The newly revamped Apple TV is a huge upgrade over its predecessor, but in many ways Apple is playing catch-up in the streaming video space. A wide variety of product types already contain much of the same functionality, although the Apple TV has a few advantages. Here's how it stacks up.
Streaming set-top boxes
The first thing we thought when we saw the new Apple TV was: Roku. The Roku Digital Video Player has been around since 2008, and currently features streaming media from a variety of services, including Netflix, Amazon Video on Demand, Pandora, and MLB.TV. And Amazon already has those $0.99 TV rentals--plus you get to keep them, rather than just rent. Roku also cut the prices of its line of players earlier this week; the Roku HD Player now runs $70.
The Apple TV's big advantage here is its capability to stream content from networked PCs. The Apple TV can pull music, movies, and photos from a networked computer running iTunes; the Roku lacks that capability completely, at least for time being. The Apple TV will also integrate more easily with other Apple devices using the new AirPlay standard.
Logitech's Revue with Google TV is also coming soon, but it's hard to tell how it will compare at this early stage.
New Blu-ray players are almost as much about streaming media as they are Blu-ray. Entry-level Blu-ray players lack Wi-Fi, but cost about $130 and are capable of streaming from more services than Apple TV. Step-up to the $165 LG BD570 and you'll get Wi-Fi, DLNA compatibility (for streaming music, photos and music from a networked PC) and Netflix, Vudu, and Pandora streaming.
The Apple TV's advantage here is its low price with built-in Wi-Fi, and again the fact that it will integrate more easily with other Apple devices. The user interface on the Apple TV is also a step ahead of the interfaces offered on many Blu-ray players. However, the Apple TV does lack a disc player, and adding a single device than can handle DVDs, Blu-rays, and streaming media for about $65 more than the Apple TV will likely be attractive to many buyers.
If you already own a PS3, Xbox 360, or Wii, you can already stream Netflix on all of those devices. (The PS3 and the Wii currently require you to insert a disc, but it's likely that restriction will be lifted soon.) The PS3 and Xbox 360 both also have their own TV and movie stores, and both are capable of streaming music, movies, and photos from a connected PC.
Again, the Apple TV costs less and will work better with your other Apple devices. For those just looking to simple media streaming, it will likely be a better choice. But if you already have a PS3 or Xbox 360, you probably won't feel the need to add an Apple TV to your home theater.
Our initial impression is that the market for the new Apple TV is going to be somewhat limited because so much of its functionality is already available on other devices. The tech enthusiasts that are most interested in ditching their cable subscription and getting all their TV and movie content from iTunes is the same audience that likely already owns a Roku HD, Blu-ray player or game console. Aside from Apple's excellent interface, there's not a lot else offered, at least from the spec sheet.
On the other hand, for those that like to stay within the Apple universe of products, the refreshed Apple TV offers significantly more than its predecessor. Netflix streaming combined with the low $99 price will make it an easy impulse buy, especially for those with iPads and iPhones that will be able to take full advantage of the new AirPlay functionality.
Of course, we'll withhold our final judgment until we get to put a review sample through its paces. And we're still hoping that it's possible for Apple to roll out a firmware update allowing for true app-based functionality, which will open the Apple TV up to all the other great streaming media services (Pandora, Hulu Plus, Rhapsody) available on the iPad/iPhone.