Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of Apple TV 2.4
Last night Apple quietly released an update to version 2.4 of the Apple TV software, providing bug fixes, performance and stability improvements, and a few additional new features. Alongside this release was an updated version of Apple’s Remote app for the iPhone and iPod touch, providing enhanced remote control features to accompany the new Apple TV firmware.
While the most obvious changes in Apple TV 2.4 revolve around this new Remote app, there are some other interesting and more subtle changes that are worth noting.
As usual, we have gone through Apple TV 2.4 in detail to see exactly what has changed. Curious about what’s new? Read on.
Video Playback Controls
With the Apple TV 2.4 update, the video playback controls for scrubbing through your video content have now undergone a significant change from prior Apple TV versions. In previous incarnations, pressing the left and right buttons on your Apple Remote would skip to the previous or next chapter marker, while pressing and holding either of these buttons would start either rewinding or fast-forwarding through the currently-playing video.
Apple TV 2.4 changes this to the opposite behavior: Pressing the left or right buttons on the Apple Remote will begin rewinding or fast-forwarding through the current video. Pressing and holding the left button will jump back 10 seconds in the playing video, and pressing and holding the right button will jump forward 30 seconds.
Navigating between pre-defined or default chapter markers is still possible, but now requires an additional step: Press the down arrow on the Apple Remote, and a scrubbing bar will appear with the chapter markers indicated. While this bar is displayed, you can press the left and right arrow keys to skip between chapter markers.
Note that the Apple TV update released last fall provided the ability to program third-party remotes to control some of these functions directly with specific buttons, similar to a traditional PVR device. Remotes programmed to directly access the skip, next/previous chapter and rewind/fast-forward functions will continue to work as they did in the previous version; only the way these functions are mapped to the Apple Remote control buttons has changed.
Audio playback controls remain unchanged from previous Apple TV software versions.
Enhanced iPhone and iPod touch Remote App
Also released last night was version 1.3 of the iPhone and iPod touch Remote application, which continues to be available as a free download from the iTunes App Store.
The most significant addition in the new Remote app is the ability to completely replace the traditional infrared Apple Remote by adding gesture-based controls to navigate the Apple TV on-screen menus and control media playback. When used with Apple TV 2.4, the new Remote app now displays a “Control” screen.
A series of Help screens is shown by default when you first start up the Remote 1.3 app, and can be accessed directly by tapping on the “Help” button in the top-right corner.
The gestures themselves are very similar to the controls on the Apple Remote, with touchscreen swipes representing the directional buttons on the Apple Remote, a tap represents a press of the centre button, and a Menu button shown at the bottom of the screen to represent the Apple Remote’s “Menu” button. Each of these gestures is the equivalent function on the Apple Remote, subject to the new playback controls which we previously discussed.
An Options touchscreen button also appears in the bottom right corner, which is generally equivalent to holding down the Play/Pause button—this displays the pop-up menus when listening to an audio track, or the Chapter selection menu when viewing a Movie or TV Show with explicit chapter markers.
The Remote functions to browse and search your Apple TV library remain in place as well, and can be selected by tapping on the “>” button in the bottom-left corner of the Remote app. These controls work in the same manner they previously did, and track control from the “Now Playing” screen remains unchanged—the previous/next buttons continue to function as chapter or track skip buttons when tapped, and fast-forward/rewind buttons when held down. Further, the scrub bar is still available, although the variable-speed scrubbing found in the iPhone OS 3.0 iPod app is conspicuously missing here.
Although the Remote app previously worked as a keyboard for text-entry fields on the Apple TV, the new version also provides a display of the prompt text from the TV screen right on the iPhone screen itself, and now uses a black background rather than the white background which was previously displayed. If you have your iPhone set to vibrate, the Remote app will also provide haptic feedback whenever a text entry prompt comes up.
Further, an “X” appears to allow you to erase the content of the text-entry field. While these features work with the previous Apple TV software, the text entry process is significantly faster when used with Apple TV 2.4, with almost no lag time between iPhone text entry and the display of the text on the Apple TV itself.
Movies Menu Listings
The listings for purchased Movies stored or streamed on the Apple TV have changed slightly. The Movies listing now displays the familiar blue dot to indicate which movies you have not watched, and individual movie entries now display a second line showing the duration of the movie.
The Genres menu option which previously appeared with the Playlists option at the top of the Movies listing has now been move to a selection bar at the very top of the screen. Pressing the left and right buttons on your remote allows you to navigate between the options in the selection bar. When browsing by Genre, each genre has a sub-heading showing the number of movies included in that particular genre.
In addition to allowing you to browse by Genre, the top selection bar also includes an option for “Unwatched” which will filter the listing of movies to only those that have not been watched in their entirety. Note also that a half-filled blue dot appears for those movies that you have begun watching but have not watched all the way through, similar to the change to the unwatched status indicators that were introduced to the iPhone with the OS 2.1 update last fall.
The Playlists option, introduced in the Apple TV 2.3 update, remains shown if it is enabled under the Apple TV settings, however the playlist option is not available when the selection bar is set to show only unwatched movies.
Note that for whatever reason the “Unwatched” option does not appear in the selection bar when viewing the “Shared Movies” section for movies that are being streamed from secondary iTunes libraries.
TV Show Menu Listings
Listings for TV Shows have undergone a similar change to Movies listings, with a two-line display for TV shows and individual episodes. A release date field also appears on the right-hand side of each entry, showing either the date of the individual episode when browsing a list of episodes, or the date of the most recent episode in the series when browsing the main listing of TV Shows. The number of episodes for each TV Show is displayed below the show name on the main TV Shows listing.
The sort order for episodes in the individual TV Show episode listings has now been reversed, with the oldest shows appearing at the top and the newest at the bottom. All seasons remain displayed in a single list, with separators between each season of episodes. Rather than displaying a numeric prefix to each show, the episode number is now shown in subtler text beneath each episode title, with the date of each episode shown to the right. If no episode number is available, some text from the show’s description is displayed here instead.
The TV Shows section previously included a more subtle selection bar at the top to either list shows “By Date” or “By Show.” In Apple TV 2.4, this has been changed to the same style as the one shown in the Movies section and now also includes an Unwatched option. Selecting Unwatched will filter the list of TV Shows and episodes to include only those that have not been completely watched. This includes the episode counts and dates shown on the main TV Shows listing, as well as the episodes themselves listed under each TV Show.
As with the Movies section, a half-filled blue dot will appear in the episode listings for any individual episodes that you have begun watching but have not watched all the way through.
The “By Date” option works as it did in previous Apple TV software versions to present a flat listing of all TV show episodes, sorted in descending order by the date that they were added to iTunes.
In addition to the other information normally presented, the summary information displayed for each episode in the bottom-left corner now also includes the date that the episode was added to your iTunes library.
Note that the date fields shown at the right-hand side of each TV show or episode listing only display the year field if they are not from the current year, creating a rather confusing layout if you have a lot of mixed content in your TV Shows section.
As with the Movies section, the Playlists option is shown here if it is enabled under the Apple TV settings, but is not available when the selection bar is set to show only unwatched content. Further, the “Unwatched” option does not appear in the selection bar when viewing the “Shared TV Shows” section for TV shows that are being streamed from secondary iTunes libraries.
It’s also worth noting that despite the sort order changes on the Apple TV menus themselves, TV show episodes on the iPhone and iPod touch Remote app remain sorted in descending order by episode number and release date.
Podcast Menu Listings
The Podcast menu listings have undergone a change very similar to the TV Shows section. Individual Podcast episodes are now sorted by date in ascending order, a two-line display is shown for each Podcast episode to include the release date of that episode, and an Unwatched option is available to filter only those Podcasts that you have not watched all the way through.
As with the Movies and TV Shows sections, a half-filled blue dot will also appear in the Podcasts section to indicate those Podcast episodes that you have partially listened to.
The Photos section in Apple TV 2.4 remains largely unchanged, although one notable new feature is the addition of a Search field for the Flickr gallery.
Selecting the Search option allows you to enter a search term and find matching photos anywhere on Flickr, not just from among your contacts. A maximum of 100 search results are returned, which can be viewed or played as a slideshow in the same manner as for any other photo collection on the Apple TV.
Searches can also be saved by selecting the “Save Search” button at the top of the resuts listing. Searches are saved as the name of the search term, and listed below your contacts on the main Flickr screen.
Some authorization issues were encountered during our testing with the new Apple TV 2.4 software and protected iTunes Store content. Most notably, after upgrading to v2.4, one of our Apple TV units refused to play any content that had been purchased from the iTunes Store, displaying an “Authorizing…” message for several seconds, followed by a message indicating the the Apple TV was not authorized to play that content.
Solving this particular issue ultimately required downloading a new item from the iTunes Store directly on the Apple TV, although a free promotional movie item was sufficient.
It’s worth noting that when we purchased the additional content we were required to accept a new iTunes Store user agreement. This might have been responsible for holding up the authorization process, however even if this were the case, there’s no reason why the Apple TV itself could not have prompted us to accept this agreement during the authorization process itself, rather than waiting for us to purchase another item, particularly since that same content worked flawlessly on the same Apple TV device immediately prior to the upgrade.
For the first time we can remember, it would appear that an Apple TV update has actually improved performance, rather than simply adding new features. The Apple TV 2.4 update appears to improve menu responsiveness, particularly when syncing large amounts of content to the Apple TV, and also dramatically improves the performance of the Apple TV when streaming to remote AirTunes speakers—a performance issue that rendered the AirTunes support added in the previous Apple TV software release almost unusable.
Further, responsiveness of the Apple TV during a sync with iTunes has also improved from our testing. Some lag time is still noticeable, but we have not observed the completely unresponsive menus or the skipping and stuttering video problems that plagued the previous Apple TV firmware versions during a sync process.
Update or Wait?
The performance improvements alone will likely make this update very worthwhile for most users, particularly those with larger iTunes libraries. The new layout of information and the ability to view only unwatched content within the Movie, TV Show and Podcast sections is also going to be appealing to anybody who uses their Apple TV for a large collection of movies or TV shows. Further, iPhone and iPod touch users will likely find the new Remote application to be more useful with its ability to directly control the Apple TV menus and more naturally control the Apple TV when playing content. Users with a lot of purchased iTunes Store content should be prepared for possibly running into to some authorization issues that may need to be worked around—these don’t appear to be critical, but could take some extra time to sort out.
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