Apple TV Take 2: Day 2 Impressions
As I indicated in yesterday’s writeup, last night I auditioned two rental movies downloaded to my Apple TV and its newly-available ‘Take 2′ software upgrade. Wait…two movies? I thought I said yesterday that I was only downloading one movie? I’ll get to that in a minute…
My download of the high-definition version of Focus completed at around 6:30PM last night, faster than I’d predicted over my 1.3 Mbps downstream DSL connection. First and foremost, this is an excellent movie adaptation of an Arthur Miller novel, which provides a disturbing portrayal of the anti-Semitism, racism and sexism that was rampant in the United States at the end of World War II. William H. Macy and Laura Dern are two of my favourite actors, which only added to my enjoyment of the film. And Meat Loaf was surprisingly good in his role, as was David Paymer.
The video quality was certainly acceptable over my LCD and at my normal viewing distance, although speaking of ‘film’ I was amused to occasionally see minor film damage artifacts; apparently the studio digitized a non-pristine silver halide master to come up with the H.264-encoded (presumably) file that Apple served to me. Since I didn’t have the standard-definition rental download available for comparison purposes, or for that matter the DVD (interestingly, the movie seems to not be available on HD DVD from Paramount), I can’t give you a relative quality comparison conclusion.
However, I generally agree with Jason Chen at Gizmodo; it’s ‘about a five’ (I’d be charitable and give it a 6 or 7, actually). I was more impressed with the Dolby Digital 5.1-encoded soundtrack that accompanied the video than Chen was, however. Other nice touches include the fact that when you pause, fast-forward or rewind the film, or otherwise cause the time bar at the bottom of the display to appear on-screen, Apple TV also reports which movie chapter is currently being displayed…when I paused the playback a few seconds into playback for the first time and ‘The Woman In The Street’ popped up, I thought at first that Apple had delivered me the wrong flick!
So what about that second movie? Well, the Apple TV GUI’s ‘Viewers Also Rented’ feature (shown in one of Macworld Magazine’s review’s screenshots) snagged me, when I finished watching Focus just after 9PM PST. I’d heard that Once was a wonderful independent film with a compelling soundtrack, and when Apple TV recommended it to me, I decided to take the plunge. Since it was a new release, it cost $3.99 even though it only came in a standard-definition version…I thought this might also be a good way to test the Apple TV software’s progressive download capability.
I hit ‘purchase’, and then went to wash some dishes and clean cat litter boxes. 20 minutes later, with the download progress indicator at 19%, Apple TV reported that the film was ‘ready to watch’. I hit play and, for the first hour-plus I was mesmerized. However, at 1 hour and 9 minutes in, and with (as I subsequently determined) download progress at 81%, playback froze and a spinning ‘wait’ icon familiar to anyone who’s booted up an OS X-powered computer appeared on-screen.
It seems that either Apple TV underestimated upfront how long the download would take, or my DSL connection subsequently slowed as compared to what it was delivering at and before the point when Apple TV’s software determined that progressive download playback could begin. I occasionally notice several-minute brownouts (of unknown root cause) with my DSL link, so perhaps this is what happened. Regardless, I paused the movie, redirected my attention to Apple TV’s YouTube capabilities for a few minutes (I did initial setup on my account, so as to not adversely bandwidth-strap the in-progress Once download), and when download progress reached 88% I tried again. The remainder of the movie played back fine, with no additional interruptions.
While watching Once, I was reminded of my earlier comments about a Bob Dylan DVD. The Apple TV-served ’standard definition’ picture was pretty soft, in part because the film was made for $150,000 using SD-resolution digital video cameras (which, being often handheld, also led to some unconventional scene sequences). But none of it mattered. Once is one of the most charming films I think I’ve ever seen, and Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová’s soundtrack completes the picture. Ironically, both actors/musicians (he Irish, she Czechoslovakian) were easier to understand when singing versus speaking!
One other Apple TV comment in closing, As my earlier writeup indicated, the new ‘Take 2′ software also supports AirTunes, i.e. the ability to ‘push’ audio from a Mac or PC to the unit for remote playback purposes. As I’ve just confirmed, iTunes for OS X running on my MacBook in the office is indeed able to ’see’ over the LAN the Apple TV in the livingroom, and deliver AC/DC to it. Presumably, iTunes for Windows, which I don’t personally have installed, would work equally well.
However, although Rogue Amoeba’s Airfoil also sees both of my AirTunes-supportive peripherals (’Truckee’ is my soon-to-be-retired-due-to-functional-redundancy Airport Express), and I can select the Apple TV within the program’s GUI, no audio comes out of the remote end of the audio chain.
Rogue Amoeba’s Paul Kafasis echoed my observations in last night’s company blog post. As he notes, including a not-so-veiled jab at Apple’s notorious lack of support for third-party ‘partners’ (and reflective of the fact that the original Airfoil leveraged reverse-engineering of the Airport Express audio compression and encryption schemes by open source advocates, versus any Apple-sanctioned SDK or other provided software):
The Apple TV seems to know we’re sending to it, as the display will change in some setups to enter AirTunes mode. However, it does not properly handle this audio, because the receiving method differs from that of a standard AirPort Express. The specifics of network encryption used by the Airport Express appear to differ on the Apple TV. Thus, at this time, Airfoil 3 is not able to work as desired with the Apple TV.
We’re currently working to get the Apple TV and Airfoil talking to one another fully, and we’ve already got the Apple TV experimentally receiving audio from development builds of Airfoil.
Of course, we’re stuck doing all of this in the dark. It would be nice if Apple would work with us, in any capacity, to make Airfoil compatible with their hardware. Doing so would speed development time of an application that can only help to move more units, while costing them next to nothing.
In private correspondence last night, Paul confirmed to me that the Airfoil versions for both OS X and Windows were being targeted for pending Apple TV-supportive upgrades.
Followup: Engadget’s thoughts on Apple TV’s HD claims. See, I told you it was more like a 7…
Followup II: iLounge concurs on the impressive Apple TV HD quality, particularly given its 4 Mbps bitrate.