By lowering the price to $99, Apple has made a bold thrust into the living room, proclaiming, "This is the streamer for the masses." But, ho, masses! Should you add this relatively inexpensive box to your increasingly cluttered TV system?
As with most decisions, the long answer is: It depends. The short answer: no, unless you're in the smallish group that doesn't already have an Xbox 360, PS3, TiVo or some other streamer. Or unless you really love your Apple ecosystem.
Like the old ATV, this little black box allows you to play content from your iTunes library on your TV or home entertainment stack. It also opens the door for Netflix, YouTube, Flickr, and MobileMe photos. Pretty soon, it'll let you stream pics and vids directly from your iOS devices. It's very much still an Apple TV, meaning, it's primarily designed to move Apple's own content into your living room. Netflix is obligatory—because literally every other set-top-box has it, and leaving it out would be akin to showing up to a new job without pants.
Here's a quick video tour of what Apple TV does.
For comparison, here's a video of the Netflix implementations on each respective box. Seeing how you get from boot-up to movie gives you a pretty good sense of the UI.
Here's the good news: we're almost done. All you have to do is decide which category you fall into, and click the relevant link below. Do you already own a TiVo? Do you have the old Apple TV? That's the section for you.
But if you want to be the guy who knows everything about media streamers, feel free to read the whole piece. And if you fall into more than one category, you can click around.
I already own the old Apple TV
I have a TiVo or a PS3 or an Xbox or a Wii
I don't have anything, and I want internet streaming video
All I want is Netflix, and I want it as cheaply as possible
I torrent a lot
I like as much stuff to watch as possible
The 10 million (estimated) of you who bought the old Apple TV are in an interesting position. You already have basically all the functionality found in the new device—down to the UI—save for Netflix, but you bought the thing when it was more than twice as expensive. You can already stream your music, watch and rent iTunes movies and get YouTube and Flickr and MobileMe.
So the question is, do you own a TiVo, an Xbox 360/PS3, or one of the many Blu-ray players and TVs with Netflix support? If so, screw it; you don't need the new Apple TV. If you don't have any of these things, you can sell your old Apple TV and grab the new one and actually make some money. Old ATVs are selling for $100-$150 on eBay—because of the hard drive, and because they've been hacked to run Boxee and other software—so you can get additional functionality and trade up to a smaller box. All you lose is the on-board storage. But come on—you weren't using anyway. It's pretty much guaranteed that the new Apple TV is going to get hacked to run Boxee too, but that will take a while.
One thing you will lose is the ability to purchase movies and store them on your Apple TV. For an HD movie, that's a $20 vs. $5 difference. Are you really gonna watch Iron Man 2 more than four times to justify the purchase?
AirPlay is also a compelling future reason to get the Apple TV if you have an iPad or an iPhone, but right now, there's not much to it. Sure, eventually you'll be able to rent something on your iPad and stream it to your ATV, but until Apple starts supporting other content sources, that feature is moot. Let's talk once there's an actual ecosystem around AirPlay and other equipment manufacturers support it. For now, you're OK.
Verdict: Keep your old box. Unless you don't have something that supports Netflix, in which case sell that 1st-gen and upgrade.
This bucket of people is the largest and widest, capturing most of our readers and pretty much anyone who's interested in streaming content. If you already have one of these devices, you've got Netflix and YouTube, you can move photos around your home network, and you can already play music from your iTunes. You just might have to install some transcoding software.
The only thing that should inspire you to buy an Apple TV is an absolute commitment to the iTunes ecosystem. TiVo has Amazon's on Demand, Xbox 360 has Zune Video and PlayStation 3 has Sony's own video service. As of right now, iTunes video isn't large enough in either the movie or the TV show department that you're missing much. There might be a couple exclusives, but by and large, you're covered.
Verdict: You're set already, unless you love Apple content
This is where things get interesting. On paper, here's how Apple TV measures against the other streamers. Again, it doesn't do a whole lot other than Netflix and Apple stuff, but you knew that. It depends on what else you're looking for in a streamer. Check the chart below, and go with what fits your lifestyle best.
Then, you should get the Roku HD for $60. It does Netflix in 720p, as well as a ton of other services: Amazon, MLB, Pandora, Revision 3, blip.tv, Facebook Photos, Roku Newscaster, DreamTV, MediaFly, Twit.tv, Flickr, Break, and many others you might not care about. Point is, there is a lot to watch.
If you're willing to shell out 40 more bones, the $100 Roku XDS gives you full 1080p video, an optical jack and component output. Your choice, moneybags, but remember that most web video isn't very high-quality anyway.
Verdict: Roku HD
One thing torrent-heads know a lot about is the amazing variety of audio and video formats. Both Sony's Netbox and the upcoming Boxee Box support local streaming of MKV, XviD and DivX (though the Netbox did die on a 1080p MP4 recording I made with my Sanyo video camera). Both should be able to take in USB drives and stream these files over your network, so either one offers a pretty compelling (and thrifty) way to watch your own movies.
The difference is that Sony's Netbox is $130, whereas Boxee is $200. If all you do is torrent, you should go with the Sony. Even though Boxee's Flash and Browser skills theoretically give it more internet streaming support, Sony still has a wide selection of (legal) content channels. It supports the obligatory Netflix and Amazon VOD, of course, and the upcoming Hulu Plus. It also goes even further with blip.tv, FEARnet, YouTube, Dr. Oz, Epicurious video recipes, Daily Motion, eHow, Flixter and even the Berlin Philharmonic (provided you have the proper paid subscription).
Whether you'll care about these extra streaming sources from either box is up to you, but being able to stream something immediately beats having to torrent, then watch.
Verdict: Sony Netbox (or Boxee, for a little more money)
For these folks, Roku has a good amount of channels, even if not all of them are of high quality. Sony's Netbox is close, but doesn't have as many and doesn't seem to have the expandability that Roku does. Boxee or Google TV might swoop in later and take this most-content throne, but you're paying two to three times as much for one of those. On the other hand, Boxee seems to be as close as you can get to hooking an actual computer up to your TV.
Verdict: Roku XDS
They are if you're just talking about streaming. If you want to do more Apple-y stuff, like better iTunes music integration, AirPlay or MobileMe, Apple TV is the only choice.
In the end, it's really only $99. If you're an iOS or Mac user and want the simplicity of having another device that can talk to your other stuff without the hassle of installing converters and looking up forums, the new Apple TV's not a bad solution. Plus, even if you already are settled into your current streaming setup, adding Netflix to your bedroom or workout room for under a benji isn't too shabby.
But, this whole set-top-box streamer market would be out of business if people would just get over the stigma of having a computer in the living room. All these boxes are doing is sneaking a computer in the backdoor.