Fair warning: I’m a terrible gadget reviewer. It’s not that I’m biased or unbiased about particular brands, or that I can’t speak knowingly about processor power, screen resolution, battery life, responsiveness, or useability. Rather, it’s that I can’t do so presumptously – I just can’t pull off a gadget review where I pretend like I have something to say that would be useful for a consumer weighing making a particular tech purchase.
See, I know I’m not a typical gadget user. I live a highly mobile lifestyle. Most everything I own fits into a carry-on bag (clothes) and a messenger bag (gadgets). Those gadgets, til recently, only include: one MacBook Pro, one Kindle. (My iPhone lives in my pocket.) I also keep a Chromebook as an emergency back-up machine, in case either Kin or I need a laptop in a pinch.
I don’t own a TV. And so had a review unit not ended up on my doorstep, I wouldn’t have thought twice about the Apple TV (or any of its competitor-gadgets). But a review unit did. Hence the review. (See: disclosure.)
I’m not a typical gadget user, nor am I a typical television viewer. More precisely: I don’t watch it much. I’m not a big sports fan, I’m not a big sitcom fan, I’m not a big reality TV fan. I get my news from the Internet.
I really can’t think of any reason I’d pay for cable, quite frankly, when I can watch most everything – sooner or later – online. It’s been years since I had cable. Well, I can tell you exactly how many years: it's been five since I paid for HBO (plus everything else you have to pay for in order to get HBO) so I could watch the final season of The Sopranos.
Nowadays, in lieu of cable, I subscribe to Netflix. I’ve done so for a long time time -- and a quick sidenote on which we'll alll agree: the selection’s gone to hell if you’re “digital only.” I also subscribe to Amazon Prime, so there’s a small selection of streaming video there. I own a handful of digital videos I’ve purchased from iTunes; sometimes I rent videos there too. Sometimes I watch shows that are free online: The Colbert Show, Downton Abbey, Austin City Limits, and the like.
I watch videos on my laptop; or more typically since I’m usually working on my laptop, I watch videos on a second screen, such as the Chromebook. Recently Kin and I purchased a small projector, and we have a small set of speakers too. Plug all that into the Chromebook, project it on a blank wall and it suffices quite nicely for a living room entertainment set – and a highly portable one, to boot.
I realize I’m laying out my hardware in setup in a painstaking level of detail here. “So what?” if I don’t have a cable subscription. “Ha fool!” if I use a Chromebook. Like I said, I’m a lousy gadget reviewer. But all these things colors what I think about the Apple TV.
Via the Chromebook, I can watch anything on the Web (Netflix etc. But I can't access iTunes. On the Apple TV, I can access anything in iTunes – in the store or in my account. Thanks to iCloud, all my prior purchases are accessible. But in the case of Apple TV, I can’t get to the Web. There is a Netflix app and a YouTube app (and some subscription sports apps that, as a bad reviewer, I didn’t click on). There is no access to Amazon Prime. You can't rent movies via Google Play. If you’re an iOS or Lion OS device owner, Apple TV can mirror its content via AirPlay.
But primarily, Apple TV showcases the Apple digital content library.
Olds cords, new cords
And ah, the Apple digital content library.
Apple has deals with the record labels. Deals with the movie studios. Deals with cable channels. Deals with the publishers. It's got a thriving store of apps and albums and books and movies. It has the new distribution and payment model. Apple wants us to buy from -- and buy into -- its ecosystem.
There’s been a lot of buzz over the last week or so about the future of the Apple TV. Of course, Apple rumors swirl incessantly, and speculation about TV as Apple’s next big hardware push isn’t exactly new. But CEO Tim Cook was just on stage at the D conference where he boasted about sales figures for the devices. And with Apple’s annual developer conference next week, there’s been some talk (and close scrutiny of the WWDC schedule) that we’ll see either an actual TV (not just a digital media receiver) or a TV app ecosystem unveiled.
Hardware and apps have served Apple well in recent years. But I'm not sure they're sufficient to win over typical TV viewers (which, again, I'm not). I think it has to be the content, TV content -- the shows people want, when they want them. If Apple can unbundle that from cable providers -- whether as apps, as rentals, as streaming video -- I think more folks will become cord-cutters.
Of course, in this case, viewers will be bound with new cords to Apple. For those that have already built out their own digital libraries through iTunes, it's likely they are bound already.
Disclosure: Apple has lent me an iPad and an Apple TV. The former was sent so I could write about iTextbooks and iTunesU, Apple said. I wasn’t expecting the latter. I guess I can see how a teacher – one with a MacBook or an iPad and a projector – could use it to, well, project stuff. But despite my work as an ed-tech journalist, I haven’t thought much about the Apple TV as an ed-tech device. It’s an entertainment one. It feels weird to write about it. It would feel weirder to write (and thereby disclose) nothing.