A Nerd Buys an Apple TV

This post was inspired by Jeff Geerling’s video on using a Raspberry Pi 5 as a streaming box instead of something like, say, an Apple TV.

I really, really think his video glosses over quite a lot, and also makes the case as to why most people should actually buy the Apple TV over the Pi. This also just brought back memories of me trying to roll my own setup for a while before just…giving up and giving in because the overhead was too much.

I lived this life for many years. As far back as 2011, my main means for watching content was some old Core 2 Duo box that was sent to ewaste hooked up to my TV, paired with a combo keyboard and trackpad and just using Windows + a web browser. More recently, I rolled my own Kodi box, with an ITX board, 4th gen intel CPU, and an AMD RX550 (total potato for games, but legendarily good for 4K decoding). I’ve been through this song and dance, many many times.

I finally got tired of all the workarounds and just gave up and bought a purpose-built device for this.

Now, don’t get me wrong! Kodi is great at what it does so long as everything you want to do with it is natively supported. If all you ever plan on doing is pulling video locally or from a network share, once you have Kodi set up it’s great! The problem for me is that most of what I watch isn’t local media. It’s YouTube and Twitch with occasionally another streaming service mixed in somewhere. None of those services natively support Kodi, full stop, and usually require some janky workarounds to get working.

For YouTube, the Kodi plugin used to work right off the hop, until Google caught on and revoked their API keys. Now to use YouTube, you have to get your own set of API keys, which is already intimidating enough as a savvy end user. A normal end user is not going to know how to set any of this up. Further, back when I was using Kodi, the YouTube plugin would randomly forget the API keys and I’d have to go manually input them again. This was already infuriating enough as someone who knows what they’re doing, I can only imagine how someone who has no idea how thing work must feel when faced with this.

(There’s also the whole crackdown on unauthorized YouTube clients happening as we speak, which makes Jeff’s video…a little ill-timed. I’m not sure if using your own API keys makes it count as an unauthorized client, but for something like this, I wouldn’t leave it to chance.)

Twitch is much the same, but also extremely unstable in my experience and it’s a coin flip whether Kodi crashes entirely when an ad break happens. It would also log me out every 30 days like clockwork, requiring me to go generate another API key and once again copy it into the Twitch plugin. (Admittedly…given the sorry state of Twitch’s official app on TVs and consoles, this is still a better experience. Twitch seriously botched their new app. It sucks so bad.)

I get wanting to control the whole stack, I’m usually a fan of that approach myself. In a perfect world where the YouTube and Twitch Kodi plugins just worked and didn’t require me to babysit them every so often? I’d love this. But usually whenever I’m sitting down in front of the TV, it’s because I’m burned out from messing about with tech stuff and just want to shut my brain off. Not have to deal with more tech stuff having broken down. Some might like stuff like this having all the personality and quirks of a project car, but I’m not one of them.

Ideally? I’d love a middle of the road solution, and in a perfect world I’d stand here and tell you that Google TV is that solution. You’ve got support for all sorts of services that likely wouldn’t ever be natively supported on Kodi (thanks, DRM) and you have the ability to jump the guardrails if you so wish by way of sideloading apps.

Alas, Google TV hardware is in a seriously sorry state right now. The best box you can get is the Nvidia Shield TV Pro, which got its last refresh five years ago. There’s also the Onn 4K Pro box, but it comes with compromises (which for $50 for what it offers isn’t bad, honestly). There’s just nothing really on the same level as the Apple TV on the Google TV side, and that’s extremely unfortunate.

I will also say that a Pi connected to a TV does still have its uses, especially if you load up something like RetroPie and use it as an emulation device for retrogaming. But if your primary means of consuming content on your TV is via streaming services or something not kept locally/on your network…I’d wager you’re better off buying the Apple TV. Especially for the amount of money you’re going to have to spend to get the Pi 5 up to the task of being a media center box. Depending on the way you look at it too, the Pi can do more. But if you primarily consume streaming content, arguably, it does less because it can’t cleanly integrate popular streaming services.

It really comes down to what you want out of the device, and while I know Jeff is very much aiming his video directly at his audience, I do think he misses why most people buy Apple TVs. (Though hey, at least he’s receptive to people pointing this out, he’s been more than friendly down in the comments with people saying much the same thing I did here.)

It’s the simplicity.