Apple TV interface is a disappointment

 

Apple TV connected to a standard wide-screen TV

Apple TV connected to a standard wide-screen TV

About six weeks ago, I took the plunge and bought the new-and-improved 40 GB Apple TV. For those of you who don’t know, Apple TV isn’t a TV tuner system. It’s a sort of video-music-media queueing box for watching your family videos, playing your iTunes music through your TV, and viewing your iPhoto pictures on your TV. It doesn’t replace your DVD player, your computer, your TiVo or your cable tuner. It’s an addition to those.

 

After trying several ways to use it, I have settled that it’s a great way to share photo slideshows and quick home movies with dinner guests. For everything else, it’s a bit of a pain. Here’s why:

The interface: Apple has made its name by making its products a joy to use. Because the Apple TV connects to the Internet, you can shop and download music and movies (rent + buy) through a special Apple TV version of the iTunes store. The idea of buying and renting movies using a remote from your couch is great. But to find these (among Apple’s slim movie selection) requires you to search by pecking out the name one letter at a time with a joystick, kind of like pecking out your initials for a high score on an old Pac-Man machine. The 4-way button on the Apple Remote that comes with the TV is a clumsy tool for choosing letters.

The syncing: Apple TV forces you to choose a primary computer in your house for syncing movies, music and other media. This is done with a simple number passkey issued on one device and typed by the user into the other. Pairing is quick and easy, but then all other computers must be added as secondary “shared library” with limited syncing options.

The confusion: Navigating among the different types of media on your Apple TV is a lot like digging through the sorted-stack menus on a click-wheel iPod. But even though the Apple TV itself is connected wirelessly to the Internet AND your Mac, its interface makes it feel less like a computer and more it like a big, dumb iPod hooked to your TV.

The default settings lead the Apple TV to sync automatically with your primary Mac, giving preference to the newest, latest, and unplayed media. This encouraged me (and I would bet others as well) to manage all the Apple TV media solely on the Mac. I started using Apple TV only to play back media I had put onto the Mac and set up to sync. So when I decided one night to rent a movie on iTunes, I did it from my Mac, thinking I could download it and then sync it to the Apple TV and watch it on the couch. So I was surprised to find that my $2.99 movie was not allowed to be synced to my Apple TV. Apparently, in order to watch the movie on my Apple TV, I’d have to rent it again ON the Apple TV – using the Pac-Man joystick pecking method.

Overall – it works. Most of the time. But the number of hiccups in using it make it a less-than-average quality Mac interface experience. For somebody who appreciates good interface, it’s a disappointment from Cupertino. And at $229 for the 40GB model and $329 for the 160 GB model, I can’t say it delivers value equal with its cost.

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