Apple’s decision to dramatically shift the second-generation Apple TV away from some features of the original, three-plus-year-old device has led to some surprising differences that we’ve discovered over the last several days of testing. Despite the old and new units’ similarities in names and user interfaces, the second-generation model is an almost entirely new device, with new hardware inside and many more under-the-hood changes than people had expected. Most of these changes are positive and streamline the Apple TV user experience, although a few have left it less capable in various ways. This article looks at 15 of the most interesting and previously unknown tweaks Apple made this time out.
1. Movie and TV Show rentals are available on all of your Apple TV devices. As noted in our comprehensive second-generation Apple TV review, movies and TV shows rented on one Apple TV will automatically appear on all other devices that use the same iTunes Store account, unlike the prior model. This even applies to Apple TVs in two completely separate locations, such as one at home and one at the office. Rentals are tied to the iTunes Store account that you’re logged onto the Apple TV with, and only show up when you’re actually logged in with that account. Of course, since the content is still streamed over the Internet, you’ll still need a broadband Internet connection anywhere that you want to actually watch your rented content.
2. Movies and TV shows rented in iTunes show up alongside your purchased movies and can be streamed to the Apple TV. Any movies or TV shows that you’ve rented on your computer using iTunes are also available to be viewed on the second-generation Apple TV. Since the new Apple TV does not contain any local storage, rented movies and TV shows are simply streamed from your iTunes library in the same manner as your own content. If you have enabled Movie and TV Show playlists, you will see a virtual “Rentals” Smart Playlist at the top of your Playlists in each of those sections containing a list of rented content. Beyond this, however, rented content that is in your iTunes library is not differentiated by the Apple TV—it simply shows up organized alongside your purchased movies and TV shows. The Apple TV also doesn’t display any indications or warnings when you play a rented movie or TV show to let you know that you’re about to start a 24- or 48-hour clock running on the rental; it simply starts streaming video and audio in the same way as anything else from your iTunes library.
3. International content availability is relatively limited. The new Apple TV supports only rentals from the iTunes Store directly on the device, a business model that Apple has not rolled out to the iTunes Store in every country. TV Show rentals remain a very limited U.S. only feature for the time being, and even the more established movie rental business in iTunes is only available in eight countries right now. Anywhere else, the Apple TV is going to be little more than a device for streaming from your iTunes library. Country restrictions on content availability, however, remain tied to your iTunes Store account rather than your physical location, so travelling with the Apple TV is an option provided Internet access is available at your destination.
4. The Apple TV no longer shows up as a “Device” in iTunes. Unlike the first-generation Apple TV, which took a position in your iTunes Devices listing alongside your other media devices, the second-generation Apple TV is nowhere to be found there in iTunes. The “Apple TV” section in iTunes Preferences only displays first-generation Apple TV devices, and in iTunes 10 is actually hidden entirely if you have no old-style Apple TVs on your network. The one setting that you can still configure in iTunes for the new Apple TV is choosing which photos to stream, but this now hides on the Advanced menu and applies to all of the Apple TVs that are connecting to your iTunes library. In this respect, the second-generation Apple TV works more like an advanced Airport Express station, and will in fact appear under the AirPlay Speakers menu if you have the AirPlay speakers option enabled in the Apple TV settings. That’s about the only place you’ll see it listed.
5. Home Sharing is the new—and only—way of pairing your Apple TV with your computer (and iOS Remote). Gone is the old “by-the-numbers” pairing method for the Apple TV, iTunes and the iOS remote application. Instead, you must enable Home Sharing and enter your iTunes Store account name and password on each of your iTunes libraries and devices. The good news is that once this is done, everything basically “finds” everything else and pretty much just works; the bad news is that you’ll have to enter your username and password on Apple TV’s wonky keyboard using the included Infrared remote. Note also that the iTunes Store account you use for Home Sharing does not have to be the same account that you use to rent content from the iTunes Store, nor does it have any bearing on what content you are authorized to stream from your iTunes library—you can stream anything your computer is authorized to play, even from multiple iTunes Store accounts.
6. You cannot (yet) start a video stream in iTunes and send it to the Apple TV using AirPlay. At this point, the AirPlay feature on the new Apple TV is nothing more than a renamed version of AirTunes, and the menus even look the same other than the name change. Enabling the “AirPlay Speakers” option will cause the Apple TV to show up in your iTunes AirPlay speakers listing and stream audio from iTunes to the Apple TV. Note that this option is off by default on a new Apple TV, so if you’re not seeing your device show up in iTunes, a quick trip to the Settings menu will be required to enable it. Another useful option that is off by default is the Allow iTunes control from remote speakers setting under Devices in iTunes Preferences—you’ll need to enable this if you actually want to use the Apple TV infrared remote to pause or skip tracks.
7. The Apple TV cannot send audio outwards via AirPlay. Unlike the first-generation Apple TV, the new model does not include any ability to send audio (or video) streams to other devices using AirPlay. This should not be a serious omission since you now need to have iTunes running on your network to play audio content anyway, and streaming audio directly from iTunes makes more sense and uses less network bandwidth than sending it indirectly through the Apple TV.
8. Your Wish List and Favorites are now shared between all of your Apple TV devices. Another nice improvement on the original Apple TV is that any movies you’ve added to the Apple TV’s Wish List, or TV shows that you’ve added to your favorites now sync across all devices via your iTunes Store account. This does not (yet) appear to be in any kind of sync with your actual iTunes Store Wish List, however; it remains a separate section that can only be accessed on the second-generation Apple TV. Note also that any favorites or Wish List items you created on an original Apple TV do not transfer over and will simply be lost unless you write them down yourself.
9. Performance is much faster than the first-generation Apple TV—provided your home network is up to the task. The new architecture of the Apple TV creates a much faster and more responsive experience when navigating menus and performing on-device functions. Given a typical home network configuration with moderately strong signal on a mixed 802.11g/n or dedicated 802.11n network, the streaming performance works quite well. Pausing and resuming playback is extremely quick and even skipping through portions of videos is a much smoother process than the original Apple TV. That said, if you’re on a slower Wi-Fi network or have Apple TVs setup in weak signal areas you will likely find navigating through streamed video to be somewhat more sluggish, although simply playing a stream from beginning to end seems to work quite well once the stream gets going. Also keep in mind that the new Apple TV will join a 5GHz 802.11n network by default, but if your Apple TVs are farther away from your Wi-Fi router you may find that using 2.4GHz provides much better performance as it has greater range.
10. Syncing is a thing of the past—you now see your iTunes library in real time. The original Apple TV used a hybrid of synchronization and streaming of content from the iTunes library, however it still maintained its own library database that had to be synced with iTunes, even for streamed content. As a result, watched/unwatched status and playback positions did not update in your iTunes library until the Apple TV had a chance to sync with iTunes. The second-generation Apple TV dispenses with this and just reads information from iTunes in real time. Mark a show as watched in iTunes and you will see the blue dot immediately disappear from the show on the Apple TV screen. Likewise, you can start watching a show on one Apple TV and then pick up where you left off on another one almost immediately without having to wait for each of the two devices to sync with your iTunes library.
11. The Apple TV has 8GB of storage which is used to cache streamed videos and photos. The second-generation Apple TV does in fact store content, but only as a cache. Rented movies and TV shows are at least partially cached by the Apple TV, as is recently streamed content from your iTunes library. Photos that you select for the screen saver are similarly cached by the Apple TV so that they can be used even if your iTunes library is not available. iOS on the Apple TV manages all of this in the background and it’s not something you have to worry about, but you’ll definitely see its effects when you’re watching streamed content—once a stream is loaded it generally stays on the device until that space is needed for something newer. Recently-watched video streams will reload almost immediately, for example, as they come from the local cache rather than having to be re-streamed. Apple TV makes intelligent decisions about how much video to keep, and how much to dump, and can go back to Apple’s servers to grab an entire video again if necessary—a big change from the old “download once, that’s it” way iTunes has handled videos in the past.
12. A basic broadband connection is fine. When many users heard about the streaming aspects of the new Apple TV there were concerns that rented content would not work on lower-speed broadband networks, especially for high-definition movies and TV shows. The local cache, however, ensures that Internet connection speeds are not a major issue as long as you have some kind of broadband connection. If you’re working with lower-speed Internet access, you may just find that it takes more time before you can start watching a movie or TV show, as more data has to be cached to avoid interrupting the stream. The 8GB cache is more than large enough to store a single HD movie if necessary.
13. TV Show listings have been reorganized by season. The original Apple TV presented your TV show listing by show title and then presented a single, complete list of all episodes across all seasons within each series. Apple TV now breaks down each show by title and season on the main TV show listings. While this can avoid the need to scroll through dozens or even hundreds of episodes within a given show, it can make for a longer main TV show series listing instead; another menu layer for selecting seasons for each show would have been much better here.
14. The flashy startup screen is gone. The second-generation Apple TV no longer starts with a panoramic, THX-style startup graphic. Instead, it gets right down to business, searching for your network and bringing you right to the main menu. Even the Apple logo in the center of the screen doesn’t appear any more; the device either puts up a black screen for no signal, an explanation of what it’s doing, or its menu system.
15. You can schedule the Apple TV to go into lower power-consumption sleep mode. The original Apple TV could only be put into sleep/standby mode manually. On the new Apple TV, you can now choose to have the device automatically go into sleep mode after 15 minutes, 30 minutes or 1, 5 or 10 hours of inactivity. This option is found on the General menu under Settings.
It’s also important that despite being labelled the second-generation, the new Apple TV has many traits of a new, first-generation product. The device contains a completely new CPU architecture and operating system under the hood and we’ve already noticed a few odd problems with the unit in its current form: integration issues and sometimes sluggish performance with Apple’s iOS Remote app, played status information not updating properly in iTunes, remote control functions not operating reliably, incorrect sorting of TV shows, and sporadic, inexplicable delays in accessing an iTunes library. None of these are insurmountable and can hopefully be addressed through both Apple TV/iOS and iTunes updates, but as of today there are enough of them to be annoying.