First Look: Apple TV Diary: Your questions answered

After being tethered to Apple’s recently released television add-on since last Thursday, all that is Apple TV is beginning to make itself clear. You have questions? I have answers.

Network

I have a protected network. Can the Apple TV use it and, if so, how do I set it up?

Yes, the Apple TV can access your protected network. When you first set up your Apple TV, you’ll be asked to connect to a network. If you have some variety of network protection switched on, you’ll be asked to select your flavor of protection. Press the Apple Remote’s Play/Pause button and, in the resulting screen, you’ll see a virtual keyboard. Use the Remote’s direction buttons to navigate to the characters you want and press Play/Pause to choose them. When you’re done, navigate to Done at the bottom of the screen and press Play/Pause to confirm the password. The Apple TV should now join the network.

apple tv password

My network doesn’t appear in the list of available networks. How do I tell my Apple TV about it?

Much like with Apple’s AirPort, you have the option to choose Other from the list of networks. When you do, the virtual keyboard appears again. Enter the name of your network, select Done, and press Play/Pause. With luck, your network will become available.

I need to manually enter an IP address for the Apple TV. Can I do that?

Yes. In Network setup you’ll see the option to enter an IP address manually. When you choose this option, you’ll see 12 blanks for the IP numbers. Use the Remote’s Plus and Minus buttons to scroll up or down through the selected number. Use the Forward and Back buttons to select other blanks. Finally move to Done and press Play/Pause to confirm the address.

I need to change my network settings after the initial setup. How do I do this?

From the Apple TV’s main screen follow this path: Settings/Network and choose either Configure Wireless or Configure TCP/IP.

I’m seeing some glitches. Is there some way to check the strength of the wireless signal my Apple TV is receiving?

Yes. Again, follow this path: Settings/Network. On the Network screen you’ll see a five-segment Signal Strength meter. This screen also displays the name of the network the Apple TV is connected to, the Apple TV’s IP address, and its wireless ID. The Apple TV’s About screen also bears a Signal Strength meter.

apple tv signal strength

I plan to attach an Ethernet cable to my Apple TV but I also have wireless in the house. How can I force it to use Ethernet, which I’m pretty sure will produce a more reliable signal?

Force isn’t necessary. If you jack an Ethernet cable into the Apple TV, it will use that connection by default.

I don’t have a wireless router. Do I have to have one?

No, but you may be happier if you do. You can plug the Ethernet cable from your DSL or Cable modem into a Macintosh that bears an AirPort card, turn on Internet Sharing in the Sharing system preference, and configure it so you’re sharing your Ethernet connection to any devices accessing your Mac wirelessly. This includes your Apple TV. Launch iTunes on that computer and when you set up your Apple TV, direct it to look to that computer for its network connection. Be sure that iTunes Sharing is allowed if you’ve switched on a firewall.

Why may you be happier going with a router? I’ve found the wireless signal coming out of a router far stronger than that coming from an AirPort card embedded in a Macintosh.

I understand that the Apple TV supports wireless networking protocols 802.11b/g/n. How does it really perform with these varieties of wireless?

It performs remarkably well with 802.11g and n networks. I’ve streamed long movies—both those purchased from the iTunes Store and those I’ve encoded myself at high bit rates (2,500kbps, for example)—and they play end-to-end flawlessly over both my original g-flavored AirPort Extreme Base Station and the new n-variety AirPort Extreme Base Station. The newer “n” Base Station offered a full-strength signal at 5 bars whereas the lower-range “g” Base Station provided just 2 bars, yet still delivered the goods.

When streaming video, it takes a few seconds for the movie to load into the Apple TV’s buffer and then it begins playing. When you skip chapters or press and hold the Remote’s Forward button to fast-forward, playback stop, the stream buffers to the Apple TV for a few-to-several seconds, and playback begins anew. Music flows nicely as well.

I’ve also tested the Apple TV with my wife’s old lampshade iMac, which bears an 802.11b AirPort card. Music playback is perfectly fine. Video, on the other hand, is less than perfect. I streamed a version of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World , encoded as an MPEG-4 movie at a resolution of 720-by-288 and a total bitrate of 2,391kbps, and it played smoothly for just over 8 minutes. At that point playback stopped and the Apple TV refilled its buffer. It stopped again at just over nine-and-a-half minutes to replenish the buffer.

In short, for solid video playback, use a g or n wireless network or a wired Ethernet network.

If there’s no real difference in performance between a g and n network, is there any reason for me to buy a new AirPort Extreme Base Station to go with my Apple TV?

If you already have the g-variety of the AirPort Extreme Base Station (or another variety of g wireless router) I’d set it up with your Apple TV and see how things go. If everything works smoothly, stick with what you have unless you have another compelling reason to purchase a new Base Station.

One compelling reason would be range. The latest AirPort Extreme Base Station has much better coverage than the previous one. My office with its base stations is downstairs and the Apple TV and my wife’s iMac is upstairs. With the old g-flavored Base Station I get just two bars from the Apple TV and nothing from my wife’s iMac unless I have an AirPort Express Base Station to extend the network’s range. No such Express Base Station is necessary with the new Extreme Base Station. Both the Apple TV and the iMac get a full five bars without the need of an AirPort Extreme.

Man, syncing seems slow. Should it be?

It can be, yes, particularly over wireless b and g networks. If you attempt to stream content while the Apple TV is syncing, the Apple TV may stop syncing to let streaming take place. For this reason, your Apple TV will complete the sync more quickly if you leave it alone. If you plan to copy a lot of material to your Apple TV’s hard drive, you may find it less painful to do it overnight. By the time you wake up, the job will be done.

But must I wait for the Apple TV to sync all my media before playing it?

No. By selecting the Apple TV in the Sources screen you can play any media that’s been copied to it even while other media is syncing. Again, it may stop syncing or sync more slowly when you do this.

Content

Can I stream photos?

No. Photos must be copied to the Apple TV in order to appear on your TV. This means that you can display only the photos from the computer synced to your Apple TV. If you sync to a different computer, the photos from that computer will be copied to your Apple TV and the photos from the other computer will be deleted.

Hold on a second. You mean when I sync with another computer the Apple TV loses the old photos?

Yes. And your old music, videos, and podcasts too. A bit like an iPod, the Apple TV is fully associated with only one computer. When you initially sync the Apple TV with a Mac or Windows PC, you tell it what you’d like to sync (read: Copy) to it and it copies as much of the requested material as possible. (It prioritizes which material goes on first in this order: Movies, TV Shows, Music, Podcasts, and Photos.) If it fills with movies, no TV shows, music, podcasts, or photos will make their way to the device.

If you choose to sync the Apple TV to another computer, you don’t have the option to keep any of the material copied from the previously synced computer. As far as syncing is concerned, the Apple TV is completely monogamous.

Well, that stinks, doesn’t it?

It would if the Apple TV didn’t offer some other way to play content from other computers. Fortunately it does. It can stream media—movies, TV shows, podcasts, and audiobooks—from up to five other computers, and this can be a combination of Macs and Windows PCs.

I have a lot of computers. What happens when I’ve already connected five computers and want to add a sixth?

You have to perform the Apple TV equivalent of an iTunes deauthorization. To do so, move to iTunes’ preferences on the computer you want to deauthorize, select the Apple TV tab, select the Apple TV, and click the Remove Apple TV button. Once you’ve freed up the authorization, return to the Apple TV, choose Sources/Connect to New iTunes, note the PIN number that appears, move to the computer you want to authorize, select the Apple TV entry in iTunes’ Source list, and enter the PIN number to enable streaming between the Apple TV and the computer.

remove apple tv

Do I have to perform this PIN dance every time I want to stream to one of my computers?

No, once you’ve added a computer for streaming it will remain on the Apple TV’s list until you remove it by following the technique outlined above.

If I play content purchased from the iTunes Store does that count against my iTunes authorizations?

No. As long as the computer you’re syncing with or streaming from is authorized to play the iTunes purchases, they’ll play on the Apple TV.

Can I add media manually to the Apple TV as I can with my iPod?

No, in this regard the Apple TV is more like an iPod shuffle. To specify the media you want to add to the Apple TV you must configure the settings within the Movies, TV Shows, Music, Podcasts, and Photos tabs that appear when you select the Apple TV in iTunes’ Source list.

As I mentioned, the Apple TV prioritizes which media it copies, but you can fine-tune from there. For both movies and TV shows you can tell iTunes to sync a certain number of recent videos (all, 1, 3, 5, or 10), all unwatched, or most recent unwatched (1, 3, 5, or 10). You can also direct it to sync just selected movies or TV shows or playlists of those movies and TV shows. Podcasts work much the same way.

apple tv managing movies

With music, you sync much like you do with an iPod. Sync it all or just selected playlists. (The Music tab also includes the option to sync music videos.) You can sync photos from iPhoto, your Pictures folder, or a folder of your choice on a Mac or from a supported photo application such as Photoshop Elements, the My Pictures folder, or a folder of your choosing on a Windows PC.

Unlike with an iPod, you can’t throw the Apple TV into manual mode and add content to the device by dragging it from your iTunes library to the device in iTunes’ Source list.

Must iTunes be running in order for you to update the Apple TV?

Yes. Once you’ve synced the Apple TV you can sever the connection between it and iTunes. The media has been copied to the Apple TV and will play without iTunes being in the picture. But if you want to stream content, you must do so with iTunes running on the computer you want to stream from and, of course, the network must be up and running. Likewise with syncing. There’s no provision for syncing content in the background without iTunes being open.

Can I play content other than material purchased from the iTunes Store?

Sure. The Apple TV can play video encoded in MPEG-4 format (and its variant, H.264). It can play all the audio file formats that are compatible with iTunes (AIFF, WAVE, MP3, AAC, and Apple Lossless). It can’t play any variety of Windows Media file, DiVX, Flash, Ogg Vorbis, .avi, and on and on. There are a variety of utilities that let you transcode media to formats compatible with the Apple TV. For example, you can rip commercial DVDs using HandBrake. I’ve ripped a number of DVDs at bit rates as high as 2,500kbps and they play perfectly well on the Apple TV (and look darned good, to boot).

Apple TV supports these video specifications:

  • H.264 up to 5Mbps, Progressive Main Profile (CAVLC) with AAC-LC audio up to 160kbps with a maximum resolution of 1280 x 720 at 24fps or 960-by-540 at 30 fps.
  • MPEG-4 up to 3Mbps, Simple Profile with AAC-LC audio up to 160kbps, with a maximum resolution of 720-by-432 at 30fps.
  • Can the Apple TV display Raw photo images?

    No. Just as with the iPod, display of Raw images isn’t supported. The Apple TV supports these images formats: JPEG, BMP, GIF, TIFF, and PNG.

    Does the Apple TV play music gaplessly as does iTunes 7 and the latest display-bearing iPods?

    Yes.

    Is there any way for me to tell what my Apple TV is syncing?

    Yes. Go to the Sources screen and select Apple TV. On the left of the screen you’ll see a picture of the Apple TV and a progress bar beneath. It will tell you what it’s copying and how much it’s copied—Copying 251 of 589, for example. If you move to the Apple TV’s main screen you’ll also see the turning gear icon next to the category of media it’s syncing—Movies or TV Shows, for example. You’ll see this same information when you choose Syncing from the Sources screen. iTunes will also show you what it’s doing in the information pane at the top of the window.

    apple tv sync process

    How can I navigate video that I’m watching on the Apple TV?

    As you might expect, if you hold down the Back or Forward button while watching a movie or TV show, the Apple TV will move backward or forward, respectively, through the movie at increased speed. During this fast playback, you can press the same button (Back or Forward) again to double the speed, and once more to further speed playback; to return to standard playback, press the Play/Pause button.

    Alternatively, briefly pressing the Back of Forward button will jump back or ahead, respectively, by chapter (for iTunes-purchased movies) or by a specific amount of time. For the latter, the exact length of this time-jump varies depending on the length of the video being watched. For example, for a video clip that’s only a few minutes long, each skip is 10 seconds; for a feature-length movie, each click of the button jumps 5 minutes.

    Gripes and not

    Why didn’t Apple include cables in the box?

    This isn’t exactly the same situation of Apple leaving the power supply out of iPod boxes in order to save money (and make money by asking people to purchase them separately). The Apple TV can connect to your gear in a variety of ways. To cover all the bases, Apple would have to include HDMI-to-HDMI, HDMI-to-DVI, component video, analog audio, and digital audio cables. That’s a lot of cables to include when someone is likely to use only one or two of them.

    The Apple TV’s 40GB hard drive is too small! Can I upgrade it?

    Wait, this ought to really get your dander up: Only 33GB of the 40GB drive can be used for your content. The rest is reserved for the operating system and other secrets only Apple knows.

    Again, if streaming weren’t so easy and didn’t work so well with wired and 802.11g and n networks, I’d agree with you. I’d give the complaint a little more weight if you have an 802.11b network, but through judicious media management (configuring iTunes to delete watched movies and replace them with new ones, for example) you should be fine. (Or, if that still leaves you unsatisfied, run wire.) The fact is, the only thing that must live on the Apple TV’s hard drive in order for it to play are photos. And 33GB should be plenty of space to store a mess of your images.

    All that said, the day after the Apple TV was released, at least three Web sites posted hacks for upgrading the Apple TV to hold a 120GB hard drive. Likewise, there are hacks floating around for playing video formats other than MPEG-4 and H.264 on the thing. Use the Google, my friend.

    I have a standard-definition TV. Am I out of luck?

    Not necessarily. The Apple TV offers a standard-def 420p signal. The trick is getting it into your TV. If your TV has component inputs, you’re in business. Just string a component cable between the Apple TV and your TV and you’re golden. If your set doesn’t have component video inputs, my guess is there will be (or already exists) a converter box that will allow you to play an Apple TV on a standard TV through that television’s S-Video or composite ports.

    There’s no power button on the Apple TV. I don’t like it running all the time. Is there some way I can shut it off without unplugging it?

    Not completely off to the point where when you start it up again you see that cool introductory video clip. But you can demand that the Apple TV take a long nap by pressing and holding the Remote's Play/Pause button.

    I’m trying to control the Apple TV with my Remote and it does nothing except flash an amber light on the front. What am I doing wrong?

    Sounds like you have more than one Apple Remote in your house. If you try to control the Apple TV with a Remote it’s not paired with, you see that amber light. Locate the Remote it is paired with and use that.

    I want 5.1 surround sound from my Apple TV. Any chance of getting it?

    Not at this point. The Apple TV puts out a Dolby ProLogic stereo signal only.

    Boy, this thing seems hot. Is there a fan in there to keep it cool?

    There is a variable-speed fan inside the Apple TV but it’s whisper-quiet. Even with the fan within it can get hot. It’s perfectly safe to install the Apple TV in your component cabinet but don’t cover its top, as that can block its wireless reception.

    The Apple TV seems nice, but it doesn’t do everything I’d like it to—play surround sound audio or let me play other varieties of video, for example. Does it make sense to wait for the next revision?

    That’s mostly between you and your budget. I can say, however, that the Settings menu bears an important (and, so far, unrealized) command: Update Software. The functionality of the Apple TV is governed largely by the software that runs it. Should Apple wish to expand the Apple TV’s functionality, one way to do so is by updating its software. I doubt Apple would have included such a command unless it intended to put it to some use.

    apple tv software update

    Why should I buy an Apple TV when I could get a Mac mini instead, which is far more flexible?

    Stroll over to the nearest mirror and see if the reflection indicates that there’s a gun pointed at your head. If so, you may want to consider your choice very carefully. If not, then don’t buy the Apple TV if you don’t care to.

    I’ve set up both devices as a media center so speak from experience. The Mac mini has a lot going for it. You can play more kinds of media thanks to the wide variety of available Mac-compatible players. It can do far more than an Apple TV—it’s a real computer, for heaven’s sake, so it should. It connects to a high-definition television easily enough with an optional DVI-to-HDMI cable (though DVI doesn’t output audio so you’ll need to use a Toslink with a miniplug adapter or standard audio cable to get sound out of the Mac mini and into your AV audio receiver). It has a built-in DVD player and, unlike an Apple TV, it can output 5.1 audio.

    But there are some downsides as well. To begin with, someone who knows what they’re doing needs to drive the Mac. If your content won’t play in iTunes, you need to move over to QuickTime Player or VLC or some other player that supports your media. My wife could easily operate the Apple TV, for example, but wouldn’t have a clue how to play a wide variety of music and movies with a Mac mini. Although the Mac mini supports network video streaming via Front Row, it doesn’t stream video nearly as well as the Apple TV. Full-length movies choke on anything but an n-wireless or fast-wired network connection under Front Row.

    As I explained in My Multimedia Mac mini, configuring a Mac mini to be a full-blown media center is both time-consuming and expensive. If you really want your Mac to serve as a digital video recorder, radio, music center, movie player, and television receiver, be prepared to exercise your noggin as well as spend both dough and time on the project.

    The Apple TV, though more limited, is less expensive and far easier to set up.

    Why should I buy an Apple TV when I could get a fifth-generation iPod, plug it into my TV, and get a similar experience?

    See the previous “gun” comment. Beyond that, the iPod doesn’t output video at as good a resolution as the Apple TV nor can it use your TV’s snazzy HDMI port—it can use only composite video via an AV cable or S-Video with a compatible dock. Also, unless you’ve paid for a media dock that projects the iPod’s content on your TV screen, you need to get off your rear end to select programs and music, which sort of defeats the whole “couch potato” thing.

    Any way you look at it—with a Mac mini, a 5G iPod, or an Apple TV—Apple will be happy to take your money.

    Speaking of giving Apple money, I’d like to have an Apple TV in my living room and another in my bedroom. Will that work?

    It will. Just tell each of them the source you’d like to sync to or stream from and you’re ready to go.

    Note this cool feature when you have the multi-Apple TV experience: The Apple TV is very smart about resuming playback of your movies and TV from where you left off. If you start watching a movie in the living room and want to view the rest of it in the bedroom, just exit out of the movie in the living room, move to the bedroom, and gawk in awe when you start the movie on the other Apple TV, it asks you if you’d like to resume from where you last stopped, and it starts playing from where you exited in the living room.

    It’s just as smart about video played on the iPod. Play part of a video on your iPod, sync it with iTunes, and your Apple TV will offer to play it from the point where you stopped watching it on the iPod.

    Senior Editor Dan Frakes and Senior News Editor Jonathan Seff contributed to this article.

    [ Christopher Breen is a senior editor for Macworld and runs the iPod Blog over at Playlist . ]

    This article was reposted at 2:27 p.m. PT on March 26, 2007, to add more information about navigating video.

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