For the first time since the iPad went on sale earlier this year, it has a competitor. And I’m not talking about a thin and light laptop or netbook or even an eReader no matter how fancy they may be. I’m talking about the Samsung Galaxy Tab: an Android 2.2 powered touch screen device that rivals the iPad in all but a few areas and even manages to up the game with some features that the iPad lacks.
But when everything’s said and done, has Samsung managed to beat Apple at the tablet game? I wish the answer was an easy “yes” or “no”, but as is the case with so many Apple-Android comparisons, the answer is “Sort of, well, maybe… um you might want to sit down.”
So let’s begin at the beginning, with a quick look at the specs for these touch-screen devices. For the purposes of this review, we’ll look at the iPad WiFi+3G 16GB and the Galaxy Tab 16GB, since the Tab isn’t available as Wi-Fi only:
|Apple iPad||Samsung Galaxy Tab|
|Size (H/W/D/weight)||242.8/189.7/13.4/0.73 kg||190.1/120.5/12/0.38 kg|
|OS||iOS 4.1||Android 2.2 “Froyo”|
|Processor/speed||Apple A4 1Ghz||ARM Cortex A8 1Ghz|
|External storage||n/a||Up to 32GB (MicroSD)|
|Cameras||none||3.2MP rear/1.3MP front|
|Audio support||HE-AAC/AAC/Protected AAC/MP3/MP3 VBR/Audible/Apple Lossless/AIFF/WAV||MP3/WAV/eAAC+/AC3/FLAC|
|Video support||H.264 (mp4/m4v/mov) MPEG4 (mp4/m4v/mov) Motion JPEG||MP4/DivX/WMV/H.264/H.263|
|Battery life (claimed)||10 hr||7 hr|
|Price*||$679 (Apple)||$649 (Bell) $674.99 (Rogers)|
*Pricing is based on n0-contract. Discounts may be available with locked-in contract terms. See mobility dealers for details.
Okay, so without getting too deep into the above chart, you’ve probably already identified the key differences between the iPad and the Tab: The Tab is smaller, slightly thinner and much lighter than the iPad and it has two cameras whereas the iPad has none. It also has less screen resolution: 172,032 fewer pixels than the iPad to be precise, and for those who like relative terms that’s 21.8% less. That might be an important number later on. While Samsung has not used the same wonderful AMOLED screen on the Tab as they did on the Vibrant S (a rumoured 2011 update to the Tab will have it), the LED-backlit LCD screen gets the job done and I think compares favourably if not perfectly to the iPad’s larger display.
The Galaxy Tab’s form factor is probably the best argument against Steve Jobs’ now-famous claim that the “current crop of 7″ tablets will be DOA – dead on arrival.” With all due respect to the Apple research and development team, I think a 7″ device can provide a very good user experience for most tasks and frankly, a much better user experience than a 9.7″ device for a few specific tasks. The Tab is ideally sized and shaped for holding in a single hand. Most adults will be able to grasp both sides easily. The curved back not only helps in cradling the Tab but reduces fatigue too. The iPad is heavier and wider which means your hand can only hold it like a dinner plate, or cradled in the crook of your arm clipboard-style. Neither is ideal. Somewhat ironically – considering the fact that the iPad was never conceived as laptop replacement – an angled lap remains the most comfortable position in which to use it. And by the way, if you prefer to type with your thumbs as on a Blackberry or other phone-sized device, you can do that on the Tab in portrait orientation. Try that on an iPad. On a related note, the Tab has a vibrate function – something that Apple chose not to include on the iPad – and it’s a welcome addition. You can use it for alerts (the Tab is actually small enough to fit in a jacket pocket) or as haptic feedback when you type or my favourite use: to enhance gaming. While playing Labyrinth HD, I was delighted to find the Tab vibrating subtly when the virtual metal ball hit the walls or other objects. Now that I’ve had this experience I think it would be foolish of Apple not to include vibration in the next release of the iPad – it would be a boon for game developers.
The smaller form factor also enables the Tab to be used as a true e-reader. Now I know you can read books on the iPad, and according to one recent study 66% of iPad owners use their device for reading books. That’s a pretty impressive stat. But does it mean that the iPad is a great e-reader? No. It simply means that people who own iPads probably don’t own dedicated e-readers like the Kobo or Kindle. We’ve got an iPad and a Kobo at home and when it comes to reading there’s no contest, the Kobo wins. The e-ink screen is far less fatiguing on the eyes, but it’s the weight of the iPad that is the real barrier. Trying to hold that thing in your hands comfortably for more than ten minutes? Impossible. The Tab’s lighter weight and smaller screen make it a genuine competitor to the Kobos and Kindles of this world. The LCD screen is still no match for e-Ink, and there are no dedicated buttons for page turns, but I don’t think you’ll mind most of the time.
In terms of pure muscle, these two gadgets are definitely in the same weight class. In fact, Apple’s A4 processor – the same one it uses in the new iPhone 4 and iPod Touch, is essentially the same chip that Samsung has packed into the Tab. Yes, the Tab does have twice the RAM as the iPad, but keep in mind, RAM is less of a factor when it comes to overall performance of a mobile device like these units than it would in a PC. What matters most is how well the OS manages that CPU. I’ll get to that in the software section.
Apple boasts that the iPad will give you up to 10 hours of constant use when on Wi-Fi. The Tab’s power is good for 7 hours according to Samsung. But do those claims hold up in the real world? My experience with the iPad is that the battery is at least as good as Apple suggests, and maybe even a bit better. The Tab on the other hand seemed to under perform the brochure. My feeling is that 5.5 is probably a more realistic number.
And no doubt you’ve noticed the presence of not one but two cameras aboard the Tab. This is where most Apple faithful were let down by the iPad. Of all the criticisms levelled at the device on launch, the lack of a forward-facing camera for video chats was universally agreed upon. The other big irk was no USB port. Samsung has obviously learned from Apple’s trailblazing by ensuring that the Tab addresses the camera issue, but unfortunately they botched the implementation. Neither the front or rear facing cams produce decent images, even under good lighting conditions – something that is truly surprising given the success they’ve had with on-board cameras on their mobile phones. Worse still – and this should be a cautionary note for other manufacturers – the forward facing camera produces an awkward looking image of the person holding the device for a number of reasons. First, the offset of the camera from the screen means your subject (probably you) appears to be looking away from the lens – slightly to the left or slightly down. We’re used to this effect when people use laptop or desktop-based cams, but on a small, portable device the effect should be minimized – try the FaceTime cam on Apple’s iPhone 4 if you doubt me – it’s nearly perfect. Secondly, whether you hold the Tab in landscape or portrait mode, the image captured by the front camera is always in portrait mode. Again, they should have taken careful note of how the iPhone 4 does it: rotating automatically to match the device’s orientation. As an aside, I mentioned the lack of a USB port on the iPad, and the Tab lacks this function too but what it can do is recharge over a regular USB 2.0 port on your PC, something the iPad can’t do: it needs a dedicated 10W power supply. Traveling with the Tab means only bringing along the sync cable which is one less accessory to remember.
One area where the Tab has a real chance of improving on the iPad is media-file compatibility. The iPad, as with so many i-devices, supports only two standards of video (well three if you include Motion JPEG but I don’t know anyone who uses that format) and five standards of audio. While most of us can get by on the audio support, the video limitations can be frustrating – no DivX, xVid, MKV, avi, mpg playback. So I was pretty pumped to see a new player open this space up. The Tab improves upon the iPad’s efforts with DivX and WMV support but then disappointment sets in when you go to play videos on the Tab. The image quality itself is good, but there were noticeable stutters in the overall playback. It wasn’t awful and some people might not even notice it. But when you compare it to the iPad’s super-smooth video performance it definitely comes up short. One last note on videos: Even though the iPad offers native support for a few codecs, there are now a handful of great 3rd party apps including the very capable VLC Player that can handle many of the popular formats that aren’t supported. They do this via software as opposed to hardware which means that playback isn’t quite as smooth as the iPad’s native video app, but they give users a solid option for broad media support on the iPad.
Form-factors aside, the actual user experience is defined by software. But there are two components to software: the OS which regulates the way the hardware is manipulated and governs the basic functions such as volume levels, touch input, copy/paste, multi-tasking etc., and apps which are the programs that actually give the device the functionality you need (web browsing, watching videos, facebooking, email etc.)
On the app side of the equation, it’s hard to compare these two devices. In the iTunes App Store, there are over 41,000 apps that are designed either for the iPad or both the iPad and iPhone. There are few apps designed for the Tab itself and the Android App Store is just not set up for this relatively new category. I’m sure over time this will change but for now, I’m going to focus on the core elements of the iPad and the Tab – namely the OS and the apps each device ships with.
Android vs. iOS
This is the part where we come dangerously close to religion or politics in terms of topic sensitivity. These two competing operating systems are like flip sides of the same coin. They both strive to offer a powerful yet simple touch and gesture-based way of interacting with mobile gadgets along with easy access to growing libraries of free and paid apps that leverage the capabilities of each device. The philosophy behind each couldn’t be more different.
With Apple, it’s their OS running on their devices. The OS has been tuned for precisely the device that runs it and every single app in the iTunes App Store has been verified to run on every device listed in the compatibility portion of the description. If you like a neat, orderly and practically bullet-proof experience on a device, iOS is the way to go.
Android was born out of the belief that a mobile OS should be open, with as few rules and regulations as possible. It’s the Wild West compared to Apple’s walled garden. The upside of course is that you can choose from a growing list of devices that run Android and there is no one calling the shots but you when it comes to the apps you can install and run. Hardware developers are free to run their own “skin” on top of Android. In Samsung’s case that skin is called TouchWiz 3.0. This means that though Android devices are similar to one another, they all exhibit unique characteristics.
Now that we’ve discussed our two camps, what does this mean for the iPad and the Tab? It really comes down to elegance and sophistication.
The iPad runs a smooth as butter. Flicking between app screens, scrolling, transitions – these all happen beautifully and seamlessly. The combination of the iPad’s vibrant screen and iOS’s interpretation of your touches on the glass is a thoroughly elegant and sophisticated experience. It’s like driving a luxury-class European sedan.
Android 2.2 + Samsung’s TouchWiz on the Galaxy Tab performs more like sports car. The power is there, and you never feel like you’re waiting for things to happen, but everything is just a little more jarring. Turning the device from landscape to portrait orientation results in a “snap” transition on-screen to the new layout. When scrolling web pages, the text loses its edge smoothness until you stop moving and only then does it return.
If you’ve never used an iPad, I doubt very much that these things will bother you or cause you a moment’s concern. But it’s hard to get out of the lap of luxury and get comfortable in a little two-seater.
But of greater concern to me is the way the Tab handles Android apps. For the most part, apps run well and the Tab seems to manage its larger resolution (compared to Android phones) with the same “doubling” that the iPad performs on iPhone apps. There was a notable exception however. The racing game Asphalt 5 however, could not decide where it wanted to display itself on the screen. Consequently there were large white spaces at the top of the screen and buttons were no longer mapped for touch correctly. To stay with the car analogy, it was a wreck.
That’s something that has always worried me about Android. Similar to Microsoft’s Windows, which has to run on a vast number of different machines and processors, with thousands of programs and at least as many peripherals, Android needs to work well on lots of different mobile devices. Steve Wozniak, Apple’s other co-founder, recently made the same observation and even went so far as to say that he thinks Android will eclipse Apple’s iOS as the dominant force in mobile computing. Can such a system ever be as reliable as one where both OS and gadget are paired from the start, the one designed for the other? Time will tell.
One area however where Samsung’s implementation of Android beats the pants off the iPad is text-input. The Tab includes Swype. I’ve said this before: every device with a soft-keyboard should be equipped with this software. While I’m getting pretty good at tapping on those imaginary keys, being able to just drag your finger from one letter to the next and voila – your chosen word appears – is simply marvellous. Of course if you’d prefer not to use Swype, that’s fine – the standard soft keyboard layout is excellent and includes a feature which I sorely wish the iPad and iPhone had: the ability to press and hold a key to access a secondary character instead of switching modes. Physical keyboards can do this through alt and ctrl keys and I’ve just never understood why Apple clings to their first-generation keyboard.
Much like the iPad, the Tab ships with a minimal set of apps – just enough to get you going on email, calendaring, web browsing and other standard activities. Some of these apps have been well thought out – the calendar for instance gives you a great layout for looking at your day, week or month and makes navigating your appointments a breeze. Others don’t perform as well: the Photos app has trouble keeping up as you swipe from one photo to the next and the slideshow option produces jerky, stepped transitions that absolutely pale in comparison to the iPad’s presentation skills.
The email app is a mixed bag. The layout and overall readability Is excellent both in portrait and landscape mode, but there are some frustrating drawbacks such as no ability to individually delete emails from the inbox view without first entering a delete mode from the menu options. It can also be tricky to differentiate unread items from the ones you’ve read since the only difference is a slight bold treatment to the subject lines of the unread messages. What’s odd here is that the mail app on the Galaxy S Vibrant avoids both of these pitfalls. Hard to know if this is an Android 2.2 issue or just a mis-step on Samsung’s part in porting their mail app to the Tab.
One of the big surprises on the Tab is an app they’ve called the “Music Hub.” The first surprise is that this is Samsung’s answer to the iTunes Store – at least as far as music purchases are concerned. It’s the first time I’ve seen the app on any Android device and Samsung hasn’t made much effort to highlight it in any of their press. The second surprise is how good it is. Powered by a company called 7digital, the store offers downloads in DRM-free MP3 format. The store is easy to browse, has a decent if not comprehensive selection of artists and tracks and the whole thing has been optimized for use on a tablet. Given that Android users don’t have access to iTunes from their devices – at least not currently – Samsung’s Music Hub is the next best thing.
If you’ve patiently read through all of my observations on the Galaxy Tab vs. the iPad, and are still wondering where I stand, let me summarize:
- Android 2.2 with Samsung’s TouchWiz skin is a great OS for multi-touch devices but this combo running on the Tab is still no match for Apple’s iOS running on the iPad for overall smoothness and sophistication
- Some of the Tab’s included apps are not as well executed as those on the iPad
- The smaller footprint of the Tab does not hold it back as much as many anticipated and even gives it an advantage when it comes to e-reading and text input using the two-thumbs or Swype method. The Tab can be pocketed which might be a huge plus for some ultra-mobile types
- Ignore the addition of the two on-board cameras. They work, but they don’t work well enough that you would choose them over the camera on your phone.
To decide if the Tab is right for you, ask yourself these questions:
- Do you value a smaller, lighter device that is pocketable and can double effectively as an e-reader?
- Do you prefer the idea of Android’s flexibility and customization over the locked-down nature of Apple’s iOS – even if it comes at the price of a less elegant interface?
- Are you more interested in a productivity tool and place less of an emphasis on high-end multimedia capabilities?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions you owe it to yourself to check out the Samsung Galaxy Tab before making your final decision.
The Good: Simple set up and operation, excellent user interface, great selection of movies, access to photos, video and music are a nice touch.
The Bad: Movies don’t start streaming instantly, photo access is limited to one sub-folder, Apple has failed to maximize the capabilities of their A4 chip.
Form & Design
It’s hard to critique Apple’s choices on the design of the Apple TV. Its tiny footprint, sleek black exterior, understated power/activity light and built-in power adapter make the device nearly invisible when placed in or around your home theatre gear. Our system is comprised of an ancient VHS player, a DVD-recorder, home theatre receiver, HD PVR and 5-disc CD player. They’re all black, all big and boxy and whether I place the Apple TV above or beside the rest of the components, it all but disappears. Kudos to Apple for realizing the living room is not the place to make your device stand out. That job should rest on the one device you’re supposed to look at: your HDTV. Everything else is merely playing a supporting role.
If there’s a weakness in the design of the Apple TV, it’s the minimal connectivity options. The back of the unit includes: HDMI, Optical Out, Ethernet, micro-USB and the power port. That’s it. So if your TV doesn’t have HDMI, or if your home theatre receiver doesn’t have a free optical input, you can’t use Apple TV. There’s a certain consistency here however with Apple design choice from the past. They were one of the first to eliminate the floppy disk drive when they debuted the original iMac, and they were also one of the first to make USB the only accessory port (except for FireWire) on their machines. So it makes sense that they have now declared non-digital video to be passé. I’ll address that micro-USB port a little later – Apple claims it is only intended for “service and support.”
This couldn’t be easier. Plug in the HDMI cable to your TV or home theatre receiver, plug in the optical cable if you need it, and plug in the power cable. You’re done.
Turn everything on and you’re immediately greeted by the Apple TV home screen which is a simple horizontal menu system that sits roughly in the middle of your screen. Apple owes a design debt to Sony here, whose Xross Media Bar (XMB) pioneered this use of horizontal options followed by vertical sub-menus. However in Apple TV’s case, the sub-menus are more like drop-downs, in that they are only visible as options below the main category. It’s pure Apple: dead-simple and very elegant. The layout and font choice emphasize readability and usability over flashy effects. Conspicuously absent here are icons of any kind. We’ve grown so used to having them in our UI’s – from our PC’s desktops to our smartphones – that having word-based options is both oddly retro and refreshing.
Navigating the menus with the included remote control is also a breeze. The main d-pad with centre selection button will be intuitive to everyone, while the menu button functions as a “back” key. The remote itself is beautiful; carved from a single chunk of aluminum, it feels smooth and light in your hand while giving the impression that it could withstand an enormous amount of abuse. It’s a little absurd in a world where we all need multi-function remotes to exert control over our myriad gadgets to spend so much time and presumably money on designing a single-device remote as Apple has done. Yet when you compare Apple TV to its competitors – media players from companies like Western Digital, Roku and others, it’s the remote that sets Apple TV apart. Its simplicity and elegance reminds you that this device was designed by people who value form as much – perhaps even more – than function.
Apple TV’s primary goal is to turn your HDTV into the digital media viewer that so many of us have been using our computers for. Movies and TV shows, videos, music and photos. These four experiences form the core of the Apple TV experience.
Your choices are: Rentals from iTunes, a subscription with Netflix, or any iTunes-compatible movie in your PC or Mac’s library.
Renting a movie from iTunes is supposed to be an “instant” option – something you would consider doing as an alternative to on-demand choices from your cable or satellite provider. It’s an attractive choice: not only are movie titles as current as those in your local video store but they can be had in 720p HD with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound – and at $5.99, they’re a buck cheaper than the cable/satellite options. And there’s no question, the movies look and sound great. But is it “instant”? Not really.
We have a 5mb DSL connection at home which, I grant you, isn’t blazingly fast – but it’s comparable to the average broadband speed across Canada at the moment and it’s much faster than the average speed in the U.S. which Ars Technica has pegged at 3.9Mbps. It’s more than sufficient for watching YouTube videos. But when my wife and I sat down on Friday to watch Iron Man 2, Apple TV informed us that we could start watching our rental in 184 minutes. 3 hours before I could watch my “instant” movie rental? Actually it wasn’t 184 minutes. That, as it turned out, was only the initial estimate. Within a few seconds, the time remaining had jumped to 360 minutes, before it finally settled on 234 minutes. How long did it actually take? I have no idea. We left Apple TV alone to complete that process and opted to watch a movie on the PVR instead.
Waiting to watch downloaded content is nothing new – in fact I’m used to it. So why am I put off by the heavy wait time? Because Apple has promised something quite different. Their Apple TV feature web page says:
“Once you find what you’re looking for, simply press Play, and in seconds, you’re watching the opening credits with theater-like Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound.”
There are any number of factors that could have affected our experience including: how many other processes were using our bandwidth (e.g. skype, BitTorrent, Windows Updates etc.), the time of day, the number of other Apple TV users trying to stream the same content, or even the strength of our Wi-Fi network. But I’d have to say our scenario was pretty typical. We wanted to watch a movie at 9:30 p.m. on a Friday night. Except that we couldn’t.
Once we finally got to the movie (the next evening), the results were amazing. Superb picture – certainly the equal to HD movies on Bell TV – and crystal-clear sound.
If it were not for the unfortunate delay of gratification, renting movies via Apple TV would be a joy. You can browse genres, search for specific titles, view trailers, read both professionally written critiques as well as those submitted by users and cross-reference actors and directors from one movie to any other iTunes rental that those people are associated with. There’s also an “In Theaters” section which lets you watch trailers for current theatrical releases. It’s a very well thought-out experience.
With Netflix, things should move along a bit better if only for two reasons: 1) most of their content is in standard definition which eats up much less bandwidth, and 2) their infrastructure might be more robust than Apple’s – after all Netflix has been in the on-demand streaming game for longer than Apple. But with Netflix your choices are limited to older titles and the Canadian catalog is still quite small compared to the U.S. offering.
Finally, the best option might just be streaming movies you’ve already downloaded to your PC over your home network. This has two advantages: Your streaming performance is limited only by the quality of your home network (and perhaps the PC that is running iTunes) and you can – in theory at least – source your movies from any service you like as long as you make sure they end up in the QuickTime video format that iTunes recognizes.
As a footnote, Apple TV in Canada doesn’t have any TV shows available for rent at the time of this review. Let’s hope this changes. TV shows can however be purchased on iTunes, saved to your PC and then streamed to the Apple TV.
You can sum-up Apple TV’s video capability in one word: YouTube.
Given the enormous success YouTube has had in becoming the world’s video repository, having an easy way to enjoy YouTube on your TV is great. I’ve lost track of the number of times we’ve had guests over for a drink only to have the conversation turn to “this hilarious video on YouTube.” Usually this is followed by someone trying to describe the clip in question and depending on how good a story-teller they are, that can be enough. But it’s way better to flip on the TV, punch in a search query and actually see the clip. You can easily spend an hour or more just jumping from one favourite to another and somehow you still feel like you’re socializing even though you’re just watching videos.
It sure beats gathering around a 15” laptop.
Naturally, being able to access your iTunes content via Apple TV means that your music library is now connected to the best speakers in your house – your home theatre speakers. For some people, this might be the first time they’ve listened to their MP3s on anything but their iPod. It’s a wonderful experience. Browsing your songs, loading up playlists and viewing album art are all reborn visually as well as sounding great. You also get the option to listen to Internet radio stations – they’re the same ones that you have access to via the Radio feature in iTunes.
Unfortunately Apple has decided to limit music activity on the Apple TV to just listening. There is no iTunes Store access for buying new music which I think is a huge wasted opportunity. I know the reason: Apple has designed the Apple TV to be a passive device – it doesn’t store anything locally except your account settings, preferences and the buffered portion of your rented movies. It has no place to store purchased content, be it video or audio. But this seems like a cop-out. If it’s smart enough to connect me to my iTunes account, and smart enough to connect to my PC, why can’t it act as the go-between for these two components and let me buy a song from iTunes and save it on my PC? Definitely an area for improvement.
If you haven’t viewed your digital photos on your HDTV, you are missing out. Your HDTV is bar-none the very best digital photo frame you could possibly buy. Even if you own an iMac or Apple Cinema Display – both of which are stunning to look at – a 50-inch plasma, even one running 720p, will put them to shame.
Which is why one of the best features of Apple TV is the ability to access the digital photos from your PC on your HDTV. It might even be worth the $119 price of admission on its own.
With the photos feature, Apple has applied many of the tricks from its iPhoto software to create a range of superb photo slideshow options including effects such as Origami and Ken Burns (that’s the slow zoom and pan technique used to such great effect on shows like Biography, named for its inventor Ken Burns). You can choose any song or playlist from your iTunes music library to accompany these slide shows, or let Apple TV choose them randomly.
But the photos feature is not without drawbacks. One in particular makes me crazy. Photo access on Apple TV is done via the Home Sharing function in iTunes. This feature lets you identify the location (note: singular, not plural) of your photos on your PC that you’d like Apple TV to access. So far, so good. The way I’ve chosen to organize our photos – at least at a file level – is to create year folders with month sub-folders. Typically this looks like: My Pictures > 2010 > August. So naturally I’ve told iTunes that all my photos are located in “My Pictures”. The trouble comes when you try to navigate this file structure on Apple TV. It lets you choose the year folder e.g. “2010” from your list, but that’s it – there is no option to navigate a second (or third or fourth) sub-folder like “August”. It simply groups every photo from every sub-folder at the year level.
This is enormously frustrating because I prefer to do my entire event-based photo grouping as “albums” inside Google’s free Picasa photo tool, not in my computer’s file system. I suspect that if you use Picasa or iPhoto, you do the same thing.
This arrangement forces you to create separate folders at the top level of your photos directory for each event that you want to browse as a discrete selection of photos. Not fun. And it gets worse…
The other problem that surfaces at this point is file size. When I dump photos from my camera to my PC, I keep them at the highest resolution possible – 5MP for our point-and-shoot and 10MP for our dSLR. Many newer cameras produce even larger files. But this resolution is only needed for making prints – it’s a waste of information for HDTV’s which currently max out at 1920×1080 (roughly 2MP) and Apple TV can only display 720p – 1366×768 (just over 1MP). And the larger your image file is, the longer Apple TV takes to process it, create viewable thumbnails and then prep them for slideshow viewing. Some of my “year” folders contain well over 2,000 photos. Apple TV almost comes to a standstill trying to work through all of those 5 and 10MP files!
So in order to have a truly optimized photo viewing experience on Apple TV, you need to follow this process:
– Open your favourite photo tool (Picasa, iPhoto etc.)
– Group your photos into events, people, years – whatever makes sense to you from a slideshow perspective
– Export these groups of photos at the lower resolution of 720p (in Picasa you can choose the export resolution) to a new sub-folder in the folder you have told iTunes contains your images
Now you should be able to view your photos quickly and easily on Apple TV.
But it shouldn’t have to be this hard and it’s unlike Apple to have made it so awkward. The good news is, I think most of this awkwardness can be fixed with a few tweaks to Apple TV’s firmware and enhancements to iTunes. Apple, if you’re listening, do what you do best: make this an effortless experience, not a tortuous one. I have faith you can do it ;-)
The other options for Photos is Flickr or MobileMe. I’m a big Flickr fan and have been a pro user for a few years now. Apple TV lets me access all of my uploaded photos, shows me easy ways to get to my friends’ photos and of course I can simply browse the millions of publicly accessible images from the rest of the Flickr community. Really great.
But recently it was pointed out that Flickr has lost its crown as the world’s favourite place to share photos to social network behemoth Facebook. So it’s a little surprising that Apple, with all of its Facebook-friendly features on devices like the iPhone, has given Apple TV users zero options to view photos from this platform. Flickr is great, but when it comes to seeing your friends’ shared photos, nothing comes even close to Facebook. Maybe this will be added with the next software update. Let’s hope so.
I’m not a MobileMe user, so I can’t really comment on this experience – readers, please chime in if you have some feedback for the group.
One of the benefits of being invested in Apple’s ecosystem is the compatibility of their devices. Case in point: remote control of Apple TV via your iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch.
This is also accomplished via the Home Sharing function in iTunes which allows the i-device in question (running Apple’s free app Remote) to discover each other. Once this is done, you can simulate all of the functions of Apple TV’s included remote with your touch screen. Swiping takes the place of clicking on the d-pad, while tapping replaces the centre Enter key. Dedicated button on the display give you the remaining Menu (back) and Play/Pause controls. The system works, but there can be some noticeable lag, because unlike using the aluminum remote which communicates with the Apple TV instantly via infra-red, the remote app uses Wi-Fi which can vary in its responsiveness depending on how good your home Wi-Fi network is.
Using the iPad or iPhone in this way is cool, but hardly a necessity. A much better reason to use these extra devices is that they give you a touch-screen keyboard. Text entry isn’t required a lot on Apple TV, but when it is needed, it’s a pain. That’s because you have to navigate an on-screen keyboard with the remote control, one character at a time. Got a long email address or password? Better be patient.
This brings up a minor flaw with the Apple TV. No Bluetooth. I know that with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth isn’t a necessity, but Apple’s own Wireless Keyboard (which uses Bluetooth, not Wi-Fi) would be an ideal companion for the Apple TV, but alas, never the twain shall pair, er, meet.
I realize that there’s only so much that can be packed into a $120 device and still have it remain profitable, and that Apple has very carefully chose which features should be a part of the Apple TV experience. Nevertheless I humbly submit to you that the following features should be a part of Apple TV either with a firmware update or on the next generation of hardware:
– Bluetooth. As mentioned above, being able to use a wireless keyboard or other accessories would be great.
– Web surfing. Apple TV is equipped with an A4 processor which we know from the iPad, iPod Touch and iPhone is more than able to handle the demands of a browser like the mobile version of Safari. On-board memory shouldn’t be an issue either – if it can buffer a hi-def movie, a few web pages should be easy. I know that pointing and clicking would be a little tricky using the included remote, but if they had included Bluetooth, they could easily sell an wireless keyboard/trackpad combo accessory that would handle the job handily
– External media support. Apple has had a long history of preferring not to support various media codecs, instead asking their users to stick with one or two “standards”. There are good reasons for this I’m sure. But the inability to plug a USB flash drive into Apple TV in order to playback photos/videos/music is frustrating given that this is table stakes for every other set-top-box and media streamer on the market – including a lot of the new DVD and Blu-ray players that have come out in recent months
– Apps. I’m not the first one to observe that with the A4 chip and decent memory, a device like the Apple TV is a prime candidate for its own apps. Especially at a time when companies like Vizio, LG, Samsung, Sony – just to name a few – are adding network connectivity and apps to their current batch of products, and when Google has just released their first Google TV appliance, it seems very odd that the driving force behind the app universe – Apple – has left their only dedicated TV device out of the game.
– FaceTime. Apple just announced that they are adding support for FaceTime to all Macs that have a FaceTime (iSight) camera. There is a micro-USB port on the Apple TV. Skype is being integrated into various TV-connected devices and in some cases into the TV’s themselves. These facts support an obvious conclusion: Apple TV should be the device that brings FaceTime to the TV.
– 1080p. Yes, my Apple TV unit was hard pressed to deliver even a 720p stream in the “seconds” that it is supposed to be capable of, so obviously 1080p is out of the question for now. And yes, 720p looks damn good as it is. But that doesn’t mean that the Apple TV unit shouldn’t be capable of a higher HD resolution for all of the other tasks. Nearly every HDTV sold today is 1080p capable. Apple TV should be too.
Apple TV represents a good value for the money, but you need to be okay with the limitations Apple has imposed on the device and recognize that a decent broadband connection and home network are mandatory to make use of it.
But the real question you need to ask yourself when it comes to a product like Apple TV is: What does it do for me that I either could not do before, or could not do as conveniently. The answer is different for each consumer depending on what gadgets you own and which services you have access to.
If for instance, you own a PS3 and you subscribe to cable or satellite, then you can already do 90% of what Apple TV offers.
If you don’t own a Blu-ray player, your computer or laptop aren’t near your TV or don’t have HDMI connections and you don’t subscribe to movie networks or have pay-per-view options, Apple TV is an enticing product.
On the other hand, if you’re looking to simplify your media options and perhaps save some money, you might be able to replace your cable box and avoid the purchase of a Blu-ray player by going with Apple TV instead. The combination of iTunes movie rentals and a Netflix subscription might be all you need.
Something to keep in mind if you are planning to increase the amount of streamed media you consume: Check your bandwidth cap from your ISP if applicable. Ours stands at 25GB/month. That one download of Iron Man 2 consumed nearly 3GB of data. If we watched only 1 movie a week, we’re at 12GB and that’s before any other web activity. It should still be fine – we aren’t heavy web users. But our kids are still young so that will certainly change.
One thing’s for sure: despite Apple’s light-hearted reference to Apple TV as “hobby”, they are now taking the living room seriously. You may not be ready for Apple TV today, but if you want to see the future of television, keep watching this space.