Saturday, January 22, 2011

Screaming Video

In many ways, we're a family on the cutting edge of new technology. In other ways, we're a bit behind the times. We recently and belatedly realized that instead of paying big bucks to our satellite TV provider for a lot of high-end channels we mostly don't watch, we could instead pay $7.99 to Netflix and watch any of bazillions of TV shows and movies, any time we like, on demand. To do this, we needed a new piece of hardware: a "streaming video" box hooked up to our Internet connection and to our TV set. The hardware costs in the neighborhood of $100, depending on what you get; although some brands are more expensive, you can get a very nice unit for that price from a number of vendors.

That sounded like a good deal to us, so all we had to do was decide which brand. I chatted at length with a good friend who had experience with a couple of different models, and we did our research on the Web, looking at specs and reviews. Based on on research and word-of-mouth, it came down to two choices: Apple TV, and Roku.

In most respects there's little to distinguish these products. Our friend told us that both were good and we'd be happy with either, but in his opinion the Apple product had (as you might expect!) a nicer user interface. Both he and a reviewer also thought that Apple provided better picture quality. Pretty much everybody agrees that Roku offers a lot more content than Apple TV, but all we really care about is Netflix, and that's available through both boxes.

We've been an Apple household for over twenty years. Nothing as complex as a computer (or anything with a computer in it) is ever 100% perfect, and we've had some complaints over the years; but in general, Apple has consistently provided great products and we've been very happy with them. That made the decision seem clear: we went down to the Apple store and bought an AppleTV.

If you haven't seen one of these things, they're absurdly small: a little larger (and squarer) than a hockey puck. You plug them into the wall for power, into your household network (wired or wireless) for Internet access, and into your TV set. Power it up, work through a couple of minutes of easy setup, and hey presto! TV on demand... it says here.

And suddenly, we found ourselves in the wide, wide, world of dreadful disappointment. We selected a show, the "I'm busy" spinner appeared, and we had to wait for a few minutes, about enough time to go make microwave popcorn. Then the show started, played for fifteen seconds, then froze. It continued this alternating stop-and-go for the first several minutes of the show. After that, it seemed to settle down, and provided smooth playback and very good picture quality. We were disappointed, but it seemed like something we could live with.

We tried another show. The spinner appeared... and never went away! The show never started. After twenty minutes of increasing disbelief, we reset the machine and tried again. While some shows seemed to play without problems (other than a bit of startup stuttering), most shows would never start. We'd just get that spinner, for as long as our patience held out.

People, it is not "video on demand" if it takes half an hour or more for the show to start!

We got on the Internet again, using search keywords like "slow loading." We quickly found out what none of the reviews had told us: a small but significant number of Apple TV users have been reporting this behavior. It apparently started about three months ago, with Apple's latest software update for the product. To date, Apple has neither acknowledged the problem nor provided a fix.

In over twenty years, this is the first time we've ever had to regard an Apple product as a complete and utter failure. That thing is a $100 doorstop.

Our internet connection is 1.5MB DSL. We are aware that 3.0MB is the recommended minimum for streaming TV. We've signed up for that, and the upgrade should kick in sometime next week. We will keep the Apple TV box until then, and see if the network upgrade helps. If it doesn't we'll return it, with some choice words for the salesman who sold it to us without saying a word about these problems.

Last night, we went out and bought a Roku XD|S at Fry's, for exactly the same price as the Apple box. We brought it home, plugged it in, set it up, and it pretty much worked immediately. The user interface and setup procedures are a bit more cumbersome than Apple's (and the screen display and menus are definitely uglier), but the Roku is not at all difficult to use. We had one setup glitch: you have to tell the Roku to install the Netflix application, which it does by downloading from the network. (Apple TV comes with Netflix pre-installed.) Just like the Apple box, this download showed us its version of "please wait" and stayed that way for twenty minutes until we ran out of patience. We restarted the box, and found that Netflix was now installed and working. We had no further problems: every show we tried started within seconds, played smoothly, and showed good picture quality. (We expect the picture quality to improve once our network upgrade is complete.)

Unless the network upgrade somehow fixes Apple's problem and the Apple TV really does show significantly better picture quality than the Roku, we'll be returning the Apple box and keeping the Roku.

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