Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of Apple TV 4.1
With yesterday’s release of iOS 4.2 for the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad, Apple also released Apple TV Software Update 4.1, its first major upgrade to the new second-generation Apple TV, adding AirPlay video support and fixing a number of issues from the initial release.
We note up front that there is some confusion as to what the actual version of the Apple TV update is, since the version numbers are not entirely consistent. The second-generation Apple TV was released as “Software Version” 4.0 but actually ran “OS Build Version” 4.1 (8M89). The OS build version can be viewed by going into the “About” screen on the Apple TV and pressing the center button on the remote which will cycle through Software Version, Software Build and OS Build Version.
The latest update follows this same numbering convention, with the Software Version appearing as 4.1 and the OS Build Version appearing as 4.2 (8C150). It’s also worth noting that iOS 4.2 released for the iPad, iPhone and iPod touch is build 8C148.
For the sake of consistency, we’ll refer to the Apple TV software the same way Apple does—as 4.1—though it would be a lot less confusing to see these numbers unified.
Installing the Update
The second-generation Apple TV normally receives software updates wirelessly and the Apple TV seems fairly proactive about notifying users when new updates are available.
You can also start the update process manually by selecting “Check for Updates” from the Settings, General menu.
Note that it is also possible to apply the update by connecting the Apple TV to your computer via a micro-USB cable and installing it through iTunes, however this is intended for recovery purposes and not normal updates and requires that you restore your device back to factory defaults.
The update weighs in at 280MB and should take no more than ten minutes to download and install, after which your Apple TV will restart with the new version.
Ironically, the most significant new feature in this latest Apple TV update is something that doesn’t really appear anywhere new on the Apple TV menus or settings. Support for playing back video from iOS devices using AirPlay has been added, but it’s entirely under the hood. The “AirPlay” menu in settings simply contains the same options as before to toggle the setting on or off, although “AirPlay Speakers” has been renamed to simply “AirPlay.”
You can also set a password for AirPlay here, however this only seems to be enforced for audio streaming—no password is requested to stream a video to the Apple TV.
Note that AirPlay audio streaming hasn’t changed from the previous version, and in fact hasn’t even really changed from the original first-generation Apple TV, back when the feature was known as AirTunes. The second-generation Apple TV can still be used as a remote speaker from iTunes and in fact continues to work fine even from older versions of iTunes.
What has changed is the addition of video support to AirPlay, which now allows video content to be streamed to the second-generation Apple TV from most iOS 4.2 devices and from iTunes 10.1. Streaming from iOS devices is discussed in more detail in Instant Expert: iOS 4.2. Streaming videos from iTunes 10.1 works in much the same way as streaming audio: AirPlay devices will appear in the bottom-right corner of the iTunes window and now display icons to indicate their audio and video capabilities as on an iOS device.
Selecting an Apple TV from this menu will send all audio and video output from iTunes to that particular Apple TV. Alternatively, you can also switch to an Apple TV destination while playing a video in iTunes by clicking on the AirPlay icon that appears in the video controls. Note that the AirPlay controls in the bottom right of the main iTunes window are hidden when a video playback window is open.
When playing a video from iTunes to an Apple TV, the video playback window will still appear with an indication that the video is being sent to the Apple TV. Unfortunately this video window must remain open to continue streaming the video—closing the window will stop the video playback; you’ll need to minimize it or hide it to get it out of the way if you want to continue using your computer while sending video out over AirPlay.
Unlike audio, AirPlay does not currently support streaming video to more than one Apple TV at a time. If multiple devices are selected in iTunes, video playback will be shown on your computer instead and you will need to select an AirPlay destination from the playback controls. Note that this only applies to initiating playback in iTunes via AirPlay—you can still of course stream content from the same library to multiple Apple TVs by using Home Sharing and starting playback from the Apple TV menus.
While streaming content to the Apple TV from an iOS device or iTunes, you can use the Apple TV remote to control playback as you normally would. Exiting a video on the Apple TV by hitting the menu button will also automatically close the video playback window in iTunes. You can even access chapter markers and audio and subtitle features on the Apple TV by holding down the play/pause button as you would for any other video. These features are not available from an iOS device when sending video out via AirPlay, and in iTunes you can select alternate chapters, but the audio and subtitle features can only be enabled directly on the Apple TV. Using the slider to scrub through a video on an iOS device will display stills from the video on the device’s screen to help you navigate, however this does not occur when scrubbing through a video in the iTunes playback window.
As you might expect, an AirPlay stream can only be received from one device at a time. Attempting to start AirPlay from a second device while the Apple TV is busy will usually fail silently, although in some cases we saw the Apple TV display a content error instead. The one exception to this is that you can stream audio playback from one device and photos from another simultaneously—the Apple TV will continue playing the audio in the background while the photos are displayed.
AirPlay streaming works entirely over your existing Wi-Fi and/or Ethernet network and its performance will be dependent upon the speed of your network. From our testing, users with a solid 802.11g or 802.11n wireless network should experience no issues, although factors such as interference and range between devices will factor in somewhat. As a rule, however, if you can stream video from your iTunes library to your Apple TV, streaming over AirPlay from iTunes will not be a problem at all, and streaming from an iOS device should also work fine as long as the device has a reliable connection to the same wireless network. Performance will likely suffer for users on older 802.11b networks, however since almost all wireless routers sold in the past five years support at least 802.11g this isn’t likely to be an issue for most.
Using an 802.11n network streaming videos from an iOS device or iTunes performed as well as playing any other video on the Apple TV and was fast, smooth and responsive. It was even possible to stream from three different devices to three different Apple TVs with no noticeable performance issues, which would allow different family members to watch their own content on separate Apple TVs without any issues.
Note that the Apple TV caches AirPlay video in much the same way as any other video stream, and when using a slower connection or playing high-definition content it may take a few more seconds before the video actually starts playing. Once playback is in progress, however, it should run smoothly without any interruptions.
The latest Apple TV update also adds VoiceOver Accessibility support. The feature can be found under the General settings menu and includes the option to adjust the voice playback speed between Slow, Normal, Fast and Very Fast.
As a nice added touch, a VoiceOver prompt will also be played after a few seconds at the language selection screen when first setting up a new Apple TV, advising you that you can press the play/pause button on the remote three times to enable VoiceOver right away to assist you through the setup screens. This would make it theoretically possible, albeit cumbersome, to configure and use an Apple TV without being connected to a television set.
Videos in Photo Albums
With iTunes 10.1 and the latest Apple TV update, videos contained in Photo albums can now be played back on the Apple TV. Previously, these videos were simply omitted from the Apple TV.
To enable videos to be displayed in your photo albums, select Choose Photos to Share from the Advanced menu in iTunes, and ensure that “Include Videos” is selected.
Once this option is enabled, videos contained in your photo albums should appear when browsing the album on the Apple TV. Videos will be indicated by a faded playback button in the center of the thumbnail. Selecting a video will display a larger preview and pressing the play button on the remote will begin playing back the video. Stopping the video will automatically return to the thumbnail view.
When not actually playing a video you can navigate between photos and videos using the left and right buttons normally. Playing back a photo album as a slideshow will simply skip any videos contained in that album.
Note that videos will still need to be in an Apple TV compatible format to be displayed. Videos that are not compatible with the Apple TV will continue to simply be omitted from the photo albums view, in much the same way as they are not synced to an iPhone or iPod.
Other Changes and Fixes
The initial release of the second-generation Apple TV was fraught with small issues, particularly related to iTunes integration. The good news it that this latest update appears to address most of these while making some other small changes as well.
The original second-generation Apple TV software did not respect any sort orders set in iTunes for either audio or video playlists. Audio playlists were always sorted alphabetically while TV Show playlists were sorted in descending order by release date. Version 4.1 fixes this and playlists now appear on the Apple TV as they do in iTunes.
Playlists of non-music video content will now play continuously as they did on the first-generation Apple TV. Previously only a single video would play back even when accessed from a playlist.
Other Sorting Issues
In Apple TV 4.0 prefixes like “The” and “A” on Movies and TV Shows affected the sort order, so all show names that began with “The” would be displayed together. Apple TV 4.1 now ignores these prefixes in the same way that iTunes and Apple’s other media devices do.
This latest update also appears to have fixed several other inconsistent sorting issues that appeared in the previous version, particularly with regard to TV show and season sorting.
Updating Playback Status in iTunes
Playing items on Apple TV 4.0 would not update the last played date or played status in iTunes. This means that new TV Shows and Movies would remain marked as new whether you had watched them or not. This has been fixed in 4.1 and last played dates now update as they should.
Rentals in iTunes
Movie and TV Shows rentals stored in the iTunes library can be viewed on the second-generation Apple TV. Prior to iTunes 10.1 and Apple TV 4.1. however, watching a rented item did not update its expiry information properly in iTunes. This aspect of viewing rentals has at least been fixed, however rented items still appear on the Apple TV in the same way as purchased items and do not provide any warning or notification that you are about to begin watching a rental and start the viewing period—the item simply plays back in the same way any other content would.
Movie and TV Show Cover View
As of version 4.1 the top half of the screen now only displays rented movies and TV shows rather than including top content from iTunes. If you have no rentals in your account, this screen will simply show the Apple TV logo.
Screen Saver Settings
The Ken Burns and Classic screen saver modes can now be customized further by selecting transitions and time between each slide. These options were available in standard slideshows in 4.0 but could not be customized when setting up a screen saver.
The latest version of the Apple TV firmware also provides a bit of additional information on the “About” screen, including the current TV Resolution and optionally the Wi-Fi Channel and BSSID which can be displayed by pressing the up arrow on the remote.
Remote Control Responsiveness
In our own experience, the infrared remote control in Apple TV 4.0 tended to be unreliable, often jumping into a rapid fast-forward or rewind mode when using the skip-forward or skip-backward functions. This appears to be less of an issue in 4.1, although the Apple TV will still sometimes begin rewinding after a skip-back.
Unchecked Items Now Appear
Apple TV 4.1 makes a significant change to how unchecked items in iTunes are handled. Traditionally unchecked items have simply been omitted completely from showing up on the Apple TV—even the first-generation Apple TV would not sync unchecked items nor display them in streaming mode.
With 4.1, the Apple TV now displays all items from your iTunes library regardless of whether they are checked or unchecked. Unchecked items are simply greyed out in the normal media listings.
In our opinion this change is actually not an improvement, since now the only way to now exclude content from appearing on your Apple TV menus is to actually remove it from your iTunes library entirely.
iTunes LP and iTunes Extras still MIA
One of the glaring omissions from the second-generation Apple TV was its lack of support for iTunes LP and iTunes Extras; features that were previously available on the first-generation model. In an e-mail exchange with a customer, Steve Jobs reportedly stated that this support would be coming, but apparently that’s still off in the future as it has not been added in 4.1—a shame considering all of the iTunes LP collections that were bundled with the recent Beatles release.
Despite all of the minor interface bugs, one area in which the second-generation Apple TV had no problems with its initial release was in its speedy performance for navigating the UI and streaming content. The latest update doesn’t really change anything in this regard and continues to perform as well as the previous software did.
Update or Wait?
Compared to many of the updates that we see for Apple’s media devices, this update appears to have almost no downside. While it would have been nice to see support for iTunes LP and Extras added, there’s definitely enough fixed here that even users who aren’t concerned about AirPlay support should install this for no other reason than to fix the wide range of annoying bugs that were present in the initial release.
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