Time to upgrade some electronics leads to testing the waters outside the Apple ecosystem
After screaming at my forever buffering Apple TV, it was time to make some changes; luckily, the world of consumer electronics is not limited to what Cupertino wants to sell us
The dot com bust of March of 2000 really pissed me off. I had been arguing for years that this thing we call the Internet was not some silly fad. Stocks were soaring, websites launched, but many of those in the media business continued to believe that it would all come crashing down and people would forget all about the web. The collapse of tech stocks when the bubble burst was all the evidence they needed that they were right.
I didn’t own a lot of stock at the time, after all, I was in the media business. But when the market collapse in March of 2000 I felt it was time to back up my convictions with some money – I would invest $10,000 in a tech stock. I liked Apple.
I bought my first Apple computer in 1983 and was one of those who love the idea of being able to pop open the top of my Apple IIe (the newest model) to look at the insides – not that I had a clue to what I was actually looking at. I’ve been an Apple computer owner ever since, only using a PC when some media company insisted on giving my one. At Cahners, later renamed Reed Business Information, they were so sure Apple was going out of business that they converted all their art directors over to PCs. It was Reed that left the U.S. market eventually, not Apple.
Apple stock, which had been around $7 the year before, ballooned to $12 before falling back down during the tech stock crash. I thought it was a good deal at $7 or $8. I bought Cisco instead and lost most of the money as Cisco stock never recovered.
Instead of Apple providing me with a comfy retirement, it will be consumers like me that provide the comfy retirement to Apple employees as I continued to buy Macs, iPhones and the like.
Two devices that have been standard in my house for years has been the Apple TV and the Airport Extreme. The Apple TV was bought when the 2nd generation hockey puck design came out – it worked with the iPhone and AirPlay so has been considered essential. The Airport Extreme was bought out of frustration with every other router ever purchased. Each router worked at first but quickly broke down. Netgear. Linksys, you name it, each was a disappointment.
So, a number of years ago, I finally tried the Airport Extreme – it just worked, to use the famous cliché.
But time passed and Apple did not update the Apple TV, or the Airport Extreme. Its attention seemed to elsewhere, areas that seemed were at the center of my life. I don’t need a watch, I need reliable, fast WiFi; I don’t need bling, I need to watch the Giants lose another game (six in a row as of today), and the Apple TV was not cutting, forcing my programs to buffer endlessly.
So earlier this week I did something I hadn’t done in a long time, I ventured outside the Apple ecosystem in product lines I consider the exclusive domain of Apple.
The first buying decision was a router: my connection speed here is very fast, when using Ethernet. Comcast delivers me very good speeds, though at an outrageous price (IMO). But WiFi is another matter. My Airport Extreme was reliable, easy to use, and slow. It was also long in the tooth and not the latest model. The problem was, though, that the newest model isn’t very new, having been released in June of 2013. So, what to buy?
The Airport Extreme is sometimes called an expensive router because it is priced at $199. But Apple’s pricing has actually allowed competitors to launch even more expensive routers that tout the highest speeds. Speed was my top priority so I bought the Netgear Nighthawk X6 Tri-Band WiFi Router – ouch.
Whereas the Apple is an elegant monster, the Netgear router looks like the king of the mutant insects. This think is just plain ugly, and it takes up a huge footprint wherever you place it.
I’ve had plenty of experience replacing routers so installing the X6 was fairly easy. But I really felt like I had entered the Twilight Zone. Upon hooking it up I launched my browser to change the admin and WiFi network passwords. The browser based instructions are hardly clear. Netgear also wants the administrator to download and install a piece of maintenance software.
“Download and click Run to install.” Run? On a Mac? Really? This was not a good sign.
In the end, the thing got up in running, though in just a few minutes, though it took forever to download that piece of software. I wondered, as the minutes went by, if it was caused by a slow router on my end, or a slow servers on Netgear’s end. It turns out that Netgear needs some upgrades, too.
I know that Apple is rumored to be launching a new model of the Apple TV in June (or at least, announcing a new model), but TV devices are cheap compared to most consumer electronics products, and I have become very dissatisfied with my Apple TV as even iTunes movies seemed to stream poorly – and the Apple movie trailers app is a nightmare. Was this poor performance the fault of the Apple TV, Apple’s own inability to do streaming, or caused by the old router. I was going to find out.
Roku, if you are unfamiliar with them, offers four different models and a more extensive selection of channels than the Apple TV. I could have chosen other options, but a little research online convinced me the Roku was the best bet. I chose the most expensive model, the Roku 3, which is price where the Apple TV was before its price drop.
I had a small hiccup getting the Roku up and running. The instructions say to simply plug it into your TV using an HDMI cord, but I want everything to go through my Denon receiver (which was also a recent purchase, and one I very happy with). But where to plug it in? I already have two disc players plugged in, plus the Apple TV is plugged into “Media Player”. I chose “CD”. Back choice. For some reason that input doesn’t not accept video input, which I though odd as there is such a thing as CD Video, having burned a number of them many years ago.
I couldn’t get the Roku to display anything so eventually I moved the input to Game, thinking that this is where one might hook up an Xbox. I was right, it immediately displayed. From there everything was easy, very easy.
Compared to the Apple TV, the Roku remote is rather old fashioned looking – something between your standard cable remote, and the minimalist Apple TV remote. It is also a 100 percent more user friendly.
The Apple TV remote is typical Apple: function sacrificed for design simplicity. I get it, Apple wants to keep it simply, but the Apple TV remote goes too far.
The Roku offers a different look and more ways to find your content, though it doesn’t have the standard icon look that Apple offers that is familiar, if outdated. For the Apple TV, a small number of channels still looks busy, crowded, confusing. What happens when there are many more channels offered? They will probably organize them the way Roku does.
But the issue here all along was performance, would the channels stream better? They seemed to. Even MLB.com At Bat, which is a nightmare of a service, seemed to perform better – but was this because of the new router?
I tested the Netgear’s speed and found it about twice as fast as the old router – better, but not perfect. Still, it seemed to make a difference.
In the end, though, I found that somethings can’t be improved. MLB, for instance, still was buffering on the Roku during certain games, a sign that the problem originates with the original, local broadcasts. The performance of the Apple TV improved with the new router, but the Roku was vastly superior.
I am sold on the Roku 3, and withholding judgement on the Netgear X6.
After being an Apple customer for over 31 years I realize that all good things come to an end. I have never been an Apple fanboy so much as someone who likes ease of use, reliability and performance – and feels its worth paying more for it. Quality over quantity.
But, obviously, there are other products out there, many of which really are superior. It took Apple to fail to update the Mac mini, the Apple TV, the Airport Extreme to get me to finally look elsewhere. In the end, I bought a Roku and a Netgear. But I also bought a new iMac. After all, I’m not crazy.