New Apple TV - The Ultimate Streamer?

Yesterday, Apple announced the next generation Apple TV, a product line that has been unchanged and virtually ignored by the company for several years. With this newest product introduction, our imagination is re-ignited with possibilities. Apple's CEO, Steve Jobs, has been eluding to the magic "cloud" as the future of content distribution and management for some time and the new Apple TV delivers on that vision.

The original Apple TV provided a cost effective method for bringing media from your computer to your home theater. Not only was it a fraction of the cost of more complex and sometimes cumbersome high-end media servers, it's simple integration with iTunes made syncing content a snap.

So, how does the new Apple TV differ from the old, and will it make a difference in the world of downloadable media?

Well, when it comes to cost, the new Apple TV at only $99 just made the Roku media player extinct. Roku's top end unit is actually 99.99 , a dollar more, and only streams Netflix movies in HD. Apple TV also streams Netflix movies in HD, yet offers a whole lot more.

The size of the new Apple TV is 75% smaller than the previous version because there is no longer a hard drive. According to Apple, file management becomes an issue for many users. While the new model still integrates with iTunes allowing you to watch movies, all you do is rent them now. There are no more purchases through this version of Apple TV. (if you prefer to purchase and store movies and TV shows, then stick with the current model.)

It is Apple's intention that movies and TV shows will cost so little to rent that it's easier and even cheaper to rent them multiple times rather than buy them. I don't see where that business model is completely in place yet, but they are working on the studios so they can offer downloads of individual TV episodes for as little as 99 cents. At the time of the press conference only ABC and Fox were onboard with that pricing. First run movies will rent for $4.99 in HD at the same time the DVD/Blu-Ray is released. When it's no longer "new", the price will be reduced.

Access to all the media on your computer (music, movies, photos) will be easier than before since syncing via iTunes is no longer necessary. VIa WiFi, Apple TV will now be able to stream content directly from your computer (PC and Mac). Moreover, with a new feature called Airplay, it will be possible to stream content directly from your iPhone and iPad to your Apple TV as well. This only deepens the advantage of Apple's extended ecosystem, allowing seamless integration between all their devices with little to no effort. Use either the supplied remote or download the free Remote app and control your Apple TV from the iPhone or iPad.

Like the older version, you can watch YouTube videos but they've also added access to Apple's mobile me gallery and the photo sharing site - flickr. I suspect it will be a matter of time before access to additional services will be added with firmware updates.

While streaming technology from set-top boxes is hardly new, few offer as many options or represent so many possibilities as this new version of Apple TV, especially at this price point. Time will tell if this is the device consumers have been waiting for to easily integrate their computers with their home entertainment systems. I will be receiving a unit soon, and reviewing it for our sister publication, Home Theater.