I know, Apple TV has been around for a while now. And I know, Steve Jobs considers Apple TV a mere ‘hobby’, but, I’ve got two of them at home and the truth is, just been you and me, I couldn’t live without them.
This isn’t strictly a review about Apple TV because, you already know what it does; rather, it’s about the slow but steady upgrades Apple has been dishing out to its hobby, in part to keep it in line and up-to-date with the rest of the Apple ecosystem (with support for Movie rentals, Genius playlists, compatibility with iPhone). Mostly, I think, it’s about positioning the device as the ‘must have’ media box by offering more and more features that are sure to tempt.
The biggest feature in the latest 2.3 release is finally the ability to use your Apple TV as a media hub and stream music (remember, music’s where this whole iTunes juggernaut started) to either an Airport Express or another Apple TV. In practical terms this means you can copy all of your music onto an Apple TV (or buy music on the Apple TV directly) and play it anywhere in your house that you have an Airport Express plugged into a set of speakers.
Selecting where your music plays can be done via the Apple TV interface (just hold down the Play button to bring up the on-screen menu which lets you toggle speakers on or off) or, if you’ve got an iPhone or iPod Touch, you can use a free app called ‘Remote’ to control your music system.
If this system sounds familiar, you’re probably thinking of another wireless distributed music product called Sonos, which, like Apple TV and Airtunes lets you play music in different areas, or zones of your house. But now, with Apple TV 2.3, you can create as many ‘zones’ as you want using Airport Express base stations plugged in to amplified speakers.
A base model Sonos system bundle will set you back about $1500. In comparison, an Apple TV costs $329 and each Airport Express (you’ll need these to create additional ‘zones’) costs $129 – a substantial discount, and one that achieves the same end result, plus provides access to movies, TV shows, and can sync with your existing iTunes library (including DRM’d content, something Sonos can’t do). It’s easy to see the value in choosing Apple over Sonos.
Apart from turning Apple TV in to a true media hub, update 2.3 also includes new functionality like the ability to control the volume of music with either the Apple remote or via the Remote app on the iPhone. Playlists in iTunes that contain Movies, TV Shows, Podcasts and Music Videos are now also accessible via Apple TV.
As well as playlist support, there’s also a hidden feature which lets you group similar movies together by adding a name in the ‘Show’ field of any video. This is especially useful if you’ve got lots of kids movies, like I do. Lastly, software update 2.3 introduces the ability to use third party remotes with Apple TV. For all other AV equipment, this task is normally achieved by teaching your remote the appropriate Apple TV commands. But Apple, as normal have flipped this around, and actually let you train the Apple TV to accept commands from any remote.
As you’d expect, the interface to program a 3rd party remote on Apple TV is just so simple it makes you wonder about all the times you’ve struggled setting up another piece of AV equipment. The Apple TV 2.3 software update is free to all Apple TV users, and available from the Settings menu on your Apple TV.