Macworld Expo 2007 thoughts

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
January 16th, 2007 • 4:53 pm

I must admit that, as a long-time Mac user, I don’t quite know what to make of last week’s announcements at the Macworld Expo.

This expo was ostensibly not about Mac computers and not about Mac OS X.

I don’t have a problem with this in principle. After all, I am not just a Mac user, but also a satisfied iPod user. And it is possible, in theory, that I will one day be a satisfied Apple TV or iPhone user. I am not against Apple products that are not (traditional) computers, far from it.

But I really have no need for either the Apple TV or the iPhone at this point in my life, and I don’t anticipate that this will change in the next few years.

For one thing, I live in Canada. This means that, at this point, I only have access to the Canadian iTunes Store, which does not sell any movies or TV shows. And even if the Canadian iTunes Store did sell movies and TV shows, I probably wouldn’t buy them. My Internet connection is simply not fast enough even for standard-definition movie downloads. (It’s tolerable for music downloads, which I buy from time to time. But I much prefer good old CDs.)

I also don’t see how the hassle of buying movies on-line, with the lengthy downloading times, the need to manage the huge movie files, the need to back up those files, etc. beats the fairly straightforward experience of buying ordinary DVDs or watching digital TV with a personal video recorder (PVR).

I have also just bought a quality home theater system, with a high-definition flat-screen TV, a nice surround sound system, and a DVD player with upconversion to 1080i. The quality of the TV and movie watching experience with this system is such that I cannot imagine wanting to deal with something like the Apple TV. It simply does not make much sense in such a context.

I do have an iPod input on my sound system’s receiver, but I am not very likely to use it. Why would I listen to compressed music files in MP3 or AAC format on this sound system when I can listen to actual CDs or even SACDs and audio DVDs? Yes, it would be nice, in theory, to have one gigantic jukebox that contains my entire music collection and lets me listen to whatever I want without having to fetch individual CDs and insert them in my DVD player. But that’s not what the Apple TV is. Its hard drive is only 40 GB! That’s barely enough to hold a few movies in standard definition or a few thousand music tracks. It certainly is not enough to hold even a small fraction of my DVD and CD collection. I could set up another computer somewhere in the house with a much larger hard drive (or a large USB drive connected directly to the new AirPort Extreme), but even then it would only hold my music collection in compressed format—and I don’t see the point of getting a quality sound system if you are going to use it to listen to MP3 or AAC files.

Similarly, I don’t see the point of getting a quality high-definition TV if you are going to use it to watch movies in standard definition. Obviously, my current DVD collection is not in high definition, but the DVD player with upconversion to 1080i really does a great job of making the DVDs look good on a high-definition screen—especially when they are in widescreen anamorphic format, of course, which most of my movies are. Considering that the Canadian iTunes Store is not selling movies at this point, and that even if it did they probably wouldn’t look any better than DVDs upconverted by my DVD player, I don’t see the Apple TV as a useful addition to my current home theater set-up.

I guess that things could change down the road, but it would involve a lot of factors. The iTunes Store would need to start selling movies in high definition (1080p). The prices would have to be competitive. And we would have to have very fast broadband connections and huge hard drives, not to mention readily available blue-laser DVD burners that can be used to archive that stuff without DRM-induced headaches. I just don’t see any of this happening any time soon.

I suspect my next home theater purchase will be a blue-laser DVD player/recorder (probably one that supports both Blu-Ray and HD DVD). But I am waiting for things to settle, prices to come down, and many more titles to become available at affordable prices. It’s going to take a while still. I probably won’t make a move myself until a company such as Criterion starts releasing interesting DVDs in high definition—which Criterion have sensibly decided not to do yet at this point in time (even though they are already mastering their DVDs in HD). For now, upconverted standard DVDs look pretty good on my flat-screen TV.

As for the iPhone, I have even fewer reasons to think about getting one. But they have more to do with our lifestyle choices, I guess. We live in a rural area in southwest Nova Scotia, Canada, in an area with the bare minimum in terms of cell phone coverage. We are barely able to use our cell phone in our own home, and it’s probably using a older-generation protocol because that’s all that’s available in the area. We only have the cell phone (with the lowest pay-as-you-go plan available) for emergencies on the road, and it’s never been part of our daily life or work routines.

I might eventually be interested in other aspects of the device (the PDA side of things), but I am hoping that Apple will eventually come up with a wide-screen video iPod that offers most of the same functionality minus the phone part of the equation, and also presumably with a large-capacity hard drive. Such a device could eventually replace my current 60 GB iPod photo, which is 2.5 years old and is still working fine for me as a music player and portable hard drive.

So that’s how far my interest in these new devices goes. I realize that I am probably in the minority when it comes to cell phones, but for TV stuff I must admit the Apple TV is still far from the “iServe” type of AV juke box / central repository of all digital files for the household that part of me sometimes dreams of. Such a device would have to have a huge capacity (several terabytes), advanced PVR features with a proper UI (not like the crappy interfaces in current PVR units), a built-in CD/DVD/HD DVD burner for quick backups, and seamless integration with the rest of the home network, along with a superfast connection to the Internet. Right now, it looks like the Apple TV will only feature the “seamless integration” part of the equation. It’s better than nothing, but it’s not really all that interesting in the context of a quality home theater system.

Of course, I was also disappointed that the Macworld Expo didn’t introduce any new Macs or new Apple software—but I am assuming here that those things will be launched soon enough through “special events,” where they won’t compete with the iPhone / Apple TV marketing push.

7 Responses to “Macworld Expo 2007 thoughts”

  1. danridley says:

    You needn’t store your media on the Apple TV. Syncing items to its hard drive lets you play them when your computer’s off (or when your laptop’s gone), but it’ll stream off Macs (or Windows systems with iTunes, for that matter) on the same network. This makes the 40 GB hard drive less annoying than it might seem. (Still, the Apple TV isn’t that complicated or sophisticated a device; it’s really just there to close the loop for people that are already using the iTunes/iPod infrastructure but wanted to include their TVs in the fun.)

    On a tangent, the keynote wasn’t about Macs, but I don’t think it’s fair to say the Expo wasn’t. The keynote is just part of that. (Y’know, the part that us non-attendees are interested in.)

    And I understand why they announced the iPhone now; I think Jobs was being frank when he said they’re announcing now so the FCC doesn’t announce for them. LG, Samsung and Motorola have all had some of their thunder stolen by gadget sites reading FCC filings recently.

  2. Pierre Igot says:

    I understand that the Apple TV is not really meant for long-term storage and that streaming from a computer is supposed to be a realistic alternative. But again, for a quality audio/video system, the device doesn’t look that attractive. These music files and movie files are going to have to be stored somewhere.

    I think my main issue is that compressed audio makes sense for a portable device (iPod), but doesn’t really make sense in the living room. Similarly, once you have a quality A/V system with a high definition TV, lower-quality video doesn’t make much sense.

    So ultimately, I will only really want a device such as the Apple TV when it has become realistic to stream lossless audio and high-definition video from a very large storage device somewhere in the house (and when such audio/video files can be readily purchased on-line). Until then, except for the seamless network integration, it’s more like a step backward than a step forward.

    Of course, my comments were about the keynote itself and not about the rest of the expo. I am sure there were lots of other exciting Mac products revealed or announced. But Apple is still the main purveyor as far as I am concerned :).

  3. jking says:

    As someone who spent weeks transcoding his entire CD collection to AAC onto his living room TV-computer for an iPod only to later do it again in FLAC once he bought better sound hardware, I can certainly sympathize with your complaint about the hard disk size: 40GB would not be enough to store my music alone, never mind the OS, my digital camera pictures and the occasional video file.

    I’ve never been much of a fan of Apple (their products are simply more expensive than I’m willing to pay) and I’ve only ever used an iPod, but I would not be unwilling to give them a try if the product in question fills a need of mine (eg. the iPod). 40GB, however, would not fill the need that my current living-room computer fills: audio jukebox, television, DVD player, photo store and print facility and (of course) Web kiosk.

    As for everything else you mentioned, I am also residing in Canada (though in Mississauga, Ontario—not a rural area by any stretch), and the iTunes store has never been as attractive to me as Amazon, from whom I can receive a package in as little as two days. Even if I could download videos, I’m much more inclined to simply use my computer as a PVR, or simply keep an eye out for rebroadcasts on other television channels—with programs often appearing on Canadian networks a few days after their original American broadcasts, it’s not hard to find sometime when you can catch up. And I never miss Canadian shows. :)

    Lastly, I’ve no interest in a cellular phone, either, but even if I did, it would have to be much less expensive than what I’ve heard the iPhone will be for me to consider it. Some people just want a phone.

  4. Pierre Igot says:

    jking: The price issue for Apple products is a bit of a myth—essentially they are not even trying to compete with cheap, low-end products. I had the “opportunity” (not something that I am particularly looking for) to install a really dirt cheap Windows PC for someone the other day and I am telling you, even Apple’s least expensive products have never even approached this level of rubbishness!

    So yes, there is always something cheaper than an Apple product, often much cheaper, but you get what you paid for. If you look at products of similar quality and reliability, on the other hand, you’ll see that the price difference is not that significant—especially not when you factor in the number of hours that you save in technical support and maintenance.

    In addition, one must admit that the current crop of PVR devices and the like is really poor from a UI point of view. I curse the user interface of my Bell ExpressVu 9200 PVR every day.

    So there is room in the living room for a quality Apple product that takes things to the next level. But there are also many hurdles to overcome, which I’ve tried to describe above, and I only see the Apple TV as a first step in the right direction. It’ll take years before it matures into a product that I might find attractive for my own living room.

    As for the iPhone, it’s obviously much more than a phone (which makes the name choice somewhat disappointing, especially when you compare it to “iPod” as a breakthrough product name). Yes, some people just want a phone, and the iPhone is definitely not for them. But with the hundreds of millions of phones out there, it’s obvious that there must be a number of people who want more than a phone, or a much better phone. The iPhone might appeal to them.

  5. ssp says:

    You can already get central storage solutions for large amounts of full quality audio that are distributed to your stereos – just as I assume you’ll be able to do the same with AIFF or otherwise Losslessly compressed music files with Apple’s products. That, of course, comes at a non-trivial price as far as storage and transfer are concerned.

    Perhaps it’s a good idea to see the Apple TV thing as a first step. It’s quite expensive now and doesn’t really do what you want. But with a bit of luck storage will be cheap enough a few years down the road that having all your full quality media and backups thereof on some shared hard drive will be viable. And with some more luck Apple TV or some of its successors may be able to handle all of that as well.

    So let the enthusiasts grab the stuff now and get some for yourself later on. Worked for others as well when it came to the iPod ;)

  6. Pierre Igot says:

    Oh yes, I know I get can some kind of huge redundant HD system with lots of storage space. However, it would be very expensive and I would have major concerns about noise. (Fan noise is tolerable in an office environment, but not in the living room.) I am waiting for capacities to go up, prices to come down, and user interfaces to improve :).

    Yes, I agree that the Apple TV could turn into something good in the future. However, in addition to price/size considerations, the major obstacles I see right now are DRM-related. The studios are imposing all kinds of absurd restrictions. For example, we should have a user-friendly DVD burning capability in regular PVRs. I simply do not see myself purchasing lots of on-line files with absurd restrictions affecting basic fair use.

    But that’s another debate altogether :).

    As for the iPod, I actually did just that and waited a couple of years before getting my first one :).

  7. ssp says:

    Actually I was thinking more of dedicated Hifi audio storage solutions. Of course they’ll be even pricier than their computer siblings but they will also hook up to decent audio equipment rather than sporting whichever cheap d/a chips Apple favour this season. As usual – you can probably get pretty much any quality if you are able and willing to cough up what’s written on the price tags.

    Yeah, we won’t touch any DRM debate today ;)

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