This weekend I replaced both my original Apple TV and original Apple iPad with the second generation of both products. The next generation’s focus is on streaming content while being smaller and lighter.
Four years ago I bought the Apple TV as part of my “cutting the cable” strategy of giving up cable television and relying instead on over-the-air digital high-definition broadcasts, a Tivo box, and the Apple TV as a way to conveniently watch and listen to free podcasts as well as purchase downloadable movies and television shows. The 40 GB unit cost $300 back in March 2007 and I’ve used it almost daily. I’ve bought several movies on it and entire seasons of a few television shows. All of that worked well since the large files were downloaded onto the hard drive, avoiding the stuttering and pausing I sometimes get watching streaming Netflix movies with my Tivo. I also used the Apple TV on numerous occasions to watch YouTube videos with a friend.
But I primarily used my Apple TV to download and watch podcasts. For a long while I had my desktop computer download the various audio and video podcasts and told iTunes to sync them to the Apple TV. But I had no control over when my desktop and Apple TV would decide to sync, so I often found myself manually initiating a sync on the desktop so I could watch a podcast on the Apple TV. In recent months I found it more convenient to just manually download a podcast directly on the Apple TV. I could also stream them, but again I ran into stuttering playback problems despite my installing a switch in the living room for a hardwired ethernet connection back to the cable modem in my office. I also bought the Fire Core hack for the Apple TV so that I could install Boxee and browse the internet on it, but I found both options slow and clumsy and seldom used them. So while I was vaguely interested in the newer model of Apple TV, I had no compelling reason to upgrade.
I bought my original iPad in April 2010. I knew I would use it to surf the internet, but I also bought the more expensive 64 GB version with both WiFi and 3G. I thought I might need extra memory for videos and music, and wanted 3G so I could use the iPad on the road. But I found I seldom used the iPad for those things, relying instead on my Apple TV for video and iPhone for audio and only occasionally taking the iPad on the road.
When the next generation of iPad was announced this month, I hurriedly sold the original iPad to gazelle.com, receiving enough money from that sale to fully pay for a new 16 GB WiFi-only unit. I dropped having 3G on the new iPad since I could use the new Personal HotSpot service on my iPhone 4 to tether it to the iPad or a laptop computer for cellular data. And I dropped down to the lowest memory size since I hardly ever used the songs or movies stored on the original iPad.
The new AirPlay feature for iPhones and iPad also gave me a reason to invest in a new Apple TV. The new model is less than 1/4 the size of the old one, dropping the hard drive and instead relying entirely on streaming content. It cost $99 and, like the latest operating system upgrades to the iPad 2 and iPhone 4, the new Apple TV supports AirPlay and Home Sharing. This allows me to access audio and video files on my desktop computer on any of the devices over the wired and WiFi network in my home. I can also send audio from the iPhone, iPad, or desktop computer to the Apple TV and send some videos as well.
I’ve been testing the new toys and have been pleased with the results. The new Apple TV does a much better job of streaming and fast-forwarding podcasts, which I usually manually stream on the Apple TV rather than relying on its connection to my desktop iTunes library. Its Netflix app is superior to the ones on my Tivo and my Sony HDTV, having the ability to add movies to the Watch Instantly queue. I love having my full desktop iTunes library available at home on the iPhone, iPad, or Apple TV. So Home Sharing is a great addition for an Apple-centric household.
After registering for Home Sharing on each device, I tried out AirPlay. At first I could only send audio from the iPad to the Apple TV, but online tipsters recommended rebooting both devices and that straightened things out. Now I can sit on the couch with my iPad and stream YouTube videos, music from my Home Sharing library, and some website videos to the Apple TV. That is far more convenient than navigating the Apple TV’s YouTube menus with a remote control and gives me the kind of large-screen internet video access I need when sharing online content with a friend.
My new iPad is a bit thinner, lighter, and snappier, but not enough to make a huge difference. I’m not terribly interested in its cameras since none of my family or friends have iPhones or iPads for FaceTime and the rear camera’s still image quality is poor. I’ll continue to use my Panasonic superzoom camera for stills and video. The new Smart Cover, which magnetically attaches to the iPad, props it up and automagically wakes the iPad when opened and puts it to sleep when closed. It is a definite improvement on Apple’s case for the original iPad.
While on the road this weekend I turned on my iPhone 4’s Personal HotSpot and used it to get internet access on my iPad. The change in service will be less costly than I had imagined. Up to now I was paying an extra $15/month for 200 MB of data for my iPhone 4 and another $15/month for up to 200 MB of data whenever I used the iPad’s 3G service. Sometimes I’d go over that limit on either device and be charged another $15 for another 200 MB of data. Now I’m on the $45/month DataPro SmartPhone Tethering plan, which lifted my data cap from 400 MB total to 2 GB and I can use my iPhone’s 3G service with both my iPad and my laptop. That’s a deal I can live with.
When I bought my 11” MacBook Air back in November, I was delighted by its diminutive size and weight and how it still felt like a “real” laptop, unlike my Asus netbook. It has been a boon for editing photos and blogging while on the road, and I wondered if I really needed an iPad when I had the Air. Well, this past week showed me how much I still want an iPad. There was a 9-day gap between shipping the old iPad off to gazelle and picking up the new one at the local Wal-Mart. I found the MacBook Air’s clamshell design and touchpad interface were far clumsier and less satisfying for couch surfing than the touch interface and slab design of the iPad.
So what’s my verdict on The Next Generation? Picard was smarter but less exciting than Kirk…er, excuse me. My verdict on Apple’s next generation is that the new Apple TV was worthwhile since its streaming works well and AirPlay and Home Sharing integrate it so readily with an iPad, iPhone, laptop, and desktop. As for the iPad 2, while I certainly don’t mind its improvements, I’m glad I broke even in selling the old one and buying the new model. I haven’t seen any changes in the new model I needed to pay extra money for. And I’m looking forward to using the Personal HotSpot service with my iPad and my MacBook Air in future travels.