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Jobs triggers new appliance genre with Apple TV

May sell even more than the iPhone

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Apple announced a 40GB digital video player this week, but it also told us about a radical upgrade to its Wi-Fi product line, taking early adoption of the as yet incomplete 802.11n standard and offering it with MIMO (using multiple dynamic antennas) which can stream video wirelessly through the home without the risk of major interruptions.

The iTV product promised by Apple CEO Steve Jobs last year was a feature of his MacWorld keynote and although it was largely overshadowed by the anticipated launch of the iPhone, Jobs said it was ready for delivery in February under the name Apple TV. Our money is on it selling an awful lot, perhaps even more than the iPhone.

But Apple TV was going to be just another media server that wouldn’t work too well, if Apple hadn’t taken the MIMO (multiple in multiple out) route and there will be plenty of systems launched in the coming six months to a year which promise that they can stream TV from a PC to a TV set, but which simply use basic 802 11n Wi-Fi and deliver very poor results.

Effectively the Apple TV device is a Wi-Fi attached disk based server like DVR, which also translates as many video formats as it can to play on a TV Screen. We have no details of its navigation system and any unique software features so can't at this stage compare it with a TiVo.

It connects to almost all modern widescreen televisions, and will be shipping for just $299. It is connected with a physical wire to the TV set, outputting either HDMI or to separate video and audio ports.

For the $299 price customers get just a 40GB hard disk drive which will store 50 hours of video, 9,000 songs, 25,000 photos or a combination. All the capacity figures for the disks are based on iPod class video, what we call PC video, because it relies on a 640 x 480 screen plus 128-Kbps AAC encoding for sound, but it will accept higher definitions of video.

In fact the device will output the low end of high-definition outputs the 720p output, which offers 1280 x 720 pixels, and although this does not include the top HD content for the brand new 1080i top of the range TV sets, it’s pretty good. The Apple TV can be set to automatically sync with content that’s on up to five different computers in the home which are attached to the Wi-fi network, or to stream content directly from these PCs to your TV screen. The big difference here is that Wi-Fi drops a lot of packets so it’s better to do a file transfer on Wi-Fi than to try to stream, even if you are using MIMO.

iTunes now boasts 250 feature length movies Jobs told the conference, and it reached this number this week with the addition of a list of new Paramount films, timed to be ready for this announcement. This goes with the 350 TV shows, 4m songs, 5,000 music videos, 100,000 podcasts and 20,000 audiobooks that can also be bought there.

Apple TV, which includes a special Apple Remote which controls the whole thing, needs the new AirPort Extreme Wi-Fi or it needs fast Ethernet wiring. You can use it without the new Wi-Fi, but video is going to be poor.

Apple TV and the Airport Extreme both look very much alike

The new AirPort Extreme is said to offer five times the performance and twice the range of the previous AirPort Extreme and funnily enough it looks almost exactly the same as the Apple TV. Although Apple doesn’t say it, the device is likely to use chips from Atheros, which is well known for its MIMO technology, and which is one of two Wi-Fi chip makers, the other being Broadcom, which Apple regularly uses.

The device works in either 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz wireless frequencies, is 6.5 inches square and 1.3 inches tall, and has a built in USB port so that it can attach to external USB drives for things like backup or shared storage. It costs $179, and is available in February through the Apple’s retail stores and resellers.

All of this means that there will be a hail of rival products overnight. The market leader in smart antenna technology to date is Ruckus Wireless, which has its own patented “beamforming” system Ruckus was showing its own next generation device at the Consumer Electronics show in Las Vegas this week, also based on 802.11n.

Ruckus is a specialist at using Wi-Fi to stream video, and has landed major European IPTV customers at Belgacom in Belgium and Telefonica O2 Czech Republic and has trials at 30 other operators around Europe. The Ruckus system operates a buffer and resends lost packets and its new system will run at around 60 Mbps.

Conventional Wi-Fi is very susceptible to interference from other device and from obstacles in the home and loses 10 per cent to 15 per cent of all the IP packets sent over it as video.

Ruckus systems have 6 directional antenna built in and the system is constantly dynamically searching for the best route around a home. There are 63 different discreet patterns which the wireless gateway can select and it is always checking and reselecting the combination that is most effective.

Ruckus this week also introduced its technology in the form of the MediaFlex USB Dongle, designed to provide connectivity to set-tops and media centers and said that Motorola was at the head of the queue to integrate it into an IPTV set-top box, the Motorola VIP1720. This is not the 802.11n version and doesn’t do format conversions, and at $59 it just connects the TV to a video source, so this is really just a connector to replace wires based on older 802.11g wi-fi.

Meanwhile, in an entirely different approach to moving internet video to the TV, SanDisk, has introduced a flash memory player which takes video from a PC through a USB port and plays it on a TV.

This is much the same as the Apple device except that you have to walk over to the TV and plug in the player after copying video from a PC. A multimedia processor converts stored files into various TV video and audio formats for direct playback without having to make changes to the TV. These pocket-sized players will ship in Spring.

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Faultline is published by Rethink Research, a London-based publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter is an assessment of the impact of the week's events in the world of digital media. Faultline is where media meets technology. Subscription details here.

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