Media Streamer

Second-Generation Apple TV Media Streamer

ARTICLE INDEX

Setup

In true Apple-fashion, the Apple TV is simplicity to install. My living-room system is anchored to an older Denon 3806 receiver which only has two HDMI inputs. Since they were both occupied, I connected the cable directly to my Pioneer TV. Audio flowed through an optical cable. Since I planned to use the system for music, I used a Dayton glass-fiber one. After plugging in the power, I was ready to rock.

The Apple TV powers up when you send any command so I pressed Menu to get things started. First up was connecting to my wireless network; which took all of about 10 seconds after I put in the password. If anyone reading this is running an unsecured network, please stop now and rectify this before continuing. It’s way too easy for some dork to park across from your house and steal your Internet service. Another upgrade I made when installing the Apple TV was a new Cisco E3000 router. Since I knew I’d be streaming HD video and uncompressed audio, I wanted the fastest WiFi network possible. For $150 or so, the E3000 is the Cadillac of routers. It’s gigabit so even hard-wired connections are speedy. It was a huge jump in performance from my old 802.11g unit. To get the most out of an Apple TV and any WiFi device, this, or an equivalent router is highly recommended.

Main setup screen

Audio & video setup

After downloading the latest firmware, I moved to the setup which was quick and easy. The menu is a crossbar arrangement with categories for Movies, TV Shows, Internet, Computer and Setup. I lamented the lack of looping menus right away. When you get to the end of a long list of choices, you have to scroll back up to get to the beginning. I ran through the configuration options; which didn’t take long as there aren’t too many choices. Output resolution maxes at 720p. This applies to all content regardless of origin. That means standard-def video will be up-converted by the Apple TV. There is a cool screen-saver function which lets you float photos across the screen. I was happy to see Apple giving some consideration to us plasma TV owners. The General setup area has everything you need for network configuration, logging into the iTunes store, updating the firmware, setting the sleep timer and choosing a language. You can set parental controls for every area that streams content from the Internet. This includes Netflix, YouTube and Internet Radio as well as the Apple TV rental library. Audio and Video settings are pretty basic. You can turn on dynamic range compression, Dolby Digital bitstream, loop playlists, and turn off the menu sounds. There are no video options other than subtitles and closed captioning. AirPlay is Apple’s multi-zone feature. Once you enable this on Apple TV, you can send your music or video to different units around the house. Each Apple TV has a unique ID which lets you control any or all of them. This is a convenient and inexpensive way to have content distribution in your home.

Main screen

Movie search – the same interface is used for all search functions on the Apple TV.

Movie info page

TV Show info page

Movies and TV Shows take you to the Apple TV’s extensive rental library. All content can be browsed by genre and other parameters. Or you can simply search for what you want. There is no keyboard peripheral available so you’ll have to use the cursor to type your search terms. It’s a bit cludgy but reasonably intuitive. Search results pop up as you type so you don’t usually have to spell out the entire term. The search interface is identical across all the Apple TV’s apps so it will always look familiar. The movie library is quite large and I managed to find everything I looked for. TV shows are a bit limited in that only major networks represented are ABC and Fox. It’s lucky for me that most of the shows I watch are on those two networks! There are other feeds available from BBC, PBS, Smithsonian, the NBA, Marvel Comics and many others. Even though NBC and CBS are not represented, there is no shortage of good stuff to watch. These rentals are $.99 an episode for either SD or HD. Any show originally broadcast in HD is on Apple TV at 720p with the original Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. The Movie tab includes an In Theaters section with trailers in HD for most currently showing titles. This is a great resource and it’s all free of charge.

Main Netflix screen

Netflix queue

Under the Internet tab there are several options. The most significant of these is Netflix. Anyone with an account can stream the entire Netflix library with their Apple TV. While the quality varies from terrible to OK, the amount of content available is staggering. The app allows you to manage your queue so you don’t have to go to your computer to add titles. I immediately found all the original Battlestar Galactica episodes (the ones from the eighties) and added them, fun! Other services included are Podcasts, which accesses any show in the iTunes library, Internet Radio with literally thousands of feeds from all over the world, YouTube, Flickr, MobileMe and Rotten Tomatoes movie reviews.

Podcast selection

The Computer tab is the place for streaming all your iTunes content. Any podcast subscriptions will appear here. You can also play anything from your own music or video library. The interface requires many button presses to get to what you want. If you have a large collection of songs, it can take a while to find a particular album or playlist. Fortunately, there is a solution: the Remote app. This comes free from the App Store for iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad. Basically, it looks just like the iPod interface except it’s accessing content from your entire library, not just what’s stored on the device. It also includes AirPlay support so you can send the stream to different devices your computer’s audio system. If you have pictures or video stored on your iPod/Pad/Phone, you can send that content to the TV as well.

Main screen for iTunes library access

Once I downloaded the app, I had to enable Home Sharing in iTunes and turn on the options to look for Airplay connected speakers, look for iPod remotes and allow iTunes control from remote speakers. While this greatly improved the functionality of the Apple TV as a music player, there were a few caveats which I’ll cover in the next section.