On the heels of the excitement from last week’s Worldwide Developer Conference, Apple today rolled out Apple TV Software Update 5.3 for the second- and third-generation Apple TV. The new update adds five major new content providers for users in the United States, including HBO GO, ESPN, Sky News, Qello, and Crunchyroll.
As usual, Apple continues to number its Apple TV Software Updates differently from corresponding iOS versions, despite the underlying OS Build Version numbers being the same. The previous update was referenced as “Apple TV Software Update 5.2.” This update continues the trend, with a Software Update version number of 5.3 and an OS Build of 6.1.4, the latter matching the latest official iOS release.
Installing the Update
The new update installs over-the-air in the same manner as all prior Apple TV updates. Your Apple TV should eventually notify you that an update is available, but you can check manually at any time by choosing the Check for Updates option from the Settings, General menu.
Alternately, the update can 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.
The update is around 600MB and should normally take about 10-15 minutes to download and install, after which your Apple TV should restart with the new version. You may thereafter see a screen introducing some of the new features.
For the first time, the main Apple TV screen now expands to a possible five rows of content, revealing an interesting new UI feature: the five “primary” icons – Movies, TV Shows, Music, Computers, and Settings – remain at the top of the screen, with the second row scrolling out of view when moving down to the bottom.
This is not entirely surprising, since Apple has treated this first row as immutable since the new Apple TV 5.0 design first appeared last year; the icons in this row cannot be moved, nor can any of the lower icons enter this row, even if one or more of the default icons are unavailable due to geographical restrictions or parental controls.
HBO GO (U.S. only)
HBO GO represents the first Apple TV content channel to be connected solely to a cable provider subscription. Rather than signing up for an Internet-based subscription as you would in Netflix or MLB.tv, HBO GO is only available to users with an existing subscription to HBO through a participating television provider—a list that actually excludes some popular options such as DirecTV or Charter.
Validating your HBO subscription requires that you select your television provider from a list and then follow the instructions which direct you to a web site where you enter your subscriber information and the Apple TV supplied code. Once validated, HBO GO on the Apple TV provides unlimited access to all HBO streaming programming, including on-demand movies, full seasons of TV shows, specials, documentaries and bonus features and extras.
The HBO GO app follows the general design introduced for Apple’s own Movies and TV Shows section in last year’s major Apple TV 5.0 update, with a primary menu shown across the top of the screen and detailed content displayed as rows of thumbnail and cover images below.
Selecting an item presents the familiar detail view with a description and play, preview, and more buttons along with related content in the bottom section.
In addition to providing an option for setting up your HBO GO subscription, the Settings menu also includes a detailed help section covering topics such as login & account settings, features, technical questions, and more.
WatchESPN (U.S. only)
The new WatchESPN service actually provides two levels of content, with all users getting access to a limited set of curated on-demand content such as highlights, news clips and short-form program segments. Similar to HBO GO, however, full access to shows and live events requires a television provider subscription that includes ESPN, notably excluding Dish and DirectTV in this case. A padlock icon appears on the thumbnails for content that requires an active subscription, and selecting that content will take the user to the subscription validation screen.
A similar validation procedure is used as for HBO GO, with the user selecting his or her television provider and then visiting a web site from a computer’s browser to supply television subscriber details and enter the provided code.
Once validated, four ESPN live stations become available, along with a much wider selection of on-demand content. The standard Apple TV content menus are used here as well, with a top menu bar allowing the user to choose from Featured content, browse by specific sport, or watch live or on-demand programming from one of the four ESPN channels.
A Search feature is actually conspicuously missing here compared to the other existing and new content sections on the Apple TV. Users looking for information on specific teams, for instance, will need to browse for them manually by sport.
Sky News (U.S., U.K. + Ireland only)
Sky News is a free service for users in supported countries that supplies a live 24/7 news feed along with an on-demand news library. The familiar menu bar user interface appears here, with a main page showing popular news categories and featured content.
A Categories section provides a selection of on-demand stories organized by topic area, while the “Live” menu provides access to the main 24/7 Sky News live stream.
A standard “Search” option is also available here that allows users to search through the Sky News on-demand video library for a specific topic.
Qello is an on-demand music video service that provides on-demand concerts and music documentaries. The sign-up process is very similar to the one implemented for Netflix last year; new users can sign up with an Apple ID and have the monthly $5 subscription billed to an iTunes Store account, while those who are already Qello subscribers can simply log in directly to access their existing accounts. A seven-day free trial is available for new users, however the $5 monthly subscription fee will automatically be billed at the end of the seven days unless users specifically cancel their subscriptions through iTunes before that time.
From the standard Apple TV content interface, users can choose to see spotlighted collections, artists, and documentaries or browse through content by genre. The QelloTV section provides specific “stations” of content by genre.
Users can also access a featured collection of Setlists or access their own lists created in other apps; at this point, there does not appear to be any way to add an item to a custom setlist directly from the Apple TV interface, however.
As with the other new content channels, a standard search section is also available to locate specific content.
Crunchyroll is another on-demand streaming service available via subscription through the iTunes Store, focused on Japenese Anime and Asian media. Shows are available for viewing on Crunchyroll one hour after they air in Japan.
The sign-up screen for Crunchyroll differs slightly from the Netflix and Qello design, providing a sign-in option at the top with a selection of sample videos that users can view without having to sign up for a subscription.
The sign-up screen offers two different membership levels—one for Anime content only at $7/month, and one for access to all content for $12/month. Users can sign up for a seven-day free trial subscription with their Apple IDs and passwords, however the first month will automatically be billed at the end of the seven-day trial unless the user specifically cancels via iTunes. Current subscribers can either sign in with their existing Crunchyroll accounts, or restore their subscriptions previously purchased through iTunes via the iOS app.
Crunchyroll provides the usual Apple TV browsing interface, along with support for the Crunchyroll video queue feature, allowing users to save videos for later watching across multiple devices associated with their Crunchyroll account.
Content is otherwise organized in a manner similar to the TV Shows section, with featured content organized onto the main pages, a search option for finding specific items, and an episode list for each show.
The only other noteworthy change in the Apple TV 5.3 Software Update is a bug fix for iTunes streaming-related issues. No other major changes appear to have been made to the prior apps or settings found in Apple TV 5.2.
The Apple TV is continuing to expand its role as a viable set-top box replacement with the addition of these new channels of content. The addition of live news services such as Sky News go a long way toward filling one of the main gaps that has traditionally missing from Internet-based set-top boxes. However, while the idea of having HBO GO and WatchESPN may be especially welcome to U.S. based users, the practicality of requiring an existing cable subscription to access these relegates the Apple TV to a secondary box for many users, at best. It is unfortunate that HBO and ESPN have not chosen to offer standalone subscription options for those users who would like to get rid of their existing cable service entirely. That big step forward has the potential to win millions of new viewers for the channels, as well as millions of new Apple TV customers.