Thoughts on the Apple TV: A Possible Alternative

Part of the Thoughts on the Apple TV Series

  1. Thoughts on the Apple TV: Hard Drive Perils
  2. Thoughts on the Apple TV: Format Woes
  3. Thoughts on the Apple TV: A Possible Alternative

Philips’ DCP850 DVD player with iPod Dock

Though sold and marketed as a portable device, I’ve recently been intrigued by Philips’ new DCP850 DVD player with integrated iPod dock. It boasts support for standard DVD, DVD+/-R(W), VCDs, DivX files, MPEG-4 files, compact discs, MP3s and photos. It also features an SD/MMC card reader for playing movies and photos via a memory card. The iPod dock, of course, charges the iPod and allows access to and playback of all the content on it.

It’s not fancy wireless like the Apple TV, but the DCP850 certainly seems more versatile. At $199, it’s $100 cheaper than the Apple TV as well.

Using standard A/V cables, the DCP850 can be connected to a television and I’m thinking I might eventually replace my DVP642 with it in my set-top setup. Being portable would just be a seldom-used perk. The device will accept and play all the DVDs and DivX files I currently have in my collection, plus any videos on my iPod, which tend to be transitory M4V files. And the SD card reader opens up a lot of possibilities for replacing the CD-RWs I currently use for temporary AVI files and non-H.264 M4Vs as well.

At the moment, the DCP850 is so new that there’s not a lot of real world reviews of it, but I’m certainly keeping my eye on it.

More Info:
DCP850 at
Review at
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Thoughts on the Apple TV: Format Woes

Part of the Thoughts on the Apple TV Series

  1. Thoughts on the Apple TV: Hard Drive Perils
  2. Thoughts on the Apple TV: Format Woes
  3. Thoughts on the Apple TV: A Possible Alternative

Apple TV and Philips’ DVP642

When it comes to digital video, I’m no novice. Several years ago, I made my own VCDs and, as the technology developed, moved to the DivX/XviD codec. I also already own a Philips DVP642 DVD player, which can play DivX/XviD-flavored AVI files in addition to standard DVDs. In fact, I have a much-neglected site dedicated to Mac users who own the DVP642.

The conundrum is that, out of the box, the Apple TV will play Apple-approved video formats, M4V using mpeg-4 and H.264 codecs, but not AVI using Divx/XviD, while the opposite is true of the DVP642. Additionally, the Apple TV, of course, does not have any kind of disc player, which makes it hard to use my existing video collection.

I already have a substantial number of files in DivX format, tucked away on DVDs, ready to be played on short notice. I’m not exactly keen on the idea of having to spend the time to convert those files to M4V, store them on a drive and then manage them in my iTunes library, which is already bursting with music alone, especially when I can just watch them on my DVD player with zero additional effort.

Now, I’m not entirely dissin’ the Apple TV. Paul points out that if you can get the full Mac OS X installed, the thing makes an attractive file/web/torrent box and Apple Gazette says that it’s well-suited to watching video podcasts. But after more than a year and a half of owning a DVP642, I must say that I find the DivX+DVD to be both an excellent usage method and an expedient storage scheme. It does lack the polish and finesse of Apple’s solution, but it works, is cheap and scales well.

Complicating matters, however, is the fact that I also own an iPod with video. Like the Apple TV, it only plays M4V. After six months of use, I’ve discovered that iPod video is great for temporary content, videos that I’m going to watch and delete, whether it’s a recent episode of The Daily Show or a movie for a long plane ride. When I’m finished with it, into the trash it goes, freeing me of management headaches and storage concerns.

The downside is that it can be unwieldy to watch an M4V file (or iTunes Store purchase) on my TV, should I so desire. In a pinch, I can connect my iPod to the TV using a cable that came with my six-year-old camcorder, but that’s a bit of a hack.

If only there were a device that would let me easily watch (read:no hacking) both my more timely M4V files, as well as archival AVI and regular DVDs.

Thoughts on the Apple TV: Hard Drive Perils

Part of the Thoughts on the Apple TV Series

  1. Thoughts on the Apple TV: Hard Drive Perils
  2. Thoughts on the Apple TV: Format Woes
  3. Thoughts on the Apple TV: A Possible Alternative


So the much-anticipated Apple TV has shipped and, of course, the extreme early adopters are having a field day tearing the thing apart to find out what it can do. Some clever folks have already been able to install larger hard drives, more video codecs, and even the full version of Mac OS X, rendering what Cult of Mac calls a “Mac Nano.”

To be sure, it looks like an impressive device. But I probably won’t be buying one for two principal reasons, neither of which is the fact that I don’t have an HDTV set.

Reason 1: The perils of hard disk storage

Having been a participant in the digital media revolution for 10 years, I see some parallels between the state of video today and the state of audio in the late 90s. A decade ago, you were lucky if you had more than 10 GB of internal storage in your computer. With the overhead of operating systems and applications, there was a limited amount of storage on that drive for the MP3 scene’s early adopters. Even at just 3 MB per song, that drive would fill up fast. An external drive would cost you $300-400 for 6 GB of space, but that too would fill up before too long. At the time, one solution was the small, but growing market for writable CDs, which cost about $2 for a single 650 MB disk (in addition to the several hundred dollars for the 2X burner itself).

Similarly, while storage conditions have kept pace with growing file sizes, today’s digital video market faces some of the same logistical hard disk challenges for the end user. Apple’s own estimates say that a 45-minute TV show will run you 200 MB and a full-length movie is 1.0-1.5 GB. A modest collection of 100 movies will cost you 100-150 GB of hard disk space. Add to it complete TV seasons and expect that to grow substantially. Using Apple’s numbers, the entirety of the Star Trek franchise would use ~155 GB of disk storage.

To be sure, today’s hard drives are indeed up to the task of holding a large video library. 500GB disks can be had for less than $200, ensuring plenty of room for an expanding selection of movies. But whether you encode videos yourself or buy from the iTunes Store, that library will represent a hefty investment of time and money. And the most dreaded event in computerdom can wipe it all out in an instant: a hard drive crash.

Any reasonable, non-risk-taking person is going to want to implement (and practice) a regular backup plan for their media. The most convenient choices are to purchase a second (and possibly third) drive to house copies of all the video files, or make regular trips to the DVD-R burner for offline backups. The hard drive option would offer nearly instantaneous recovery to an iTunes+AppleTV-based media system, but it would double (or triple) your upfront costs. Additionally, if and when one of those drives fails, it will have to be replaced at the current market price for hard drives.

True, the arguments I made in defense of digital music can apply to digital video as well. But, for the present, there’s a matter of scale which makes the effort more cumbersome for video. Plus, a music library containing a large number of songs with short playing times benefits more from the instant accessibility and portability of the iTunes+iPod model than a video library with relatively few entries and long playing times.

Thus, for me, the more appealing scenario for personal digital video is that of the burned DVD because, with the right DVD player, your “backups” can double as working copies. Thankfully, it’s also much, much cheaper per megabyte than CDs were 10 years ago.

Which brings me to:

Reason 2: Incompatible video formats.