Sunday, January 11, 2009

AppleTV vs An “old” Windows PC

By “old” I mean a Dell GX-260 or GX-280 Optiplex.  These are often discarded by businesses following periodic refresh cycles and can be obtained for very low cost, or in some cases: free.  They typically have a Pentium 4 CPU, 1 GB RAM, and an 80 GB disk drive.  Most also have a CD-RW / DVD-RW drive, USB ports and so on.
  AppleTV “Take 2” An “Old” Windows PC
Video Capability H.264 Anything
YouTube Limited Access All of it
Storage Fixed, NO EXPANSION Expand to your budget
Networking Internal 802.11n, Ethernet port USB or PCI wireless (802.11a/b/g/n), Ethernet port
Video Out Component or HDMI RGB (pc monitor), or TV-out card (which I don’t have)
Video Formats H.264, AAC, 320x240 up to 1280 x 720 (24fps) H.264, AVI (DivX/Xvid), MPG, MOV up to 1280 x 720
Audio Out HDMI, RCA Stereo Phono, USB or PCI card
Data Ports USB 2.0 (useless) USB 2.0, Serial, Parallel
Photo Cache Requires Synch First Pull from Anywhere
Photo Libraries Flickr Flickr, Picasa, etc.
Photo Formats JPEG, BMP, GIF, TIFF, PNG Almost Anything
Audio Formats AAC, MP3, WAV, AIFF Almost Anything
Parental Control Some, Password Based NTFS, Group Policy, User Account properties, scripts, third-party apps, Vista Parental Control
Remote Control Single Device, One button Wireless Mouse & Keyboard
Games None Any Windows or Flash-based game
Web Surfing YouTube, Flickr (sort of) IE, Firefox, Opera, Chrome
Beyond Photo Screensaver Remote Control (RDP) to other computers, FTP, Telnet
Premium Content iTunes iTunes, NetFlix, Amazon
Backup Capability None Network, USB, Secondary Drive, CD/DVD RW, etc.
Podcasts iTunes iTunes, Web
Gadgets None Desktop Gadgets (weather, stocks, news, status, etc.)
Power Consumption 48 watts 180 watts
Heat Dissipation egg-frying or coffee heater 500 btu/hour

A few minutes playing with Google Earth on a big screen is enough to convince anyone there’s really no comparison.  I haven’t had time to analyze relative system uptime.  I do know this:  AppleTV normally runs hot enough to cook eggs on top of.  It also can lock-up at times and require unplugging until it cools off.

There are trade-offs of course.  The Apple TV has better support for HDMI output built-in.  The menu interface is more purpose-driven by design as well.  But the PC approach provides far greater flexibility in terms of capability to do more than just be a media viewing device.  The Apple TV is much more compact than a typical PC as well.  That makes it easier to "fit" into a living room environment.  However, I placed my PC behind the TV, which is on a stand, rather than wall-mounted, so the PC is hidden from view entirely.

I’ve been asked if Windows Media Center is a better logical alternative, but I find that having the PC-like capabilities with a wireless mouse and keyboard to be more “open” and I can instantly switch from watching or listening to something - to “doing” something.  After reading some Twitter comments about the forthcoming WMC in Windows 7, I may change my mind, who knows.

I'm not saying this is the ideal solution for everyone, but it works for me and my family loves it.  I would rather have seen Apple crank out a device that combined Apple TV, Mac Mini, and Time Capsule into a single box, but that doesn't appear to be anything more than rumor.  The HP Media Smart home server is really cool, as is the Via home server product line, but I think those are aimed at a different role.

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