Competition nears for upcoming Apple TV from Google, Roku, Boxee

By Rob Pegoraro
Monday, September 13, 2010; 5:17 PM

Apple's drastically updated Apple TV won't ship until late this month. But home viewers looking for simple ways to enjoy Internet video and audio on their HDTVs will get a few other new options soon afterward -- or in one case, maybe before Apple TV's retail rebirth.

The best-known among these competitors is Google, which demonstrated its Google TV software in May. This Android-based product, to be available in some Sony HDTVs and Blu-ray players as well as a separate Logitech box, will act as a front end to both the cable and satellite programming you already pay for, as well as Web video and audio sources.

Google hasn't offered a ship date more specific than "fall" so far. Last week, however, Intel chief executive Paul Otellini may have forgotten his PR guidance when he told the Wall Street Journal, "Google TV starts shipping this month."

Over the weekend, news leaked of new Web-media boxes from one of the longer-lived competitors in this young field, Roku. Engadget noted a set of Federal Communications Commission filings that suggest the upcoming arrival of two new Roku "XD" boxes, plus a Netgear receiver with Roku's software.

You can expect that, like Roku's existing boxes, these will connect to a wide array of video sources, such as Netflix and Amazon, plus sports programming -- most notably, Major League Baseball's -- unavailable on other devices in this category. Now that other leagues seem to be showing more interest in online distribution, will a future Roku box expand your choice of games you can watch over the Web? Stay tuned.

Finally, Boxee -- the developers of the simplified media-browsing software of the same name -- began taking orders for D-Link's Boxee Box this morning. This media receiver has gone through some design changes since I first saw it at the Consumer Electronics Show in January; Boxee switched to an Intel processor and other components, which helps explain what happened to its original second-quarter ship date.

The Box will sell for $199 and ship in November. Like the Boxee software, it will provide a remote-control friendly interface to browse video and audio programming from a wide variety of Internet sources -- plus media from your own computers. Boxee's system invites tinkering; that has had a cost in usability but has also allowed its software to continue providing access to Hulu despite that TV-viewing site's repeated efforts to shut out Boxee users.

It will be interesting to see how the different presentations of Web content in these devices fare in the market. Will consumers gravitate toward Apple TV's promise of simplicity, even if it precludes easy TV viewing of many of their favorite video sites? How will Roku's more varied menu compare with Boxee's wider-still selection but less polished interface? And if the price of using Google TV is tinkering with the "IR blasters" necessary to relay a Google TV remote's commands to a cable or satellite box -- something that's as fun as it sounds -- how many users will tolerate that initial complexity?

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