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Could Apple announce a home console at E3?


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Quite an interesting article on GamesIndustry.biz at the moment:

http://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/digitalfoundry-in-theory-apple-home-console

No real proof, of course - but it's an interesting read nontheless.

I'd be surprised to see Apple do it, but I suppose it isn't totally beyond their reach.

EDIT: Here's the article, for those who don't wish to register - though I would recommend it; Gamesindustry.biz is a really good site (and has one of the only email newsletters I actually read).

Will Nintendo's Project Cafe be the only new hardware launch we have to look forwards to during the upcoming E3 event? Conceivably, could Apple be next in line to launch a new home console?

The notion of the Cupertino-based superpower launching into direct competition with Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft may seem like a step outside of its comfort zone, but there's little doubt whatsoever that something is afoot: in the last few months, Apple has made a series of calculated moves suggesting it is planning big things for the games market.

To begin with, let's consider two important appointments that the UK arm of Apple has made in the last few weeks. Nintendo UK's head of communications Rob Saunders is set to move across to join the iOS platform holder, while Activision's erstwhile European PR director Nick Grange has also been recruited - both in yet-to-be officially confirmed roles.

To all intents and purposes then, this is a new hardware platform targeted directly at the games industry.

The recruitment of one games industry veteran with a CV like Saunders' should be considered a very serious statement of intent for the games market, but the notion of Grange being involved too suggests that this is much more than a single, high-ranking games exec looking for a new challenge. The appointment of both men looks for all the world like a new, aggressive, exciting approach to the business from Apple.

The next piece of evidence to factor in is the timing of Apple's next major conference. WWDC 2011 takes place between June 6-11 in San Francisco, clashing directly with E3. It's a turn of events that could simply be coincidence of course (last year's WWDC kicked off on June 7) but it also represents an opportunity Apple is unlikely to pass up. The event is tantalisingly described as heralding the future of both OSX and iOS and games are almost certain to be an important aspect of the mix.

These two elements in combination with a much more open approach from Apple to the games press in recent months strongly suggest that something big is happening, but making the jump to a full-blown console launch perhaps seems like a case of speculation gone mad. However, the final factor - the make-up of Apple's most recent hardware design - adds further fuel to the fire.

While most reviews of the iPad 2 conclude that it is little more than an incremental upgrade from the original device, Anand Lal Shimpi and his team over at Anandtech know the score. The latest iteration of the tablet and the make-up of its A5 SoC processor in particular, represent a gigantic leap in performance over both iPad 1 and iPhone 4, and sets new standards in graphical performance compared to just about any other mobile device out there.

A5's jump from a 1GHz ARM Cortex A8 to a dual core A9 configuration is a significant upgrade in its own right, but the GPU upgrade is more important still and is the true differentiating factor between iPad 2 and its competitors, from a hardware perspective at least. The PowerVR SGX535 found in all iOS devices from the iPhone 3GS onwards is gone, replaced by a dual core SGX543 MP2, a piece of tech that manages to outperform every mainstream mobile GPU currently out there.

The Unreal Engine-powered Epic Citadel ran with an exceptionally variable frame-rate on the original iPad. On the new A5-powered successor, we see a fairly constant 35FPS in this analysis captured via the HDMI mirroring function of the new tablet. Frame-rate is almost certainly being capped in this instance.

View this video in HD"Our Series5XT architecture (SGX543/544/554) is a significant mid-life update to the Series5 architecture (SGX520/530/531/535/540) which was driven based on market and customer feedback," Imagination Technologies tells us.

"Key in this feedback was increased interest in compute performance both for GP-GPU via OpenCL but also for higher-quality pixels via more complex shaders as a result we doubled the floating point performance per pipeline in the newer cores while maintaining efficiency via co-issue (dual instruction) capabilities... Most of the other changes are much lower level and focused on improving the efficiency of the design including both improved performance and further reduced bandwidth usage - a specific area of focus has been anti-aliasing and polygon throughput."

With the base architecture has improved significantly, moving to a dual core configuration offers a 2x performance boost on top of that.

"Yes, graphics cores are inherently parallel processors which means that they work on data independently (one pixel does not impact the processing of another pixel)," IMG says, "which means that performance can be scaled near linear compared to CPUs where adding more cores often gives a very low return [where] data does depend on the processing of other data elements."

The proof of the pudding is in the benchmarks where anything from a 3x to 7x performance boost can be seen in like-for-like tests carried out versus the original iPad: not quite the 9x figure mooted by Apple but colossal nonetheless.

Bearing in mind Apple's dominance in the smartphone and tablet markets, a spec revision as drastic as this is extraordinary. Based on its existing business, there is no real need whatsoever for this level of GPU power: there's a strong argument that Apple already "owns" the mobile gaming space via the iTunes App Store. An incremental update to GPU power would have sufficed but the generational leap offered by A5 strongly suggests a much more aggressive approach: to all intents and purposes then, this is a new hardware platform targeted directly at the games industry.

This boost in gaming capabilities has taken the industry by surprise, but prior to the iPad 2 reveal, some developers thought that Apple may have had a trick or two up its sleeve. Last week, Firemint shipped an update to Real Racing 2 HD which enabled 1080p gameplay at 30 frames per second on an HDTV via the iPad 2's optional HDMI output.

"In anticipating the iPad 2 release we were actually working with a matrix of different possibilities for what it might be, as time went by and we heard rumours we would adjust the probabilities in each configuration," Firemint's Rob Murray says.

"We worked on basically two versions for iPad 2, one was built for about 25 per cent to 50 per cent performance increase, the other was the 'hit it out of the park' kind of performance increase. When we saw the keynote we switched gears rapidly to the 'hit it out of the park' version that meant that we were finishing off a new graphics set that we had been working on. Even with our 'hit it out of the park' version we were able to turn on full screen anti-aliasing and many other effects that we didn't think would make it, so Apple surprised us also, but I think we were far more ready for it than other developers."

With a processor as inexpensive to produce and as powerful as A5, Apple has the chance to bring a home console to market that could offer serious value.

Real Racing 2 HD is a great iOS game, but still some way off the standards set by high budget PS3/360 releases - but of course it was developed and sells at a fraction of the price. That said, right now it's early days in terms of making use of the colossal increase in power the A5 chip represents. Firemint's game is scaling up from an existing iOS project and wasn't designed from the ground up for the new hardware.

The same could be said for Epic/Chair's Infinity Blade, but regardless, on iPad 2 it is a phenomenally good-looking game with a superb performance level. While it struggles to sustain anything like 30FPS on iPad 1, it easily exceeds it on iPad 2, adding additional effects and even appears to be super-sampling - running at a much higher native resolution before being scaled down, pretty much the best form of anti-aliasing you can get, if you have the power available. If iPad 2 can run games like this without even breaking a sweat, what can be achieved when developers address the new generation of performance directly?

Infinity Blade on iPad 2 adjusts resolution in comparison to Epic Citadel and actually appears to be super-sampling in order to smooth off the jaggies. Note that frame-rate analysis is essentially a process in counting duplicate frames. In Infinity Blade, Epic purposely reduces frame-rate or even pauses the game momentarily, registering as dips on the graph. Aside from scene cuts, the game runs fairly consistently around 35FPS, just like the Epic Citadel demo.

View this video in HDEven in its current A5 guise, there's little doubt that Apple's mobile architecture is capable of some seriously pretty visuals. But the beauty of the hardware design is that it is eminently scalable. There's nothing theoretical about this, the tech's finalised and ready to roll - the PowerVR SGX543 in the iPad 2 scales all the way up to 16 cores, and IMG tells us that its architecture is suitable for "anything demanding performance: console, computing etc".

Indeed, we already have a mass market example of this scalability in the offing: Sony's NGP SoC combines a quad core ARM Cortex A9 with Power VR SGX543 MP4 - two iPad 2 A5s stuck together if you like. Sony actually describes its NGP GPU as a SGX543 MP4+.

"That's to indicate the work Sony has done to implement the graphics," IMG says. "What they licensed is a SGX543 MP4."

While rumours concerning Nintendo's Project Cafe point towards a traditional PowerPC CPU and AMD GPU pairing, Apple's approach in combining low power ARMs with PowerVR tech has clear advantages: the physical amount of silicon being used is much lower, meaning that the cost to fabricate the chips is cheaper. There are cost savings elsewhere too - for starters, cooling assemblies would be significantly cheaper, if they are actually needed at all.

While the option to scale up the existing architecture is very much a viable approach, it also introduces a number of challenges to Apple, as well as games publishers and developers - issues that perhaps make such an approach unlikely. Having just rolled out an enormously improved architecture, it doesn't really follow that Apple would instantly follow it up with another one, with all the additional R&D and production costs that entails. Far better to get it right the first time and roll it out across multiple devices.

Secondly, a direct challenge to Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo would mean a seismic shift in the nature of the iTunes App Store and it's highly unlikely that the existing ecosystem could sustain the price tags required by home console AAA game budgets. This would make a direct Xbox 360/PS3 competitor an unwise move for Apple. Approaching one Xbox 360 developer on the subject of an iOS home console, the response was simple: "There's no way I can sell my game for 59p".

With a processor as inexpensive to produce and as powerful as A5, Apple has the chance to bring a home console to market that could offer serious value - and it might not even be marketed as a console at all, certainly not in the way that we know it.

Last year, AppleTV was relaunched as a home media hub and while it lacked App Store integration, it still featured a fully functional A4 processor at its core: rampant overkill for the limited functionality on offer, but a perfectly sound business decision by a company already fabricating millions of the chips. The machine currently costs just £101.

An AppleTV revamp featuring App Store and games-playing capabilities makes a lot of sense. While Microsoft and Sony have been eager to position their consoles as games machines with media capabilities, a refreshed AppleTV would be the opposite: a fully realised media hub that just happens to play great games. This approach is nothing new for Apple – after all, the other iOS devices put other functionality first and foremost but have swiftly come into their own as very capable handheld games machines.

Repositioning AppleTV doesn't upset games publishers and it doesn't devalue their core gamer offerings on the traditional HD consoles, but it does introduce a potentially disruptive product that allows the platform holder to extend the reach of its iTunes and App Store offerings still further: a £100 media hub that also plays games that could look as good - or better - than Infinity Blade? That's a hugely tempting proposition, and the system would also have more than enough processing power to cope with game streaming for services like Gaikai and OnLive.

"I heard somebody the other day say AppleTV, which I love, they're going to start putting the App Store on AppleTV with games" - David Jaffe

We're not the only ones to have come to this conclusion. There's a lot of buzz in the games industry about an AppleTV revamp.

"I heard somebody the other day say AppleTV, which I love, they're going to start putting the App Store on AppleTV with games," Eat Sleep Play boss David Jaffe told Eurogamer. "I'm like 'holy shit'. So yeah, it's possible."

Even with this approach, a great many challenges remain for Apple in bringing iOS home - problems it would need to conquer whether it repurposed A5 into a home console or went balls-out with a powered-up/scaled-up PowerVR/ARM combo.

The current AppleTV may well be using the same core architecture as the iPad 1 and iPhone 4, but it lacks onboard storage. It doesn't matter if the platform holder goes for a mechanical hard drive or flash RAM, adding this crucial component is still going to add to the bill of materials required to manufacture this thing, and pushing the price too high brings you uncomfortably close to Wii and Xbox 360 in particular.

Real Racing 2 HD captured at 1080p from the iPad 2's HDMI output. You can see that Firemint has achieved its target of 30 frames per second but it is interesting to note that the usual 30FPS cadence of a unique frame followed by a duplicate isn't followed. As a result, we can see several unique frames followed by several dupes, resulting in a refresh that isn't as smooth as you might expect. Perhaps related, v-sync is enabled on all iOS games we've seen thus far.

View this video in HDSecondly, there's a question of the control mechanism. AppleTV currently ships with a remote, so either the company needs to redesign it to be more games-friendly or else an alternative approach is required, necessitating developers to come up with multiple control schemes for their App Store games.

Existing iOS devices could be utilised as controllers via the Bluetooth connection, and there have been rumours that AirPlay could be extended to cover gaming (h264 HD hardware encoding is built into both A4 and A5 processors) but it would highly unusual for a games machine to ship without any form of controller, reliant on the customer already owning another device in the same family.

Apple also faces other issues too. Similar to Nintendo, its online gaming system is best described as "embryonic" compared to the enormous infrastructure and rich functionality of Xbox LIVE and the PlayStation Network. Game Center really needs a revamp - never mind the feature set, just its pool table stylings alone suggest that Apple as a corporate entity doesn't really quite "get" gaming yet. The firm doesn't need to create a mammoth games-based internal infrastructure, but it does need games people with the right experience to make this crucial next step.

Perhaps it's this realisation that has seen the company bring in people like Rob Saunders and Nick Grange, and perhaps many other games people elsewhere within the company structure that we don't know about yet. It makes sense that the enormous investment that has gone into the new gaming architecture would be backed up by the personnel required to move Apple onto the next level in advancing the iOS platform.

So long as the price is right, the raw potential offered by re-factoring Apple's new A5 processor into a home console is hugely exciting. Nintendo proved conclusively with Wii that it's not the tech specs that ensure success with the mainstream, it's all about defining an irresistible concept. The iTunes App Store knocks these out of the park on a regular basis of course, but there are elements that could well have strong appeal to the core gamer userbase too.

There's been plenty of talk in the past about syncing gameplay between home and mobile consoles, but Apple has the best chance of doing so, since potentially it could have three different devices tied to the same person - iPhone or iPod Touch for on the move gameplay, iPad for general mobile and toilet use (!) and the AppleTV for the living room. Adding WiFi and 3G game-save syncing would be child's play (in fact, maybe Apple could add wireless iTunes syncing at the same time without us having to use a Jailbreak app to get the job done)...

"In the years to come, we want the playing experience for users to be seamless so you don't have to jump between mobile, console and whatever other device you might have," says Firemint's Rob Murray.

"We want it to be invisible and natural. One minute you might be hooked up to your big screen at home, iPad 2 in hand speeding along in Real Racing 2 HD. The next you're disconnected and on the go, playing the same race - and all you had to do was unplug a single cable. We don't want users thinking about connectivity, it should just happen."

With an Apple home console, it could happen. Will the next WWDC deliver?

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it's all very well having great graphics - but no use if the controls are pish.

AppleTV will need a dedicated controller, which would mean games developed for a controller, which reduces the market. Alternatively, it's touch screen controlled games on a big telly, which would be even worse than they are just now.

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What can Apple bring to consoles that is fundamentally better than what we have now? Any new field Apple enter has to be significant step up.

The only thing I can think of is that their console won't be based on the retail sector at all. Apple themselves will sell the console themselves, and sell their games via their online store for download.

I'm not saying this is a step up; just saying that this will be different to the current manufacturers who are somewhat tied to online and bricks and mortar retail.

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It's entirely conceivable that they'd start doing an Apple TV app API that would allow for games, but controls would be an issue. You could play simple games with the remote but not more complex things, and having a seperate App Store that only shows up when you prove you have an iPhone or iPad to use as a controller wouldn't be all that Apple-esque. They're hardly going to ship Apple TV with a games controller, either. It'd clash with the wonderful purpose-agnostic design of their products.

I'm going to lean toward "no".

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Do Apple actually even 'get' games yet, really?

The AppStore is just a means to an end for them, and do we really want to pay the Apple Hardware Tax to play the sort of things the Appstore economic model supports at home, plus how are Apple going to work the yearly hardware refresh angle in the home console market?

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The current AppleTV may well be using the same core architecture as the iPad 1 and iPhone 4, but it lacks onboard storage.

It has 8GB of onboard storage, currently used only for caching, etc. Which seems like a lot for a device linked to a store that doesn't sell any media bigger than about 2GB (it never, as far as I can tell, keeps more than one film cached).

I'm sure there'll be an Apple TV App Store sooner or later. And I'm sure they'll expect you to use your iPhone or iPad as the controller for anything that needs more than the remote. A dedicated console, with dedicated controller, seems massively unlikely.

do we really want to pay the Apple Hardware Tax to play the sort of things the Appstore economic model supports at home

The Apple TV costs $99.

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how are Apple going to work the yearly hardware refresh angle in the home console market?

Pretty well, I think, assuming they get an architecture that scales up and up easily without needing big adaptations from developers. Having to upgrade every 12 or 24 months at $99 a go isn't much more expensive than doing it every 5 years at $399.

There's a startling vision of the future for you, constant rolling hardware updates. Whenever you buy in, you're getting the latest and greatest. The only penalty is that if you don't upgrade frequently, you get stuck playing older games (or newer games with crappy graphics).

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The Apple TV costs $99.

It still costs significantly more than more able rivals in the media streaming market, the Apple Hardware Tax in effect:

£87.39 - Amazon

Western Digital TV Live HD Media Player - £77.11 - Amazon, and there are plenty of even cheaper options to do what an AppleTV does.

So if the AppleTV got an update to play iOS games (major killer apps for a home device?, competing against the likes of what Nintendo/Sony/Microsoft offer), you'd only need to buy the £160-£600 iPod Touch/iPhone/iPad controller upgrade to use it :P

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iOS to run on Project Cafe?

:lol: :lol: :lol:

You may laugh but.... that would certainly throw the vinegar onto the pigeons.

And does this:

while Activision's erstwhile European PR director Nick Grange has also been recruited

mean that Apple will shortly be the next tech company to turn into Satan?

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There's a startling vision of the future for you, constant rolling hardware updates. Whenever you buy in, you're getting the latest and greatest. The only penalty is that if you don't upgrade frequently, you get stuck playing older games (or newer games with crappy graphics).

So, exactly the same as PC gaming over the last 30 years then?

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The hack article's about as soundly-reasoned as a guess that Apple would start making fizzy drinks after recruiting John Sculley. PR guys in job swap theories - pretty compelling stuff. Oh, but wait: there's more evidence in the timing of the WWDC, which takes place at roughly the same time as E3, and on almost exactly the same date it did in 2010... and 2009, and 2008... Of course, the bombshell that the mobile chipsets Apple are using support better graphics than ever before tips the evidence even further into megaton territory. So we've got: PR men get new PR jobs; Apple hold a developers' conference at the same time they hold it every year; and their A5 chip is shit hot, folks. It's the smoking gun, for sure.

You know, there is always the possibility that one year, one of the hundred news stories and ten thousand threads which proclaim that the stars have aligned to augur Apple's release of a games console will actually be true. Even the law of probabilities allows for that. But in the meantime, this one, like the other few dozen so far in the past 12 months, is about as credibly newsworthy as a story on seganewswire about the imminent Dreamcast II, and its evidence for the proposition is about as compelling.

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The remote that comes with apple TV already has four directions and two buttons:

Apple_TV_remote_pair.jpg

Could be redesigned so it could be held sideways ala the wii-mote. Maybe stick some accelerometers in there? Make a dedicated app store. Bring the spec up to ipad2 level.

Thousands of 59p (and free) games? Lots of the indie stuff that goes to XBLA/PSN? Rip-offs of all the Wii software?

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It still costs significantly more than more able rivals in the media streaming market, the Apple Hardware Tax in effect:

£87.39 - Amazon

Western Digital TV Live HD Media Player - £77.11 - Amazon, and there are plenty of even cheaper options to do what an AppleTV does.

Well, if you really want to consider a tenner "tax", and ignore the fact that your example required a massive discount by Amazon, then the answer appears to be yes, we'll pay it:

appletvbestsellers.png

wdbestsellers.png

(Amazon UK don't list both devices in the same bestsellers category, unfortunately)

And that's without apps.

I mean, you might not, but I think enough would that it makes sense for Apple to do it. Even if you insist on reducing iOS gaming to "LOL Angry Birds!!1!!", Angry Birds has shifted over 100 million units. That's a big audience.

major killer apps for a home device?, competing against the likes of what Nintendo/Sony/Microsoft offer

It certainly won't be about competing against the likes of what Nintendo/Sony/Microsoft offer, any more than the iPhone's success as a gaming device was.

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Pretty well, I think, assuming they get an architecture that scales up and up easily without needing big adaptations from developers. Having to upgrade every 12 or 24 months at $99 a go isn't much more expensive than doing it every 5 years at $399.

There's a startling vision of the future for you, constant rolling hardware updates. Whenever you buy in, you're getting the latest and greatest. The only penalty is that if you don't upgrade frequently, you get stuck playing older games (or newer games with crappy graphics).

If we're talking iPhone or iPad level, you're not really going to be left behind though. Outside of niche stuff like Infinity Blade, the best sellers are all aimed at the widest audience possible by not pushing the technical envelope. I don't see why that would change.

I can't think of anything worse for the future of home gaming than Apple TV app games being controlled by iPhones.

Clearly we should all be paying £40 for some copy-pasted game of around the same depth on 3DS instead.

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I seriously can't believe there are people in this world who don't think Apple charge a premium for their products compared to their competition, a 'Hardware Tax' some might call it, even if the underlying specs of the hardware don't really justify that premium.

So games which are a hit in the mobile space are exactly what work at home too? Even Nintendo haven't gone out of their way to make that argument or prove that point.

The original article does make some fairly compelling sounding arguments for the inevitability of Apple bringing iOS games to the home, but I question the economic argument for it.

Apple make their money from high margin hardware, refreshed on an annual basis, how does the AppleTV, at its current price and feature set, work in that economic model? I don't think it does, it's the cheapest by far of all the hardware Apple make, but barely registers on their revenue charts.

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For Macs, there's obviously a massive price disparity compared with a comparable spec PC.

For the iOS stuff, there really isn't. There's no huge disparity between comparable (off-contract) smartphones. Nobody's making a comparable tablet for much less than the iPad - most cost more, the first 7" devices cost more. Nobody really makes anything equivalent to the iPod Touch at all (Samsung had a go, but it was no cheaper and universally panned). The Apple TV RRP is the same or less than most of its competitors (Amazon lopping a third off the price notwithstanding): Boxee £199.99, WD Live Media £119.99, Seagate GoFlex £99.99, Asus O!Play £99.99. And if they added an App Store to the Apple TV, which device exactly is its nearest competitor?

So games which are a hit in the mobile space are exactly what work at home too?

Not in every case, of course not. But a better question is: could a $99 iOS device plugged into your TV play host to hit games?

Apple make their money from high margin hardware, refreshed on an annual basis, how does the AppleTV, at its current price and feature set, work in that economic model?

The other way they make their money. Taking 30% of everything sold through it.

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An Apple console you say!

going by Apples standards, as in sharing standards...

Every time you put a game disc in the console, the disc would be tied to that console ONLY! :facepalm:

Hey, thats Apple for you. ^_^

EDIT: And some of you need to get a sense of humour >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>Look out below! :sherlock:

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For Macs, there's obviously a massive price disparity compared with a comparable spec PC.

For the iOS stuff, there really isn't. There's no huge disparity between comparable (off-contract) smartphones. Nobody's making a comparable tablet for much less than the iPad - most cost more, the first 7" devices cost more. Nobody really makes anything equivalent to the iPod Touch at all (Samsung had a go, but it was no cheaper and universally panned). The Apple TV RRP is the same or less than most of its competitors (Amazon lopping a third off the price notwithstanding): Boxee £199.99, WD Live Media £119.99, Seagate GoFlex £99.99, Asus O!Play £99.99. And if they added an App Store to the Apple TV, which device exactly is its nearest competitor?

The other way they make their money. Taking 30% of everything sold through it.

How does the ATV price compare to all the other media players that only do 720p and suffer hugely limited file type support? I think the argument that the ATV is expensive for what it is is a fair one.

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