Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of Apple TV 3.0

Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of Apple TV 3.0 1

When iTunes 9 was released last month with iTunes Extras, iTunes LP and Genius Mixes, the Apple TV was the one current Apple media device left behind in its support for these new features, despite the fact that features like iTunes Extra seemed almost made for the home theatre user. Yesterday Apple finally released this anticipated update, their second major update to the Apple TV platform, bringing a significant interface redesign as well as support for the new features first introduced in last month’s iTunes 9 release.

The New Interface

Apple TV 3.0 takes a radical departure for the better from the main menu interface found in previous iterations of the Apple TV OS, presenting a horizontal list of media options, rather than the two-column pop-up menu that was used in the 2.x system. Content categories are now listed across a horizontal menu bar, with drop-down menus appearing below each category. A Helvetica font is now used for the entire Apple TV user interface, giving it a somewhat cleaner look as well.

 

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Other than the new main menu layout, most of the menu items themselves have not changed from Apple TV 2.4. It is worth noting, however, that the section menus have been re-ordered to put the proper emphasis on the users’ own content, rather than browsing content from the iTunes Store, with items like My Movies, My TV Shows, and My Music appearing at the top of each menu, rather than below all of the iTunes Store library options. This is a welcome change in our opinion, as the Apple TV 2.x layout made the device feel like a glorified iTunes Store client rather than a means of browsing and viewing your own media library.

The top of the screen will display artwork for items appropriate to the selected category. In addition to browsing left and right between categories in the menu bar itself, you can also browse up to the artwork section to select and playback any of the items listed there. In most sections, the artwork panel will display a selection of items from your own library followed by some top items from the iTunes Store.

 

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Similarly, when “Photos” is highlighted on the main navigation bar, the top artwork panel will show selected albums from your own photo library as well as any MobileMe or Flickr albums you may have added, grouped by category. Moving the selection over a photo album will begin previewing the pictures in that album in-place.

 

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Movies that you have rented are displayed in the artwork browser panel when the “Movies”  section is selected, replacing the previous “Rented Movies” menu option. In addition fitting in better with the new UI, this is a welcome change as it keeps expiring content directly in the user’s view, rather than hidden in a sub-menu.

 

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The one other noticeable menu change is that the previous “YouTube” menu has now been renamed “Internet” and contains options for accessing YouTube as well as a new option for Internet Radio.

 

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Beneath the main menu the rest of the UI design remains much the same, with the exception of the system-wide font change already noted. Menus for browsing through your actual content such as movies and TV shows remain the same as they were in Apple TV 2.4, as does the interface for browsing and searching the iTunes Store.

iTunes and Remote app Updates

With the Apple TV 3.0 release yesterday, Apple has also released iTunes 9.0.2 and version 1.3.2 of the iPhone and iPod touch Remote app. These updates specifically provide compatibility with Apple TV 3.0 and enable some of the new iTunes 9 features on the Apple TV.

While iTunes 9.0.2 appears to offer only under-the-hood compatibility changes, the new iPhone and iPod touch Remote app adds support for access to new features such as Genius Mixes.

 

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iTunes Extras

Of the features launched with iTunes 9 last month, iTunes Extras seemed to be the one most targeted for use on the Apple TV. Included with certain movies sold on the iTunes Store, iTunes Extras provide additional content similar to that found on DVDs.

Apple TV 3.0 now supports these iTunes Extras, which may either be synced from your iTunes library to your Apple TV or viewed on your Apple TV streamed from your iTunes library. Purchasing a movie on the Apple TV which includes iTunes Extras will also download the iTunes Extras automatically.

 

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Note that iTunes Extras are only available with a very small selection of movies at this time, and are only available with purchased movies, not rentals. Movies from the iTunes Store that include iTunes Extras will show a small blue iTunes Extras badge in the top-right corner of the movie information screen when browsing the iTunes Store. As you move through the various rental or purchase options for a selected movie, this badge will update to indicate whether the selected purchasing option includes iTunes Extras—for example, it will disappear when selecting a rental option.

 

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Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of Apple TV 3.0 10

To assist in finding content with iTunes Extras, the “Top Movies” page includes an “iTunes Extras” section. iTunes Extras downloaded directly to the Apple TV will sync back to your iTunes library automatically alongside the movie itself.

 

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Note that if you have already purchased iTunes Extras from the iTunes Store on your computer, these files will need to be updated for the Apple TV. Apple indicates that new versions of previously purchased iTunes Extras content will be added to users’ download queues in iTunes and that users should receive an e-mail to alert them when this content becomes available. These iTunes Extras will be downloaded to iTunes on your computer, and you can then sync them to your Apple TV.

Movies with iTunes Extras content are displayed in your movies listing with a distinctive icon.

 

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Further, when browsing your movies listing, pressing and holding the centre button on the remote will display a pop-up menu with additional options for starting the movie from the beginning, resuming playback if it was already in progress, watching iTunes Extras content if available, or marking the movie as watched.

 

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It’s worth noting, however, that the press-and-hold behaviour when actually viewing a movie has not changed from the previous Apple TV release—it merely brings up the chapter selection screen and does not provide any access to iTunes Extras.

iTunes LP

Similar in concept to iTunes Extras described above, iTunes LP provides additional content for selected music albums on the iTunes Store. As with iTunes Extras, the Apple TV now supports iTunes LP content directly, and this content may be viewed on the Apple TV via streaming, synced directly from iTunes to the Apple TV, or purchased from the iTunes Store on the Apple TV itself.

 

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As with iTunes Extras, existing iTunes LP content that you have already purchased will need to be updated for the Apple TV 3.0. Apple indicates that new versions of previously purchased iTunes LP content will be added to users’ download queues in iTunes and that users should receive an e-mail to alert them when this content becomes available. These iTunes Extras will be downloaded to iTunes on your computer, and you can then sync them to your Apple TV.

Genius Mixes

Apple TV 3.0 now provides support for the Genius Mixes features in iTunes 9 as well, allowing Genius Mixes to be streamed from your iTunes library and played on your Apple TV.

 

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When playing back music from a Genius Mix, the “Now Playing” screen will indicate the name of the Genius Mix presently being played back beneath the normal track info.

 

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Unlike the iPhone and iPod, there does not appear to be a way to actually synchronize Genius Mixes to the Apple TV—they do not appear in the list of playlists for selection in iTunes. When iTunes is running on your computer, Genius Mixes simply select content based on your entire available iTunes library. However, when iTunes is not running on the back-end the Genius Mixes remain available on the Apple TV but their content will be limited to those tracks that happen to already be synced to the Apple TV based on other playlist, artist, or genre sync settings.

Internet Radio

Although the Apple TV has indirectly supported Internet radio streams via playlists for some time, Apple TV 3.0 now offers a specific Internet Radio section where users can browse through a list of Internet Radio stations and stream them for playback.

 

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This works pretty much as expected: Choose a category/genre, pick a station, and it begins playing. However, there is a slightly hidden feature in here—the ability to add stations to a Favorites list. Simply hold down the centre remote button either from the station listing or the “Now Playing” screen, and a pop-up menu will appear with an option to add that station to your Favorites list.

 

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The Favorites list will appear at the top of the category genre listing once you have added at least once station to your Favorites.

 

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Currently playing and recently played radio stations will also appear automatically in the artwork panel on the main menu.

 

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An option to turn off Internet Radio has also been added to the Parental Controls settings, although this option is limited to simply disabling Internet Radio entirely—there is no way to simply restrict specific stations or categories.

Further, Internet Radio will continue playing as you browse through other Apple TV menus, until you either return to the “Now Playing” screen to pause it, or select something else for playback. The same applies to audio playback selected from your “Music” or “Podcasts” sections. Previous iterations of the Apple TV OS were inconsistent as to which menu selections would actually stop audio playback. Apple TV 3.0 appears to continue playing audio in the background until you specifically start playing something else.

Screen Savers

The Apple TV 3.0 update makes some subtle but useful changes to the screen saver options. The layout of the screen saver options menu has changed slightly, with “Floating Photos” and “Photo Slideshow” now listed as the two screen saver options.

 

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Users of prior Apple TV OS versions may notice the absence of the Album Artwork option here. This has actually not disappeared, but since album artwork is really just a different set of photos, it has now been moved to the photo album selection screen as “Music Covers.” One advantage of this approach is that you can now view your album artwork as a normal slideshow screensaver rather than merely as floating pictures.

 

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Hidden within the screen saver settings are additional options to customize a slideshow screen saver. Simply choose “Photo Slideshow” and a “Photo Slideshow Settings” menu option will appear.

 

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From here you can customize your photo slideshow screensaver, including setting the time and transitions between slides, enabling shuffling of photos rather than sequential playback, and enabling the Ken Burns effect.

 

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Syncing with iTunes

With Apple TV 3.0, the synchronization settings for the Apple TV within iTunes have now been brought into line with the changed introduced in iTunes 9 for iPod and iPhone devices (see our article, Instant Expert: Secrets and Features of iTunes 9 for more information on these changes).

 

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Specifically, the synchronization selection options have been expanded to allow for the selection of content from multiple categories: Music can be synchronized based on playlist, artist and genre, with items selected from each; Movies allow for the selection of individual movies, recent movies, and movies from playlists, and TV Shows similarly allow for the selection of shows by individual show, unwatched shows AND playlists. Users can therefore mix and match these various selection criteria to build more customized lists of content to sync to their Apple TV.

 

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Note that the “Photos” synchronization options for the Apple TV were updated in iTunes 9 even for Apple TV 2.4 to provide synchronization of Events and Faces similar to the iPhone and iPod options. This has not changed with Apple TV 3.0.

 

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In addition to the expanded content selection options, additional sync options for including iTunes Extras and iTunes LPs now appear on the Movies and Music tabs, respectively. These options allow you to determine whether iTunes Extras and iTunes LP content are synchronized to the Apple TV alongside their corresponding movies or albums.

 

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Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of Apple TV 3.0 32

An “iTunes U” tab also now appears in the Apple TV sync settings to allow you to select iTunes U content for synchronization to your Apple TV. Unfortunately, the Apple TV 3.0 software itself hasn’t made any allowances for iTunes U content by providing an iTunes U specific section on the device. iTunes U content synchronized to the Apple TV will simply be listed alongside your other content: iTunes U video content as Movies, and iTunes U audio content as Music—an odd omission that we hope will be addressed in a future update.

 

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Performance

Performance with this Apple TV update is a mixed bag. On the one hand, responsiveness from the iTunes side during synchronization appears to have improved dramatically. Unfortunately, on the Apple TV side itself, it is still not at all uncommon to encounter freezes and delays in the UI when iTunes is initiating a sync operation with the Apple TV. Perhaps at least somewhat thankfully, this only affects navigating the actual menus, and doesn’t seem to interfere with audio or video playback. In other words, while the menus may be sluggish, once you’re actually playing your content the Apple TV performs as expected.

As with previous Apple TV OS versions, the scope of this problem increases with the size of the iTunes library that the Apple TV is syncing to, suggesting that the on-device iTunes database has still not been particularly well-optimized for use with large iTunes libraries.

Further, in our testing, iTunes Extras and iTunes LP content streamed from the iTunes library performed very poorly in several cases. Actually syncing this content to the Apple TV resulted in a noticeably smoother viewing experience.

Closing thoughts: Update or Wait?

The most radical change in Apple TV 3.0 is the new main menu layout, a change that not undeservedly makes this a major version upgrade. Once you dig down past the main menu, however, the Apple TV UI continues to look, act and perform about the same as the previous version did.

While there are certainly some new features, some of these enhancements remain geared toward iTunes-purchased content such as iTunes Extras and iTunes LPs. While its nice to see iTunes Extras delivering the DVD experience, the selection of iTunes Extras from the iTunes Store is still extremely limited in comparison to the total number of videos available, and those who primarily rent content on their Apple TV are going to be left out of the iTunes Extras experience entirely. On the other hand, Internet Radio and Genius Mix support are two features that will be of more general interest to Apple TV users, as well as the much more sophisticated options for selecting content to sync to the Apple TV.

All of that said, the new main menu UI with its improved navigation and focus on your content rather than iTunes’ content is probably enough justification to take the 3.0 plunge regardless of the other features. While performance still struggles in certain areas, it’s definitely no worse than previous Apple TV OS versions, and although there are still some problems with some of the new iTunes Extras and iTunes LP content, all of the other existing features from the 2.x generation work as well as they did previously.

Not surprisingly, this update will break compatibility with custom hacks and extensions to the Apple TV, so users who have customized their Apple TV will want to wait before applying this update until their preferred extensions have been updated for the Apple TV 3.0 OS.