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AppleTV – Great for NetFlix, Good for some other streaming, but not quite there yet…

June 3, 2011

The new-ish Apple TV is a fairly nice device for what it is, which is a streaming client focused on iTunes content and limited other Internet services.  If you’re looking for a broad-spectrum media streamer, this isn’t it.  But if you want to stay in the Apple ecosystem, and you watch iTunes TV and Movies, this device should probably be part of your collection.

However, if you use NetFlix, this is the best NetFlix client out there.  For $99 up front and no additional monthly fee, this is probably also the cheapest NetFlix client out there.  If you’re a big fan of NetFlix, you should seriously consider getting an AppleTV.

For NetFlix, and overall, the AppleTV has a silky smooth UI – something lacking in every other media player.  How important this is to you is a personal decision, but the smoothness and responsiveness of the UI makes this very easy for almost anyone to use.  The navigation is very simple, mostly due to the limited functionality in the box – iTunes local content, iTunes streaming content (rentals), NetFlix, YouTube, and a couple other Internet channels.  That’s it.  So it’s easy to navigate and easy to use, but very limited in content options.

For iTunes rentals, it’s great.  You can quickly and easily navigate the on-line iTunes content that is available for rental, pick what you want, and usually within a couple of seconds start watching it as it streams to the AppleTV (depending on your Internet bandwidth, of course).  You have to start watching the rental within 30 days, and you have up to 48 hours to finish watching it once you start.  This is a big differentiator from other services like Amazon where you have to finish within 24 hours.  I’ve always said you need at least 36 hours – the first night when you fall asleep in the middle, and the second night to finish.  24 hours isn’t enough, but 48 hours is great.  I have no idea when this change occurred for AppleTV (it was originally 24 hours), and I don’t know why Apple doesn’t promote it more.

The rentals are often fairly cheap as well, which is great.  The big issue is that they are also very limited.  Only about half the studios are lined up, and they only provide a subset of their content.

So – buying (not renting) your content from iTunes is the next best thing in the Apple-verse.  You have access to the entire iTunes library – which seems to have almost everything ever made (in the last decade give or take), and is very current with new episodes of TV shows appearing usually within 12-24 hours of air date.  And if you buy a season pass to a TV show, it ends up being fairly inexpensive, and often close to the rental price per-episode (once averaged out).

The issue is that you first have to download the video to a computer running iTunes, then stream it from that computer to the Apple TV.  This is slow, tedious, and requires lots of storage.  And since you can’t re-download any TV shows or movies, you feel obligated to store it somewhere forever, which quickly is not maintainable for most people.  And discourages you from buying frivolous content on iTunes (maybe this is a good thing?).

The one thing that would make this amazing is if Apple allowed you to buy something from iTunes, then immediately stream it from their “cloud” to the Apple TV.  No downloading to a computer, just direct streaming.  And since I bought the video (and didn’t rent it), it’s permanent.  At any time, I should be able to browse my iTunes or “iCloud” video library, see what I’ve watched, what’s new, and pick anything to watch instantly.

I doubt the Apple TV will ever replace multi-format media streamers (like Boxee and Popcorn Hour), but AppleTV could definitely replace cable TV for many people if they just supported streaming my purchases directly from their “iCloud”.  It would become like a TiVo in the Apple iCloud.  And for many people, the cost of purchasing TV from iTunes (if done via season passes) is substantially less than their monthly cable bill, and doesn’t include commercials.

So if you love NetFlix, the AppleTV is almost a must-buy.  If you want to cut the cable cord, let’s see what Apple does on Monday.

Hopefully Apple will announce TV and Movie support in their upcoming iCloud announcement, and we can finally enjoy a real alternative to hardwired, curated cable providers and channels.  And then the AppleTV will be a must-have for many more people.

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