Alongside the release of iOS 6.1 earlier this week, Apple also rolled out Apple TV Software Update 5.2 for the second- and third-generation Apple TV. The new update adds support for Bluetooth keyboards, introduces the new Up Next play queue feature that debuted in iTunes 11, improves support for external AirPlay speakers, and adds the ability for non-iTunes Match subscribers to access their purchased music from iTunes in the Cloud.
As usual, Apple continues to number its Apple TV Software Updates separately from the corresponding iOS versions, despite the underlying OS Build Version numbers being the same. The previous update was released alongside iOS 6.0 on the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch but was referenced as “Apple TV Software Update 5.1.” This update continues the trend, with a Software Update version number of 5.2 and an OS Build of 6.1.
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.
The biggest new feature in Apple TV Software Update 5.2 is the addition of support for Bluetooth keyboards, unlocking the Bluetooth hardware that has been present in Apple’s set-top boxes since the second-generation Apple TV was released in September 2010.
When initially setting up a new Apple TV, the language selection screen now displays an additional note offering you the ability to pair a Bluetooth keyboard right away—an extremely useful feature for the initial setup process, which previously required time-consuming on-screen entry of Wi-Fi and Home Sharing passwords via the Apple Remote.
The pairing process is as straightforward as simply turning on the keyboard and waiting for the Apple TV to detect it, at which point you may see a four-digit code on screen to enter on the keyboard to complete the pairing process. Some Bluetooth keyboards will pair without the need to enter any code.
Once pairing has been successfully completed, a bezel-style overlay indicating a bond between your keyboard and the Apple TV will be shown in the top-left corner of the screen, similar to what is seen when specifically pairing one Apple Remote to the Apple TV. The Bluetooth keyboard can then be used for navigating menus with the arrow, return and escape keys, entering text in username, password and search fields, and controlling and navigating playback with media keys.
The keyboard can also be used when browsing content menus to quickly navigate to a specific item simply by typing in the appropriate characters, providing very quick navigation through long artist, album and song menus.
Note that certain other Apple Keyboard controls such as brightness and volume are not supported by the Apple TV and will simply be ignored. If you have an iOS-specific keyboard, however, the Home Button key will return you to the Apple TV’s main menu, and media control keys do work on the Apple TV, as well.
A new Bluetooth menu can now be found under Settings, General, providing options for pairing a Bluetooth keyboard or removing an existing pairing, or switching Bluetooth off when you’re not using it—useful if you’re using your Bluetooth keyboard with more than one device.
Apple only officially supports its own Apple Wireless Keyboard, however an Apple knowledgebase article notes that “third-party Bluetooth keyboards that use the Apple keyboard layout may also be compatible” but that the original white 2003 Apple Wireless Keyboard is specifically not compatible.
Bluetooth keyboard profiles are essentially a standard, however, so while it’s not surprising that a 2003-era Bluetooth keyboard would not work, any modern Bluetooth keyboard should provide at least basic functionality. In our own testing, we had no problems using several third-party Bluetooth keyboards for basic navigation and text entry, although media playback and navigation controls were not always supported.
Note that Apple TV 5.2 provides Bluetooth keyboard support exclusively. Other devices such as headsets and speakers are not supported, and will simply not be detected by the Apple TV.
Apple TV 5.2 also introduces the Up Next play queue feature first introduced last fall with the release of iTunes 11. Up Next allows users to more effectively control their play queues when listening to music on the Apple TV, with the ability to easily add new tracks to a play queue and reorder existing ones.
Up Next is implemented on the Apple TV via the usual press-and-hold pop-up menus previously used to access features such as Genius and speaker controls. Highlighting a track, album or artist and pressing and holding the center Select button the Apple Remote (or the Return key on a Bluetooth keyboard) will bring up a pop-up menu with options to play the track immediately, play the track next after the current track is finished playing, or add it to the bottom of the Up Next queue.
Once playback begins, the menu also includes a “Show Up Next” option to provide quick access to view the Up Next queue. When viewing the Up Next queue, tracks can be removed by highlighting, pressing and holding Select to bring up the pop-up menu, or can be reordered in the queue by highlighting the track, pressing the right arrow to expand the selection to include the reorder button, and then pressing the up and down arrows to move the item to a new position. Pressing the left arrow de-selects re-order mode, allowing you to return to normal list navigation.
When playing back a track from a playlist, the entire playlist is added to Up Next by default, however any tracks that you re-order or manually add to Up Next are grouped into a separate section above the standard playlist tracks to visually identify those you’ve specifically selected versus those that are simply part of the playlist.
A Clear Up Next option appears at the top of the Up Next list; this will generally remove any specifically queued entries, however when working from a playlist, the standard shuffled or ordered playlist entries will remain in the queue. When adding multiple tracks to Up Next—such as from an Album entry—an additional prompt also appears providing the option to clear the Up Next queue in favor of the new items, or simply add them to the existing queue.
The Apple TV has supported streaming audio to external speakers for some time, though the feature has had a checkered past. Apple’s original Apple TV added support for this feature in 2008, but it was removed in the second-generation Apple TV in 2010, only to finally return with Apple TV Software Update 5.1 last fall. In both prior iterations, however, AirPlay support was limited to streaming audio only from actual audio tracks such as music, audiobooks, and podcasts—the audio from video tracks would continue to play through whatever speakers or television was directly connected to the Apple TV itself.
With Apple TV 5.2, this has finally changed and users can now direct the audio from any playing video, such as a movie or TV show, to any external AirPlay audio device, including speakers, an AirPort Express, or even another Apple TV.
This feature is accessible during video playback by accessing the press-and-hold menu normally used for chapter and audio/subtitle selection. A new “Speakers” category appears which can be used to select an external speaker destination for audio playback. The video will continue to play directly on the Apple TV, while the audio will be redirected to the selected target AirPlay device.
Apple has continued to add more emphasis to streaming content from iTunes in the Cloud rather than relying on a back-end iTunes library. Notably, it has let users stream purchased TV Shows and Movies directly from Apple’s servers since roughly a year after the release of the second-generation Apple TV. Then a cloud-based solution for streaming a user’s music library came with iTunes Match, a $25/year subscription service that provided an Apple TV user with access to an entire iTunes music library, including tracks acquired from other sources and matched or uploaded to the user’s iCloud account.
Apple TV 5.2 now allows users to access their music purchased from the iTunes Store directly from the Apple TV, even without an iTunes Match subscription—a more cost-effective solution for those users who may have a library already primarily made up of iTunes Store purchases.
The iTunes in the Cloud feature is only available for accounts that do not already have an iTunes Match subscription, as it is accessed from the same “Music” icon on the main Apple TV screen. Basically, if you don’t subscribe to iTunes Match, this icon will take you to an “iTunes Music” section, providing access to any purchased content in your iTunes Store account. iTunes Match subscribers will simply see the same “iTunes Match” section that appeared here previously.
Note that former iTunes Match users with expired subscriptions may still see “iTunes Match” here and may even still have access to their previously matched library.
Apple TV 5.2 also includes a minor change in the Screen Saver selection menu. The previous divided sections for “Album Artwork Screen Savers” and “Photo Screen Savers” have now been consolidated, with the “Cascade” and “Floating” screen savers now each including separate entries for “Photos” and “Covers.”
Each of these can only be used for the appropriate type of content; the screen saver photo source will automatically be changed to the appropriate content type based on the selection here—music for either of the “covers” selections, photos for any of the others.
In many ways, all of the features in the Apple TV 5.2 update fit into the range of either expected additions such as Up Next or features that leave us wondering what’s really taken Apple so long, such as iTunes in the Cloud for music, AirPlay audio support for video playback, and Bluetooth keyboard support—the latter of which simply enables hardware that has been in Apple TV devices for over two years. Nonetheless, all of these are welcome additions which will have varying degrees of appeal to different users.
Sadly, while the Apple TV 5.2 update promises performance and stability improvements, there are still areas of surprising weakness: Shared Photo Streams specifically still suffer from ridiculously long delays when loading photos, and do not maintain a persistent cache of photos, resulting in an experience that ranges from inconvenient to downright frustrating depending on how many Shared Photo Streams you’re dealing with and how impatient your guests may be when waiting to see your vacation pictures.
On a positive note, however, the addition of Bluetooth keyboard support in Apple TV 5.2 addresses one of our single biggest complaints about the Apple TV since its inception—the requirement that users navigate alphabetical text entry menus with a limited Apple Remote when entering mandatory information such as Wi-Fi and Apple ID passwords. While the Apple Remote app addressed some of this for iOS device users, this could only be used after the initial setup had been completed, requiring most users to enter in the very least a Wi-Fi and Home Sharing password before the Remote app could be used. The new solution is better without question, and long overdue.
Further, while Apple still controls what “apps” go onto the Apple TV, the addition of support for external keyboards may pave the way for a new generation of Apple TV features and integrations. For now, however, even the ability to search for YouTube videos from a real keyboard that you can pass around the living room will be a nice addition for many users. We’re anxious to see what Apple does next with Bluetooth support—and presumably another major software update in the not-too-distant future.