Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of Apple TV 6.0
Shortly after releasing iOS 7 last week, Apple quietly rolled out Apple TV Software Update 6.0 for the second- and third-generation Apple TV. The latest update most significantly adds support for iTunes Radio while also introducing access to the iTunes Music Store, AirPlay from iCloud, and several other improvements.
As before, Apple continues to number its Apple TV Software Updates differently from corresponding iOS versions, despite the underlying OS Build Version numbers being the same. This update continues this trend, with a Software Update version number of 6.0 alongside an OS Build of 7.0.1, the latter matching the very latest official iOS release. Notably, Apple pulled Apple TV 6.0 due to installation problems experienced by some users, so it’s likely that we’ll see a fixed 6.0.1 release with identical functionality very soon.
Installing the Update
The new update installs over-the-air in the same manner as all prior Apple TV updates. Your Apple TV should eventually notify you that an update is available, but you can check manually at any time by choosing the Check for Updates option from the Settings, General menu.
Alternately, the update can be applied via iTunes by connecting the Apple TV to your computer with a Micro-USB cable and choosing the “Restore” option in iTunes. This is intended for recovery purposes rather than normal updates, however, and will reset your device back to its factory settings.
The update is around 600MB and should normally take about 10-15 minutes to download and install, after which your Apple TV should restart with the new version. You may thereafter see a screen introducing some of the new features.
Apple TV 6.0 now allows users to automatically configure the set-top box using an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch with iOS 7 by sending network settings, Apple ID and language preferences to the box via Bluetooth—a huge improvement over keying these items in with an Infrared remote control.
When configuring a new Apple TV running the 6.0 software, a note appears indicating that the user can enable Bluetooth on their iOS device and touch it to the Apple TV to automatically transfer settings.
Actual contact between devices is not specifically required—simply ensure Bluetooth is switched on and move your iOS 7 device within about three feet of your Apple TV. You should see a prompt to provide your Apple ID and password on the iOS side. This will be followed by additional prompts asking you whether the password should be saved on the Apple TV for future purchases, and whether diagnostic information should be sent to Apple.
Once you’ve entered the necessary information, the Apple TV configuration process will finish and take you to the main menu.
This new feature saves the user the trouble of entering information such as Wi-Fi and Home Sharing passwords using the cumbersome on-screen keyboard, or having to find and pair a Bluetooth keyboard with the Apple TV. The iTunes Store is set up with the supplied Apple ID automatically, and the user will also be asked if he or she wants to use this Apple ID when configuring Home Sharing or an iCloud account. These other options are not configured automatically, however, and the user will still be prompted for a password for the iCloud account.
For users in the U.S.—or those logged in with an U.S. iTunes Store account—a new iTunes Radio section appears in the top row of icons, displacing the Settings icon that has previously been fixed in the top-right corner.
As in prior versions of the Apple TV Software, the top row of icons remains immovable, although since the Settings icon appears in the second row by default for users with iTunes Radio available, it can now be rearranged in the same as the others. On the other hand, users without iTunes Radio available will find the Settings icon in its usual fixed and immovable position.
Probably the most conspicuous new feature—for users in the U.S. at least—is the addition of iTunes Radio, Apple’s new streaming music service that debuted with iOS 7 last week. As noted above, iTunes Radio appears for supported users as a fourth icon in the top row, between Music and Computers.
Going into the iTunes Radio section displays the familiar Apple TV browsing interface with a top menu bar for browsing, adding, and editing stations, along with a history section for viewing recently played tracks and the user’s wish list. A “Now Playing” section also appears once the user begins streaming a station.
The default Stations view displays a Cover Flow-style view: recommended stations are in the top row with the user’s own saved stations below. Selecting a station immediately begins streaming that station, switching to a playback view that shows the current song information and price. Previously streamed tracks appear as album thumbnails behind and to the left of the artwork for the currently playing track. The user can skip the current track simply by pressing the right button on the Apple Remote; up to six tracks can be skipped per hour, and despite earlier rumors to the contrary, this appears to be the same for paying iTunes Match customers as it is for free users.
Pressing the down arrow on the Apple Remote displays options for purchasing the currently playing track, adding it to the user’s iTunes Store Wish List, playing more songs similar to the current track, excluding the current track from playback, creating new stations based on the artist or song, or viewing the track’s album. You can also scroll left and right from this screen to view your listening history with the same options for each track.
The “Add Station” screen allows you to create a new station based on an album, artist, or genre or browse for pre-defined stations by genre.
An option on the “Edit Stations” screen allows you to disable the explicit music filter, which is on by default, as well as remove or further customize your own stations.
The History option provides a list of tracks that have previously been streamed with links to purchase from iTunes, as well as access to the user’s iTunes Store wish list.
iTunes Radio is ad-supported, so unless you are an iTunes Match subscriber, you will see and hear ads from time to time, including full-screen video ads that cannot be skipped.
Subscribing to iTunes Match for $25/year eliminates the ads from iTunes Radio across all of your Apple devices.
iTunes Music Store
With the addition of iTunes Radio, the full iTunes Music Store is now also available directly from the Apple TV, ironically bringing back a feature found on the first-generation Apple TV back in 2007, but removed when the second-generation model debuted three years later.
The Music section introduced with iTunes Match has been expanded to include your iTunes Match or iTunes in the Cloud library, accessible from the first menu option alongside iTunes Store options similar to those found in the Movies and TV Shows sections.
The first menu option will display either “Purchased” or “iTunes Match” depending on whether you subscribe to the latter service. As in prior versions of the Apple TV software, iTunes Match subscribers can access their entire matched cloud-based library while non-subscribers can access any of their purchased content. Other sections of the store here work basically as one would expect, with browsing, searching, and previewing options in all of the usual places.
AirPlay from iCloud
iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch users running iOS 7 or later can now initiate playback of content directly from iTunes in the Cloud using AirPlay. To activate this, you simply need to access the Music or Videos app on your iOS 7 device and then select to stream it to your Apple TV via AirPlay. While this probably sounds familiar to AirPlay users, the Apple TV will now connect directly to iCloud and stream the content from the Internet rather than from your device.
A blue AirPlay logo will be displayed on the iOS 7 device when AirPlay from iCloud is engaged. The user can still control playback as if the media was being streamed from the device, and album artwork and playback controls will be shown on the iOS lock screen in the same manner. The major advantage to this approach is an improvement in AirPlay playback performance by not passing the stream through the iOS device. Oddly, however, even though the Apple TV is actually streaming the content directly from iTunes in the Cloud, it remains somewhat dependent on the iOS device—for example if the device loses its connection or is rebooted, playback on the Apple TV will stop. That said, however, the user is otherwise free to use the iOS device otherwise normally.
A new option under Settings, AirPlay allows users to disable this feature if they would prefer to stream AirPlay through the iOS device as in prior software versions.
Note that this option only works with iTunes content, and only content already available from iTunes in the Cloud—in other words, content purchased from the iTunes Store or available via iTunes Match. Streaming locally stored music and videos or content from third-party apps will still stream directly via the iOS device. This is especially interesting as apps like YouTube and Netflix do allow this sort of device-less streaming on other devices such as Smart TVs, the PS3, and ChromeCast. Unfortunately, the Apple-developed Netflix and YouTube apps on the Apple TV still do not support this capability.
New “My Podcasts” and “My Stations” sections have been added to Podcasts on the Apple TV, allowing users to sync their own podcast collection across multiple Apple TVs and the iOS Podcasts app.
Users can also now subscribe to podcasts directly from the Apple TV. An additional option to “Show Hidden Episodes” also appears after subscribing to a given podcast.
Automatic Software Updates
With Apple TV 6.0, future software updates can now be downloaded and applied automatically. This option is enabled by default on new Apple TV units, disabled by default if you’re updating from an older version. It can be switched off under Settings, General, Software Updates if you’d still prefer to apply your updates manually.
Conference Room Display
Users setting up Apple TVs in a business or school environment can now take advantage of a new Conference Room Display feature that can display instructions for connecting to the device via AirPlay as part of the screensaver.
The Conference Room Display feature is enabled under Settings, AirPlay and by default displays the Wi-Fi network and Apple TV name. Users can also choose to add a custom message at the bottom of the AirPlay instruction window or choose a background photo.
With the release of iTunes 11 last fall, Apple quietly added a “Home Videos” category to allow users to separate personal videos in their iTunes library from the more general “Movies” category. Although a welcome feature, it was not particularly useful without support outside of the iTunes application itself.
Apple TV 6.0 finally brings the “Home Videos” category from your iTunes library to the Apple TV, allowing you to quickly access your Home Videos separately from your movie library. This appears simply as another category under the Computers section.
The Photo Stream feature introduced with the release of iCloud two years ago has now been renamed “iCloud Photos” and given an updated icon to match the iOS 7 Photos app.
Functionally the feature remains mostly the same as before, although a new “Activity” section has been added that summarizes recent social activity across all of your shared streams, similar to the iOS 7 Photos app.
Like iOS 7, iCloud Shared Streams now support videos in Apple TV 6.0 as well. Performance when viewing Shared Streams also appears to have been improved somewhat—although it still remains more sluggish than we would expect, you’ll no longer find yourself going for a coffee while waiting for your Photo Streams to appear.
Subtitles & Captioning
Subtitles can now be selected automatically based on the Apple TV language setting and the content being played. In addition, closed caption styles can now be customized under the Accessibility settings, much like the same capability that was added for iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch users in iOS 7.
Three built-in styles are provided and the user can create and save their own custom styles with their choice of text font, size, and color, background color and opacity, and more. Application of the styles will depend on whether you’re watching a self-ripped video with subtitles hard-coded into the images, or stored as separate data in typical iTunes Store video fashion.
The Settings menu adds a new “iCloud” section, which at this point seems to only provide options for signing into an iCloud account and configuring iCloud Photos Settings—options previously available directly in the Photo Streams section.
The General section now gets a Region Format option distinct from the Language settings to allow users to choose their particular country. It’s unclear how and where this setting actually applies.
Parental Controls on the General menu has been renamed to simply “Restrictions” and AirPlay Settings have been moved to the bottom alongside a restriction option for the new Conference Room Display feature.
Although this latest Apple TV Software Update adds some welcome new additions, it’s questionable whether the major new “6.0” version number is really justified compared to what little actually has changed. Users with access to iTunes Radio—currently limited to the U.S. only—will certainly appreciate this addition, and podcast enthusiasts may similarly find the synchronization features to be moderately useful. The ability to stream content directly from iTunes in the Cloud via AirPlay is also a nice touch, especially for users who are accustomed to controlling their Apple TVs with their iOS devices.
Other changes are relatively minor, however, and seem to be more about refining the Apple TV experience in certain areas rather than making more sweeping changes. Regardless, however, Apple TV 6.0 is an interesting update that will hopefully continue to pave the way for new content to debut on Apple’s set top box.
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