Switched On: Headless client found near tapeless box

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

Regardless of whether the halo effect may have enabled the iPod to spur Macintosh sales, it's hard to doubt that the iPod has influenced the perception of Apple TV. Indeed, in a case of two tails wagging a dog, Apple refers to both products as "iTunes accessories."

Just as the iPod succeeded in what had been a slow category, some say, so will Apple TV. In fact, such bulls claim that Apple TV will be bigger than TiVo and satellite radio put together, not to mention Elvis, The Beatles, and Slim Whitman. Will Apple TV topple TiVo? The pioneering digital video recorder has hung in there against the odds with strong customer loyalty, but its fan base is small when compared to the Apple nation. How does the petite white place-shifter compare with the big black time-shifter?

Video content availability: Apple claims it has 70 percent of primetime programming from broadcast and major cable networks such as Bravo. Of course, TiVo has access to just about all programming to which you subscribe, limited only by the size of your hard drive -- or not, if you have a model with DVD recorder. Advantage: TiVo.

Setup: TiVos, particularly the analog variety, have to deal with a mess of cables and connections. Things are better for the TiVo Series 3 if using CableCARD and HDMI, but that's hardly a universal solution. Setting up Apple TV is easier on the TV side as you may need as little as that one HDMI cable, but you also must have iTunes and preferably a high-speed network running. It's close, but I'll give the Series 3 the advantage, as it's more fair to compare TiVo's latest with the Apple TV. Advantage: TiVo.

User Interface: Apple TV's UI is simple but a bit stark; TiVo's has to handle more complex tasks, but sometimes gets bogged down in wizards. Even when considering iTunes as part of Apple TV's interface, Apple's knack for design prevails. Advantage: Apple TV.

Flexibility: With the Home Media Option, TiVos can also access music and photos from a PC, and TiVo allows homebrew programs to be accessed from PCs as well. Finally, the availability of Amazon Unbox on TiVo allows consumers to purchase movies and TV that they might have missed recording, similar to Apple TV. However, this involves the dreaded "triple dip" of paying for the box, monthly service and a la carte content. Advantage: TiVo.

Value: Series 2 TiVos are now commonly available for under $100, a dramatic discount from the lofty price tag of the Series 3. Yet, both platforms have the same subscription requirements. Apple TV's pricing falls somewhere in the middle and, while there's no subscription fee, buying a Season Pass for a TV show will often cost about $35 (a bit less than three months of TiVo service).

Now, I know a few people who claim that all they watch are one or two shows, but TiVo's annual subscription works out to about four seasons of primetime shows. The Series 3 can record true high-definition programming. Plus, there's the "live" functionality of pausing and rewinding "live" TV as well as commercial skipping that have long been among TiVo's benefits. Over time, for most consumers, a TiVo would be less expensive to use with commercial content than Apple TV. Advantage: TiVo

Obviously, AppleTV was not designed to compete directly with TiVo, but the availability of purchasing TV shows may make it an option for those with finely tuned TV tastes. The first iPod was a pricey luxury, but Apple has succeeded in bringing down price points so that the low-end iPod shuffle is affordable by a broad base of users.

If Apple TV is successful, less expensive versions will also likely follow. Its polish, synchronization architecture, content availability and integration with iTunes make it one of the strongest efforts to bridge PC-based media to the television, but it can't yet displace a product optimized to manage the TV shows to which you already have access.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group,. His blog can be read at Views expressed in Switched On are his own.