Steve Jobs calls Apple TV a "hobby." But I can tell you what it really is: the ultimate child entertainment appliance.
For the uninitiated -- and given Apple TV's dismal sales performance, that's most everybody -- here's what Apple TV does. Imagine a audio/video component, not much bigger than two or three DVD cases stacked on top of each other. It has a hard drive, 40GB for the $229 model, or 160GB for the $329 one.
And it connects to your widescreen television, and plays movies and TV shows either stored locally or streamed via iTunes from your desktop or laptop computers. Oh, it can also play music, including your iTunes playlists, or display HD photos. Nice features, but nothing TiVo users haven't been doing for years.
Well, my TiVo units are gelded ones for use with HD DirecTV service, so I couldn't use all those nifty photo, music, and networking features. So I plunked down $150 on a used Apple TV to see what I could do with it.
Here's what I can tell you: As a consumer, for $150, Apple TV is worth the price to me. It might even be worth retail price. But I'd never bother spending money on the unit with the big hard drive. And as a Dad, I find Apple TV to be worth its weight in gold. Now let me tell you why.
I won't let my three-year-old watch live TV. He doesn't even yet know what it is. If it's not on DVD or TiVo -- things that his parent can control -- then he doesn't know they exist. I'd like to maintain that control for as long as I'm able.
But Mommy and Daddy like to store shows on the TiVo, too, and those hard drives are only so big. And DVDs take quite a bit of management and shelf space -- and often fall prey to sticky little fingers.
Imagine you could rip your kids' DVD to your hard drive, and make all of them available, instantly and all the time, on most any TV in the house. Oh, and that everything can be selected by a remote control simple enough for a three-year-old to use. And it's a remote so lacking in regular buttons that wiping off peanut butter and jelly isn't an exercise in hold-you-breath frustration.
And in typical Apple fashion, the unit itself is a breeze to use. Nobody ever needed to look at a manual to figure out how to watch what they want to watch.
So I use a quasi-legal Mac program called Handbrake (Windows programs with similar functionality exist) to rip my son's DVD to my hard drive, and port them into iTunes. Almost magically, Apple TV finds them and makes them available for viewing. Instantly. It has built-in 811N connectivity, so it's ready to go on the fastest-available wireless networks. Although we've found that an 811G router is plenty fast enough, too.
The video quality is a little softer than DVD, especially when blown up on a 57" 1080P uber-high-def TV. But it's more than good enough for kids stuff, and mostly good enough for grown-up fare. And at $19 bucks and easy availability, I won't complain too much when our boy finally manages to lose or destroy a remote control.
The on-board storage of 40GB, for us, goes entirely unused -- we just stream everything from my desktop computer. And given the price of hard drives these days, that means we enjoy virtually unlimited storage.
It's not perfect. Apple TV works only on widescreen TVs. If you rely on streaming like we do, then your unit is effectively off the air whenever iTunes is down on your desktop computer, or network server. And you will have to use iTunes to stream, which will annoy some people -- if not act as an absolute deal-breaker.
Or you can use it as a standalone unit, buying and renting content through your iTunes account, no desktop computer or streaming necessary. But for us its real genius is as a gateway between all the content on my desktop, and keeping our son from viewing things we think he shouldn't. Measured by those limited standards, Apple TV is a winner.