Amazon takes the proprietary route with its Fire TV set top box and gives consumers one more choice that won’t serve all of their needs.
I’ve always admired Amazon for their customer-centric view of the world. Their online shopping experience is second to none. Their customer service is superb. Their dedication to creating devices and services to meet the needs of their customers has always impressed me – especially given that the hardware space is so competitive (and littered with failures).
So I was really keen to find out what Amazon’s latest toy, the $99 Fire TV set-top box had to offer. Even though it isn’t available to Canadians currently, the U.S. version is likely a very strong indicator of what we’ll get when it arrives.
Sadly, what we’ll get is a series of compromises.
As is typical before any Apple event, there was plenty of buzz in the rumour mill around what Steve Jobs would be presenting. Wireless syncing with iTunes, an Apple HDTV, even a cloud-based model for music subscriptions. None of these predictions materialised but that doesn’t mean there weren’t a few surprises…
Product: Update of iOS to 4.1
Price: Free to owners of iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad
Launch date: Week of September 6th
What’s new: Upload of HD video to YouTube via WiFi, HDR (High Dynamic Range) Photos, GameCenter, iTunes TV Show Rentals*, iTunes Ping
What We Think: Obviously more features on an OS is a great thing as long as it doesn’t come at a cost (either in $$ or performance) and iOS 4.1 hits on both counts. Gamers will love GameCenter’s ability to match them up with other players in real-time similar to Xbox Live or the PlayStation Network. Shutterbugs will appreciate the addition of HDR capability – it’s a clever trick that makes photos look better by combining three different exposures into one image. Typically this is something that had to be done on a computer using programs like Photoshop, so having it built-in is a great feature. But be wary – HDR photos can often look unnatural so some experimentation will likely be needed. Thankfully the OS keeps a copy of the non-HDR image too in case you prefer it. We’ll get to the iTunes features in a moment.
Product: Update of iOS to 4.2
Price: Free (we think) to owners of iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad
Launch date: Later this year
What’s new: Print Center, AirPlay
What We Think: While we really wish that WiFi Sync to iTunes had made it into this release, being able to print wirelessly from the iPad etc, makes a ton of sense, especially given the number of printers that are being sold with built-in Wi-Fi connectivity. AirPlay is the new name for AirTunes – Apple’s feature that lets you stream your music wirelessly across your network from an iTunes-equipped PC or Mac. The new name reflects the fact that now you can stream more than just music: Photos and videos have been added and this will tie-in nicely with the new Apple TV (see more on this later). While some third party apps e.g. AirVideo let you stream from your computer to any device that has the client installed (even over the net), getting that content onto a TV hasn’t been especially easy or intuitive. We’re curious to see if Apple encounters any legal hassles around the name AirPlay as it is already in use by another software company.
Product: iPod Shuffle (4th gen) 2GB
Price: $59 CDN
Launch date: Week of September 6th
What’s new: External buttons, dedicated VoiceOver button, support for Genius mixes
What We Think: When Apple launched the 3rd generation of the iPod Shuffle last year, they proved just how small you could make a portable music player. Turns out the tiny, button-less form factor may have been a little too small for some people. The 4th gen Shuffle grows in the size department, but brings back the circular button layout from the 2nd generation without going back to the 2nd’s dimensions. You don’t often see Apple acknowledge that they made a poor design choice, but it’s clear from this new (old) design that that’s exactly what happened a year ago. On the good side, Apple hasn’t brought back the awkward charging/syncing cradle that came with the 2nd gen Shuffle, instead opting for the 3rd gen’s simple USB-to-minijack cable. On the bad side, the Shuffle no longer ships with remote-control earbuds from the 3rd gen version. As someone who uses the 3rd gen regularly, I’ve become addicted to simply reaching for my remote to change tracks and volume. I’m sad to see this return to optional accessory status.
Price: $159 CDN (8GB) / $189 CDN (16GB)
Launch date: Week of September 6th
What’s new: Tiny form factor, built-in clip, multi-touch display, top-mounted buttons for sleep/wake and volume.
What We Think: The latest nano is a drastic departure from the previous generations of this much loved music player. Gone are the iconic circular controls, replaced by a touch-sensitive screen. Gone is the built-in VGA camera. Gone (presumably) are any iPod games that required a click-wheel. Could this be a case of Apple’s designers ignoring the old adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?” I’m a big fan of multi-touch – it works spectacularly on the iPod Touch, iPhone and iPad – all of which are devices intended to run multiple apps, surf the web and handle tasks like email. So which of these abilities come with multi-touch on the nano? None. Getting rid of the click wheel means that there is no way to navigate forward and backward through your tracks without looking at the screen. I always keep my iPod in my pocket when working out, and being able to press on the sides of the clickwheel through the fabric of my pants is something I don’t want to give up. Though there is bound to be an initial wow factor to this design choice, and the built-in clip is going to appeal to folks who don’t like stowing their iPod in their pocket, I’m not convinced that enough has been gained through these tweaks to justify doing away with the click-wheel. My advice: Unless you value a small size over features, look for lower prices on any remaining 5th gen nanos – you’ll be getting way more bang for your portable player buck.
Product: iPod Touch (3rd gen) 8/16/32 GB
Price: $249/$319/$429 CDN
Launch date: Week of September 6th
What’s new: Retina display, front and rear-facing cameras, A4 chip, slimmer design, 3-axis gyro, Wi-Fi geo-tagging of photos and video, FaceTime
What We Think: The iPod Touch just keeps getting better. The iPhone 4-inspired dual cameras turn the already super-versatile device into an HD camcorder while the new internal gyroscope will extend what game designers are able to do with the Touch as a gaming platform. What perplexes us is the choice to put a low resolution sensor in the rear-facing camera. The iPhone 4 has a 5-megapixel sensor which is the digital camera sweet-spot: enough resolution for high-quality prints and even some enlarging and cropping. The new iPod Touch maxes out at 960×720 for still photos – good for Facebook sharing, but that’s about it. It’s hard to understand what the rationale was for this decision. Were they concerned that a better camera would eat into iPhone 4 sales? Unlikely. Despite their similarities, the two devices are still very different. Was it cost? Again, it seems unlikely given how inexpensive camera sensors have become. Perhaps Apple was merely content to give companies like Cisco (with their popular Flip Video camcorders) some competition. With the inclusion of Wi-Fi uploading to YouTube in iOS 4.1, and built-in clip trimming, the new iPod Touch leaps ahead of the Flip in terms of on-board capabilities. The inclusion of FaceTime is a natural choice as it expands the video-calling feature to a much larger audience than it would have with the iPhone 4 alone. The real question is: when will Apple expand FaceTime to all computers with webcams? I’ll be looking for this in the next release of iTunes or QuickTime.
Product: iTunes 10
Launch Date: Available now
What’s new: Updated interface, Ping social network, a new icon, new pricing on movies and TV shows.
What We Think: iTunes is a love or hate proposition for a lot of folks. While it runs well on newer computers, older machines – especially PCs – are slowed to a crawl by the program’s massive footprint and accessory processes that it installs (including QuickTime, Apple’s proprietary video software). But if you own an i-thing, it’s probably installed on your machine and you probably use it for managing your digital library and syncing to your device, even if you don’t use it to buy music. This latest version of iTunes may not offer any performance improvements, but it does include Apple’s first and very bold move into the world of social networking. iTunes Ping is the name they’ve given to a service that lets iTunes users share their favourite music and concerts with friends. If this sounds familiar, it’s because Microsoft executed this exact strategy with their Zune players…. Remember “Welcome to the Social”? Yup. That’s pretty much what iTunes Ping is all about. You can use Ping from within iTunes on your computer, or on your iPhone or iPod Touch. Apple claims that security and privacy will be very effective and simple to use (which was a bit of a dig at Facebook’s famously complex privacy scheme). While I’m not convinced that Ping is going to take off (how many social networks do we really need?) I’ve been wrong about theses things before :-)
A much more significant announcement in my opinion is the new pricing structure on HD movies and TV shows. $5.99 CDN is the price of 48 hour rental of a movie. The bad news here is that there are still no TV show options for Canadians. Americans get shows from ABC and FOX for $.99 USD an episode.
Product: Apple TV (2nd Gen)
Price: $119 CDN
Launch date: Late September, pre-order today
What’s new: Tiny footprint, black colour scheme, no hard-drive, new UI, streaming of content from any iTunes computer, or from the iTunes store, or from Netflix, YouTube, Internet Radio, Flickr, MobileMe.
What We Think: Most people agree: Apple’s first kick at the can in the living room sphere was mediocre at best. Apple TV was a good idea, but not especially attractive given the price, the competition and the limitations. This time around they’ve gone back to the drawing board and completely reinvented the “hobby” device from the ground up. The new Apple TV is tiny – not much bigger than a couple of packs of playing cards. It runs silently (no fan) and sips power – two things that customers said they valued. This little black box is effectively a media-streamer, but as is typical of Apple, a media-streamer that only plays nicely with Apple-approved content formats.
These formats are:
Audio: MP3, AIFF, WAV and AAC audio (the music format used by the iTunes store)
Photo: JPEG, GIF, TIFF
Video: H.264, MPEG4, MotionJPEG
To really get a sense of what this new version of Apple TV is all about, you need to understand what it can and can’t do, because it might make the difference between buying it, and waiting for something else to come along.
What it can do:
Apple TV is the ultimate iTunes companion. Any content you have within your iTunes library on your Mac or PC can streamed to Apple TV over Wi-Fi or Ethernet.
It can track your favourite TV shows and let you know if you’ve missed any episodes and then let you rent them (but not in Canada yet).
You can rent HD movies directly from the iTunes Store. You get 30 days to start watching and then as many plays as you like within 24 hours of starting the movie.
You get direct access to Netflix (which is launching in Canada this fall) so if you plan to become a Netflix member, Apple TV is probably a must-have purchase. In fact, Netflix, if you’re reading this, you should consider offering members a free Apple TV if they sign a three-year contract, just like the mobile carriers underwrite the cost of cellphones.
Instant access to photos on Flickr (and hopefully Picasa one day) makes it the biggest photoframe in your house. Access to YouTube means no longer having to gather around the laptop – this will be great for get-togethers (you know the kind where everyone seems to know of at least one clip that “you’ve got to see”).
You can remotely control your Apple TV from an iPod Touch, iPad or iPhone.
Swiping, pinching, un-pinching are all valid ways to control Apple TV, and will probably be more fun that using the included remote. Better yet, with the upcoming release of iOS 4.2 (and the previously mentioned AirPlay update) you can stream any content from your iPod Touch, iPad or iPhone directly to AppleTV.
What it can’t do:
Though Apple TV can stream every file that iTunes recognizes, there are still plenty of files that iTunes doesn’t recognize including WMV, MKV, DivX, xvid and other AVI formats. Likewise for lesser-known audio formats such as FLAC, OggVorbis, and RealAudio. If you’ve never strayed far from iTunes as your primary way of discovering, organizing and buying audio and video, this isn’t going to bother you at all. But if you’ve already spent considerable time and money building a library of content in these non-Apple-endorsed formats (Bittorrent people, I’m looking at you), Apple TV comes as a big disappointment.
Apple TV can’t access USB drives, disc-based media, Network Attached Storage (NAS) or content on your Mac/PC that isn’t recognized by iTunes. The only exception to this might be Apple’s own NAS product – Time Capsule. As of the writing of this post, I couldn’t find any information on this on either the Apple TV or Time Capsule product pages.
Apple TV is powered by Apple’s incredible A4 chip – the same brains that now control most of Apple’s products with the exception of their Mac computers and the lower-end iPods. So that means it is more than capable of running iOS. But no mention has been made of Apple TV running this platform. Given the enormous success that Apple has had turning the iPod Touch and iPhone into gaming platforms, why have they neglected to include Apple TV, the one device built specifically to connect to an HDTV, in this potentially massive gaming ecosystem? One might guess that they are merely waiting to gauge excitement levels (and adoption levels) of this new product before updating it with iOS, but if that were so, why didn’t Apple include Bluetooth on the Apple TV? Infra-red is useless for all but basic remote commands, while Wi-Fi seems an odd choice of interface when all 3 of the major game consoles use Bluetooth (or a related technology) for their remote controllers. And yet, as we mentioned before, the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch can all operate the Apple TV via Wi-Fi, so maybe there’s hope yet. At $119, Apple TV would be the least expensive way for people to add a gaming system to their TV.
So that’s what was announced, and you know where we stand. What was your take on Apple’s latest round of gadget goodies? Can’t wait to buy or disappointed by what was revealed? Let us know…