People used to tell me when to watch TV. They'd print up complicated charts for me to study so that I could always be in the favor of their dictates. Thursday night at 8:00pm. Be there. We're not waiting for you, so finish dinner quickly or eat it on the couch.
I don't travel with that kind any more. For the last year I've been testing a couple of solutions that break the schedule's stranglehold and give me control over what I watch and when I watch it. And they've given me a taste of what I assume will one day be the norm: I think of a movie or TV show I want to watch, I press a button, and a few seconds later I'm watching it on a plasma TV. And I watch it without commercials.
That's the future, but it's closer than you may think. The biggest shortfall at the moment is that not everything I think of is available — not by a long shot — but so much of it is that I'm not sure I could ever consume all that's available to me through this pipe. We've passed some kind of threshold.
Anyone who has ever used a TiVo or similar digital video recorder (DVR) knows how useful and addicting it is to pause your television. Visit the kitchen for a refill, answer the phone, or just make the tube wait for you instead of the other way around. And it's also satisfying to know your DVR is filling up when you're away, gathering your favorite shows from the airwaves (or, more likely, from your cable or satellite dish).
But anyone who's used an Apple TV or a Netflix Player — two newer devices that attach to your TV — knows that a DVR was just an approximation of the kind of instant access and vast selection that we're headed toward and that these devices mostly provide today.
Internet video is here, as evidenced by the popularity of YouTube and a thousand other sites that stream moving images to your computer. But as with so many digital revolutions, the first incarnation of the technology feels like a step backward. Sure you can stream a movie to your laptop, but remember the good ol' days when you could watch a movie on your couch, on a great big screen, with a remote in your hand? And it didn't look splotchy, didn't stop every few seconds for "buffering," didn't have somebody's asinine music slapped over the top of it? Ahh, those were the days.
This is where Apple and Netflix come in.
Both Apple and Netflix, today, sell slick little boxes that bridge the gap between your TV and your broadband router. Neither device is a DVR. These boxes don't record; they bypass the old broadcast signal and get the video straight from the Internet.
Each box connects to your TV the same way a DVD player or VCR would. Apple requires a widescreen TV, but both boxes have a row of outputs on the back. You just need the right cables. And each box also connects to your local network in whatever way is most convenient for you. I have a wireless network at my house so that I can roam around with my laptop, and each of these boxes is able to climb aboard my wireless network easily. But they can also plug directly into a broadband router if it's sitting nearby and has a spare ethernet jack. Either way, setup takes just a minute or two.
While the basic idea of each device is to get video from the Internet and play it on your TV, they go about it in different ways.
Netflix, of course, pioneered a popular DVD rental service that works through the mail. Subscribers make lists of movies they'd like to see, and Netflix mails out DVD's one by one, sending a new disk whenever you send one back. If you've browsed the Netflix website recently, you may have seen a "play now" button next to some of their listings. Clicking it will let a subscriber watch the movie right then, on the computer, instead of waiting for a DVD to arrive in the mail, at no additional charge. That's neat, but it's not something I'd want to do regularly. (Plus, this feature doesn't easily work on a Mac.)
But the Netflix Player makes this feature far more interesting because it lets you watch any of Netflix's "play now" movies on your big TV, instantly, with no additional charge other than the one-time cost of the box. The service is free for any subscriber, and it works in addition to your normal DVD rental service, which is unaffected by your instant viewing.
Why isn't Netflix promoting this thing loudly? I imagine there's one reason: selection. Netflix has thousands of movies and TV shows available for instant viewing over the Internet, but that's a small fraction of what's available on DVD, and the programs that are available tend to be old, foreign, or obscure. That doesn't mean there aren't diamonds in the rough, but someone interested in the latest blockbusters will likely be disappointed.
Apple's service is different. Apple has deals with many major studios and TV networks, so you can watch the blockbusters as soon as they're available on DVD. Apple also has episodes of major TV shows soon after they're broadcast, and they have a library of old TV shows, too. But they're much less likely to have old, foreign, or obscure films. Apple's "classics" section is growing, but they tend to be prestige films like Lawrence of Arabia instead of a cult classic like Vanishing Point. This actually makes the Apple and Netflix boxes complementary. I have and use both.
Once you've bought the Apple TV box itself, there are no subscription fees, but you pay for each individual item you want, much like Apple's iTunes Music Store for iPods. In fact, it's the same store. If you have an iTunes account, you're ready to use an Apple TV out of the box. Otherwise, it takes a minute to set up an account.
However, the Apple device itself is actually a much more powerful machine than the Netflix Player. It's more like a custom computer: it has a hard drive, runs a sophisticated operating system, and makes substantial use of its connection to the Internet. It can play videos from YouTube, display photo albums from Flickr, and find the computers on your household network that are running iTunes, allowing you to see photos, hear music, and watch movies that are stored there.
It's also possible to "rip" DVDs the same way people rip CDs, which will copy a movie onto your computer's hard drive where it can then be accessed by your Apple TV. This is not an officially supported feature, and it requires cumbersome (but free) third-party software that's more complicated than my mom can manage, but once you master the process you can make your Apple TV function like a media center for all of your movies. I've done this to some degree, and I don't use my DVD player very much any more, even though I watch movies at home quite often.
To see how these systems complement each other, here's a sampling of the movies and TV shows I've watched recently and which device each one is available for.
|Program||Apple TV||Netflix Player|
|The Daily Show||✓|
|The Colbert Report||✓|
|Sex and the City (Extended Cut)||✓|
|The Poseidon Adventure||✓||✓|
|The Way We Were||✓||✓|
|La Question humaine||✓|
|Ken Jacobs: Celestial Subway Lines||✓|
|The Wire: Seasons 1 through 5||✓|
|Anderson Cooper 360°||✓|
|NewsRadio: Seasons 1 and 2||✓||✓|
|30 Rock: Season 1||✓||✓|
|30 Rock: Season 2||✓|
You'll see from my viewing habits that I'm pretty far behind on some serial TV programs, but you can — if you're interested — purchase the latest episodes of, say, Lost on Apple TV just after they're broadcast, well before they're available on DVD. (Season four is available on Apple TV now in its entirety but it's not yet on DVD.)
My episodes of The Daily Show arrive in the wee hours of the morning, six hours or so after broadcast. That's current enough for me.
In cases where something is available for both systems, I almost always choose the Netflix Player, because there's no additional cost to me. But it's hard to draw conclusions from this, because the cases where something that I want to watch is available for both are rare. For my tastes, TV shows are much stronger on Apple while movies and curiosities are stronger on Netflix. Apple is particularly weak with foreign film — they have almost none. And I'm more willing to sample on Netflix. Sydney Pollack's The Way We Were, for example, is something I probably wouldn't have paid to watch on Apple TV but, after Edelstein said nice things about it, felt worth a button press on the Netflix Player.
But if The Wire were available for both, I might have chosen to pay for it from Apple anyway, because it's something I intended to spend time with and would probably revisit, and the higher quality video and playback features made a difference. Plus, the video I get from Apple can be organized in my iTunes library and backed up with my other data.
I threw Anderson Cooper 360° into the table, although it's not actually available for sale on iTunes, as a reminder that video podcasts from major television networks and your next door neighbor are viewable on Apple TV, too, at no charge. Many are awful, but some are good, both at content and production levels.
The Netflix Player costs $99 — a one-time purchase — and my regular Netflix DVD rental service is $16.99/month (although plans vary) which includes anything I may watch instantly.
Annoyingly, some movies are available for purchase but not rental. — RD
The Apple TV is $229 and the cost of content varies, just like the prices of DVD's vary. A typical movie can be purchased from Apple for $9.99 or rented for $1.99. (If you want to rent a higher-quality HD version, you pay a dollar more.) A TV show can be purchased for $1.99 per episode, although there are special deals for daily shows; for example, I pay $9.99 for a month's worth of The Daily Show (16 episodes), which works out to 62 cents each.
So all five seasons of the HBO series The Wire set me back $119.40, but it was a long steady trickle. In total we're talking about almost sixty hours of programming for that series alone, and this compares favorably to buying the DVD's, which would run you about $200 on Amazon. On the DVD's you'd get whatever bonus features might exist, of course, plus booklets or whatever, all of which would collect dust at my house, so that's not worth anything to me. I could have rented the episodes through Netflix at some inconvenience (shipping disks around) but at no additional cost. However, with Apple I have all of the episodes to watch and rewatch at will, and I experienced instant gratification as I worked my way through the show, which was important because there were times when I simply had to watch one more episode right now.
So much for being in control of the TV.
My sense is that Apple's à la carte model would be an expensive replacement for cable TV to someone who watches four hours of TV a day. Me, I don't have any use for cable TV at all, and even the cheapest package from Comcast is something like $60 a month, and that probably doesn't include HBO. I don't watch enough TV to justify it.
So for someone like me who cherry-picks a few items to watch, the price of getting programming through the Apple TV seems fair for the features I'm looking for: no commercials, high quality, and total control over when and how often I watch. Any TV shows and movies that I purchase from the Apple TV itself are seamlessly copied to my computer and filed away in my iTunes library where I can watch them again or sync them with my laptop or iPod/iPhone for watching on the go. (This doesn't work with rentals.)
At Their Mercy
The Netflix selection sometimes looks like the bargain basement compared to flashy iTunes, but it's been surprisingly fun to rummage through. I doubt that Race with the Devil and Vanishing Point would be selling points in a Netflix marketing campaign, but I get a real kick out of sticking weird, lost items into my Netflix instant queue. And thanks to the Netflix Player, 2008 is the year I finally watched The Searchers. See, I could have rented that movie ages ago, but having it at my fingertips made it viewable.
But here's something that took me aback: a small minority of movies are instantly available only until a certain date, after which they're deleted from everbody's instant queues. But you can't see that date in the Netflix Player itself. You have to look at your queue on the Netflix website for the "expected availability" date. Luckily, this doesn't apply to very many movies, only 30 of the 222 items in my queue, currently. And right now, almost all thirty are silent films, like Eisenstein's October and The Battleship Potemkin. I wonder if their silent film provider has placed limits on instant viewing? Or is a contract running out?
The NBC series 30 Rock highlights how much we're at the mercy of these companies and their bickering. NBC and Apple were cozy for a while, and I bought the first season of 30 Rock around that time. But while I was enjoying it, their relationship went sour and NBC pulled their content from iTunes. This didn't affect my purchase — I still had my programs — but it meant I couldn't continue with season two, which also wasn't yet on DVD. Cripes.
Recently, however, those two lovebirds have made up, and 30 Rock has reappeared on iTunes, this time with optional HD quality videos (for an extra dollar a piece). I made sure to nab the second season before those captains of industry have another falling out.
Curiously, Netflix has only season one of 30 Rock available for instant viewing. I suspect they had a similar falling out with NBC (which has launched its own Hulu, a competitor to all of these video-on-demand services) and haven't yet patched things up.
Both of these devices have very attractive user interfaces. First, the physical: the boxes themselves have no buttons or displays. You just plug them in. The remote controls are extremely simple and solid. And each system has an eye-pleasing graphical interface.
But the Netflix box is hemmed in by an outdated queue model. To watch something on the Netflix Player, you first need to use your computer to visit the Netflix website and add the movie to your "watch instantly" queue, a list of items you'd like to see someday. This list lasts for as long as you have your account, so the first thing I did is stock my queue with a couple hundred items that looked interesting. (If you have movies in your DVD queue that are also available instantly, they're automatically added to your "watch instantly" queue, so there's no need to add those.) You can see your queue of items on your TV, and you can pick items from it to watch at will.
From your TV, you can view items from the queue that you created on the web, and you can also rate and remove items from the queue, but you can't add anything. To do that, you need to go back to the website. That's unfortunate. And it's odd to think of the random universe of available movies in terms of a predefined list. I never watch these movies in order. I always jump around. So my usual procedure is: 1) I wonder if X is available instantly, 2) I visit the website and see that it is, hooray, 3) I add it to my queue, 4) I go to my TV and scan through my 200+ list of items (holding down the right-arrow button on the remote for about two minutes), and 5) I locate the new addition and watch it.
Presumably Netflix went this route because the queue idea meshed well with the similar features that already work very effectively for their DVD rental business. But that's a different animal, and I'd be much happier with my Netflix Player if I could browse from the device itself. Or just being able to scan my queue more effectively would be nice. Even alphabetizing the list would help me find things. I could manually alphabetize my queue. But, please. (Netflix may also have some limitations because the Netflix Player is manufactured by another company, Roku.)
As might be expected, Apple's user interface is richer than the Netflix Player's. You can browse and search the universe of available programs — and purchase items — from the box itself, no computer necessary. And you can browse the media that's stored in the Apple TV and on your household computers seamlessly.
The Apple TV's main menu is an oddly plain, unintuitive, two-column thingamajig, but once you drill down into a specific media type — movies, TV shows, music, etc — the interface switches to something more elegant and functional.
The Apple TV can work without a computer, but it does more if you feed it content from one of the iTunes applications in your home. I use mine sort of like a video iPod. I've set it up to sync with one particular computer in my house which is always up and running, grabbing the latest podcasts and TV shows that I've subscribed to and sending them to my Apple TV over the network. This is easy to set up.
The term "Internet video" immediately conjures an image of ugly video with jerky starts and stops, but you can put that out of your mind. Although the Apple TV has a higher quality picture, both of these boxes are at least on a par with broadcast TV. The Netflix picture is much less consistent — some movies show visible signs of digital compression and at least one foreign film that I tried to watch (Merci Pour Le Chocolat) had some of the subtitles cut off at the bottom. Presumably this is a problem with the way these movies were encoded and not a problem with the box itself. About playback quality, Netflix and Roku say this:
Video and audio quality depends on your Internet connection speed: The faster your connection, the better the quality. Slower connections are comparable to watching a VHS tape, while faster connections can provide DVD-quality playback.
They also say the device is capable of HD and 5.1 Surround Sound and that Netflix is working on making movies available that take advantage of these features.
The Netflix Player streams all of its content, so you need a live Internet connection for the duration of the program. This makes playback a little sluggish to start — you have to wait for the box to grab a certain amount of the movie over the Internet, which takes about 10 seconds — and if your Internet goes down in the middle of a movie, you're hosed until it comes back up. I imagine a slow connection could degrade video quality, too, but my cable modem has always been more than fast enough, and I never notice any degradation while I'm watching, even when I'm doing the unthinkable, browsing the web while I'm watching something in the Netflix Player.
TV shows and movies supplied by Apple are all at least as good as those supplied by Netflix, and many of the movies and TV shows are available in HD versions, for which you pay a premium. Since it has a hard drive, the Apple TV is also better insulated from network trouble. The Apple TV will play videos that are sitting on its hard drive or on your computer even if your Internet connection is down. You'll need an Internet connection to grab something new, and if you have a slow connection, your service may be sluggish — meaning you'll have to wait longer between the time you select something to watch and the time it starts playing — but video quality is not affected by the speed of your line.
When your Internet connection is functioning properly, the Apple TV effectively blurs the line between streaming and playing from the hard drive.
Playback on both machines is straightforward — you navigate to the item you want and press the play button in the middle of your remote — but they're both awkward in slightly different ways.
The Netflix Player, because it streams its movies, doesn't allow quick rewind or forward jumps during playback. But given this limitation, the designers have come up with a novel workaround: during playback, if you press forward or back, the movie will pause and you'll see a series of still frames before and after the current playback location. Use the left and right buttons to choose the frame you want to jump to, then press play again, and the player will buffer for a few seconds and starting playing from the desired location. This still-frame scheme isn't as satisfying as jumping forward or back instantly like you can in a TiVo, but it works pretty well.
Apple TV does have the jump and scan features, but the way they're crammed into a remote with so few buttons is a little confusing. I've found that if I pause first, then I can jump 10 seconds forward or back with a button press, as many times as I want. If I don't pause first, then pressing forward or back will jump by four minutes, or if I hold it down it will scan slowly, press again during scanning to scan more quickly, and press a third time to scan quicker still.
See what I mean? Confusing.
Still, in both cases I feel more in control than I do using a DVD player, and the Apple TV in particular feels very fast. During playback, I've never seen the Apple TV pause for buffering except when playing YouTube videos, and I've only seen the Netflix box do that once when I had a network hiccup, from which it quickly recovered.
Noel Murray and Scott Tobias at the Onion A.V. Club recently published a dialogue in which they lamented the death of the DVD's "golden age" and all the little bells and whistles that came along with them.
When music went digital, all the bits of art outside of the songs themselves, like gatefold album covers and liner notes, dropped off the planet. Similarly, it seems as if director commentaries, deleted scenes, and making-of documentaries may drop off next. None of the video-on-demand services include them, and while devices like the Apple TV are certainly capable of managing groups of videos or multiple audio tracks, I'm not sure the powers that be see enough value in preserving them.
They may have been a short-lived concept of the disk-based age.
I'll miss them, I suppose, but I have to admit that I rarely watch them, myself, and I've always felt a little uneasy about promotions that emphasize the doodads hanging off of a movie's edges more than the movie itself. There's a certain purity to watching just the movie again.
I'll admit that I bought both of these items on a hunch and a lark. Having given up on cable TV — and TV in general, except for the News Hour on PBS — I thought I would like TV again if it weren't so demanding of my time and weren't so insistent on using some of that time for advertising.
If these devices had been a failure at addressing these concerns, I'd have sold them and moved on in some other direction. Books, let's say. But they're enjoyable enough that I've reoriented my home viewing around them. So now I want more.
In the short term, I'd love it if Apple made a deal with Netflix to add their content to the Apple TV. That would make the minor improvement of reducing my two small boxes to one. It's technically possible, I imagine, but I'm not sure that it makes business sense for Apple, especially since Apple seems to be increasing the size of their library aggressively on their own.
In the long run, I suppose I just want more high-quality content, and I want it available in one place: the living room. I want more movies of more types — not just Hollywood films but independent and foreign films that often don't even show up on DVD in the States. And I don't care which company wins this battle. I have no doubt that I'll need to buy some other box in the next five years to get what I want, but today, it's hard for me to get excited about something like Hulu.com, NBC's ambitious video-on-demand service, because even their high-quality videos are shackled to my computer and surrounded by advertising.
The bar is set above that. I expect to watch movies on a big screen, and I'll pay a reasonable amount for the commercial-free privilege.