Alongside yesterday’s release of iOS 4.3 for the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad, Apple also released Apple TV Software Update 4.2, designed to improve AirPlay compatibility for third-party apps on iOS 4.3 devices, improving the on-screen keyboard, introducing three new slideshow themes, and adding two major new services for sports fans.
Although we received reports during the Apple TV beta cycle that seemed to indicate that Apple was unifying the version numbering on the Apple TV, sadly it seems that this was not the case. The latest update suffers from the same confusion as the “Apple TV Software Update 4.1” from last fall, with the official release version being “Apple TV Software Update 4.2” but the internal “OS Build Version” listed as 4.3, consistent with the iOS 4.3 release for Apple’s mobile devices. It is interesting to note here that Apple does not refer to the Apple TV OS as “iOS” despite the similar version number and concurrent release with iOS 4.3.
For the sake of consistency, we’ll continue to refer to the Apple TV software update the same way Apple does—as 4.2.
Installing the Update
You should be able to download the latest Apple TV update simply by choosing “Check for Updates” from the Settings, General menu, as in previous versions of the Apple TV software.
It is also possible to apply the update through iTunes by connecting the Apple TV to your computer using a micro-USB cable and choosing the “Restore” option. Note that this is intended for recovery purposes rather than normal updates, however, and will reset your device back to its default settings.
The update comes in at around 330MB and should take no more than 10 minutes to download and install, after which your Apple TV simply restarts with the new version. Most installations we tried were complete within 5-6 minutes.
MLB.tv and NBA Live
One of the biggest new features in Apple TV 4.2 is the addition of two new on-demand sports services: MLB.tv and NBA League Pass. These services are integrated into the Apple TV under the “Internet” menu, providing access to view live and on-demand games, team standings and scores. Each service requires an individual monthly subscription to actually watch games, with prices ranging from $20 to $30 per month depending on the package. Team standings and scores can be viewed without a subscription.
MLB.tv is available in all countries where iTunes Movie Rentals are offered, specifically the United States, Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Austria, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, the U.K. and Japan.
NBA League Pass on the Apple TV is available only in the United States. Although the NBA offers an International League Pass on its web site, this is different from the U.S. League Pass and cannot be used on the Apple TV—a U.S. League Pass account is required to login.
The Apple TV uses the Country selection in the “iTunes Store” settings (found under Settings, General) to determine which of these options to display. Services that are not available in the selected country will simply not appear on the Internet menu, in the same manner as Netflix and the main Movie and TV Show menus.
From the MLB.tv section you can view a list of on-demand or live games, a summary of standings by league and division or games and standings organized by team. U.S. users also get a quick link to MLB.com TV content available for rent on the iTunes Store.
Selecting “Today’s Games” provides a listing of games for the current day. Pressing the left arrow key will scroll back by date through games from previous days which can be viewed on-demand (with the appropriate subscription), while the right arrow lets you look ahead to see a list of games scheduled in the coming days. Each game listing provides stats for the game as well as some highlight photos in the preview panel.
Selecting a game from this list begins playback of the game, provided you’re signed into your MLB.tv account and have the appropriate subscription package; you’ll be prompted to enter your MLB.tv username and password if necessary.
As a very nice added bonus, when viewing on-demand games you can navigate through the game by Innings, Game Events or Runs Scored by pressing the down arrow on the remote to bring up the chapter navigation bar as you would for movies or TV shows. The first press brings up the Innings markers, the second press switches to Game Events and the third press to Runs Scored. Pressing the left or right arrow keys will skip between the appropriate sections. The title of the inning or event is displayed above the navigation bar.
Pressing the up arrow key while watching a game will display a pop-up description of the relevant game event, if available, complete with a thumbnail image of the player. It’s a nice added touch.
As the regular season hasn’t started yet, the list of available games is somewhat limited, offering only a few select spring training games. Games that cannot be viewed are greyed out on the “Today’s Games” menu. These games appear normally under each team in the Team by Team section, however selecting one of these games will display a notice that the video for that particular spring training game is not available, noting that all regular season games will be available for viewing once the season starts.
The Standings menu allows you to view team standings by league and division, organized in a Cover Flow style view.
The Team by Team menu displays a grid of teams grouped by league. Selecting a team creates a list of games for that team in the same general format as the “Today’s Games” section.
When returning to the main menu from the MLB.tv section, a list of recent and current games will be displayed in the artwork browser at the top of the screen, including scores and current innings for games still in progress. You can jump directly to the live or on-demand view of any of these games simply by selecting the appropriate box.
An option under MLB.tv, Settings allows you to choose whether to show or hide scores on displayed games, both on the main menu and in the listing of individual games, useful for fans who don’t want to know the final score before watching a game.
U.S. Apple TV users can also choose the “MLB.com on iTunes” option to be taken directly to a list of MLB content available for rental on the iTunes Store.
NBA League Pass
The NBA League pass feature is similar to MLB.tv feature, although only available in the United States. As noted above, this feature requires a U.S. League Pass subscription, and users outside of the U.S. will not be able to access the NBA feature on the Apple TV with their International NBA League Passes, even if they set their Apple TV country to “United States.”
The layout of the NBA section is very similar to the MLB.tv menus, with options to display a list of live and on-demand games that can be viewed with the appropriate subscription package, team standings, and a separate Game Highlights section.
Standings in the NBA section are shown simply as a single large list, rather than the Cover Flow style view used by MLB.tv.
As with MLB.tv, an “NBA on iTunes” section appears, linking to NBA content available for rent on the iTunes Store.
Similarly, returning to the main menu from the NBA section will display a list of current and recent games at the top of the screen. Scores can be displayed or hidden from the NBA, Settings screen in the same manner.
New On-Screen Keyboard Layout
Apple TV 4.2 makes a significant change to the on-screen keyboard layout, making entry of user IDs, passwords, and searches much faster and easier. Rather than a single keyboard filling the entire width of the screen and including all uppercase, lowercase, and symbol characters, the new keyboard uses a left-side grid style similar to the keyboard layout used for searching on the Apple TV.
A navigation bar at the top allows you to choose between lowercase characters, uppercase characters, and symbols. The Play/Pause remote button can be used to cycle through the keyboards, or you can move the highlight up to the nav bar and use the left and right buttons to switch between them. Keyboards for entering usernames also include commonly used symbols on the main alphanumeric screen to simplify the entering of e-mail addresses. Special characters and alternate symbols can be entered by holding down the remote Select button on a letter; a pop-up list of alternate characters appears. This can also be used as a shortcut to entering an uppercase or lowercase character without having to switch to the alternate keyboard.
A “Recent” option now also appears in the nav bar, allowing quick access to recently entered values, including recent searches in the search bar, or recently entered account names for services such as Netflix and YouTube. The Recent list is maintained separately for each section. Password entry screens do not include a Recent section for obvious reasons.
The iOS Remote app can still be used to type or paste into any of these screens from an iPhone, iPod touch or iPad. However, in order to join your Wi-Fi network and configure Home Sharing, you’ll need to get through at least two text-entry screens when setting up an Apple TV before you can use the iOS Remote app. The new keyboard layout makes this process significantly less painful. It’s actually quite remarkable how much more usable this new keyboard layout really is.
New Slideshow Themes
Apple TV 4.2 brings three new slideshow themes from iPhoto ‘11 and Aperture 3.1 to the mix: Scrapbook, Photo Mobile and Holiday Mobile. These can be used for normal photo slideshows, for the built-in Screen Saver or from an iOS 4.3 device when displaying a slideshow via AirPlay.
In addition to the big new features, there are as usual a few other changes under the hood.
AirPlay for Apps
iOS 4.3 adds the ability for third-party apps to take advantage of AirPlay Video streaming. The Apple TV 4.2 update adds this compatibility on the Apple TV side.
Netflix Dolby Digital 5.1
Apple TV 4.2 adds support for Netflix movies and TV shows with Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound, accessible if you have the extra speakers to hear it.
A new option on the Settings, General menu allows you to specify a time zone for your device. This can be selected manually or you can choose the option to specify it automatically based on your location.
HDMI Output Selection
The HDMI Output menu option makes a return in Apple TV 4.2. The default Auto setting should work for most users, but those having HDMI sync or video problems can now manually specify YCbCr, RGB High or RGB Low.
From a performance and stability point of view, this update appears solid and in fact improves performance with regard to iTunes library integration via Home Sharing, particularly with larger libraries. The one feature that remains conspicuously absent in this update is support for Apple’s iTunes Extras and iTunes LP—formats that are sadly beginning to feel abandoned by the company, even as the number of titles with these features continues to increase. We would have also liked to see some of the iTunes media organization layouts fixed to simplify the browsing of TV shows from an iTunes library, although admittedly this is an issue that will only seriously impact users with large media collections.
Ultimately, however, this is an impressive update that moves in a solid direction as a home entertainment platform beyond simply cloning iTunes. For baseball and basketball fans, the new software provides a well-designed and tightly integrated experience that surpasses similar packages offered by many traditional cable companies. In fact, for some sports fans this may even be the “cut-the-cable” option they’ve been waiting for.
More importantly, however, is what these new services represent in the evolution of the Apple TV experience—namely that Apple is definitely interested in taking the Apple TV beyond simply a front-end for iTunes content delivery and offering additional built-in services that can deliver live and on-demand content from a range of other sources. Between this and the addition of AirPlay support for third-party apps, Apple TV is rapidly shaping up to be a highly worthwhile addition to any iOS device owner’s collection of Apple accessories.