Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of Apple TV 5.0
Along with yesterday’s releases of iTunes 10.6 and iOS 5.1 for the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch, Apple also quietly rolled out Apple TV Software Update 5.0. This latest update to Apple’s second-generation set-top box introduces significant new UI enhancements, and paves the way for support of 1080p video content on the new third-generation Apple TV. The update also adds a few additional new features, including support for streaming purchased movies from iTunes in the Cloud, Genius recommendations, the ability to sign up with certain content partners directly on the device, and a new built-in screensaver photo gallery.
As with prior updates, for reasons that remain unknown, Apple continues to number its Apple TV Software Updates differently from the corresponding iOS versions, despite the underlying OS build numbers being the same. The last update was the most significant gap in this regard, with Apple TV Software Update 4.4 accompanying OS Build 5.0. With this latest version, Apple has at least brought the Apple TV into the 5.x family, although it remains a point release behind; this update is officially designated “Apple TV Software Update 5.0” although the “OS Build” is listed as 5.1 and again shares a similar build number to the iOS 5.1 builds released yesterday for the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch—9B179b for the Apple TV OS Build versus 9B179 for the iPhone 4S iOS build. Whatever the reasons, it seems pretty clear that the official Apple TV version numbers will continue to remain out of step with iOS for the time being.
Installing the Update
The new update installs in the same manner as prior Apple TV updates—your Apple TV will likely eventually notify you that an update is available, but if you want to check manually, you can choose the “Check for Updates” option from the Settings > General menu.
The update can also be applied via iTunes by connecting the Apple TV to your computer with a micro-USB cable and choosing the “Restore” option. This is intended for recovery purposes rather than normal updates, however, and will reset your device back to its factory settings, requiring you to painstakingly re-enter your Wi-Fi and Home Sharing passwords again using the cumbersome Apple Remote.
The update is just under 500MB and should normally take about 10-15 minutes to download and install, after which your Apple TV will simply restart with the new version.
New User Interface
By far the most obvious and noticeable change in Apple TV 5.0 is a redesigned user interface for the main menu screen. Gone is the previous array of drop-down menus, which was becoming crowded with the addition of new categories such as iTunes Match. Apple has replaced the lines of text with a series of almost iOS-like on-screen icons—“almost” in the sense that they generally look like the iOS wannabe icons for the sixth-generation iPod nano.
The top of the screen continues to function as an artwork browser in the same manner as it did in prior versions, showing relevant content for the last selected category. Below this area, the main five categories are displayed: Movies, TV Shows, Music, Computers, and Settings. Scrolling down from here with the Apple Remote reveals icons for all of the additional options previously found crowded under the “Internet” menu—the new layout provides a much clearer indication of exactly how much was previously buried in there. The scrolling behavior here is a simple two-panel shift—moving down from the top row shifts the entire screen down to display all available options on a single screen rather than scrolling row-by-row. Pressing the Menu button on the Apple Remote while on the lower screen will also jump back to the first screen.
As with prior Apple TV software versions, the options that appear on this screen are dependent upon which country you’re in—or more specifically, which country you have selected under the iTunes Store menu. Options not available in your chosen country are simply hidden, although interestingly Apple treats the top row as sacrosanct—if less than five options are available in the top row, the remaining options are displayed centered in their own group, with additional options still shown below. With the significant international expansion of movie rental and iTunes Match availability on the iTunes Store late last year, the only option that most international users may be missing in this row is “TV Shows,” which remain available for iCloud streaming only in the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and Australia.
Most of the menus past this main screen remain much the same as before; only the Movies and TV Shows sections have significantly changed, now providing a view of content on the main screen while adding a menu bar at the top. It looks like some of the graphics here may still be a work in progress, as Apple currently displays everything from animations to new Cover Flow-shifting banners underneath the static next horizontal navigation bar, an awfully busy approach visually that’s unlike the previously clean Apple TV interfaces. The text menus contain the usual options for browsing, searching, and managing wish lists and favorites.
Selecting an item from the top menu bar, or pressing the down button on the Apple Remote slides the menu bar up off the top of the screen allowing you to browse or access the content in that section directly. Pressing menu or moving up from the top of the screen will slide the menu bar back into place; a subsequent press of the menu button returns you to the main menu.
Interestingly, the Movies section continues to include “Trailers” on the top menu bar despite the inclusion of a standalone Trailers item on the main menu; both of these menus go to the same place.
Movies from the Cloud
Two months after the debut of iTunes in the Cloud at WWDC 2011, Apple quietly pushed out an Apple TV update allowing iTunes Store users in the U.S. to stream their previously purchased TV shows directly to the Apple TV from the iTunes Store rather than their own local iTunes library. With this also came the ability to purchase TV shows directly on the Apple TV—a feature that was originally available on the first-generation Apple TV, but was removed from the second-generation due to its lack of on-device storage.
The latest Apple TV update now brings this same capability to previously purchased movies for users in the U.S. Although not all previously purchased movies are yet available via iTunes in the Cloud, this takes another major step toward removing the Apple TV’s dependence on iTunes software currently running on a home Mac or Windows PC. The new feature works for movies in almost exactly the same way as it did for TV shows; users will see a “Purchased” option in the top menu bar allowing them to view a catalog of previously purchased movies for the current iTunes Store account from which they can basically pick any movie and start watching it right away.
In addition, like TV shows, users can now purchase movies from the iTunes Store directly on the Apple TV. Movies available for purchase will show the appropriate purchasing option along with any available rental option. By default, movies are rented in the best resolution available—720p HD on the second-generation Apple TV and presumably 1080p on the third-generation Apple TV. Users who prefer to save bandwidth or money can choose to default to lower-resolution versions from the iTunes Store settings on the Apple TV.
Movies purchased on the Apple TV are simply added to your iTunes purchase history for viewing directly on the Apple TV and are not placed in your iTunes download queue. Users who want to download a copy for watching on a computer or iOS device will need to do so manually using the appropriate iTunes application.
The Apple TV release notes also indicate the addition of Genius Recommendations to the Apple TV, a feature that allows users to receive customized recommendations for content—movies and TV shows in this case—based on past purchase history and viewing habits. This feature actually first appeared on the Apple TV early last month, although it appears to have been improved slightly with yesterday’s Apple TV 5.0 release.
The Genius feature can be found on the top menu bar when browsing through the movies and TV shows sections. A list of recommended content in various categories is provided, with general recommendations at the top and recommendations based on specific movies below. Selecting a movie or TV show from here works in the same manner as from anywhere else, providing options to purchase or rent the item, or add it to your wish list or favorites as appropriate.
National Geographic Screen Saver Photos
While many users may prefer to use their own photo collections for their Apple TV screen saver, Apple has traditionally also provided default collections of photos so that users have a working screen saver with some reasonably pleasant photos to look at right out of the box. Long-time Apple TV users may already be familiar with the classic Animals and Flowers collections; with the latest update Apple adds a third collection of National Geographic photos.
The National Geographic photos are now the default collection on the Apple TV, which helps to provide a somewhat fresher feel to the new Apple TV software for those who hadn’t previously gotten around to configuring a custom screen saver.
On-Device Netflix Signup
Apple TV users who are not yet Netflix subscribers can now sign up for service directly from the Apple TV, including a free, one-month trial. When accessing the Netflix menu for the first time, you will be presented with a trial option or the ability to simply log in with your existing account.
Although Apple’s release notes for Apple TV Software Update 5.0 seem to imply that this feature is available for a variety of content partners, at this time it only seems to be enabled for Netflix; other services such as MLB.tv, NBA, NHL Game Center and even Vimeo still require the user to sign up for an account from their computer before logging in on the Apple TV. We’re guessing that this will change in the near future for at least the paid services.
Delete from Photo Stream
iOS 5.1 adds the ability to delete photos from your iCloud Photo Stream on an iPhone, iPod touch or iPad and have them automatically removed from other devices sharing the same Photo Stream, including the Apple TV with the 5.0 software update. With the new Apple TV software update you can now delete Photo Stream photos directly from the Apple TV as well by simply pressing and holding the Apple Remote center button a photo thumbnail in the Photo Stream.
Deleting a photo from here will immediately remove it from the Photo Stream on the Apple TV as well as any other devices that share the same Photo Stream and are running the latest software updates. For the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad this requires iOS 5.1 or later, for Macs iPhoto 9.2.2 and for Windows users version 1.1 of the iCloud Control Panel for Windows. An Aperture update has not yet been released by Apple to add this capability for Aperture users.
Note also that only new photos uploaded from devices running iOS 5.1 or the appropriate iPhoto or iCloud components on the desktop will be deleted across devices. Older photos, or photos taken on devices that have not been updated to iOS 5.1, can still be deleted from the local Photo Stream album on the Apple TV, however this does not propagate to your other devices.
Apple TV 5.0 includes several other relatively minor changes in the Settings menus, some of which appear to be related to providing new options on the new third-generation Apple TV.
Notably, the iTunes Store menu now shows a choice of “Standard Definition” or “720p HD” for preferred video resolution when purchasing or renting movies and TV shows on the Apple TV. We expect that the third-generation Apple TV will add “1080p HD” here as well.
A Troubleshooting menu item has been added under the General settings. This option simply displays a screen with a brief set of troubleshooting tips.
A Restart option has also been added to the bottom of the General settings menu, allowing users to easily restart their device without having to remember the necessary Apple Remote finger gymnastic sequence or pull the power cord from the back of the unit.
The AirPlay option on the Settings screen now displays the AirPlay logo instead of an image of the Apple TV.
Remote for iOS
With the flurry of software updates this week, Apple also released an update to its Remote app for iOS devices that adds support for accessing iTunes Match content directly on the Apple TV. While the overall user interface remains basically the same, users with iTunes Match enabled on their Apple TV will now see a traditional Music.app menu layout when connecting to their Apple TV rather than simply a list of available iTunes libraries, much the same view as presented when accessing an iTunes library directly with the Remote app.
This works pretty much as expected and is another welcome addition for those who want to use their Apple TV as a standalone device. Remote iTunes libraries can still be accessed in much the same way as before; the “Computers” option can now be found in the “More” section; selecting this will present the same list of libraries that was the default option in the previous version, and selecting a library takes you to a separate Music.app style view of the remote iTunes library. This can get a bit confusing as you’re essentially looking at a library-within-a-library in terms of the views—as soon as you access the remote iTunes library, all of the menus and buttons at the bottom now apply to content in the remote library rather than content on the Apple TV. The Remote app does do a nice job of transitioning here, however, sliding the bottom button bar across with the rest of the screen to help illustrate the difference.
The biggest and most noticeable change in the Apple TV 5.0 update is the new user interface that provides faster and more convenient access to many of the online content services that were previously obscured in the Internet menu. While there’s room for debate over whether the new interface looks fantastic—it does get quite busy with the mix of banners, Cover Flow elements, and menu options in the new Movies and TV Shows menus—the new top-bar menu style for browsing movies and TV shows is a refreshing change, and generally makes the whole Apple TV experience feel smoother—providing a more natural feel to moving through content rather than digging down through layers of menus.
For U.S. users—and hopefully users in other countries some time soon—the ability to stream some movies from iTunes in the Cloud is also a great new feature. Coupled with iTunes Match, this almost entirely eliminates the need to keep a computer on and running iTunes in order to access your favorite content… assuming that you bought that content from Apple.
Ultimately, this appears to be a solid update with Apple putting more emphasis on expanding the Apple TV into a standalone, cloud-based media device that can be used to access a wide range of content and services over the Internet.
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