10 Reasons Why the $300 iDongle is Not for Me

Over the course of the past six months I’ve been in a kind of spiral like hypnotic love affair with Apple Computer. It began when I converted from Windows to a Mac for my primary PC, and as I’ve explored more and more cool things that I can do with my Mac, the love affair just gets stronger and stronger.

So it’s with great interest that I’ve been following Apple’s iTV initiative (now dubbed Apple TV), an initiative that I dubbed the iDongle a while back. To be fair, I haven’t actually tried the iDongle yet. But I’ve read up on it a bit and for me it lacks some key functionality necessary to make it a winner.

A couple of articles worth checking out are an article by The Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg (a fairly meaty hands on review of the unit) and Wired’s article, 5 Reasons Why Apple TV Rules, 5 Reasons Why it Sucks. Dave Winer sounds like he is also going to wait on the iDongle because he’s not so sure of the DRM-laden content to be consumed on it.

So on with the list.

1. the iDongle cannot easily stream cable or satellite HDTV content to your TV. Whatever you say about the long tail of internet video, much of the professional TV that I end up watching (which is less and less these days) is done via cable or satellite TV. DiscoveryHD is breathtaking beautiful. Watching each of Bill Hendrickson’s 3 wives on HBO’s Big Love in high def simply rocks. This is the number one reason why I won’t buy an iDongle. Especially when both TiVo and Microsoft have developed integrated systems capable of recording premium HDTV content this seems like an obvious flaw in Apple’s offering to me. At present I’m using the DirecTV TiVo HR10-250, a four tuner beauty of a machine with a big hard drive that works flawlessly.

Yes, there are rumored solutions to try and get cable HD content on your Mac, but if I wanted complicated I’d be hacking my way around through some DYI Linux or Myth TV type thing.

2. There is not a lot of free HDTV content on the net yet. The problem with a lot of video on the internet still is that it looks like crap. Yes you can find the occasional interesting video on DivX’s Stage Six, but that content is extremely limited. The problem comes down to bandwidth. Robert Scoble records fantastic content for Podtech with a great HD camera that I’d love to watch in high def on my 43″ plasma, the problem is that it’s too expensive to stream these huge HDTV files. So until widespread HDTV content makes it’s way on the internet, I’m less interested in watching it on my 43″ plasma widescreen.

I’m also not crazy about having to manually convert a lot of different video file formats out there to get them to play on the iDongle? Why doesn’t the iDongle just support more of the major video formats out there?

3. No DVD player. Yes, I know Apple wanted to keep it simple, but if for no other reason than it looks cool being able to ditch your clunky DVD player for a beautiful Apple TV might make some sense. When DVD players sell for like $20 these days it would seem like a pretty cheap thing to incorporate into the unit. Both Microsoft’s Media Center and the XBox 360 have DVD players built in. How is having to convert my DVDs through something like this simpler than just sticking the DVD into a small slot like the one that sits at the front of my MacBook Pro?

4. $300 for something that basically just allows me to watch crappy quality internet video on a 43 inch plasma or buy Apple supplied DRM’d non HD content (that I’m already paying for and recording on my HDTV TiVo in HD)? No thanks. Jeremy Horowitz notes that recent changes in Quicktime’s Export mode *might* make more HDTV quality video available via the iDongle in the future.

5. It doesn’t play kick ass video games. I originally bought my XBox 360 to use it as an extender unit for my Microsoft Media Center PC. I wasn’t a gamer and though I’d never be a gamer… until I started playing games on the XBox 360. My two sons and I have probably spent 20 hours over the course of the past month playing Lego Star Wars II on the XBox 360. We just bought the Anakin Skywalker ghost character in the game and are working hard to get the Ghost of Yoda next. Yes, the XBox 360 is a great way (even if slightly more expensive) to stream Media Center content to your TV — but it also has a kick ass gaming platform.

6. You can’t control the volume with the iDongle’s remote. Huh? This seems like an absolute no brainer. The earliest and I mean very earliest television remote controls did two things well, change the channel and adjust the volume. To not include super important volume control on the iDongle remote seems, well, just odd. It means that you must cannot simplify down to a single remote without buying a Universal remote.

7. Wireless speeds still suck. Ok, so you’re king of the bittorent pirates and the iDongle is for you because, well, why pay HBO to record HD movies anyway? The problem is that getting these large files to seamless zip around your network might not be so easy wirelessly. As Mossberg notes, “We also bought some TV shows, movies and songs from iTunes on our synchronized laptop, and they were automatically transferred to Apple TV, where we could watch them. It can, however, take hours to synchronize large files like movies over a slow wireless network.”

8. A 40GB hard drive with no expandability functionality? How the iDongle works is it synchs up with your primary computer and then synches your video content onto it’s 40GB drive. Huh? Did I just say that? 40GB drive? What is this 1997? My HD TiVo has a 250GB drive and if I really wanted more I could send the thing to Weaknees and get up to a terabyte of storage.

9. What kind of Apple solution wouldn’t involve being able to directly stream YouTube content? Pandora? LastFM? Mossberg notes:

“Apple TV’s most important limitation is that it can’t stream much video or audio directly from the Internet — yet. The capability to go directly to the Internet, bypassing the computers in your home, is built in, but is initially being used only to fetch feature film trailers and short preview clips of popular songs, TV shows and movies sold on the iTunes store.”

Now isn’t that Eric Schmidt guy from Google on Apple’s board or something? Why in the world isn’t there built in functionality to search and view YouTube videos (that little company owned by Google) on this thing? Or at the very least have some area for highlighted most popular YouTube clips? You can’t easily download clips from YouTube and get them on this thing so why not at least let you stream it?

10. Why not just buy a Mac Mini, use Elgato’s EyeTV, and skip the middle man? Although
a Mac Mini costs more than the iDongle you get something pretty cool with it, another actual usable computer. Even if more expensive, at least with EyeTV you can get OTA HDTV. This seems to represent better value to me than to $300 iDongle which doesn’t even come with cables. Of course Monster Cables is happy to step in and fleece you for the cables that you might want to go with your iDongle.

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14 Comments

  1. Brad Balfour says:

    I’m eagerly awaiting the Apple TV that I ordered on 1/9.

    Most of the reasons you list either just don’t matter to me or aren’t totally correct.

    But most of all I think you missed the point.

    I already have an nice Oppo 971 upconverting DVD player. And I can record HD on my DVR. I don’t need Apple TV to do those things.

    But I have lots of high rez photos in iPhoto (plus slideshows with music). I have many home movies made in iMovie. And a ton of songs from my cds in iTunes.

    Right now I can’t easily get that content into the living room to share when the Grandparents come over. Crowding them around the computer monitor to see the grandkids latest photos or home video isn’t working very well.

    With Apple TV I’ll be able to put that content on a 56″ HDTV and a dozen people can all watch it at once :-)

    Sure, it’ll be nice to view a few video podcasts or other content on the TV via iTunes. Nice bonus.

    Will I watch a TV show or movie? Doubtful. I have a few that I got off iTunes for free. I’ll try those. Will I pay $2? Not unless my TiVo and Comcast DVR both messed up on the recording.

    Will I buy a movie? Doubtful. The quality I can buy today is just shy of DVD so I might as well by the DVD. Of course when the have 720p 5.1 surround movies available, then that might change. Especially if there is a $1.99 rental option rather than $9.99 to buy.

    But that’s all gravy. It’s not why I coughed up $299 on day 1.

    Oh, and a few minor corrections to some of your reasons:

    7. Wireless only. Actually… there is an ethernet jack on the back. Specs on Apple’s web site say: “10/100 Ethernet port”.

    8. USB port. Actually… there is a USB 2.0 port on the box as well. No one knows if that’ll allow an external drive someday. And the 40GB drive is just to sync content so that the Mac in the other room doesn’t have to be turned on all the time.

    Brad

  2. André says:

    And check out The Online Reporter’s take here:

    http://tinyurl.com/2rdmco
    “Is Microsoft’s Answer to Apple TV Already on the Market?”

  3. Thomas-

    I’ve just canceled my order for AppleTV as I’ve replaced my Mac Mini running OS X and EyeTV’s software with the same Mini running Windows MCE with a 360 on another television.

    Three points I want to make -

    1. #10 EyeTV is great if you only want one tuner, but if you add a second one, the software is buggy as hell. I’ve been a Mac guy for 17 years and I dropped my EyeTV/Mini solution in favor of Windows MCE.

    2. As good as any PVR is, they fail. Tivo may never fail you, but you might fail your Tivo. I sometimes forget to set up a recording. I really think that the AppleTV/iTunes model (or if you prefer, on demand) is the way of the future.

    3. Depending on how much television that you watch, buying from iTunes can be cheaper than getting service from the cable company. –

    http://www.ditchingcable.com/itunes/ditching-cable-for-itunes/

    I’ve written a lot about this over on ditchingcable.com (although it hasn’t been updated since my switch to MCE). At the end of the day, if Apple upgrades their downloads to 720p, for me their wouldn’t be any argument to buy all programming from them.

    Cheers,
    Randy Stewart
    randy@boxbe.com

  4. Thomas Hawk says:

    3. Depending on how much television that you watch, buying from iTunes can be cheaper than getting service from the cable company. -

    Randy, possibly, and if I could get all the premium HDTV content that I wanted for less money and it were just me I might consider it.

    On the other hand my wife and kids consume a lot of TV in our household as well and then there is just the occasional browsing type TV that goes on (for instance, I watched 30 minutes of Adam Sandler hosting Letterman last night on a whim). Add to this the live sort of televised stuff, occasional news shows, etc. And I’m not sure that at least for my family that Apple’s solution would be easier or cheaper than my HDTV DirecTV TiVo.

  5. Shawn Oster says:

    @Brad Balfour:

    For everything you are wanting: home video, photos and music streaming, an XBox 360 core system costs exactly the same amount as an Apple TV and can do all of that, plus more. You don’t even need MCE to display photos, video or music.

    I find it odd though that Apple has released a product that is rather… underwhelming. While I’m not always the biggest fan of the “cult of Apple” I’ll easily admit that their hardware is usually very well designed with a strong focus on the consumer’s needs. Just the lack of volume makes me wonder if Steve was out of town the day that got approved.

    While digital downloads may be the future of television I don’t see that happening until the digital selection has 100% parity with what you can record off the air, along with the ability to browse new content. There are so many shows on the History channel I never would have seen if I had to conciously purchase them before hand.

    I actually see a great future/hope in Microsoft’s IPTV + XBox 360 stratagy. Of course Microsoft will be hindered by what it’s always hindered by, it’s OEMs. It’s up to the providers in your area to offer IPTV and so Microsoft won’t be able to control the stream, hence won’t be able to deliever a consistant experience, thus leading to mixed or lukewarm reviews. Another place that Apple shines, they know if you want something done right you need to do it yourself.

  6. Anonymous says:

    It seems to me that posts like this are written to drum up visitors and eyeballs…

  7. Brent Evans says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more. The Apple TV that can’t be used to watch TV does not make sense.

    http://brentevans.blogspot.com/2007/03/apple-tv-i-dont-get-it.html

  8. There are two other biggies you missed:

    - You can’t rent, only buy, from iTunes. How many times do you really want to watch a typical movie or the last season of Survivor?

    - iTunes doesn’t store your purchase history “in the sky” so if you lose your HDD, or accidentally delete a movie or something, you’re outta luck. Can’t just re-download – have to re-buy.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Excellent reasons. When I first played with Apple TV at Macworld, I was surprised there was no way for a user to acquire content directly in the UI.

  10. Nate says:

    Yep, I agree.

    Right now in its current incarnation this is a fanboy device and that’s all.

  11. Laroquod says:

    Everyone already has a DVD player attached to their TV. So what you’ve proposed is a solution in search of a problem. Same goes for cable or satellite.

    Apple TV is fundamentally misunderstood. It’s a computer-to-TV conduit. That’s all. It makes trivial what was once fraught with complexity and pitfalls. This is what Apple does, and they achieve it with their laserlike focus on what was wrong with the previous picture — not by duplicating things that are already working just fine on their own. Apple does not make “kitchen sink” devices, and why should they? Let’s root for Apple TV to do accomplish its specific purpose as well as possible (and all your points about video quality and internet connectivity are well taken in that regard) instead of asking it to darn our socks while it’s at it so we can throw away the knitting needle.

    Heck, if you want to Apple to bundle in your DVD player and your satellite receiver, why not just demand that they bundle in a video camera, and an actual TV? That way nothing would ever have to connect to anything, there would just be one $10,000 device.

  12. ron says:

    Lack of codec support xvid, divx.. yes for those downloaded and converted movies. No dvd player no volume tiny hard disk. All make this a no show look at netgear eva 7000, cheaper and better.This a bad first attempt, but strangely its a computer inside.. the cheapest apple computer there is . Lets bung linux on it!

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