Apple TV 2.0: Digital Downloading for the Masses

By Mike on 11:04 am

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How will we get our media in the future? Will it remain on tangible discs or move to digital download. I can debate the pros and cons of both, especially with the DRM scourge factored in, but we're not dealing with that today. Today it's the Apple TV and iTunes on tap with a little discussion on the future of digital downloading.

Digital downloading was a big hit when music was first made available through services like the original Napster. Apple was one of the first companies to latch onto the concept and make legal digital music available through iTunes. Like it or not, the iTunes Store is the most successful retailer of digital media, offering music for just 99 cents a song. Not too long ago, they began offering TV shows for download in the US. Just recently, you're now able to rent movies through iTunes. The movies rent for $3.99 US for new releases, which I might add is more expensive than the local video store I go to which rents them for $2.99. I suppose these digital rentals are more expensive due to the convinience factor they offer. Basically, you have 24hrs to watch the movie after you first hit play, then it deletes itself when the time runs up. You can watch it as many times as you want in between then and you have nothing to return. The service is optimized for Apple's Apple TV. You can rent movies on your computer but you're limited to 480p resolutions, where as the Apple TV offers them in 720p HD. The HD titles cost $1 more to rent. I do not believe this service is available in Canada yet. It is not mentioned on the Canadian iTunes Store site.

The new rentals might be the saviour of the struggling Apple TV. Compared to other media servers on the market, it's quited limited in what it can do. Though in fairness, it is cheaper than both the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 while offering similar media playback features and a bigger hard drive. What it lacks though is any sort of disc drive for DVD or CD playback. It also lacks composite and s-video outputs for non-HDTVs. What it does boast is a bigger HDD, up to 160gb, and 802.11n wireless networking. The lack of the disc drive I feel is the most limiting though since you can't load music from CDs on it without a computer, and having it double as a good upscaling DVD player would have justified its $329 (160gb) price tag more. I also feel that it should have had a DVR function built in. I would have also liked to have seen a lot more playback formats such as the hugely popular DivX and XviD. It's essentially like a giant iPod that connects to your TV and works in the same way. It can store movies, music, photos, and can access some limited Web 2.0 features like Youtube. The kinds of files it will play are similar to the iPod's. The Apple TV is certainly better than a lot of off the shelf alternatives out there. It can also interface with your PC through iTunes to share video from your PC or Mac.
There's a lot more competition for the Apple TV coming out, all of which essentially do the same thing. One of which is the Vudu which has a 250gb HDD and more connectivity, but lacks Wifi. It also offers a pay-per-view video service with tons of movies. In the end though, the HTPC is still king due to it's wider variety of formats and flexibility, though these set top alternatives are good for less technically inclined people.

As for digital downloading, I do see a future in it, but right now, it's ahead of its time. You would need a solid 5-10 megabit/second internet connection to stream DVD quality video without interruption, which is something few people have. Another issue is a lot of people have monthly download caps imposed on them through their ISP. Mine is 60gb for the service I pay for. That would get eaten up quickly buying/renting digital videos. There is also worry that the internet is just not designed to handle all this high bandwidth traffic. Lastly, a lot of people are still uncomfortable with having non-tangible copies of media. Hard drives do fail after all, and when they do, everything you've bought is lost forever. This problem is all the more aggravated by restrictive DRM that does not let you store the media on backup hard drives or recordable DVDs. The industry's solution is to just simply buy another copy but that's hard for a lot of people to swallow, especially if you've invested hundreds of dollars in digital content. It's an unreasonable demand. Will it take off despite these flaws? Who knows. MP3 did but with the way these devices have been selling, there's still a long road ahead for the Apple TV et al.

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