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Apple TV: Handicapping the competition

Apple TV is here, but it's not the only way to stream digital media to your TV. Here's a comprehensive look at all of the alternatives.

Apple TV
Apple TV: the next big thing in digital entertainment? Apple

The release of Apple TV is imminent--the first hands-on review has appeared, pre-orders have already begun shipping, and it should be popping up in Apple Stores by the end of the week. It's fair to say that Apple's first living room entertainment device is going to cause some major waves in the industry. At the same time, though, it's neither the first nor only product of its kind. Plenty of others--known as digital media adapters or network media devices--are capable of streaming digital media from networked PCs. And iTunes isn't the only show in town when it comes to digitally delivering premium movies and TV shows. So, as the Apple TV rocket leaves the launchpad, we thought it only fair to present a look at the alternatives.

The content boxes

MovieBeam CNET

Thanks to Apple TV, all the music, TV shows, and movies purchased at Apple's iTunes Store will no longer be trapped on your computer. Instead of watching on your comparatively cramped desktop or laptop monitor, you'll be able to enjoy iTunes-purchased movies and TV shows on a big-screen TV. While Apple TV will almost certainly remain alone in being compatible with iTunes content--the company has thus far refused to license the FairPlay DRM to any third parties--it's not the only "content box" that you can attach to your TV.

MovieBeam MB2160: It's a promising idea: a rotating selection of 100 movies--including some in high-def--are automatically queued up on the MovieBeam's hard drive (the content is downloaded via a proprietary over-the-air service--if it's not available in your area, the company won't sell you the box). You can view any of the movies on a pay-per-watch basis (a onetime fee of $2 to $5 gives you a 24-hour viewing window), and because they're already on the hard drive, there's no waiting for a long download. Unfortunately, the video quality leaves a lot to be desired, and the fact that you're limited to just 100 choices--determined by the company--makes it a tough sell. Perhaps new owner Movie Gallery can reinvigorate the MovieBeam concept.

RCA Akimbo Video On Demand Player: In addition to Akimbo's video content--which ranges from the familiar (BBC, Discovery, and National Geographic TV shows) to niche-oriented programming (anime, extreme sports, international TV, adult content)--RCA's Video On Demand Player also provides access to all of the films from Movielink. But its combination of a flat monthly fee plus pay-per-view and subscription charges--depending on what you want to watch--remains confusing, and none of the content is available in HD (unless you sign up for the software-only version).

The digital media adapters

Netgear Digital Entertainer HD
Netgear Digital Entertainer HD Netgear

Already have a hard drive full of music, movies, and photos, and just want to watch them in another room? A digital media adapter will let you stream them from your PC to your TV. Originally limited to digital music files, the latest digital media adapters (known by a variety of names, including "network media devices" or "digital media receivers") handle audio, photos, and video--but getting one that's compatible with your specific file formats is the biggest challenge. In that regard, Apple TV looks pretty narrow: it apparently will only stream media that's available in iTunes. That's great if you're an iTunes junkie--nothing else can stream purchased iTunes videos, for instance. But if your video collection is full of other formats--AVI, WMV, DivX, and the like--you'll need to invest a lot of time and effort into converting those videos into iTunes-friendly formats (many freeware and commercial utilities are available), or you'll want to forgo iTunes compatibility and consider one of the competing products instead.

Netgear EVA8000 Digital Entertainer HD: In addition to offering HD video output and compatibility with a wide range of file formats, the Netgear is said to enable playback of YouTube videos on your TV. Netgear is also touting the Digital Entertainer HD's ability to play back video files purchased from the new BitTorrent Entertainment Network. We're getting one next week, and we'll be able to do a head-to-head streamdown with the Apple TV.

D-Link DSM-750 High-Definition Draft N Media Player (available spring 2007): The name says it all: in addition to supporting HD video output, the next D-Link media streamer will have the latest (and fastest) wireless standard on board: 802.11n. The 750 also has a good pedigree: we had good luck with the company's earlier MediaLounge DSM-520 (once some initial problems were fixed via a series of firmware updates).

Buffalo LinkTheater PC-P4LWAG Wireless A&G Network Media Player: While it's essentially "last year's model" (it's a safe bet that we'll see an 802.11n Buffalo product in the next few months), the LinkTheater still packs some impressive features, including 720p video support and the ability to stream content directly from one of Buffalo's networked attached storage devices (instead of a PC). We'll have a full review of this one later this month.

Mvix MX-760HD: This may well be the "enthusiast" version of the Apple TV--what it lacks in polished design it more than makes up for in versatility and flexibility. While streaming media devices listed above lack internal storage (the Apple TV, by contrast, sports a 40GB drive), the Mvix lets you add your own 3.5-inch hard disk, so you can have hundreds of gigabytes of media at your fingertips--without the need for streaming from a PC.

The iPod docks

DLO HomeDock Deluxe (version 2)
The new DLO HomeDock Deluxe DLO

In a lot of ways, the Apple TV is sort of a stationary networked home version of the iPod. So if you've already got a video-enabled iPod--which can store all your music, movies, TV shows, podcasts, and photos--why get another? With the latest wave of iPod docks, it's a worthwhile question. Unlike earlier models, some of the latest iPod docks offer worthwhile navigation options from afar--via LCD-enabled remotes or TV displays--so once you dock your iPod, you can watch your iTunes movies and TV shows without having to leave the sofa.

Keyspan TuneView for iPod: Keyspan's TuneView remote offers a reasonable facsimile of the docked iPod's menu screen--navigate to the song or video of your choice, all from the palm of your hand.

DLO HomeDock (version 2): DLO's original HomeDock let you navigate your docked iPod's music collection via your TV screen, but couldn't duplicate that feat for videos. The new version of the HomeDock corrects that oversight. CNET will have a full review soon, but iLounge already found a lot to like.

The PC services

Movielink logo

Some of you actually have a PC in the living room, already hooked up to the big-screen TV. In that case, there are several digital delivery options available. Movielink (which Blockbuster Video is rumored to be interested in acquiring), CinemaNow (which lets you download and burn certain titles to DVD), and Vongo (which offers an "all you can eat" subscription plan, and the ability to transfer movies to certain Windows-compatible portable media devices). A recent addition to that list is Netflix: all of its DVDs-by-mail plans are being supplemented by an online Watch Now viewing option that streams movies directly to your browser--and it works surprisingly well. Each currently requires a Windows PC and Windows Explorer (though some of the services let you stream downloaded movies to an Xbox 360 elsewhere on your network). Meanwhile, Apple's own iTunes will work perfectly on a PC or a Mac. With a Mac Mini in your home entertainment rack, for instance, there's little reason to run out and buy an Apple TV.

There's also a completely free service called Orb that lets you stream your PC-based media (and, if you have a built-in TV tuner, live TV) to other PCs, game consoles, and mobile devices.

At the same time, plenty of media outlets--including ABC and NBC--let you watch full-length shows right on their Web sites free of charge, while start-ups such as Joost are taking a crack at delivering a more full-featured video-on-demand service.

The convergence boxes

Xbox Live Video Marketplace
Xbox Live Video Marketplace Eurogamer

We know what you're thinking--can't they build digital media streaming into some other A/V products? They have, of course--Gateway, Amoi, GoVideo, and Buffalo (among others) all introduced DVD players that could also stream digital media over a home network, but none of them quite hit the mark. But there are a handful of products that do offer some impressive media functionality in addition to their primary entertainment mission.

Pioneer BDP-HD1 Blu-ray player: It may be the most expensive of the first-generation Blu-ray players, but the Pioneer's BDP-HD1 is also the only one with a full-service media streaming function built-in.

HP SLC3760N MediaSmart TV: Sharp's Network AQUOS is still on the drawing board, but HP already offers at least one TV with built-in wired and wireless network streaming.

TiVo DVR: TiVo's Series2 and Series3 DVRs have long had a TiVoCast feature for viewing digital video content--in fact, CNET's one of the providers of such content. But the company recently flicked the switch on Amazon Unbox, which lets TiVo owners download movies straight to their DVR (no PC required). We found that it worked as advertised--but the video quality was lacking, and those looking for wide-screen or HD flicks will need to look elsewhere, at least for now.

Xbox 360: Microsoft's second-generation home console is a great game machine. But the 360 goes a lot further. It can stream music, photos, and videos from networked Windows PCs, and it can stream recorded and live TV programming--including high-def content--from Windows XP Media Center and Windows Vista Premium/Ultimate PCs. (Among the streamable content: movies downloaded from the aforementioned Movielink, Vongo, and CinemaNow services.) The 360 also plays CDs and DVDs, of course. And if you don't want to drop $200 to buy the HD DVD drive, you can opt for the Xbox Live Video Marketplace, which lets you buy a number of movies and TV shows--including some in high-def--which are downloaded directly to the 360's hard drive. Microsoft is even pledging to deliver a more ambitious IPTV service--live TV channels--to the 360 by the end of 2007. Now, if the 360 only had a bigger hard drive and an HDMI port...

The dark horses

Watch your back, Apple TV. There are a couple of potential competitors over there in the shadows.

Sony PlayStation 3: You know all that great stuff the 360 can do? There's no reason the PS3 couldn't match it every step of the way. It already has a 60GB hard drive, built-in networking, and full 1080p HD support, and it can play Blu-ray discs and DVDs. Look for future software updates to add even more impressive media functionality. In the meantime, though, we'll complain bitterly about what's missing.

Sling Media SlingCatcher (available summer/fall 2007): The SlingCatcher has two functions--it can receive the signal from any Slingbox--essentially giving you access to a remote cable/satellite box or DVR--and it can mirror the display from any computer on a home network. The company is essentially pledging that anything you can enjoy on your PC--from Web pages to audio/video content--can be beamed straight to your TV. For instance, we were able to watch a few YouTube clips when Sling demonstrated the product at January's Consumer Electronics Show--but it remains to be seen if the bandwidth for full-length movies to be smoothly displayed would be feasible with a guaranteed quality of service. More enticing, however, is the possibility offered by the product's add-on storage. The SlingCatcher has a pair of USB ports that can support a snap-on hard drive. Paired with any of the above-mentioned movie download services--Movielink, Netflix, you name it--and the SlingCatcher (or a customized version thereof) would be a potentially powerful Apple TV competitor indeed.

The bottom line

For die-hard iTunes addicts, Apple TV will likely be a slam dunk--indeed, aside from streaming straight off your computer (or an iPod), it will pretty much be the only choice for enjoying iTunes media. But if you're not married to iTunes, there's no denying that the Xbox 360 is a compelling alternative--especially when you consider how much more it can do. And if you want to go beyond the familiar Microsoft/Apple rivalry, there are at least a couple of dozen other choices for accessing your digital media--and that's just for starters.

Note: This blog entry was updated since originally posting to include information on Orb, and to add a link to the DLO HomeDock (version 2) review.