out HandBrake as a possible solution. While reports of its user-friendliness are somewhat exaggerated–I’d welcome a single setting that says “make the movie look good on a big screen TV”–initial results were pretty good. It might take a while, given that it’s taken me 40 minutes to rip 30 minutes of DVD footage, but I think it’ll be worth it to get instant access to stuff. Particularly when my four year old is waiting.