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One month with Apple TV

Last Christmas, my wife surprised me with an Apple TV. I had mentioned it a few times, but not with the breathless anticipation I typically reserve for Apple products and baked goods. Still, I set it up and have enjoyed renting movies, listening to music and delighting the kids with enormous pictures of themselves.

While the Apple TV isn't a flop, it isn't the type of runaway hit we've come to expect from Cupertino. When Tim Cook shared Apple's first quarter financial results last month, he referred to the Apple TV as "...a hobby." He also noted that sales tripled since they added movie rentals, but didn't share specific numbers. After a month of playing with it, I think I know why.

First, let me share what I love about the Apple TV, lest you think I'm a Negative Nellie. To start, it's tiny and unobtrusive. While I like owning fun gadgets, I dislike looking at a stack of ugly hardware.

The UI is extremely easy to navigate and the learning curve is nil. A 6-year-old could operate this with no instruction. I'm also quite pleased with the quality of the content. HD programming -- both TV shows and movies -- are ready to view just seconds after purchase, and look great on my TV. Additionally, I never thought I'd listen to music with my television, but I've been doing just that.

Finally, it "just works." All you need to do to get an Apple TV working is connect it to your TV (a single HDMI cable in my case) and plug it in. There isn't even a power button to flip. iTunes saw it immediately and began to synchronize media.

Speaking of the media, that's where we run into trouble.
Here's a scenario that we've encountered twice now. My wife and I love NBC's The Office. Two weeks ago, we missed it. I fired up the Apple TV, bought the episode that we missed ($2.99US) and we sat down to watch it in glorious HD. Nice, right?

Well, we could have watched it for free on Hulu. Or at NBC.com. Of course, my iMac's 20" display can't compete with my 34" TV, but "free" certainly helps lessen the disappointment of that discrepancy. It's not like that particular episode of The Office was one I'd want to own forever and ever (it was "Prince Family Paper" if you're wondering), I simply wanted to see what I had missed. And I was being penalized three bucks to do it. If only I could get a free replay on my TV.

Boxee is a service that lets you search and view content from Hulu, Netflix, ABC, CBS, Comedy Central, Last.fm, and flickr and is easily installed on an Apple TV. Frankly, that's how I'll be using it most of the time, save for movies and TV shows I absolutely want to own.

But it isn't just about money. My other issue is how I'm used to consuming media.

Let's start with music. I'm dating myself here, but when I was young and wanted to buy a song, I'd go to the record store and pick up a 45 (for you young whipper-snappers in the audience, a "45" is a kind of "record." Google is your friend), then a cassette and eventually a CD. Ultimately, I "owned" the song; not in the legal sense, but in the sense that I had an ultra-portable, physical thing that I could hold, pop into a player and enjoy just about whenever and where ever I wanted.

Plus, listening to music doesn't preclude other activities. I can just as easily hang Christmas lights on the house, drive the car, make a sandwich or weather-seal the deck while listening to music.

It's different with video. I'm accustomed to having video delivered to me by a TV, movie theater or, more recently, an iPod or iPhone. While I carry music around with me, I must plant myself in front of one of those devices to enjoy television or a movie.

Likewise, I can't do any of the above things while watching video. OK, maybe make the sandwich, but even then I'm only glancing at the screen occasionally. In other words, while I want my music available any where, any time and as a physical "thing" that I control, I'm A-OK with taking a more passive role in interacting with my video.

For years, some people have been clamoring for a subscription-based iTunes Store. While I'd never want to see music go subscription, I'd love for that to be an option for video.

If Apple charged me X amount of money per month and gave me unlimited access to their library of television and movies from any approved device, including Macs, iPhones, iPods and, of course, Apple TVs, I'd be a happy customer (of course, this would send the cable companies into a frenzy, but that's another post entirely). Yes, I want to have my music files physically on my hard disk. But if the shows and movies I want to watch all lived on a free-range server farm in Cupertino, that'd be fine with me.

I'd save a lot of disk space. There'd be nothing to sync, or forget to sync, before a vacation. I wouldn't have to cough up three bucks just to watch The Office, and and Apple would maintain its revenue stream.

Right now, the Apple TV is designed to sell content from the iTunes Store. Well, there are free ways to get much of the same content. Let me pay a monthly fee for unlimited access to the full library, and I'll do it.

Last Christmas, my wife surprised me with an Apple TV. I had mentioned it a few times, but not with the breathless anticipation I typically...