Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The trouble with AppleTV

If you happen to use the AppleTV with Netflix you may have been suffering from the same frustration as I have in the last few months. Despite a 12Mbps internet connection, good WiFi signal strength and Apple Airport Extreme Wireless-N router I have been plagued with the dreaded pause & buffer while watching Netflix movies during prime time. This simply doesn't occur while watching the same videos, at the same time, on my iPad, iPhone, Mac desktop or PC laptop.

Perhaps the most aggravating part of the experience is that I think I have the problem worked out but I am unable to do anything about it.

It appears that Netflix have the ability to dynamically change the bandwidth used by each customer during peak times as well as the ability to set the bandwidth used by a customer based on the customers own available bandwidth. These mechanisms, working together, allow the largest number of customers access to Netflix videos and movies during peak times with only a slight degradation in video quality. Although I'm against throttling when used indiscriminately, this particular application makes sense, the alternative is that customers find themselves unable to watch movies during peak times or suffer timeouts or impossibly slow access. This arrangement works well on devices that use an up-to-date Netflix client or browser access, however the Apple TV is, at the moment, where is goes all pear shaped.

I noticed that the AppleTV Netflix app would never dynamically alter the bandwidth used by a streaming video once it had started playing, in fact it seems as though it always plays the video at the highest quality possible even when it would involve a significant time spent buffering before playing. If Netflix does dynamically reduce bandwidth during peak times it would make sense that the AppleTV, unwilling or unable to downshift to a lower bitrate, would start to suffer stalls and constant buffering as it starved for data. Needless to say, this results in a horrible experience for the viewer.

Something that was mentioned on the Apple forums also supported this theory. It was noted that changing the DNS entries could resolve this issue ... at least for a short while. This would make sense if the DNS server pointed to a different Netflix server address where there was less load, and therefore less throttling at that moment.

There are currently 45 pages of users complaints In just one thread alone on the Apple community forums and, as far as I can tell, nobody from apple has made a public announcement that addresses this issue. This doesn't come as a surprise as Apple is typically reluctant to discuss individual bugs and fixes in an open forum.

While people may patiently wait for fixes on iPhone & iPads, they may not wait for Apple to get their act into gear when there are better, less expensive, alternatives available that work well. I am seriously considering swapping out my AppleTv for a Roku 2 XD which, aside from working well with Netflix, has access to much more programming. It would be a shame to lose the ability to mirror the iPad or iPhone display but for the few times I used that feature, compared to all the times I want to sit down and watch a movie at night without having it pause randomly, the Roku wins.

Perhaps Apple will release a fix tomorrow ... perhaps next month. Its not knowing where they are at that cause so much frustration in the user community & that is not a good thing for a company that prides itself on making things that "just work"