The digital age transformed the music industry, which Apple, iTunes and the iPod helped in bringing legal music downloading to the masses. Just like the music industry, movies and television are also about to change.
About three years ago, Apple released a curious device called the AppleTV. Similar in size to the Mac mini, the original AppleTV had a small hard drive and connections for either a digital TV (Enhanced TV) or HDTV. Software on the AppleTV was similar to Front Row, the media-playing software in OS X. It even used the same Apple Remote that was used with Front Row.
The original AppleTV had a 40GB hard drive to store content (it was soon updated with a 160GB model). It could play content from this drive, which was synced to a users iTunes library, or it could stream content from the Internet or from a networked computer or storage device.
Steve Jobs, Apple CEO, called the AppleTV a 'hobby'. This meant that Apple was actively working, or playing, with the technology. A couple of months ago, Apple released a new model, the AppleTV 2.0. With the explosion of similar devices now hitting the market, this can no longer be thought of as a hobby.
The new AppleTV has changed dramatically. It is now housed in a small dark gray box just under 4 by 4 by 1 inches. On the back are ports for power, HDMI, optical audio out, and Ethernet networking. It does have WiFi built-in.
Because of the smaller size there are fewer ports. Gone are the component video ports but more importantly, there is no internal hard drive. The new AppleTV is designed to only stream video content. This can be from your iTunes library or compatible media server on your network.
You don't have to own a computer to use the new AppleTV. You can rent TV shows and movies from the iTunes Store. If you have a Netflix account (Netflix is the premiere mail-order DVD renting service) you can watch any content from your Instant Play list. Thankfully, Netflix has really brought their Instant content quantity, and quality, up from even just a few months ago.
Renting TV shows from iTunes is only 99 cents. Movie rentals start at $2.99 for standard def with surround sound. HD movies start at $3.99. Once you order a title you have 30 days to start watching. After you start watching you can then watch it as many times as you'd like for up to 24 hours. Netflix service starts at $8.99. This gets you access to any of the Instant Play streaming content. For $1 more per month, you also get one DVD at a time through the mail.
The new AppleTV can also be used to see your iPhoto Library or photos on Flickr. You can also watch videos on YouTube. If you have a MobileMe account, you have to have any of your media stored there. It can also be used to play your iTunes music library through your Home Theatre system.
The AppleTV is definitely not alone in the market. This type of device is starting to explode with models from Roku, Western Digital, Boxee, and GoogleTV. Roku has been here for a while and recently updated their line with three new models, (the Roku box was one of the first devices that could stream content from Netflix). Recently, Roku's three new models are the HD, XD, and XDS. They are priced at $60, $80, and $100 respectively.
One thing the Roku boxes do that AppleTV 2.0 does not is work with older TVs (standard def). The Roku HD is the lowest priced model and is a basic media player. The HD model has HDMI, composite video, left/right analog audio, and an Ethernet port. It also has WiFi built in. Video output is 720p, which is on the low end but still very much HD. The XD model ups the video to 1080p, an enhanced remote, and faster WiFi. The best is the XDS. This adds plenty to the already great feature set. This model adds component outputs, optical digital audio, dual-band WiFi, and a USB port for playback of photos, music, and videos.
It is a difficult decision between the many media players out there. Add to this the fact that many game systems have the ability to play Netflix content and other units are on the horizon. It really comes down to what you want to watch. If you are heavily into the Apple/Mac world and already have an existing library of AppleTV compatible video or have purchased a large selection of iTunes videos, then the AppleTV is for you. If you love Netflix, podcasts, Pandora Radio, Amazon Video, and even MLB, then I wouldn't hesitate to recommend the new Roku XDS.