Myka Digital TV Appliance

When Steve Jobs unveiled the Apple TV in September 2006, tech analysts widely predicted that Apple was chambering up the magic bullet to finally bring Internet-based television to the masses with a slick design, easy-to-use interface, and Apple’s well-known knack for marketing. A year and a half later, the magic bullet has turned out to be more of a dud. Apple TV has sunk relatively low on the tech press’ radar, and reports of lackluster sales generally confirm that the system fell well short of expectations.

What went wrong? By most accounts, the system’s heavy DRM restrictions and lack of support for commonly used video formats like DivX doomed it from the start. Rather than serving as a portal to the booming universe of free online content, it served primarily as a storefront for iTunes. In the end, hackers were willing to jump through hoops to enable the features they wanted, but the public as a whole turned up its nose at the box, demonstrating the importance of an open platform.

The upcoming Myka digital video appliance borrows the Apple TV’s smooth lines and tiny footprint, but promises to open up a whole new treasure trove of content by trimming back restrictions and adding capabilities. Besides a wide spectrum of compatible video formats, from DivX to WMV, the Myka offers built-in access to the granddaddy of all sources for video downloads: BitTorrent.

For those unfamiliar with BitTorrent, it’s a decentralized method of peer-to-peer file sharing that allows users to download a single file from many sources at once, drastically increasing speeds and cutting the load on any one server. While its name now rings synonymous with piracy thanks to wide adoption by music and movie pirates, there are also plenty of legal torrent files, from freely released concert footage and audio to movies that have fallen out of copyright and into the public domain.

Using an active Internet connection (either wired or wireless), Myka taps into BitTorrent completely free of an external PC, storing downloaded files on its own internal drive and making them accessible through an on-screen interface, which is navigated using a remote control. Under the hood, it’s essentially a computer running a lightweight version of Linux, giving it much of the flexibility of a full-blown HTPC. It handles just about every popular movie format, including MPEG-2, MPEG-4, H.264/AVC, VC1, DivX, and WMV 9.

Image Courtesy of Myka

For those who wonder, for the money, why they shouldn’t simply spring for an HTPC for BitTorrent, the Myka has another trick up its sleeve: high-definition output. While most commercial HTPCs include S-Video and VGA outputs for standard-def television, the Myka also has HDMI and composite outputs for 1080i content, so downloaded high-def video stays high-def.

As far as storing all those potentially enormous files, the Myka dwarves the original 40GB Apple TV with three hard drive options: 80GB, 160GB and 500GB. It also includes dual USB ports that make adding an external hard drive a possibility, boosting its potential capacity even further.

Although the Myka doesn’t require an external PC to operate, its network connection allows users to pull content from the Myka to their computers, and vice versa. This makes it possible to push your existing media collection over to the Myka without redownloading it, or to legally rip a DVD to your computer, and store it on the Myka for easy access.

Though the Myka hasn’t yet officially launched, buyers can preorder the units directly through the company Web site to receive them when they start shipping this summer. The 80GB unit sells for $299, the 160Gb for $349, and the 500GB for $459. That puts the 160GB model just a hair above the comparable 160GB Apple TV, which sells for $329, and well below most HTPCs. For those who crave digital content without getting locked into a given set of movie formats, the Myka may just be the long overdue magic bullet. More information can be found on the Myka Web site.

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