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Apple previews iTV network digital media player

Apple previews iTV network digital media player

In the first quarter of 2007, Apple is set to debut a digital media player that can stream movies, music, and photos from networked PCs and Macs. In an unusual move, Apple CEO Steve Jobs provided a detailed preview of the product at his "Showtime" press conference, which also saw the announcement of new iPods, iPod Nanos, and the launch of full-length movie availability on iTunes. Dubbed iTV, the Apple digital media device will retail for $299 when it hits stores next year.

While the "iTV" moniker is just a temporary code name, the product's features were laid out in fairly explicit detail. Like other network digital media boxes, the iTV will stream video, photos, and audio from networked PCs--and perhaps straight off the Internet--so they can be enjoyed on a big-screen living room TV and home audio system. Unlike all of the previous competitors, however, the iTV will start out with several huge advantages: it will offer seamless integration with movies, TV shows, and music purchased from Apple's iTunes Store. Additional media content on the PC--such as digital photos, video and audio podcasts, MP3 audio, and, presumably, downloaded video files--should be able to be streamed as well.

The box itself looks like a thinner version of the Mac Mini--from a distance, it could easily be mistaken for a Netgear or Belkin network router. It interfaces with home networks via built-in Ethernet and 802.11 wireless and has an impressive bevy of audio/video connections: HDMI and component-video outputs, as well as analog stereo and optical digital audio out. The dearth of S-Video and composite outputs imply that the iTV will be aimed squarely at HDTV sets, while the digital audio output will enable full surround sound when connected to an A/V receiver. Finally, a single rear-panel USB jack is present as well, and Jobs was mum as to how it would be employed--but iPod connectivity is definitely a fair bet.

The little white box may be slick, but it's what users will see on the screen that's really important. Based on the previews at Jobs's press conference, the iTV's onscreen display and navigation looks just as polished and intuitive as that of the iPod, albeit optimized for the larger real estate of a big-screen HDTV--and with plenty of animated eye candy thrown in. The onstage demo had Jobs easily jumping in and out of menus and listings for movies, podcasts, music, and photos, just as simply as one would with the iPod--think Front Row, but with a lot more options. What's more, all of the iTV's onscreen navigation is handled with the same ultrasimple six-button remote that ships with current Macs.

As always, it's tough to judge an unreleased product based simply on a demo--especially a demonstration run by Apple's eminently enthusiastic and persuasive head honcho. That said, the iTV is easily one of the most promising developments in the network-media category that we've seen to date. Competing products have been hobbled by a combination of a lousy interface (nonintuitive, hard to navigate, and/or just plain ugly onscreen menus), underwhelming feature set (HD streaming and HDMI output are still comparatively rare), and lack of content. And it's that last point that may very well be Apple's ace in the hole. The company's iTunes store has been the leading online retailer for music and TV shows, and it's a fair bet that movies will be a popular offering as well. When the question, "Is it compatible with all the songs (or TV shows or movies) I've purchased from iTunes?" is asked, every other network media device has to answer "no;" Apple's iTV will be the first to respond with an enthusiastic "yes."

We'll have more information on the Apple iTV as soon as it becomes available, and a full hands-on review once it's released in 2007.

UPDATE: For a more detailed examination of the iTV--including its long list of unanswered questions--check out our follow-up blog, iTV: Promise and peril.