Why Apple TV is more than a hobby
21st Jul 2012 | 09:00
Apple TV can complement a home entertainment system in more ways than one
Apple TV: Movies and going beyond iTunes
When faced with the prospect of buying an Apple TV, a question many people ask is: "Why would I want one?"
And, to be fair, Apple's black hockey puck does initially appear quite limited and restricted - a seemingly impenetrable box that doesn't even enable you to load apps, nor offer the freedom of watching whatever you want, whenever you want.
Critics often use it to bash Apple's 'closed ecosystem', arguing that the Apple TV is little more than a device designed to funnel more of your money to the iTunes Store and Apple's ever-growing cash mountain. Even Apple itself isn't particularly bullish about its tiny device, referring to it as a 'hobby', and usually only gives it the briefest of mentions during keynotes and earnings calls, before banging on about the iPad.
But there's clearly something to the Apple TV, otherwise Apple - notorious for its razor-sharp sense of focus - would have canned it a long time ago. We reckon its detractors often miss the point about what the device is for, and, importantly, what it has the potential to be.
For us, the Apple TV is an essential part of our Apple ecosystem. Even out of the box, it can impress in key areas, but add an iOS device to the mix and you have the potential to revolutionise your viewing habits. Bung in a Mac as well and you have the kind of media centre TV addicts would have killed for only a few short years ago.
This feature explains why we're hooked on Apple's tiny black box, and why its future is brighter than ever. By the end you won't so much be asking yourself why would you want one, but instead: why wouldn't you?
The Apple TV, which sets you back £99 in the UK, is a simple unit and it's very easy to set up. It connects to a TV via a single HDMI lead, optionally to an amp via optical audio, and to your network via Wi-Fi.
The latest interface revision's home screen is vaguely iOS-like, providing straightforward access to a number of sections and content sources.
Box of tricks
First up, you get Movies, which is essentially a rental service. Not every film you'd find in a brick-and-mortar shiny-disc rental shop finds its way to the iTunes Store (which is where the Apple TV draws its content from), but the selection is improving all the time.
Pricing isn't too bad either, at £3.49 per film. Although you can perhaps find better deals if you venture into your local town, the Apple TV wins out through immediacy: confirm a rental and it starts streaming. Assuming you have a reasonable broadband connection, even HD movies should be ready to watch within a few minutes at most.
If something crops up and you no longer have time to sit in front of your TV, you can delay starting the film for up to 30 days, but once you press play you've got 48 hours (24 in the USA) before the rental disappears. Note that you can also watch a film as many times as you wish during the limited window - handy if you fall asleep half-way through while the rest of your family remains glued to the screen.
The next option is TV Shows. Although Apple briefly flirted with TV show rentals in the USA, all shows are now purchase-based. You can buy shows by the episode or series, and cost varies depending on the network, the show itself and whether or not you're downloading HD. Expect to pay up to £2.49 per HD episode, although buying an entire season or series usually drops the per-episode price average, and the iTunes Store also offers regular sales on older shows.
If you're not all that fussed regarding picture quality, switch Video Resolution to SD in the iTunes Store section of Settings to save yourself a few quid.
Note that because the Apple TV is a device with limited storage (its guts essentially reveal a headless 8GB iPod touch), you don't store purchases on the device itself. Instead, TV shows are stored in Apple's iCloud service and streamed on demand. (This is also the case for an increasing number of movies in the USA, which can be purchased rather than just rented through the Apple TV. We assume this feature will eventually find its way to the UK.)
The third option on the home screen is Music, which is also service-based, in that it's a link to iTunes Match. This is a £21.99 per year subscription that attempts to match the music collection stored on your Mac and then enable you to play it back through Apple devices, without having to sync myriad files between said devices.
This option works nicely if you're already using iTunes Match. If you're not, there are other ways to get your music - and, in fact, plenty of other non-iTunes Store content - on to your Apple TV. The fourth of the home screen's options is Computers, and this enables you to connect your Apple TV to the iTunes Library of any Mac (or PC) on your network that you've set to allow Home Sharing (Advanced > Turn On Home Sharing in iTunes).
Once connected to a Mac, you get a menu on the Apple TV that enables you to access all relevant content that's sitting in iTunes: music, movies, TV shows, podcasts, iTunes U content and photos. Although this does have the downside of requiring your Mac to be awake, the benefits are clear: you're not reliant on the iTunes Store.
If you've used the likes of Handbrake to convert videos to an iOS-compatible format, and stored the results in iTunes, the Computers section will enable you to access this footage. If you're not using iTunes Match, you get access to your music collection, for no cost.
The remaining items on the Apple TV home screen refer to specific online services, further expanding the content you can access via the device. Some of the options, such as YouTube and Vimeo, are free, whereas others, such as Netflix, require a subscription.
Towards the end of the list you'll also find several photo services, if you fancy turning your television into a massive, energy-guzzling photo frame.
Whatever type of content you're trying to access, one thing will become clear before long: the remote control that Apple bundles with the Apple TV is dumbed down to the point of it being borderline useless in certain scenarios, and this is exacerbated by the nature of the Apple TV's linear-list menus.
For basic tasks, the remote is okay - you can use it to play and pause and it's fine for navigating the latest movies and grabbing one to rent. But it's very easy to lose your patience when entering search terms and passwords letter-by-letter, using the tiny direction arrows and clicking the play button to confirm each character. And if you've a big music collection, scrolling down a massive list of artists or albums gets old really fast.
For such tasks, Apple offers the Remote app. A free download from iTunes, it has two primary functions. The first is turning any iOS device into a gesture-based touchscreen controller. Menus are navigated by swiping and tapping, but more importantly, whenever you find yourself confronted by a text field, the iOS keyboard pops up. Typing on an iOS device might be slower than using a traditional keyboard, but it's certainly a lot faster to enter a password using an iPhone, iPod touch or iPad than it is to navigate around the screen with the Apple TV remote.
The Remote app has further gestures, too. When a video is playing, you can flick left and right to rewind and fast-forward, or drag-hold to scrub through footage; if you flick down, you'll gain access to chapter markers and can then flick left or right to skip.
Similarly, when playing music you can drag to scrub or flick to access the previous or next tracks. The other thing the Remote app is great for is navigating the media you have stored in iTunes. On the iPad in particular, Remote rather resembles a miniature version of Apple's desktop jukebox, and enables you to rapidly search a collection to find an album or video you'd like to listen to or watch.
You don't have to scroll down a massive list of artists (which can take some time), click an album, then click again to play a track; instead, you can slide your finger down the side of the iOS device's screen, tap an album's artwork, and then choose a track once it spins round on the iPad, or when the track-listing slides into view on an iPhone or iPod touch.
Although Remote is definitely the first app we recommend that new Apple TV owners download, it's far from the last, and that's because the App Store - in combination with the AirPlay feature - opens up a world of possibilities for the device.
Why Apple TV apps are the future
Apple's still fond of telling everyone "there's an app for that", and although most apps are designed for consuming or creating content on an iOS device, Apple's AirPlay technology can free video and audio from any one device and enable you to send it elsewhere.
In such situations, your iOS device becomes a kind of super-powered remote control, used for finding what you want to watch or listen to. And the Apple TV becomes a receiver and conduit, sending the output to the television, rather than it remaining locked inside your device.
In some cases, this can fix shortcomings with the Apple TV itself. For example, although the Apple TV has a Radio option on its home screen, finding a station you want to listen to can be tedious. Instead, it makes more sense to grab a dedicated radio app, such as TuneIn Radio. Find a station you'd like to listen to on that (which can subsequently be stored as a favourite), start playing, and then send the audio stream to your television by tapping the AirPlay button and selecting your Apple TV as the destination.
Elsewhere, apps provide plenty of content that you cannot access directly through the Apple TV itself. Some of these mirror traditional television in some way: for example, the BBC and Channel 4 provide AirPlay-compatible catch-up services in the form of BBC iPlayer and 4oD Catch Up, respectively. (It's worth noting that both of these apps use nonstandard players and so lack an on-screen AirPlay button - see the 'Use AirPlay with non-standard players' walkthrough for how to get AirPlay working with them.)
The awkwardly named Watch TV Free Live with TVCatchup app provides access to whatever's showing right now on over 50 channels. And then there are plenty of specialist video apps, such as TED. So-called TEDTalks are brief and typically entertaining presentations by intelligent, articulate geniuses, mavericks and gurus.
The app itself enables you to watch on your iOS device and save shows for later, but the built-in AirPlay support provides the means to get the videos to your Apple TV and so to your television and accompanying audio system.
Some apps go further into the realm of making something staggeringly complicated surprisingly simple. Air Video and streamtome both require you to install a piece of server software on your Mac, and select some folders. When the related iOS app is installed on your iOS device, you can access the defined folders, select a video, and have it stream over Wi-Fi to your device. This can then be sent on to your Apple TV.
If the format of the video isn't compatible with iOS, the server software will convert it on-the-fly. And so if you've a bunch of AVI files sitting on a hard drive, these apps provide the means to get them to your TV, without syncing, without converting, and without moving the files anywhere.
Work with it
Outside of entertainment, the Apple TV offers further scope, with many apps enabling you to send your work to the device. For example, Keynote presentations can be sent to a television, which might not be much use in the home, but it has clear benefits in the classroom or in business meeting rooms.
If the rumour mill is to be believed, Apple remains hard at work on an actual television, which fans of the company hope will revolutionise television in much the same way the iPhone totally disrupted the smartphone industry.
Much of the speculation originates with Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs. Within, Isaacson says Jobs wanted to make television sets "simple and elegant", like he'd done for computers, music players and phones. "It would be seamlessly synced with all of your devices and with iCloud. It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it."
There's nothing to say Apple won't introduce a television set at some point, but who's to say Apple hasn't already cracked it? The Apple TV, after all, works with any existing television with an HDMI input. It makes it easy for you to rent and buy from the iTunes Store and, as we've seen in this feature, access almost limitless content from elsewhere: TV catch-up services, radio stations, online video repositories, and your own media collection.
Unlike any possibly forthcoming Apple television, the Apple TV also happens to be an affordable, small, simple add-on. Recently, the Apple TV was revised to support 1080p HD content (as opposed to the previous model, which only supported 720p). For those people who demand the highest possible quality picture, the upgrade would set them back £99.
But an equivalent technological leap with a full television set would have rather more impact on your wallet. So while we'll keep half an ear out for news of a magical new Apple product that can revolutionise yet another industry, we'll be keeping two eyes on our existing living room TV's screen, powered by Apple's unassuming but surprisingly powerful little black box.
How to use AirPlay with non-standard players
1. Launch an app
Apps like the depicted BBC iPlayer do not use the standard iOS playback controls, which means there's no one-touch way to access AirPlay. However, many of them nonetheless support the technology.
2. The multitasking bar
Double-click the Home button and swipe the multitasking bar right (twice on the iPhone or iPod touch) and you'll see playback controls and also an icon denoting the active app that supports background multimedia playback.
3. Activate AirPlay
Tap the AirPlay button and select Apple TV and, if the app's compatible, it'll soon send audio and video to your television. (Use the Mirroring switch if the app doesn't include built-in support.)
How to set up Air Video
1. Install the client
Download and install the Air Video client from http://inmethod.com or the iTunes Store. Once it's launched, you'll see the icon in your menu bar. Click it and select 'Preferences' to open the app's preferences.
2. Define shared folders
In the Air Video Server Preferences, select the Shared Folders tab. Click 'Add Folder', select a folder where you have stored some videos, and click Open. It will be added to the list. Repeat with other relevant folders.
3. Use the app
When the server's running (toggle in the preferences or the menu item), you can now access your shared folders from the Air Video app and stream videos within, which can be sent to your Apple TV via AirPlay.