Friday, November 17, 2006

Apple's Forthcoming iTV

As I said in Media Center Mac Mini for My Bedroom? (Part 2), I'm looking to feed a Sharp AQUOS LCD flat panel TV with input from a Mac-based media center, probably a Mac mini. In researching that plan, I learned that Apple has a pre-announced product, code-named iTV, that may fit into my scheme.

Here is an article about iTV. The article includes photos, such as the one at left, of the giant screen behind Apple CEO Steve Jobs during his presentation at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater in San Francisco, California on September 12, 2006.

iTV's details are sketchy. We know that iTV:
  • is a "a wireless video streaming set-top box to be released in Q1 2007."
  • appears to have a footprint identical with that of a Mac mini. I assume you can stack it under or on top of a Mac mini.
  • features a built-in power supply; USB 2.0 and Ethernet ports; HDMI audio/video output; optical digital audio output; RCA stereo analog audio outputs; and 802.11 (I assume 802.11g) wireless connectivity.
  • is "controllable by the standard Apple remote [and] will come with an updated version of [Apple's] Front Row [software] interface that shares Front Row's smooth 3D graphics, but differs in that it has a menu on the right side of the screen."
  • "works with ... iTunes on both PCs and Macs," and
  • "will sell for $299."
I note in passing that iTV does not have an internal optical media player for DVDs and the like. What could Apple be thinking?

iTV's network connectivity will allow its use as a front end to access recorded media files — movies, music, etc. — on the Internet or on a home computer network, whether wired, wireless, or a combination of the two. My particular network could build in a Mac mini, but it wouldn't need to, since I already have other Macs on a wireless AirPort network.

The iTV itself would serve as my network's video connection to my flat-panel TV, ideally via its HDMI port. It would provide an audio connection to a separate sound system, ideally via either HDMI or the digital optical audio output.

Another article about iTV
appears in Wikipedia (with a link to this page offering streaming video of Jobs' full Yerba Buena presentation). The article mentions rumors "that the iTV will sport other features, such as a built in DVR feature, or even Live TV, but this is highly unlikely. Like the iPod, the iTV will start out as a mainly recorded media [gathering] device" — that is, on a home computer network.

In Media Center Mac Mini for My Bedroom? (Part 1) I looked at two TV-related Mac products from Elgato Systems, EyeHome and EyeTV Hybrid. The first of these looks like a direct competitor to iTV — whose advent will probably spell curtains for it, since EyeHome is, like iTV, a networked media-client hub. The second Elgato product, EyeTV Hybrid, offers the live TV and DVR features the Apple product apparently lacks. It is not itself network-oriented.

When you think about it, then, iTV (like Elgato's EyeHome) is all about gathering, accessing, and playing existing media content from many disparate network sources seamlessly — a worthy goal.

But the EyeTV hardware, in its Hybrid form or as EyeTV 250, is all about capturing live content piped into the home via cable or satellite or obtained over the air via an antenna. This function is one which Apple has not addressed.

iTV seems very carefully designed not to be usable as a high-def digital video recorder — by running a Firewire or USB 2.0 cable to it from, say, a digital cable box.

Some digital cable boxes (I am told) can output HD video content in digital form on Firewire, potentially allowing it to be recorded on external devices such as DVD recorders. I've never tried it, so I don't know its ins and outs. Nor have I heard of any cable boxes that output USB 2.0. But iTV is seemingly not going to be in the business of allowing digital cable-TV content to be archived on it, or even via it to its back-end computer network.

It would of course be nice if iTV could record digital 720p and 1080i HDTV programming as such. Or, if not capturing it directly on its own hard drive, at least passing it along to other computers on a home network.

But, alas, no. iTV has no intrinsic video input capability. It can retrieve already recorded video material from a home network or from the Internet, but it cannot capture live TV.

Even if an external TV-capture device like EyeTV Hybrid could be connected to iTV's USB 2.0 port, as if to enable the iTV to capture a television signal, how would the requisite EyeTV software be installed on Apple's iTV?

And even if Apple's iTV could somehow host Elgato's EyeTV software, Elgato's EyeTV hardware can't accept digital cable input ... not without the signal already having been converted to merely standard-def analog by a separate cable box.

Specifically, EyeTV lacks the ability to accept TV signals in digital form directly from the 75-ohm wire that feeds a cable box. It does not have an onboard cable-TV tuner. Nor does it accept a CableCard for decoding digital cable input. Nor does it have a Firewire input to allow it to receive a digital signal output from a standalone cable box.

In fact, Elgato tech support informs me: "There are no products for the Mac or PC that can natively decode the encrypted signal from the cable company." That's where CableCard support could come in handy. As far as I know, most or all digital cable channels are encrypted to ensure that only authorized cable boxes (or CableCards) can receive them. This includes premium channels like HBO, high-definition channels, and in fact any and all digital channels that are not part of the cable company's basic tier of service.

My own cable company, Comcast Cablevision of Baltimore County, Maryland, charges extra for all digital channels, since it basic tier channels are still all-analog. So all digital cable channels that are available to customers require decoding.

Currently, no products for either the Mac or PC will do that. That may change someday. If it does, I could conceivably make a Mac mini into the equivalent of a TiVo Series 3 HD-DVR, but with the ability to permanently archive high-def and standard-def TV content in its original form.

There's also the problem of bandwidth, though. Broadcast 720p and 1080i signals require up to 19.2 Mbps. They're only lightly digitally compressed — though cable companies typically squeeze broadcast digital channels down, bandwidth-wise, yet more.

Suppose you could somehow input 1080i at up to 19.2 Mbps into iTV and wanted to record it on a Mac mini, to which the iTV wirelessly networks via one of Apple's AirPort 802.11g products. 802.11g (also called WiFi) can run as fast as 54 Mbps, with a "typical" rate of 25 Mbps. That conceivably could be fast enough for shunting a single HDTV signal around a home network — assuming optimal wireless reception conditions. So, technically speaking, it might be possible for Apple or a third party to enhance iTV to serve as an HD-DVR — a high-definition digital video recorder.

Hence it would be nice if digital cable boxes and satellite receivers offered USB 2.0 output of their digital video signals for use by the likes of iTV. Then any digitally compressed TV signal received by the cable box might be exported into iTV, where software such as Elgato's EyeTV could capture it, either on iTV itself or elsewhere on the home network, via 802.11g.

That would be nirvana, but it's not apt to happen. Think of the copy-protection issues. Though you have a legal right to archive, for you own enjoyment and use, TV programs you legitimately receive, content providers are not about to make it easy for you. We've all heard about the "broadcast flag" that might one day be inserted into digital TV programs so you can't copy them. There are other flags in digital television that can do the same sort of thing. I've yet to hear whether, or how, they're in use today, but you can bet they'll sprout right up once a product something like iTV makes digital-TV capture simple for the masses.

Meanwhile, the prerecorded content Steve Jobs has in mind for iTV play is mainly what's available at Apple's iTunes Store. There you can now get songs, as always, plus movies, TV shows, podcasts, music videos, and movie trailers. All but the original music-only files feature video. The movies and TV shows are of near-DVD video quality, 640 pixels by 480. (DVDs are something like 704 x 480.)

That's a long way from high-def. Apple is betting that the convenience, usability, archivability, networkability, and reasonable pricing of their media content will offset the lower video resolution. Apple may be right. I can't be the only one to have noticed that 720p and 1080i/p HDTV content remains decidedly "niche" in appeal and availability, years after the HD revolution supposedly began.

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