Saturday, June 7, 2008

Epic Fail: Apple TV

In late 1999 I was introduced to TiVO by my friend SDW. I purchased one a year later, and my first hardware mod was to add a network card to it. Years later my wife and I upgraded to Sony SAT-T60's and I went through a lot of work to mod those with TurboNet cards. We've used them for 3-4 years and when they finally broke we went to the Phillips DSR-704 series.

I've been through the grind of unwrapping official software updates from TiVO and merging in changes into the modified OS environment. The frustration of that grind grew on me, and when I was finally able to "disable OS updates" my life got considerably better...

Years later a coworker of mine at Zenoss introduced me to Apple TV. It looked beautiful - a sleek little network-centric box with HDMI outputs that could display high definition multimedia content. I looked with a stearn eye towards my DVD collection with thoughts of moving all of that plastic and metal onto a spinning 1TB disk in the basement, and accessing said disk over the network via an Apple TV.

My experience with AppleTV has been terrible. You might as well call that device AwfulTV, because that's what it is. The few redeeming qualities of the AppleTV are quickly countermanded by the nerve-wracking inadequacies in it's usability. Let's take the remote control for starters.

The remote control sums up Apple's research into usability: vapor. Apple may be masters of the portable music device industry but their first entry into the multimedia environment is a bust. The remote lacks several basic features that make remotes useful: volume control, power on/off, glow-in-the-dark. My programmable TiVO remote contains volume up/down controls as well as a TV on/off switch, and thus allows me to operate my TV and my TiVO using a single remote.

My AppleTV remote lacks a TV on/off button as well as volume, meaning I need at least 1 additional remote next to me when enjoying content through my AppleTV. No thanks Apple, you missed the boat on this one. A remote without a volume up/down and TV on/off makes viewing impossible.

The size of the remote is also offensive. It's too small for any adult's hands and can't easily be cradled in your palm while flipping through the content on the device. In contrast the TiVO remote is contoured and clam shaped, resting firmly and gently in your hand.

Apple also fumbled in so far as their openness of the platform. Through several tricks you can coax the OS into AFP mounting a directory from another server. Also, through some software named Sapphire you can index your movies and TV shows and display them in an aesthetically pleasing menu. When Sapphire, AFP, and your AppleTV works it's a wonderful thing. When it doesn't work, and that tends to happen often, you're left cursing at the box and wishing you had never purchased it.

Tonight my wife and I wanted to watch a Movie on the box. I started to click through the UI but was stopped by a flashing Apple logo on the screen. I've seen this happen before and through some debugging determined that the Apple logo appears when the Finder is starting up. Of course the AppleTV kept flashing the Apple logo as the Finder started up, crashed, and started up again, then crashed, and so on and so forth.

So there I am in my living room on my wife's MacBook Pro google searching for hits on a crashing Finder while she reads a book. EPIC FAIL. If the user of your device has to secure shell into the device and "tail -f" an obscure logfile on a Saturday night rather than use your device for it's intended purpose ... guess what - you've lost.

My relationship with AppleTV is officially over. My decision to cut my AppleTV loose was not made because of one or two isolated problems I've had with the device. My decision to rid my house of this device comes after days and weeks of problems that started the day I purchased it. I returned 3 units to 2 different stores before I encountered one where the drive control arm didn't tick.

When I finally received a working unit it ran version 1.1 of the OS, meaning I had to install Tiger on an firewire drive on my MBP and boot off it in order to create a patchstick that could backport the OS to 1.0. Then I moved forward with the AwkwardTV install, followed by Sapphire. Lastly I opened up AFP.

While doing all of this I encountered tons of dark corners in the operation of the device. For example, if you corrupt your plist file there's no way to recover it without re-scanning all your movies. No big deal right, just "re-index movies", right? No... When you have 200+ movies and Sapphire asks you to choose the correct name on 75% of them it actually takes up quite a lot of time. The same goes for TV shows.

I was also dumbfounded by the inner-knowledge one must have in order to navigate the menu system on the AppleTV using the Apple remote. There's no "back" button on the remote, and there's no UI clue on the AppleTV screens that says "if you click left or right on this screen you'll get a different menu." How are you supposed to know that?!

I'm just dumbfounded at how much time I've wasted tinkering around with my AppleTV. From piss-poor remote control design to usability issues in the menu system my AppleTV has been nothing but a headache. I'm astonished that Apple has blown it so badly with this device.

I had to install Perian and an A52 component in order to play most of my content. How can h264 not be supported out-of-the-box along with one of the most commonly used audio formats?!

I now turn my eyes towards the MythTV crowd. Perhaps the OSS community, through tools like VLC and ffmpeg, can provide me with a reasonable fanless solution to the challenge of displaying multimedia in my TV room. At the very least I won't have to jump through hoops to get NFS mounts working and hopefully I'll have basic tools like ps, lsof, and top installed.

Sorry Apple, but EPIC FAIL for you on your work with the AppleTV.

1 comment:

Unky Duck said...

I concur. I still use mine, but it bites in myriad ways.