Why I Ditched AppleTV

Dec
25
2010

Maybe you found an AppleTV under your Xmas tree this year. If you’re a Windows user, let me tell you about my experiences with it, and hopefully you will be happier than I was.

We’ll get to this picture a little later, but for now, let me re-cap what my world looked like before, during and after AppleTV this year.

Re-Cap: My existing Setup

Last year, I posted a blog / article about how I run my “digital life.”

The article is entitled “How to get Music Pictures and Video anywhere you want (in your house and on the road).” You can re-read that article here. However, the quick version of my life last year (2009 – 2010) looks like this:

  • Big home “server” consisting of 3TB of storage, running Windows 7. It  a folder for MEDIA with subfolders for CD-COLLECTION, PICTURES, and DVD
  • iPhone. Yes, I own one. I like apps and checking my email 43,000 times a day.
  • iPad. Yes, I own one. I like the iPad for watching movies on the road.

This set up is great for ripping new media (CDs, pictures or DVDs) and then physically transporting the most important stuff with me on the road, in the highest fidelity. MP3s and TV shows go to the iPhone. Movies go to the iPad. Basically, I take “all the stuff that fits” on my iPhone and iPad on the road with me. If I’m ever unexpectedly stuck in a shopping mall, I can watch four or five episodes of Scrubs while I wait.

Also in the previous article, I described how I get to watch and listen to “all the stuff that doesn’t fit” while on the road. That is, using the Interwebs I am able to “sling” my MP3s and videos to my iPhone and iPad using a free application: ORB Media Server. So, in this way, as long as I have a rock-solid internet connection, I can watch or listen to, literally, anything in my whole collection. I recently traveled to Mexico, and was DYING to hear one particular song. IT wasn’t on my iPhone, so I just… tap, tap tapped, find the file in a folder, and there it was playing on my iPhone and iPad. Amazing.

Again, to re-cap, around the house, I had three devices for watching movies and TV:

  • Downstairs: TiVO HD (Generation 3)
  • Upstairs: TiVO  Non-HD (Generation 2)

and also

  • Upstairs: Roku Netflix box

Again, also in the previous article, I described how I am able to “stream” DVD content to my downstairs TiVo HD. I showed how to use a free utility for the TiVO called “Stream Baby.” Stream Baby’s job is to lift content from my big home server and sling it to the downstairs TiVo (Generation 3 HD). It’s not compatible with the Upstairs Tivo (Gen 2).

Current Abilities and Missing Abilities

With what I set up (and described in that previous article) I was able to perform the following tasks:

  • Downstairs:
    • Record HD cable shows
    • Watch NetFlix (built in to TiVo)
    • Stream ripped movies using Streambaby
    • Look at pictures and play MP3s from the server (using TiVo’s free software)
  • Upstairs:
    • Record non-HD cable shows
    • Transfer non-HD recorded shows from Downstairs to Upstairs
    • Look at pictures and play MP3s from the server (all Tivo functions)
    • And watch NetFlix using a separate Roku box (which cost $99).

What I couldn’t do, was transfer HD-recorded content from Downstairs and get it to play upstairs. Since the older Tivo can’t read or transfer that newer format, I just decided to “go without.” I also couldn’t stream ripped movies upstairs, because StreamBaby isn’t supported on older TiVos.

RIP: RoKu

Then one day the Roku box up and died a horrible death. Their tech support lines were beyond pathetic and not at all helpful. Sorry, Roku, but others apparently think so as well (see here.)

Then, in that VERY SAME DAY that the Roku box died, the AppleTV was announced.  Wow. Cosmic forces !

I took a look at the new device, and, realized I would be able to make some new magic happen:

  • The AppleTV could stream NetFlix content. Bingo. Instant replacement for the Roku box to watch NetFlix.
  • The AppleTV could stream content from iTunes.
    • Since I cannot transfer from the Downstairs (HD) Tivo to the Upstairs (Non-HD) Tivo, I figured I could use Tivo’s software to rip, convert to Apple (Mp4) format automatically and have Downstairs shows auto-transferred and waiting for me. Tivo’s software will also auto-convert to Mp4. Then, later, I would just use the AppleTV to watch my “Downstairs” content while Upstairs. Because the content is really now just sitting on the server, converted already. Bingo, again !
  • The AppleTV could take stuff I’m watching on my iPad and then instant-play (AirPlay) it when I want to get it on the big screen. (Seemed neat, but, ultimately, not that interesting.)

Okay, I was sold. I bought one, got it, and hooked it up. As you might imagine, set up was brain-dead simple. It’s really three steps:

  • Tell iTunes running on the home server that you’re going to introduce an AppleTV
  • Tell the AppleTV about the home server
  • Copy content from the server into iTunes library. Simply drag and drop, and you’re golden.

And, then, whamo. They’re talking. I was able to watch my iTunes library on my AppleTV.

And things were great, for about 15 minutes until reality set in.

iTunes: Folders,  Scrambled Eggs, and Me.

On the AppleTV, all the TV shows and Movies are lumped together in one big-ass list called “Movies.”

iTunes and AppleTV don’t have “folders.” True, they have “categories” but not folders.

Remember, for me, I have all my media on that same home server. All the items on my server are already neatly tucked away in FOLDERS. Again, my directory looks like this:

D:MEDIA

….D:MEDIACD-COLLECTION

….D:MEDIADVD

….D:PICTURES

Then underneath each is a little folder with the CD, TV-show, or the picture collection or whatever. Everything neatly organized.

Folders make sense to my brain. My brain thinks in terms of folders.

But AppleTV doesn’t have this concept. Finding ONE movie or TV show in the soupy-mess was a headache. Okay, I was willing to live with that.

But then I had a SECOND problem. Remember: when I first set up iTunes, I manually dragged and dropped what I already had in my hard drive into the iTunes library.

Then I ended up ripping more MP3s and DVDs. Great. Now I had to re-drag and drop all that NEW stuff into iTunes.

Remember: The content needs to be “introduced” to the iTunes library.

So, you’re likely thinking “Doesn’t iTunes have some kind of auto-library update thing to keep everything in sync?”

That was my question too. So I poked around for a while and found this:

  1. “iTunes Media folder location” and
  2. “Keep iTunes Media folder organized”

as seen in the picture earlier.

image

Looked like a GREAT option to me; I just point iTunes toward my store of stuff and let it do it’s thing.

Huge, major, unbelievable headache when I did this ! My perfectly collected d:CD-COLLECTION with subfolders (neatly describing the way I like to FIND THINGS) got completely re-scrambled by iTunes. It literally renamed folders and files, blowing away years’ worth of work. Of COURSE, I had a BACKUP as per my recommendations here. But, ugh.. what a nightmare.

I have to admit, I didn’t know what I was doing when I checked these checkboxes. I guess I could have, ya know, READ the fine print which says:

“Places files into album and artist folders, and names the files based on the disc number, track number and the song title.”

Apparently I wasn’t alone. Searching online for “Keep iTunes Media folder organized” I came across (too late) other souls whose entire MP3 collections were trashed, hard, like this guy.

If there IS a way to keep my real folders as folders and automatically have stuff added to the library using all the native iTunes stuff that Apple provides… it was a mystery to me, and I gave up.

But – Dangit! I just bought this AppleTV, and I was going to FIGURE SOMETHING OUT !

Automatically Updating the iTunes Library – without iTunes

I thought… “If only there was a way to update the iTunes library – automatically, without having to use iTunes to do it, or manually keep things updated, then I’ll have it.

Now, you already know the end of my story. I ditched AppleTV. More on this later.

But I did find a solution to my problem. I found a utility written back in 2007 or 2008 called “iTunes Library Updater” (you can find it here: http://itlu.ownz.ch/wordpress/) which did exactly what I wanted.

It has a GUI and command-line interface. It lets you “inject” the contents of your files directly into the iTunes library – bypassing the need for manual drag and drop or using iTunes insane auto folder-organization. If you decide to check it out, here is the exact command lines I put into a batch file, then ran three times a day using the task scheduler:

“%PROGRAMFILES(x86)%iTunes Library UpdaterITLUconsole.exe” /a /l /r /e:”.mp3 .m4p .m4a .m4b .m4v .mp4″ “d:mediaDVD”
“%PROGRAMFILES(x86)%iTunes Library UpdaterITLUconsole.exe” /a /l /r /e:”.mp3 .m4p .m4a .m4b .m4v .mp4″ “d:mediaTivoXFER”
“%PROGRAMFILES(x86)%iTunes Library UpdaterITLUconsole.exe” /a /l /r /e:”.mp3 .m4p .m4a .m4b .m4v .mp4″ “d:mediaCD-COLLECTION”

So now, if I ripped a new CD or DVD, or told the Tivo software to auto-transfer anything from the Downstairs (HD) Tivo, it would just <pop!> show up in iTunes, and then also my AppleTV. Awesome !! No more manual interaction needed.

I could then just play anything in my folders I wanted to. Sure, FINDING the Movie or TV show on AppleTV is a wreck, because …again.. no folders. Everything is just in a soupy mess called “Movies” (including my ripped TiVo TV shows from Downstairs.)

Why I still ditched AppleTV

So, I basically conquered all these problems I was having. So, why did I finally decide to ditch the AppleTV (and, what did I get to replace it?)

So, the AppleTV would report that I had a rock-solid 24mbps connection to my network. Except every time I tried to stream any movies it.. would.. stut..ter… a..lot. It was basically unwatchable. I tried repositioning the AppleTV, the wireless router.

Nothing helped. I don’t know precisely what was going on.

In contrast, the Tivo HD (Downstairs) streamed movies perfectly using the free Stream Baby program. Never an issue – ever. Not once, ever. And the TiVo is only using a Wireless G – not N, like AppleTV. It also (already) did Netflix. And it used folders.

So, the more I thought about it… I couldn’t deny it. AppleTV wasn’t for me.

Another TiVo comes to the Moskowitz household

I needed another TiVo. That was the only solution for me.

So I:

  • Removed the Tivo Generation 2 (non-HD) from Upstairs.
  • Took the Downstairs HD Tivo, and brought it Upstairs.
  • Bought a new Tivo Generation 4 (Tivo Premiere XL) and put it downstairs.

Now, I really have everything I want:

  • Netflix upstairs and downstairs (both TiVos have Netflix built in.)
  • Streaming MP3s and Pictures from folders (using TiVo’s free software)
  • Transfer from TiVo to TiVo in real time. They’re both HD compatible. (I no longer have to use Tivo’s software to auto-transfer, then store on my server for later watching.)
  • Stream movies in real time using StreamBaby. Both TiVos utilize Stream Baby perfectly. No stutters. Just enjoyment.

So now, I have an AppleTV and a Tivo Generation 2 (with lifetime service) for sale. Next stop: eBay.

Wrapup

So, what’s the moral of this story?

Well, I guess there’s someone out there reading this right now thinking “Oh man. You’re a MORON, Moskowitz. If only you had just done X, Y or Z with iTunes and your AppleTV, you could have saved yourself having to buy the other TiVo.”

Possibly. I do want to emphasize that I don’t think the AppleTV is a bad product. The physical device was elegant, the remote control sexy, and the organization easy to understand. I do think, however, that the lack of “folder-ness” is a real buzzkill for me and having to work around that fact of life was quite difficult. That it also didn’t actually stream correctly without stuttering from iTunes was really the final nail in the coffin though for me.

Are there are also alternate ways to skin the cat and get my streaming media where I want it? Surely. From Boxee Box to GoogleTV / LogitechRevue, etc etc.. I’m sure there’s a way.

But the “Tivo Way.. all the way” makes sense to me.

It’s simple for my brain to maintain, and the people in my house to understand and use.

I was able to reduce a lot of moving parts – both physical and software using this solution, so, ultimately, this was the best thing for me.

Hope this guide helps you out if you decide to go with AppleTV, or if you decide to ditch it.