The Obvious Limitations

Let’s start with the experience inside Apple’s walled garden. The Apple TV will let you stream any content you have within iTunes. Unfortunately iTunes doesn’t play well with anything that’s not in a .mov, .mp4 or m4v container. Then there are the Apple TV limitations: 720p H.264, main profile level 3.1 (or lower) and AAC-LC audio (160Kbps per channel).

You can technically feed the Apple TV 1080p video, but it’ll always downscale to 720p. I haven’t found any evidence of scaler hardware inside the Apple TV so there’s a good chance the box won’t work with older HDTVs that can’t accept a 720p input. I don’t have anything that can test that here so if you have experience with such a setup, please let me know.

Most content acquired outside of the Apple ecosystem isn’t encoded to these specs, so if you’ve got your own library of DRM-free video you’ll need to transcode to get it into iTunes. On a fast enough system it’s not that big of a deal but it’s still annoying to do.

Mac users will probably want to use something other than QuickTime for transcoding however. While QuickTime is very simple to use, the performance on multi-core/multithreaded systems is atrocious compared to other tools like Handbrake.

With your videos transcoded, you can stream them very easily over to the Apple TV.

There’s just one problem with all of this. While the Apple TV makes you jump through hoops to play your own content, devices like the Popcorn Hour, Patriot Box Office or upcoming Boxee Box will play virtually everything you have, regardless of container or format.

Out of the box the Apple TV isn’t a good way to play your existing, non-iTunes content. It’s the same limitation that Apple had with the original Apple TV and it’s part of why the product is nothing more than a hobby. Now let’s get to the other reasons.

The New One Apple TV Movie Rental
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  • Osamede - Thursday, October 7, 2010 - link

    Apple has no interest in explicitly supporting pirated content either"?

    Wow, have you look at the reported statisics on how many songs the average ipod owner buys, versus how many they have in their Itunes library? I assure you the difference is not entirely made up of music ripped from their own CD's!

    So spare us the sanctimony please. Apple wants to get in the game of selling video content at a very healthy markup, otherwise this device would have better support for playing whatever files people have. That would make it a real media player.

    As it is it is obviously designed to be a new age cable box ie a box that delivers content sold to you from within a walled garden. Or put differently, it is a very stylishly paved-over cowpath.
    Reply
  • bernstein - Monday, October 4, 2010 - link

    well my guess is, that apple is proceeding as with the iphone: introduce the device, see if it catches on and then beef it up and open it up for apps...

    app support actually is both very simple and very hard :

    * because of resolution similarities, basically all ipad / iphone4 ready apps will look good with only minor tweaking.
    * however all apps assume a touch based input, yet without standing in front of a touchscreen tv, user interaction with the appletv is quite different than on any other iOS device. this completely negates the app store advantage... which i believe is a HUGE reason apple forgo making the appletv app capable - just yet

    as the appletv at this point is nearly useless without itunes and an ios device apple should go the extra mile and leverage it's iOS devices in the following ways :

    * enabling any iOS device simply to stream it's screen content in realtime over airplay, while still using the device as input device (essentially using the tv as a cloned wireless display). this would allow you to use all apps while others could easily follow you on the big screen! and it would even allow you to use the tv as screen for all motion & touch based inputs excluding all touches not applicable to the whole screen. (well buttons in corners would work as well, but how about selecting a word in a text... nope.)

    obviously especially for games latency would be an issue, but given that both devices out of practicability need to be in close proximity to one another, a direct wifi link might suffice...

    however even worse is the fact that none of the iOS devices have a 16:9 display, so all display cloning will invoke black bars. which ultimately is not up to apple's quality level. *ugh* didn't see this one coming apple?

    * on the other hand, actually enabling the appletv to store and run apps while using any other iOS device as input controller (working similar to using an magic mouse / touchpad on osx (probably without the pointer) - thinking of it: those might work perfectly as controllers too!!) might be a more reliable and even simpler option.

    but ultimately apple could bundle a controller case for ipod/iphones (just adding the ergonomics and the buttons that come on a move/wii controller, maybe even something analog as on a playstation/xbox controller) Basically this would be nearly as cheap to manufacture as the current bundled remote but offer the input capabilites of a high end console... while maintaining the current price point.
    Reply
  • hipnetic - Monday, October 4, 2010 - link

    Anand, excellent article. You seem to come at things from a similar perspective as I do. I do think that AirPlay has the potential to be a killer feature. You talk about playing games and needing a controller, but I suspect that Apple may be envisioning users using their iPhones as the controllers.

    I personally am not seeing much to get excited about with Google TV. The price is too high, there doesn't appear to be any streaming of your own content, and a keyboard-focused input/search method for the TV? I don't think so.

    One problem I'm having with my new Apple TV: I've got some HD movies I've downconverted to 720p using Handbrake. The movies play perfectly on my iPhone 4, but there are occasional stutters on the Apple TV. There are a few others (so far) reporting the same thing and one thing a couple of us think we've discovered is that it's more frequent after the movie has been fully loaded to the Apple TV's 8GB on-board storage buffer. That seems counterintuitive, but there you go. See this thread on Apple's support forums:
    http://discussions.apple.com/thread.jspa?threadID=...

    I think it would be great if you did some more testing of video playback using Handbrake-encoded movies and looked super-close at the playback to spot similar issues. Because these videos seem to play fine on my iPhone 4, I'm cautiously optimistic that the problems are firmware related and can be fixed. Hopefully soon.
    Reply
  • Fanfoot - Tuesday, October 5, 2010 - link

    Anand, perhaps you have some insight but I'm not expecting it to work the way you suggest. I think the video that was streaming to your iPhone/iPad might in fact go directly to your Apple TV rather than being relayed over your WiFi network twice. Even if it does go over the WiFi twice I'm not convinced the A4 has the horsepower to encode the stuff it has showing on its screen into an efficient form for transmission over the air. I think its FAR more likely that Apple is simply forwarding the incoming video stream to the Apple TV.

    If this is true all your speculation about projecting gameplay from your iOS device to an Apple TV will be for naught. In fact it may not even be possible to play back all video that you can display our your iOS device onto an Apple TV. Sure anything in h.264 or mp4 format that is wrapped in FairPlay DRM should work, but what about say the Sling Player app? Does it use h.264? I doubt it. As such I suspect it won't be possible to forward your Sling Player video to an Apple TV. Even something like ABC's app might not work if the DRM is being handled by the app, even if the video is actually in h.264 already.

    I suspect the potential for AirPlay is lower than you're thinking. I'm still excited by it, but I don't think its going to have all the potential something like WiDi would.
    Reply
  • Shiitaki - Wednesday, October 6, 2010 - link

    I used an Apple TV for over a year to save on cable, and I saved enough to pay for it several times over. I only watch a handful of shows that happened to be available in Itunes. Not having to worry about missing a show live, recording, or enduring 20 minutes of commercials for a one hour program was very nice.

    It's really a great way to cut down on couch tatering, not spending hours rotating through 300 channels of nothing redeming is a plus.
    Reply
  • bownse - Friday, April 15, 2011 - link

    It's so crippled with media constraints that it's nearly useless. Even though I own an iMac 27, an iPod Touch, and an iPhone, I'm not fanboi enough to get this. My WD Live TV Plus simply works and works simply out of the box; the list of supported media types is gargantuan compared to any of the others and the long-awaited Boxee Box seems like a candidate for the short bus given the list of tasks it can't do. Reply

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