Following last week’s major release of iOS 6 for the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch, Apple quietly rolled out Apple TV Software Update 5.1 for the second- and third-generation Apple TV. This latest update for Apple’s set-top box builds on the user interface enhancements introduced earlier this year, adds support for the Shared Photo Streams feature introduced in iOS 6 and adds several other enhancements including improvements to AirPlay support.
As usual, Apple continues to number its Apple TV Software Updates differently from the corresponding iOS versions, despite the underlying OS Build Version numbers being the same. The last update brought the Apple TV software up to version 5.0 with the introduction of a major new user interface and the release of the third-generation Apple TV, but was released alongside iOS 5.1 on the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch. This most recent update repeats the precedent set with iOS 5.0, which was accompanied by Apple TV Software Update 4.4—the latest update is officially designated “Apple TV Software Update 5.1” although the “OS Build” is listed as 6.0 and as usual shares a similar build number to the iOS 6.0 builds released last week.
Installing the Update
The new update installs in the same manner as all prior Apple TV updates. Your Apple TV will likely eventually notify you that an update is available, but you can also check manually at any time by choosing the Check for Updates option from the Settings, General menu.
The update can also 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, requiring you to painstakingly re-enter your Wi-Fi and Home Sharing passwords again using the Apple Remote.
The update is around 600MB and should normally take about 10-15 minutes to download and install, after which your Apple TV will simply restart with the new version.
Shared Photo Streams
Introduced with iOS 6 last week alongside corresponding updates to Aperture, iPhoto and the iCloud Control Panel for Windows, Shared Photo Streams allows users to create iCloud-based photo albums that can be viewed on multiple devices and easily shared with other iCloud users along with basic social “like” and commenting features.
Apple TV Software Update 5.1 brings Shared Photo Streams to the big screen, allowing users to view all of the Shared Photo Streams available in their iCloud account—both ones they’ve created themselves as well as any Photo Streams that have been shared with them by other users. The Photo Streams option from the Main Menu now brings users to a secondary list displaying their standard iCloud Photo Stream at the top, following by all of their available Shared Photo Streams.
Selecting any of the Photo Streams will take you to a thumbnail view of the photos in that particular stream. The view here has also been redesigned from the older grid-style view, mixing large and small images and scrolling left to right throughout the stream instead of downward.
Photos are sorted and grouped in each stream by the date added, with the most recent on the right. Separate blocks are used for each individual date group, or in the case of the main Photo Stream, for photos added in the prior two weeks versus older photos.
Buttons in the top-right corner allow the user to start a slideshow of that particular Photo Stream or quickly set it to be used as the Screensaver, avoiding a trip to the Settings menu to do so.
Selecting any photo in the gallery view will display a full screen view that can be browsed in the usual manner. Shared Photo Streams hide one additional feature, however: Pressing on the down arrow will switch to a Cover Flow style gallery view, with likes and comments displayed below each photo. You can also toggle your “Like” status for the given photo by tapping the center Select button on the Apple Remote.
Photos can also be deleted from any Photo Stream you own simply by holding down the center Select button on the remote and choosing “Delete Photo” from the pop-up menu that appears. Users can also hold down the center Select button on the title of a Shared Photo Stream to see options to delete an entire album they own, unsubscribe from an album shared by another user or set any album as a screensaver from there.
Shared Album Invitations can also be received and accepted on the Apple TV. A badge count will appear on the Photo Streams icon on the Main Menu for new Shared Album invitations or other Photo Stream activity such as the addition of new photos or likes or comments by other users.
Albums with new content or comments will be highlighted with a blue dot and a “New Comments” button will appear at the top of the thumbnail view to provide quick access to what’s new.
A new section in the Parental Controls provides an option to restrict Shared Album Invitations or hide the Shared Photo Streams entirely from view.
While Shared Photo Streams are a welcome addition to the Apple TV and iOS family, removing the need to leave a computer running just to access photos, we did find the performance in our initial testing to range from slightly sluggish to downright abysmal when downloading new photos from the streams, leaving the user often looking at a screen of grey blocks for sometimes as much as several minutes.
It is unclear whether this is a result of heavy traffic on Apple’s servers or slow performance on the Apple TV hardware/software itself, but it is worth noting that full 1080p HD movies can be streamed by these same Apple TV units with no issues. Once downloaded, photos do appear to be cached on the Apple TV for a time—at least until the cache space is required for other content such as streamed movies or TV shows.
Version 5.1 of the Apple TV Software brings back the ability to send audio to remote AirPlay speakers; a feature that ironically was available on the first Apple TV with AirTunes, but clearly didn’t make the cut for the revised second-generation model.
The AirPlay Settings screen now displays a list of all available AirPlay speakers on the current Wi-Fi network, allowing you to direct audio playback to another AirPlay device. As with this feature on the original Apple TV, only playback from audio content such as music can be sent out via AirPlay; when watching videos, the sound will still play directly regardless of the AirPlay settings here.
As with the original Apple TV, a “Speakers” option has also been added to the pop-up menu that appears when holding down the Select button from the “Now Playing” screen, allowing users to quickly change the selected AirPlay destination without having to take a trip over to the AirPlay Settings screen. In addition, this menu allows the volume for remote AirPlay speakers to be adjusted directly using the left and right buttons on the remote.
In addition to the AirPlay password option, users can also now choose to enable an Onscreen Code; when attempting to enable AirPlay to the Apple TV from an iOS 6 device, the user will be prompted to enter a code displayed on the Apple TV screen before playback begins.
A new option, Adjust for AirPlay Overscan, can also now be found on the Audio & Video settings menu. On by default, this option can be toggled off for users who may be having problems with black bars appearing at the top, bottom and sides of the screen when using AirPlay Mirroring.
iTunes account switching
Users can now configure and save more than one iTunes Store account on the Apple TV and easily switch between them. Although the Apple TV has always passively provided the ability to change iTunes Store accounts, this was previously an arduous process involving logging out of one account and then logging into the other one manually by typing in the other user ID and password with either the Apple Remote or the iOS Remote app. The same process then needed to be repeated to return to the original account.
With the 5.1 update, users can save the credentials for any iTunes Store account once they’ve logged in, and can then easily change accounts from the iTunes Store section under Settings. This can be particularly useful for streaming Movie and TV Show content via iTunes in the Cloud from different accounts. Further, this even works with accounts in different countries; although you will initially need to change your country setting to match each account when first logging in, once the credentials have been saved, the Apple TV will automatically switch to the appropriate country when switching accounts.
As with iTunes on the desktop, switching accounts will turn iTunes Match off, requiring it to be re-enabled when returning to your primary iTunes Store account. Unlike iTunes and iOS devices, however, there is no 90-day restriction on using content from different accounts, presumably since content can only be streamed to the Apple TV and not downloaded and saved for use on other devices.
New Screensaver and Slideshow Settings
Apple TV Software Update 5.1 introduces three new screensaver themes: Cascade, Shrinking Tiles and Sliding Panels. The latter two of these are also available as Slideshow themes for photo galleries.
The Cascade theme can also now be used for the Album Artwork screensaver. The screensaver settings menu has been slightly reworked to make this more clear—previously the Album Artwork was merely an option under Photos that would be inexplicably hidden unless the “Floating” screensaver was selected.
Customize Main Menu
The Apple TV 5.0 update earlier this year introduced a new icon-based Main Menu but left users with few options for actually customizing it. Version 5.1 addresses this allowing users to reposition most of the secondary icons on the Main Menu. To do this, simply hold down the Select button on an icon you want to move, use the direction controls to move it to a different position, and then tap Select to finish the process.
Note that the five icons in the top row cannot be moved or replaced. Further, this feature doesn’t provide any way to remove or hide options you don’t want to see on the Main Menu. However, you can work around this by enabling the Parental Controls feature under the General settings and simply setting the appropriate apps/sections to “Hide.”
The Trailers section now includes a Search option to help find movie trailers. Users in the U.S. will also see a Showtimes option in the top menu bar as well as a Showtimes button on the details view of trailers. The first time you access the Showtimes feature you will need to specify your zip code, after which the Apple TV will be able to show you dates and times for movies at nearby theaters.
A few other smaller enhancements have also been made in the latest update, including the addition of subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing (SDH), providing closed-captioning style non-dialog information in sub-titles where available.
The Preview option now appears when viewing the details for purchased movies in the Movies section; the Wish List option has been removed.
It is now also possible to use the Apple Configurator to set up the network options on an Apple TV via a micro-USB connection. This can be useful for setting up multiple Apple TVs in a business or educational environment, as well as now providing support for advanced enterprise network configurations such as 802.1X/RADIUS authentication and configuring for proxy servers.
The Apple TV 5.1 update is a largely iterative update that builds upon the new user interface and other features introduced in prior versions. The single biggest new feature is support for Shared Photo Streams, which shows a lot of promise in its ability to sever the device’s last remaining computer-dependent feature. Sadly, the current performance of the Shared Photo Streams leaves much to be desired, to the point that users expecting to show Shared Photo Streams to friends and family in their living room would be wise to ensure that the photos are fully cached beforehand, or to simply avoid the built-in Shared Photo Streams altogether and opt to use AirPlay from their iOS devicse instead.