AppleTV second gen: initial usage notes

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.

Grab bag: All AppleTV edition

Grab bag: Not delicious

Random 10: Week Before Christmas Edition

As one of my friends observed on Facebook recently, I haven’t posted anything in quite a while; either my life is too boring or insanely busy. I am trying to work on driving down the “too busy” factor as we get into the holidays, but so far about the only thing I can manage is to sneak in Christmas carols and music at every opportunity. Hence this random 10, generated by shuffling the Holiday genre on my iPhone (a relatively short list this week, hence the repetition). What’s your holiday music playlist look like?

  1. Boston Camerata, “The Heavenly Courtier” (An American Christmas)
  2. Julie Andrews, “Angels from the Realms” (Christmas with Julie Andrews and André Previn)
  3. The Beatles, “1967” (Fan Club Christmas Records)
  4. Boston Camerata, “Pretty Home” (An American Christmas)
  5. Maddy Prior with the Carnival Band, “In Dulci Jubilo” (A Tapestry of Carols)
  6. Theatre of Voices, dir. Paul Hillier, “Susser die Glocken” (Carols from the Old and New Worlds)
  7. Tewkesbury Abbey Choir, dir. Andrew Sackett, “The Truth from Above” (Christmas Carols from Tewkesbury Abbey)
  8. The Beatles, “1963” (Fan Club Christmas Records)
  9. Elvis Presley, “Santa Claus is Back in Town” (The King of Rock’n’Roll: The Complete 1950s Recordings)
  10. Elvis Presley, “Santa Bring My Baby Back (To Me)” (The King of Rock’n’Roll: The Complete 1950s Recordings)

Star time with the Pops

We had an unusual Holiday Pops concert last night. It wasn’t the normal Monday night audience by any stretch of the imagination–unless your “normal Monday night audience” includes an active and a retired US Senator, the governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and more than your average number of glitterati.

Last night friends of Senator John Kerry “bought the house,” and the program was a mix of a traditional Pops Christmas program, including “Sleigh Ride,” “White Christmas,” singalongs, and the TFC’s famous “Twelve Days of Christmas”; patriotic program (“God Bless America,” “The Stars and Stripes Forever”); and encomium to the senator on the occasion of his 25th year in office. And the tributes came from a bunch of different directions: documentary filmmaker Ken Burns spoke and presented a short film about Kerry’s career that came off like a campaign puff piece. James Taylor sang three songs and expressed his congratulations to the Senator. Governor Deval Patrick gamely read “The Night Before Christmas” while tossing out his best wishes. Senator Kerry’s Swift boat crew came and his second in command offered a salute that left the senator choked up. Former Senator Max Cleland (who had been shamefully swift-boated himself) did not speak, but got about as much applause as Kerry did. All the time the Tanglewood Festival Chorus was at the back of the stage, watching or singing.

And then there were the two musical highlights. Senator Kerry conducted the “Stars and Stripes Forever” with a surprisingly good sense of rhythm, though he occasionally gave his downbeat as an up-beat, but with an endearing amount of mugging self-mockery that left one in mind of an amiable crane; his face as the chorus entered was beaming.

And Noel Paul Stookey and Peter Yarrow, better known as Peter and Paul of Peter, Paul and Mary, gave a little lesson in folk singing, discussing the past and their connection with the Senator. They performed “A Soalin'” as a duo, then began “Light One Candle,” which the TFC has been singing this season. At the chorus they began to wave to the audience to sing along, so a few of us joined quietly; when they heard us, Paul waved us to sing louder. So we sang backup to two of the most significant living folksingers on that tune, and then on “Blowin’ In the Wind.” All my coffeehouse dreams of youth realized.

One of these days, I’m going to have to put my performance resumé together. It would have to include: “Sang with Renée Fleming, Dave Brubeck, and Noel Paul Stookey and Peter Yarrow” and “Sang in ensembles conducted by Robert Shaw, James Levine, Seiji Ozawa, and John Kerry.”

Grab bag: Change your passwords.

Grab bag: On- and offline protest edition

Grab bag: “Thought Leadership” edition