Monday, August 20, 2007

Apple TV

I have been using the Xbox Media Center (XBMC) to view video files for a couple of years and I like it very much since it is offering a great variety of settings -- but lately I've been having problem running hi-def video and mkv format. I guess we are slowly approaching the processing limits of the Xbox (unless the XBMC migrates to the 360). Therefore, I started looking for a replacement. The new Apple TV seemed to be a suitable candidate.

I've now been owning an Apple TV (the 40 Gb hard drive model) for less than a month and so far I am relatively satisfied with it. It looks very nice, play video well and offers a few bonuses (streaming photos, music, podcast, and youTube videos). You can either stream your videos to the ATV or synch them to store them locally. It is full of potential. Unfortunately, for now, there are three area where it is very limited. I guess it is a work in progress.

First, it plays only three video format: .mp4, .m4v and .mov (but the latter under very limited conditions; I've not figured out yet what make some .mov work and some not). However, you can use Quicktime or other video converters to convert almost any format into .m4v. I mostly watch .avi (plus a few .mkv) and didn't have any problems converting them, but it is a time consuming process (depending of the video format -- .avi seems faster to convert-- and the computer used to process the file, it can take from 30 min. (on my new iMac Intel 2.4 Ghz) to over ten hours (on my iMac G5 1.8 Ghz) to convert an half-hour episode). [UPDATE: It even converts the .srt files for the subtitles!]

Second, it is made to work only with a widescreen HDTV. I was able to plug the ATV to my old standard TV with an expensive component video cable and setting the ATV's resolution to 480i, but I am nevertheless losing some parts of the picture on each side. The XBMC has the advantage of offering various screen formats.

Third, you can only stream or synch your videos (or photos, music, etc) through iTunes, while with XBMC you can stream them from any of your computer drives.

Of course, most of those problems (save the TV resolution) can be solved with a hack. But while you crack open the XB only with a software, in the case of the ATV, you have to physically crack open the box and remove the hard drive in order to install new softwares that extend the ATV capabilities, like enabling SSH (Secure Shell, a network protocol allowing to communicate with the ATV and exchange data, therefore being able to install new softwares without having to remove the drive anymore), adding a file browser (ATVfiles), an external hard drive, play any video codec (through Perian) or even running the full OS X! But I am not encline to void the warranty of my expensive ATV -- yet. And all this “work under the hood” is rather complicated to perform. Many people suggested that the best way (although even more expensive) to replace the XBMC would be to buy a Mac Mini and use Frontrow to watch video. It has the advantage of being a fully fonctional computer.

However, I am not ready to give up on the ATV. As I said, it has much potential. Here are the improvements I would like to see in the future:

• Apple should open the Apple TV to developpers. If the ATV could play all video codecs straight out of the box and if it had the ability to run small application (the YouTube player is a start), then it would be, officially -- not in a hacked way, a more powerful media center than the XBMC.

• Adding a Gigabite ethernet (like Apple recently did for the Airport Extreme) would also be nice. Even with the standard 10/100 ethernet cable it is much faster to stream or synch than doing it wireless.

• Adding a radio tuner (either iTunes or ShoutCast). I really don't understand why ATV doesn't give access to the iTunes radio stations!

• A CATV tuner and PVR capability (but I already have the cable box/PVR for that -- so maybe the ability to take content from the cable box/PVR) would be interesting

• Ability to buy or rent content on the internet directly from the ATV. In fact, in Canada, we cannot even download TV shows or movies from the iTunes store, so for us the ATV--as it is right now--is pretty useless. I wonder why they even bother to sell it. So, first, let's hope that the Canadian iTunes store will soon offer TV or movie videos for sales.

• a fan (because the ATV is REALLY getting hot quickly)

• a switch off (I never understood this idea of building appliance without a switch off).

With those improvements, the Apple TV would be a great video appliance for an entertainment room and I would really enjoy it. However, for now, I cannot recommend it to movie & anime fans as a XBMC replacement.

For more information on the Apple TV, see this collection of Apple TV resources.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Apple to open their Canadian flag-store in Montreal

According to AppleInsider, Apple is planning to open a multi-story store on Ste-Catherine street West for Summer or early Fall 2008. They would heavily renovate (in the hip way that Apple's stores are known for: with lots of glass and aluminum) the MENS building (1321 Ste Catherine W) near De La Montagne street (see pictures). Work should start this winter.

That's a great news, since downtown Montreal has been lacking a decent Mac-friendly store since the demise of Bmac several years ago. It's even getting difficult to find a decent computer store (besides the big chains like Staples, Future Shop or The Source). I even noticed this week that the CompuSmart on Square Philips had disappeared -- but at the same time I discovered that there was a tiny Micro-Boutique on the fourth floor of the Eaton Center. There's also MicroBytes that is good for accessories and peripherals. The best specialized stores are now mostly online (what about touching & physically checking the product before buying?). So, there's nothing like a big, real Apple Store. One opened earlier this year at the Carrefour Laval, but it's relatively small (I was rather disappointed when I visited). Apparently, the new downtown Apple store will be 9,300 square feet, a bit smaller than the Manhattan store!

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

New iMacs!

Also today, Apple finally announced the new iMac models!

The new look of the iMac is made of aluminum and glass. The 17-inch models are eliminated and replace by a low-end 20-inch (2 Ghz Intel Core 2 Duo, 1 Gb memory, 250 Gb HD, $1,199.00 US / $1,299.00 Can) and both the 20-inch (2.4 Ghz Intel Core 2 Duo, 1 Gb memory, 320 Gb HD, $1,499.00 US / $1,599.00 Can) and 24-inch (2.4 Ghz Intel Core 2 Duo, 1 Gb memory, 320 Gb HD, $1,799.00 US / $1,899.00 Can) models are quite improved for the same price they were before! Finally, a new high-performence 24-inch model is added (2.8 Ghz Intel Core 2 Extreme, 2 Gb memory, 500 Gb HD, $2,299.00 US / $2,449.00 Can). All models includes a new, slimmer, keyboard and are available now. Wow!

Apple also launched iLife '08 and iWork '08, upgraded the Mac Mini and boosted .Mac (with .Mac Gallery and 10 Gb of storage!). It was a great day for Apple fans. The next step will be the release of the Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard) later this fall...

I have been waiting for this day all year long. I was planning to upgrade my old iMac G5 (1.8 Ghz, 1 Gb of memory, 150 Gb HD) for an Intel earlier this year when rumors of new iMac models started circulating, so I decided to wait. Despite the great news, choosing the right model was an agonizing process. I was really tempted by a 24-inch that runs faster, but I unfortunately had to manage my wallet, so I reluctantly went for the bigger 20-inch (but I boosted its memory to 2 Gb -- I also took the opportunity to order Parallel, an EyeTV 250 and an Apple TV). Now I can't wait to receive that baby!

Montreal World Film Festival 2007

Today, the 31st Montreal World Film Festival announced its programmation. The Festival, which will be held from August 23 to September 3, 2007, will offer 230 movie features and 215 shorts from 70 countries (including 53 world premieres (PM), 56 international premieres (PI), 59 North American premieres (PNA), and 42 Canadian premieres (PC))!

Unfortunately, there is very little Japanese movies at the festival this year: two in competition (COMP), one out of competition (HC), four in the “Focus On World Cinema” segment (REG) and one short:

KURO-OBI (Black Belt) (COMP) (PM) Japan / 2006 / 95 min / Dir.: Shunichi Nagasaki; Cast : Akihito Yagi, Tatsuya Naka, Yuji Suzuki, Takayasu Komiya, Yasuto Kosuda, Kenji Anan, Masahiro Sudo, Taro Suwa, Arashi Fukasawa, Narumi Konno. Set in the 1930s in Japan, three martial arts practitioners who are competing to inherit the mantle of their late master, are ordered to enlist in the military. Having no choice, the trio leave their dojo for an encounter with fate. Review.

OH-OKU (Oh-Oku, The Women Of The Inner Palace) (COMP) (PI) Japan / 2007 / 128 min / Dir.: Toru Hayashi; Cast : Yukie Nakama, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Haruka Igawa, Mitsuhiro Oikawa, Kaoru Sugita, Machiko Washio, Kaori Yamaguchi, Maki Kubota, Yuki Matsushita, Reiko Takashima. Set during the short reign of child Shogun Ietsugu Tokugawa, OH-OKU recounts the legendary power struggle between the young shogun's natural mother and his official wife, who must watch her stake in the bloodline. Review.

BIZAN (HC) (PNA) Japan / 2007 / 120 min / Dir.: Isshin Inudo; Cast : Nanako Matsushima, Takao Osawa, Nobuko Miyamata, Aya Enjoji, Tatsuo Yamada, Manami Kurose, Toshiyuki Nagashima, Takeo Nakahara, Ken Kaneko. A Tokyo travel agent who returns to her hometown when her mother is hospitalized for cancer discovers that the father she never met is not dead as her mother always claimed. She sets out to find him and perhaps re-unite the family before it is too late. Review.

DEAR FRIENDS (REG) (PI) Japan / 2007 / 115 min / Dir.: Kasuyuki Morosawa; Cast : Keiko Kitagawa,Yuika Motokariya, Masaya Kikawada, Airi Toriyama, Mao Sasaki, Hatsune Matsushima, Mantaro Koichi, Naoko Otani, Yoshiko Miyazaki, Ren Osugi; Prod. & Sales: Toei Company Ltd.

MAMIYA KYOUDAI (The Mamiya Brothers) (REG) (PNA) Japan / 2006 / 119 min / Dir.: Yoshimitsu Morita; Cast : Kuranosuke Sasaki, Muga Tsukaji, Miyuki Nakajima, Takako Tokiwa, Erika Sawajiri, Keiko Kitagawa, Hiromi Iwasaki, Ryuta Sato, Teppei Yokota, Koji Sato, Kenichi Katsura; Prod. & Sales: Yasushi Tsuge, Kazuko Misawa, Asmik Ace Entertainment, Inc.. The nerdy Mamiya brothers live in a comfortable Tokyo apartment, work 9-to-5 jobs and have done everything together for over thirty years. Everything but date girls. Which they've never done at all. They decide a curry-and-Monopoly party might kick-start their love lives... Review.

SAKURAN (REG) (PC) Japan / 2007 / 111 min / Dir.: Mika Ninagawa; Cast : Anna Tsuchiya, Kippei Narimiya, Yoshino Kimura, Miho Kanno, Masatoshi Nagase, Minami, Hiroshi Yamamoto; Prod.: Mitsuru Uda, Yoshinori Fujita, Asmik Ace Entertainment, Inc. An elegant red light district flourished in In 17th century Edo, as Tokyo was then known. SAKURAN tells the story of one woman living in the lustrous world who was determined to stand on her own two feet and live life as she pleased. Review.

TANA-NO-SUMI (The Dark Corners Of The Shelves) (REG) (PI) Japan / 2007 / 81 min / Dir.: Hajime Kadoi; Cast : Ren Osugi, Ryoko Uchida, Makiko Watanabe, Hideo Sakaki; Prod.: Kazuhiro Koike, Little Bird (Espero Keikaku). A woman comes into Yasuo's toy shop and, without a word, buys an old toy and leaves. The woman is Yoko, Yasuo's former wife who walked out on him and their son eight years ago... Review.

Grand Odyssey (REG - Short) (PNA) Japan - France / 2007 / 19 min / Dir.: Tomoyuki Kato; Cast : Yuzo Kayama, Natsumi Okumura. Review.

Check the festival's web site for more details. Bon festival!

See the full Event Report in Protoculture Addicts #96: 71.

See also our quick overview of the festival and our Picture Gallery.

[updated 2007/8/20 and 2008/5/13]