Apple recently released a major update for Apple TV. You may not have noticed. My Apple TV did not notify me of the update. On a whim, I checked for updates (Settings > General > Update Software) and there it was.
It is a major update. It took over an hour just to download it. Installation ran approximately 10 minutes. Despite the large size of the update, the changes are not obvious. At first glance, Apple TV looks pretty much the same. In fact, the “what’s new” list displayed after the update is incorrect. It displays the new features from the previous update. This article covers the new features in the Apple TV update, as well as the flaws and whether you should update.
This latest update was released on November 29, 2012. Unfortunately, I was not notified as usual, but found out a month later when I checked for updates. I think many Apple TV owners may have missed it. Some may want to keep their existing version, as it does introduce some problems. Apple still seems to consider Apple TV to be a hobby. I love my Apple TV, but it is the worst Apple product I own. I can’t be too upset about an Apple product that costs less than $100. I use it every day, despite the flaws. Roku and Boxee don’t integrate as well with my Apple products. Both Roku and Boxee do offer smart phone and tablet integration, however, their offerings aren’t as comprehensive as Apple TV. Neither of them support AirPlay.
Netflix Worse, Hulu Plus Better:
The latest Apple TV update introduces some serious problems for Netflix. If you use your Apple TV mainly for Netflix, I would recommend waiting for a newer release. The main problem is that audio and video get out of sync. This happens a lot. It can happen more than 5 times in a one hour show. You can correct this issue by rewinding the program a little bit. Netflix will reload the video and the audio will be in sync.
Netflix seems to pause for buffering a lot more often. I checked my Internet speed, and it was fine. I checked Netflix’s twitter feed, and neither Netflix nor users were reporting problems. They did have a major outage on Christmas Eve, which was a night I had hoped to relax and watch Netflix.
Thank goodness for Hulu Plus. Even if I didn’t cancel cable, there’s really nothing on TV on Christmas Eve, and everyone is off work. This surge in online viewing can often bring down services like Netflix, as their data center does not handle surges well. After the holidays, people have new gadgets and are using free Netflix trial accounts. However, Netflix has stabilized their server infrastucture (which is hosted in Amazon’s data center). The latest update for Apple TV is clearly causing the problems. I experienced the audio sync issue immediately after upgrading my Apple TV. I can’t be sure if Netflix introduced the bugs, or if a change that Apple made is causing Netflix problems.
Hulu Plus for Apple TV has vastly improved. First and foremost, they seem to have adopted stream thinning, so that if bandwidth decreases, you don’t have to endure long pauses for buffering. I have watched hours of Hulu Plus after the upgrade, and it is virtually flawless. This is a huge improvement. It is a pleasure to use. Hulu Plus for Apple TV used to crash and continually pause. It got to the point where I didn’t want to watch Hulu Plus. Now I am starting to prefer it to Netflix. If you use Hulu Plus a lot, update your Apple TV as soon as possible. I have not had one crash or pause yet. It’s just like watching cable TV, except you are in control.
Even if you have the fastest Internet connection on the planet, content from providers such as Netflix or Hulu may not be delivered as fast as you would hope. As the data is transmitted over the Internet, it has to hop from one server to the next. Any surges in traffic can delay your data. NPR ran a story about this the morning after I was extremely frustrated with Netflix’s performance.
Netflix and Hulu could also be having data center problems. They may even be experiencing too much demand. The solution is to scale the data to the available bandwidth. Video streaming providers cannot make the assumption that people have perfectly steady bandwidth. Of course, the latest Apple TV update has exacerbated the problem with Netflix. Regardless of bandwidth issues, there are bugs in the code that cause buffering and audio synchronization problems.
The alternative is iTunes, which typically requires downloading the program entirely. With iTunes 11, you can “stream”, but you have to download a huge chunk of the program before it will play. Apple is correct that people dislike interruptions when viewing video. Indeed, they’re not too concerned about competing with Netflix or Hulu Plus. Many people will not put up with either streaming service, and will just use iTunes. Netflix and Hulu Plus are almost the gateway to iTunes. These streaming services don’t really compete with iTunes as much as one would think, because they sacrifice quality for price. That said, I mainly watch Netflix and Hulu Plus because they are good enough and less expensive than iTunes.
AirPlay has improved with the latest Apple TV update. It still has problems. I did not have one single crash in 5 hours, playing music from my iPad to Apple TV. Unfortunately, it didn’t show the album art and track info. It simply showed a blank “eighth notes” icon and “Internet Radio” for track information. I tried again, just playing an album directly without a playlist, and it worked. I still feel more comfortable using the Amazon Cloud Player for these short listening sessions. When I really listen to music, I fire up the Mac and use my Amphony wireless audio transmitter, bypassing Apple TV entirely.
You can now use your Apple TV to transmit audio to an AirPlay receiver. By going to Settings > AirPlay, you can activate AirPlay compatible speakers. This can come in handy if you have a high-end audio receiver with AirPlay built-in. It’s also useful if you want to play music throughout your home with your Apple TV. Unfortunately, if you want to play Apple TV’s audio on your Mac, this doesn’t work natively. You can install an app such as AirPlayer that allows your Mac to become an AirPlay receiver. I think the other way makes more sense — use iTunes on your Mac to control Apple TV and other AirPlay compatible speakers. You don’t even have to control the music with your Mac. You can use the Apple TV remote or the Apple Remote app for iOS. There may be some special cases where Apple TV driving AirPlay external speakers is useful. I won’t be using it.
The new “Up Next” master playlist is now supported on Apple TV. With iTunes running on your Mac or PC, you can now view and manage the “Up Next” playlist with your Apple TV remote. You can even change the order of the “Up Next” queue on your Apple TV with the remote! Well done, Apple!
Unfortunately, Apple didn’t improve audio quality on Apple TV with this release. The high frequencies still sound harsh and tinny. A 256 Kbps AAC file, which is iTunes’ standard format, sounds much better when played through my Mac to my stereo. This is the main reason I use a wireless audio transmitter and iTunes on my Mac. It sounds much better.
You can now move most of the icons on your Apple TV main menu. To do this, select any icon below the top row and hold down select. The icon will wiggle, and you can move it. Press select again when you are done moving it. You are not allowed to move any of the top-row icons.
The Apple TV update offers some less sensational features. You can easily switch between iTunes accounts, which is useful for large households. It is now possible to search movie trailers. There is improved support for subtitles. Users can now access shared Photo Streams and comments. Advanced network configurations can be set using the Apple Configurator. This may be useful for people using an Apple TV at work or those with a complicated home network.
Apple TV is still missing some features that would make it far more useful. One should be able to browse the music or video library of an iOS device. This isn’t a huge deal. Since iPhones, iPads, and iPod Touches are so portable, it’s easy enough to push the content onto Apple TV. Still, it would be nice to be able to navigate this content with the Apple TV remote.
One should be able to play any iTunes purchases on Apple TV, without iTunes Match. There is no technical reason this cannot be accomplished. Apple wants you to pay to subscribe to iTunes Match. I can overlook this to some extent. After all, if you are playing albums off Apple’s servers, rather than downloading them, it will cost Apple money. Apple TV only has 8GB of storage, which isn’t user-manageable, so you can’t really use it to download and store iTunes albums. If this feature is important to you, just pay the $25/year for iTunes Match. It’s not worth it to me, even at that low price.
It’s also surprising that iTunes on a Mac or PC can’t be used as an AirPlay receiver. Your iOS device should also be able to receive AirPlay content. There are apps that can make up for this shortcoming. It would be nice, however, if AirPlay could work in all directions, out of the box. Apple has implemented the use cases that make the most sense. However, sometimes there are use cases that they didn’t expect. Would someone want to watch Apple TV video on their iPad? Most likely not, but who knows? For all these unexpected use-cases, there’s an app for that — the AirFoil Speakers Touch app can turn your iOS device into an AirPlay receiver. AirPlayer can turn your Mac into an AirPlay receiver. The only restricted case is beaming video content from Apple TV to external receivers. You can only beam the audio track.
Perhaps if Apple opens up Apple TV to third party developers, there will be more options. There is a rumor that a beta version of an Apple TV update will activate the BlueTooth capabilities in Apple TV 2 and 3 models. Some presume this means Apple TV will work with game controllers and become a gaming platform. It’s definitely possible. With its A4 or A5 chip running a different version of iOS, your Apple TV is really just an iOS device. It can do gaming just as well as an iPad or iPhone. While Apple TV’s limited storage is an issue, a purchased video game can be re-uploaded and re-installed as needed. iOS apps are not huge.
The prospect of a more open Apple TV with third party apps is quite exhilarating. One thing I love about Apple products is that the same product you bought two years ago gets upgrades that make it better. I can’t say that for Apple’s competitors, who expect users to shell out for new hardware, without so much as one major update. I’m critical of Apple, but they do have my loyalty — for now.
Apart from Netflix, this Apple TV update is much more stable than it’s predecessor. If Netflix is your main source of entertainment, skip this release. Hulu Plus, however, works like a charm now. Improvements in AirPlay and other features make this new release useful for most people.