Apple TV - At $99, the device hits a price point worth talking about

Apple Inc - Photo from my iBookImage by Farid Iqbal via Flickr
Article first published as Tech Review: Apple TV on Blogcritics.

I returned my Apple wireless keyboard last week, not because I didn't like it, but rather because it just didn't fit my current needs. So, what's a tech geek to do with a $75 credit at the Apple Store? Well, I didn't need an iPod Shuffle and $75 wouldn't cover the tax alone on a new Macbook, so I opted to give the Apple TV a chance to win my business and affection. After one weekend with ATV, the device has got me drooling for more.

As a current Netflix subscriber, I was excited to see the streaming capabilities of Apple TV and the supposedly slicker interface of the application. I should say that I put my Netflix account on hold for a long time, and only recently resumed it once I was able to stream instantly through my Wii. So, why spend $99 on something that I could already do? As stated above, Apple put its design expertise to good use with an easy to navigate menu for searching and access to your instant queue, both better than what's available through the Wii interface. Also, ATV gets 720p vs. 480p on the Wii. Not all news was good, however, as last night, we were unable to stream Star Trek through Apple TV, but the Wii worked perfectly. I'll have to assume that this gets fixed over time.

So, I couldn't justify the price and bringing home another gadget to my wife with just a new design for our instant Netflix viewing. Thus, we were both pleasantly surprised to find the Front Row type interface reveal that we could play podcasts directly through our television. This was a great way to have handy access to our favorite shows (This American Life, Wait, Wait, The Moth, etc.) in the living room, with our best sound system, all without the need for a computer nearby. I'm sure we'll visit the iTunes store in the future, and while $3.99 to rent a video is competitive, we still enjoy the $0.99 Redbox machines in our neighborhood.

I never did set up a home computer with my television as most techies do to form an all-in-one media center. Although podcast streaming will surely come in handy, the ability to access one's music collection would be much more valuable. Apple TV takes it one step further by allowing you to stream music from any computer that has "Home Sharing" enabled. Thus, I was quickly able to play music from 2 different Macbooks in the house, though was a tiny bit saddened when an old Macbook Pro (iTunes 7) could not participate in the share-a-thon. Setup on the 2 laptops was a breeze, and the only downfall is that the computer needs to be on somewhere in order to share.

iPhone/iPad Remote
Apple TV comes with a sleek, minimalist remote. It is serviceable, though I was taken back in time to my video game days where I had scroll back and forth to enter my initials for the top score. Unfortunately, this time I wasn't storing a 3 letter combination, but rather a 26 alphanumeric wireless network password. Not much fun to say the least. What was fun was controlling the Apple TV with the iPad. Through the free Remote app, I quickly was setup with the ability to stream music from my iTunes library on two different computers to the Apple TV. I could also use gestures on the iPad to navigate the ATV interface, which was a bit more enjoyable than using the remote. With the iPad's virtual keyboard, I was able to enter search terms for iTunes more easily than if I had to do so with the included remote.

Simple Setup
Of course, everything that has to do with Apple usually involves a simple setup, and ATV was no different. The small black box only has room for a few connections, and after plugging in power and an HDMI cable (not included, but I got five of them at monoprice for less than half of what Apple charges for one), I was well on my way to streaming some music and video. The menus make it easy to tell what you function you're exploring on the television, and once your'e connected to your network, ATV pretty much takes care of the rest.

AirPlay - the real game changer?
As it stands, I'm almost convinced that Apple TV is a good buy, but what could really put me over the top would be the inclusion of ATV apps as well as the option to stream even more content besides one's music to the television.  Imagine websites, videos, and third party apps all being controlled by your laptop, iPad, or iPhone and streaming from your computer to the television. That's what a November update is supposed to bring to Apple TV. Already pleased with the device in its current configuration, I may have to recommend ATV to everyone if Apple delivers on its promise. And at $99, the device is priced to move, so Apple is poised to get a big head start on what started as a hobby, but could ultimately be its next breakthrough market.

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