Practical Technology

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Apple’s iTV may be just what we need

Some people seem to think that Apple’s announcement of a device code-named the iTV Box, which will wirelessly stream video content from iTunes to a TV, is a yawn.

They think that because media-extenders for Windows Media Center have been around for years.

My question for these people is: Have you ever tried to use a media extender? I have. They’re a major pain.

I use what seems the most popular of these, a D-Link MediaLounge DSM-320 Wireless Media Player with my Sony KD-34XBR960 34-inch HDTV monitor and it has never been easy.

I’m a techie kind of guy, but after more than a year of working with it, I’ve never gotten it to work perfectly with all my media files. Firmware upgrades, different media server programs, ranging from Windows Media Center to Sage to Nero 7, media file converters, I’ve done it all.

These days it’s working best with a combination of Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 for the server, Nero ReCode 2 CE (part of Nero 7 Ultra Edition) for file conversions, and a, a wired Fast Ethernet connection. With all that, the best I can now say that it usually works.

I don’t know about you, but when I want to watch TV, I want to watch TV, not constantly tune and fiddle with what amounts to a jury-rig of software and hardware.

Now, historically what does Apple bring to the table? Apple gives us software and devices that just work. And, that’s exactly what we need.

Remember the iPod was far from the first portable digital player. It was just the first one that made it easy to buy and then play music on the go.

If when the Apple iTV Box appears in 2007’s first quarter it can just play iTunes videos on my TV without blood, sweat and tears, I’ll happily pay my own money for one.

Apple will be selling TV shows and movies in what Job describes as a near-DVD resolution of 640 by 480. The iTV Box, which will almost certainly be renamed before it goes on sale, looks like a shorter version of the Mac Mini. You won’t have any trouble finding a place for it on your entertainment center, or, for that matter, a small TV stand.

The iTV will use 802.11g to send movies and television shows from iTunes to a television. The device also has USB 2.0, Ethernet, HDMT (High Definition Multimedia Interface), component video, and analog and optical audio ports.

Based on my experience with the DSM-320, I’ll be using the Ethernet connection for my viewing pleasure. In theory, you can get 54Mbps (Megabits per second) out of 802.11g. In practice a great connection will get you about 21Mbps. As it happens, that’s what I had with my home network, and it still wasn’t fast enough. If your entertainment center is more than a room away from your iTunes equipped PC, start laying out a wire-path now.

The iTV also won’t be able to handle HD content. Frankly, I can live without HD from this set-top box.

TV shows will sale for $1.99 an episode, while movies will run from $10 to $15. That tends to be cheaper than DVDs. It’s also, of course, a lot quicker to download a video than it is to drive over to your local Blockbuster.

It is not, however, a TiVo replacement. In this incarnation, it will only work with videos that you’ve bought via iTunes. If you want a digital video recorder in computer clothing, you need to work to Media Center or, better still, an open-source alternative like MythTV. Again, though, things get more complicated, as I found with the DSM-320, when you try to roll your own TiVo combination from a media server and a media extender.

I just want an easy way to watch videos sitting on my hard drives on TV, and that’s what the iTV will be delivering. If, in a future software update, it can record local videos or deliver HD content via its Ethernet connection and HDMT port, that will be all for the good, but for now my HDTV capable TiVo HR10-250 will do just fine for those jobs.

At an expected list price of $299, the iTV will also be affordable.

Let’s see, so the iTV looks to be inexpensive, iTunes easy to use, and a cinch to install. I think, I really do, that Apple’s iTV may do for media center computer-based television what the iPod did for portable music player.

Remember you read it here first.

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