Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Apple TV? SlingCatcher? Mac Mini? Something Else???

Apple today officially announced the little box formerly known as the iTV, now dubbed the Apple TV. Nothing new has really been announced, and the honours of the day of course duly went to the quite stunning iPhone. The Apple TV price tag was confirmed, at US $299.

Pretty neat and cheap little device, but one detail to note is that it will not ship with a cable to link it to your TV (see What's in the box), which will probably fetch another US $20 or more at purchase time.

Also, unless 3rd-party cable providers jump on the bandwagon, and/or that the device itself does not make use of Macrovision-like DRM technologies, the Apple TV will also not be compatible with analog TV sets (See the connection options), unless plugged in an intermediary solution like a cable/satellite set-top box or other. This is of course conveniently in line with the media industry's quest to plugging the infamous analog hole (booh, there be dragons in there!).

For those just as tempted as I to press the shiny pre-order button, I'd suggest to consider the family=AppleTV in the URL at the online Apple Store. Can you see the bigger-drive-coming-soon flag too?

On another front, Sling Media announced (1, 2) the upcoming release of their very similar offering, the SlingCatcher, at the Consumer Electronics Show.

We will probably have to watch for the same limitations as the former device, but one big point is that this solution is currently said to be media agnostic.

This is an important fact in my context, since I have digital videos that go back to close to 10 years now, and some of them will not play in Quicktime without the addition of extra codecs (such as wmv, xvid, divx, etc). Apple currently only lists the iTunes compatible H.264 and MP4 (without avi encapsulations).

Other codecs enabled via plug-ins do not import into iTunes at this time (2007-01-09), but interestingly will play in Front Row. I say this is interesting because Front Row seems to use iTunes for video playback (iTunes is launched in the background). Apple probably doesn't want to have to deal with the AVI metadata format.

But there might still be hope, if the Update Software seen in the Settings view is not just an interface to the Mac OS X Software Update utility, and allows for additional plugins to be installed. Or, like in Front Row, if it is possible to stream movies from mounted server, instead of the iTune daap Bonjour/ZeroConf-based streaming protocol (or video-enabled successor?). If I was a 3rd-party QT codec provider, I'd probably be begging them to do so right now, but as much as I enjoy their products, Apple doesn't have the best record for letting others play with their toys.

The price tag for the SlingCatcher is currently pre-announced at around US $200, or about $100 less than the Apple TV. The better solutions for me could still be a Mac Mini using Front Row, which has its own upsides (full feldged OS, analog adapter, DVD player/burner, external expandability, etc) and problems (US $599 v. > 300, thicker, etc). Or also a PS3 running Linux.

Um, again left with decisions... Bah, I still have a few weeks to decide before my birthday anyway. ;)

Update: 2007-01-10: Apple does not actually manufacture/(re-)brand connection cables at all. The ones listed on their site are actually made by Xtreme Mac. Also, some of the same questions/concerns I had have been addressed by some of the Ars Technica editors.

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