Hot on the heels of my Google TV test, I’ve got my hands (actually it fits in one hand) on the new Apple TV device.

The new Apple TV is only $99 and sports a power plug, HDMI connection, Ethernet connection, and an optical digital out.

After I gave it all of my iTunes store information, it was pretty easy to get set up. Setting it up for my iPhone and iPad to control was also pretty straightforward.

I will say I prefer using a regular remote control. Pushing buttons for left and right, up and down, and enter is just easier for me on a hard button remote than running my fingers across a screen. The iPad did come in handy for keyboard search functions, though.

The big buzz over the new Apple TV is its Netflix capability. The Netflix menu from Apple, as you would expect, is fantastic. The graphics are great and very intuitive. Like every other Netflix device (with the exception of PlayStation3), its output is stereo only and not Dolby Digital 5.1. The on screen GUI (Graphical User Interface) is really slick and makes browsing for movies on Netflix a ton of fun. There have been some reports of dropouts while watching Netflix on Apple TV.   In that area, the PS3 has never dropped out during my testing.

Once you set up HomeShare on both the Apple TV and your iTunes libraries, you also have the ability to play back any iTunes library in your home. This is streamed over your network. I decided to do a test to see how well this works. I have a Mac Mini connected to my Classé SSP800 processor. For stereo listening, it goes through a Rotel power amp to a pair of B&W 804 speakers. I have both the Mac Mini and Apple TV connected to the Classé with identical 2m lengths of Transparent HDMI cable, so the Apple TV is streaming from the Mac Mini. In listening tests, streaming through the Apple TV degrades the sound compared to direct from the Mac Mini. It’s much harsher; and information is missing: it’s just not as pleasant to listen to. Then again, Apple TV is only $99 and does let you pull your iTunes library into your audio system.  

I think they should probably rename the new Apple TV, the RESSIVS (Remote Selling Station for iTunes Video Store). In a nutshell, that’s what this whole little box is about!  The first two menu choices are movies and TV shows, where you can browse through the iTunes store to select and (of course) rent content.  Rent is the keyword here. It’s no longer possible to purchase a movie through this little device, since it has no storage capability.

As far as renting from other Internet sources (other than Netflix), you are out of luck.  Internet choices are limited to Netflix and You Tube. One other thing that bothers me is what appears to be Apple’s censorship of Internet radio stations.  While there are literally tens of thousands of Internet radio stations, Apple has chosen to populate the list of choices for you by category. I didn’t count, but I think there are about 500 choices.   There is no way I could find to search for a particular station, which every other internet radio appliance I have played with lets you do. I could not find my favorite Internet radio stations as part of the Apple choices.

One great feature of the old Apple TV was the ability to share your family photos while having your favorite music play in the background. I first thought this feature was gone, but with some digging deep in the set up, I was able to activate it. It takes quite a few steps, but it does work great once set up. For $99, the little box is worth it for this feature alone. 

I guess I would summarize by saying the new Apple TV is pretty cool for $99, but is not any kind of breakthrough technology. The PS3 is a better device for Netflix viewing. A Mac Mini connected directly to your system is a better music server and would give you far more Internet content access, as would many other Internet appliances out there.  The new TIVO, which I am testing next, gives you far more choices as do a lot of cheap Internet enabled Blu-ray players. So, if you like renting movies and TV shows from the Apple Store, this is the box for you. Or, if you do not currently have a way to share your digital family photos with music on a big screen, you can’t go wrong for $99.