Home Why I Still Won’t Buy an Apple TV

Why I Still Won’t Buy an Apple TV

Apple prefaced yesterday’s launch of the third generation iPad with a minor update to a product that makes up a much smaller proportion of the company’s sales. The Apple TV still sports the same external design and price point, but with an overhauled interface and crucially, the ability to playback videos at 1080p high-definition resolution.

For current owners of the Apple TV and those who are accustomed to buying content from iTunes, the new device is a worthy purchase. Although I have high hopes for whatever Apple is planning on the TV front in the long run, their connected set top box has never wowed me. That isn’t to say there aren’t a few enhancements that could change my mind, though.

When it comes to Internet video streaming boxes like the Apple TV, a few of its competitors bring distinct advantages to the table. Sure, Google TV’s first iteration may have bombed (Google’s working on that), but even that has a few features Apple doesn’t. Both Roku and the Boxee Box offer something in terms of either content or functionality that Apple hasn’t managed to build out yet.

Content Limitations and No Web Browser

There is, to be sure, a pretty large selection of content that’s available on the Apple TV. In addition to television shows and movies in the iTunes Store, there’s Netflix, YouTube and a few other apps like WSJ Live and some sports-related content channels. Still, there could be more.

One major advantage that Roku owners have is the ability to access Hulu Plus and Amazon’s streaming video library from the device. Boxee and Google TV have both been promising Hulu Plus for quite some time, and Boxee lacks native access to Amazon streaming video.

On Boxee, the number of content apps is virtually limitless. Granted, most of that content is free, Web-only stuff like podcasts and Internet TV programming. It’s not the premium content from TV that most people are clamoring to watch, but much of it is actually quite good and often has high production value.

One way to easily expand the breadth of content that’s accessible from a device like this is by including a Web browser. The Boxee Box and Google TV both allow users to browse the Web from within the box’s UI. Granted, this has its limitations. As Google TV and Boxee users are all too aware, websites can block those devices from accessing their content if they so desire. Some networks have done this with Google TV, and attempting to access Hulu.com from the browser on a Boxee Box returns an error message.

Even so, offering a Web browser on a streaming set top box dramatically increases the breadth of content available to watch on one’s TV. For Apple, such a feature is probably not a priority, since the Apple TV is largely a vehicle for selling content via the iTunes Store.

There are also design considerations. Apple prides itself on its sleek, simple product design. Including a Web browser would force them to rethink the simplicity and small size of the remote control. They would have to build a QWERTY keyboard into the back of the remote like Boxee did. The Remote app for iOS could easily be optimized with Web browsing controls, but it wouldn’t be feasible to require a second device in order for the Apple TV to function properly.

No Third Party App Store

This kind of goes hand-in-hand with the content limitations overall, but it’s another thing many users have been dying to see on the Apple TV. Just as iPhone apps are scaled up to fit the iPad, select iOS apps could be redesigned for TV screens and Apple could distribute them through the iTunes App Store.

To be fair, this is almost certainly coming in the future. One major hang-up is rumored to be the ongoing discussions with content providers, with whom Apple is allegedly negotiating about content distribution and pricing.

Once the App Store has a section for TV apps, suddenly Apple starts to look a lot more like the Boxee platform, in the sense that that any Web video service, podcast or Internet TV series could have its own app. It will probably be much more effective than Boxee or any other platform, both because of Apple’s strict user experience guidelines and because developers will have a heightened incentive to produce apps for a platform built by a company with the reach and reputation of Apple.

While Apple TV may have some growing to do, it’s not as though any of its competitors single-handedly blow it out of the water. The entire market for streaming set top boxes is young and evolving and Apple is widely understood to have much, much bigger plans for TV in general. It remains to be seen what those plans are, but if anybody can shake things up, it’s them.

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