Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of Apple TV 2.3

Yesterday evening, Apple quietly released an Apple TV Version 2.3 update, providing bug fixes, stability improvements, and a few additional new features. Version 2.3 may well be the company’s least publicized and least glamorous Apple TV software update yet, but the changes are interesting nonetheless.

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As usual, we have gone through Apple TV 2.3 with a fine-toothed comb to see exactly what has changed. Curious about what’s new? Read on.

AirTunes Streaming from Apple TV

When the initial Apple TV 2.0 update was released last January, the sudden appearance of an “AirTunes” menu created a fair bit of confusion as to whether the updated Apple TV would be able to function simply as AirTunes remote speakers for your iTunes library, or whether you would be able to stream audio from your Apple TV to other AirTunes-enabled devices. To the disappointment of some users, this initial AirTunes feature was revealed to simply be a remote speaker service, allowing your Apple TV to effectively act as remote speakers for your iTunes library.

The most recent update has now added the other half of the AirTunes functionality. With version 2.3, the Apple TV can now send your audio out to one or more remote AirTunes speakers, which can also include remote Apple TVs that are set up as AirTunes clients. This feature is configured in the AirTunes section found in your Apple TV’s “Settings” menu:

 

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The first two options behave in the same manner as in previous versions, allowing you to toggle the Apple TV AirTunes remote speaker mode on and off and to optionally choose a password that will be required to connect to the Apple TV from a playback device. The first option has been relabelled “AirTunes Speakers” to make it clearer that this only affects the ability of the Apple TV to function as a remote speaker service—even with this option set to OFF, the Apple TV can still send its own audio to another set of remote AirTunes speakers.

A new option allows you to set whether remote devices will be able to control the local Apple TV. If this is enabled, then you will be able to control the local Apple TV playback from another remote control equipped AirTunes device, such as another Apple TV, or an Airport Express with a device like the Keyspan remote.

Below these configuration options, AirTunes remote speakers currently available on your network are displayed, with the Apple TV itself at the top of the list. Checkmarks are displayed beside those speakers which are enabled, and additional speakers may be toggled on and off simply by selecting them. As with iTunes itself, the Apple TV may take a few seconds to connect to a set of remote AirTunes speakers each time you begin playing a new track.

 

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Note as well that as with iTunes, AirTunes can only be used to stream audio from your Apple TV to other devices, and it is not enabled at all when playing any video content—even music videos.

As an additional caveat, the Apple TV’s performance when streaming to remote AirTunes speakers can be extremely sluggish, even on a fast 802.11n or wired Ethernet connection between the devices. Playback performance is acceptable, but the remote control input seems to become unresponsive, making browsing the Apple TV while listening to content a frustrating experience at best. This seems to occur regardless of whether you are playing streamed or synced music, but is worse if the music is also coming across the network from a back-end iTunes library.

Third-Party Remote Control Support

While users with universal remote controls such as Logitech’s Harmony can learn the Apple TV remote commands, this latest update allows for any remote control to be used with your Apple TV by taking the opposite approach—having the Apple TV learn commands from your remote. Many remotes included with modern TVs include basic multi-component controls from a database of pre-defined devices, but this device list rarely includes the Apple TV. With this new feature, you can basically pick an unused “device” on your remote control and have the Apple TV learn to respond to those commands.

This is configured from the Apple TV’s Settings, General, Remotes menu, where a new “Learn Remote” option can be found to add other remotes:

 

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Selecting this option will take you through the steps of adding an additional remote control by having you press and hold the buttons on the remote that correspond to the standard Apple Remote buttons:

 

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At the completion of this process, you will be prompted to enter a name for the new remote, and will be asked if you would like to configure additional playback buttons. Note that you can rename the remote and configure the additional playback buttons later also.

 

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The ability to specify additional playback buttons is an interesting new feature that takes the Apple TV beyond the limitations of the six-button Apple Remote. Since most remotes provide separate buttons for playback features, the Apple TV can now make use of these dedicated buttons. Specifically, you can have the Apple TV learn buttons for play, pause, stop, rewind, fast-forward, previous track, next track, skip back and skip ahead:

 

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If your remote does not have a button for one of the listed functions, or you do not want to program it, you can simply skip it by pressing the right arrow key on the remote to move to the next button. Once programmed, these buttons will function more or less as expected. For example, pressing the STOP button will immediately stop playback of the current track and return you to the previous menu, the FF/REW buttons will directly access these functions with a single button press, and the skip back and skip forward functions will skip 10 seconds back or forward within the current track.

Note that learning a new remote does not disable the Apple TV remote itself, and you can even program the Apple TV to recognize multiple remotes.

 

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Selecting any previously-programmed remote from the listing provides options to rename the remote, delete the remote, or re-learn the basic or playback button commands.

 

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Movie, TV Show and Podcast Playlist Support

Apple TV 2.3 now provides the ability to display any playlists from your iTunes library containing movies, TV shows, or podcasts in the appropriate sections of your Apple TV. This is a user-configurable option which is off by default and must first be enabled in the Apple TV Audio and Video Settings menu by changing the Show Playlists option from “Music Only” to “All.”

 

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Once enabled, entering your My Movies, My TV Shows, or My Podcasts sections will show a “Playlists” entry at the top of the screen. Selecting this entry will present a list of playlists containing content appropriate to that section.

 

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Note that when playing movies, TV shows, or podcasts from a playlist, the Apple TV does not stop between tracks—they are played sequentially in the order they are shown in the playlist. However, playing an individual movie, TV show, or podcast directly from the normal movie or episode listings will play back that single video and then stop.

Music Volume Control

One of the omissions that we noted with the Apple TV when it was first released was the lack of any on-device volume control, a limitation which was inconvenient for users without universal remotes, since you would need to juggle the Apple Remote with the remote for your TV or receiver—there was no way to control both playback and volume from the Apple TV remote itself.

This latest update has at least partially rectified this issue by providing direct volume control for audio tracks. This also works for music videos, but not for other types of video content. This feature is off by default but can be enabled in the Apple TV Audio and Video settings menu:

 

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Once enabled, you will be able to control the volume from the Apple TV itself when playing music, audio podcasts, or music videos using the up and down buttons on the Apple Remote. A volume adjustment overlay similar to that shown on Mac OS X is displayed on-screen when adjusting the volume. While we like the feature addition, it has been implemented in a very unusual and inconsistent way relative to Apple’s other digital media products.

 

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Now Playing Context Menu Changes

The Apple TV 2.3 update also provides some additional options on the pop-up menus which were introduced in the previous update. Holding down the Select or Play/Pause button while listening to a music track now presents additional options to take you to the AirTunes Speakers menu or to browse other tracks from the currently playing artist or album, similar to those options found on the fourth-generation iPod nano. This pop-up menu can also be accessed while watching music videos, although the options for Genius and Speakers will not appear as these are not applicable to music videos.

 

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New to 2.3 is the ability for a pop-up menu to be accessed while listening to audio podcasts as well, providing only the “Speakers” option to select a different set of AirTunes speakers for listening.

Note that the Speakers, Browse Artist and Browse Album options will take you out of the Now Playing screen with no simple way to return other than simply waiting for the Apple TV’s normal inactivity timeout.

iPhone/iPod touch Remote App Compatibility

With the Apple TV 2.3 update, the Remote application for the iPhone and iPod touch now also supports selecting remote AirTunes speakers from either the Settings menu or the Now Playing screen in much the same way as it does for an iTunes library. Support for other features remains the same, including movie and TV show playlists which have already been supported and continue to behave in the same way as they did for previous Apple TV software versions.

Performance

Performance of the Apple TV 2.3 software appears to be much the same as with the previous version with one notable exception: as noted earlier, streaming to remote AirTunes speakers from the Apple TV slows down the Apple TV’s remote control responsiveness almost to the point of making the device unusable. While connected to and playing back through remote AirTunes speakers, both of the Apple TV units we tested frequently did not respond at all to remote control commands at all, not even acknowledging them with an LED blink. In these cases it took several presses of the remote control buttons even just to stop playback. When not actually playing, or when playing through only locally-connected speakers, none of these performance issues were observed.

Note that this problem occurred regardless of wired or Wi-Fi network connection, source of content, or type of remote speaker device, Apple TV or Airport Express.

Further, responsiveness of the Apple TV during a sync with iTunes still has not seen any improvement over previous versions—when syncing with larger iTunes libraries, the Apple TV tends to become unresponsive while the sync is occurring, and starting to play even an on-device video during a sync will usually result in some skipping and stuttering as the Apple TV cancels the iTunes sync to give priority to showing the video. This can be particularly annoying if iTunes is waiting to sync with your Apple TV and you pause a video for more than a few seconds; as soon as you pause the video iTunes notices that the Apple TV is available and begins synchronizing with it, and when you attempt to resume video playback you will likely encounter a delayed response or several seconds of skipping and stuttering in the video while the Apple TV cancels the iTunes sync, rendering that portion of the video unwatchable. This has not changed for the better or worse in Apple TV 2.3, and remains a disappointing and often frustrating flaw in what should be a seamless user experience.

Update or Wait?

The Apple TV v2.3 update offers a few new interesting features, and may appeal to users looking for streaming to remote AirTunes speakers or more advanced remote control options. Other than the AirTunes performance issues noted above, which only applied when actually using remote speakers, no other significant problems or performance issues were noted in our testing. Although users may find the AirTunes performance disappointing at this point, there are no other reasons to recommend against applying this update other than the normal caution about any new Apple TV update.