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Take Control of Apple TV, Chapter 1: Introducing Apple TV

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This article is a pre-release chapter in the upcoming “Take Control of Apple TV,” by Josh Centers, scheduled for public release in January 2014. Apart from this introductory chapter, these chapters are available only to TidBITS members; see “‘Take Control of Apple TV’ Streaming in TidBITS” for details.


Introducing Apple TV

Long gone are the days when a TV was a standalone device. First came the VCR. It was innocuous enough; just one box. And such a useful box, as we could finally watch movies at home and record TV programs! Then came the cable box. That meant a few more wires, but look at all the extra channels we got! And then came the Nintendo, just one more box, for Super Mario Bros.

And before we knew it, the simple, stoic, wood-paneled TV set of old had become a tangled rat’s nest of wires, boxes, remotes, game controllers, and power adapters. Teaching someone (like my wife) how to use my entertainment system became an exercise in frustration. Which input is the TV on? OK, what’s the receiver set to? Now change the channel on the cable box…no, no, that’s the stereo remote, the cable remote has the big red button…where’s the cable remote?

Are you tired of trying to figure out your entertainment system or writing detailed instructions for your family so they know how to turn the thing on? I understand; I’ve been there. I’m here to show you the way out.

The second- and third-generation Apple TVs, first introduced in 2010, are small, simple, yet incredibly powerful devices. Apple is constantly adding more content providers, and with Apple’s revolutionary AirPlay feature for sending audio and video from a Mac, iPad, or iPhone to the Apple TV, the possibilities are nearly endless.

I’ve replaced nearly every device in my entertainment center with the Apple TV. My family doesn’t have to think about inputs, or fumble with discs; when we want to watch something, we can quickly pull it up without remembering arcane button sequences. And it’s not just about watching TV and movies—if I want to play music or show photos of the baby to his visiting grandmother, I can do that on the Apple TV too. It’s a one-stop box.

Why Apple TV

If you’re already invested in the Apple ecosystem with a Mac, iPad, or iPhone, the Apple TV becomes a no-brainer. Thanks to AirPlay and the Remote app for iOS, the Apple TV is the ultimate Apple peripheral. If you can see it on your Mac or Apple handheld screen, you can likely AirPlay it to your TV.

In addition, the Apple TV is the only set-top box with content provided by the iTunes Store, arguably the best digital content marketplace in the world. If what you want to watch or listen to isn’t on iTunes, it’s probably not available.

Best of all, the Apple TV is simple—both to set up and operate.

How does the Apple TV stack up to the competition?

  • Roku: The Roku is the closest competitor to the Apple TV, and in some ways it is superior—being both cheaper and having more channels. However, if you keep most of your media in iTunes, then the Apple TV is a much better option, as the Roku can’t play iTunes content or act as an AirPlay receiver.
  • Smart TVs and Blu-ray players: Many televisions feature built-in apps, as do many Blu-ray players. However, in my experience, they tend to be sluggish and thus painful to use.
  • Game consoles: Game consoles, like the Xbox and Playstation, have home media capabilities, but are much more expensive, larger, and more power-hungry than the Apple TV.
  • Chromecast: Google’s $35 Chromecast is tempting, but it has a number of drawbacks. First, it requires a smartphone to operate. Second, content choices are limited, as it has no built-in apps. Third, it lacks the processing power of the Apple TV, so video quality is lower, and gaming is out of the question. For more information, see my TidBITS article Testing Google’s Chromecast for Apple Users.

Home Theater for the Rest of Us

Everyone wants a great home entertainment system, but not everyone can figure out the complexities involved in setting up and operating one. Until recently, every home theater had a “guy,” who understood it. The Apple TV democratizes home entertainment for the rest of us.

In terms of parts, the Apple TV is perhaps the simplest home entertainment device ever — it’s just a small box, a power cable, and an Apple Remote with four controls. But behind that simple facade hides a world of power and possibilities that I’ll show you how to unlock.

First, I’ll show you how to connect it to your existing home entertainment system, including a few things that you might not otherwise consider. I’ll even tell you what to do if your TV doesn’t have the required HDMI input, and the best places to purchase an HDMI cable, since one isn’t included in the box.

Next, I’ll walk you through the onscreen setup, and how to make the process as easy as possible — even if you’re vision-impaired! The good news is that if you have a compatible device running iOS 7, this step might be as simple as touching your device to your Apple TV.

Then, I’ll show you how to take control of your Apple TV with the included Apple Remote; an Apple Wireless Keyboard (or any Bluetooth keyboard); or an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch with the Remote app.

Once you have the basics down, I’ll walk you through the Apple TV’s built-in apps, and then show you how to expand the capabilities of your Apple TV with AirPlay, which lets you magically beam audio, video, and more to your Apple TV from a Mac or iOS device. I even show you how to output audio from the Apple TV with AirPlay. Yes, that’s right, you can wirelessly improve your home audio without complicated receivers or clunky soundbars.

The remaining chapters focus on the Apple TV for certain interests. Let’s take a look at each.

Film Buffs and Couch Potatoes

Movies and TV shows are probably the reason you bought an Apple TV. With iTunes, Netflix, Hulu, HBO, and more, you’ll never be left wanting for something to watch… exactly when you want to watch it. And, you can stream content from a computer running iTunes!

The basics are easy enough for anyone to figure out, but I’ll give tips about controlling playback and enabling options you may not have known existed.

While the Apple TV makes it easy it buy new content, and I’ll show you how to save money when doing so, what about your existing DVD and Blu-ray collection? I’ll walk you through how to convert these legacy formats into DRM-free files that can be viewed on your Apple TV. There are endless online guides for how to do this, but I have the only one tailored specifically for the Apple TV, without a complex discussion of containers, codecs, and other technical jargon. I’ll show you how to not only convert your movies, but also how to add subtitles, metadata, and cover art. Your collection will be both digital and beautiful.

If you’re cringing about the disk space requirements for a digital video collection, your concerns are not unwarranted: video files can be enormous. Meanwhile, Apple is switching to relatively small SSDs in most of its computers. Worry not! I’ll show you ways to seamlessly offload your digital movie collection to capacious external storage, all while keeping it in your iTunes library and accessible to your Apple TV.

The chapter wraps up with a discussion of some of the best iOS apps for expanding your viewing options via AirPlay.

Audio Lovers

The Apple TV is the hidden gem of home audio. With it, you can purchase tracks from iTunes, access your previous purchases, listen to online radio stations, listen to iTunes Radio stations tailored to your taste, and hear and view podcasts — not to mention all the great options available via AirPlay.

What I love about the Apple TV—and what you may not have realized—is that you can use it for audio without turning on your TV. All that’s necessary is a wired audio receiver or an AirPlay speaker. The Apple TV is woken up by AirPlay signals, so at any time, I can AirPlay audio to my Apple TV and hear it over my speakers.

But what if you want audio in every room of your house? You might think you need to shell out for an expensive Sonos system, but I’ll show you a cheaper way to do this with the magic of AirPlay. You can even pick your own speakers.

To make sure I have all the bases covered, I’ll also explain how to AirPlay audio from any Mac app and walk you through ripping your CDs in iTunes to play on your Apple TV.

Photographers and Videographers

Nothing says “Party!” like 700 vacation photos! All kidding aside, if you want to display your photos and home movies on the big screen with a minimum of fuss, the Apple TV can’t be beat. You can easily AirPlay photos and home movies from your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch.

Perhaps you like storing your best photos on the Web? No problem, since you can also access iCloud and Flickr photos directly on your Apple TV. You can even rate iCloud Photos and view comments on your TV.

I’ll also show you how to view pictures and home movies stored on your computer, and how to export slide shows from iPhoto to the Apple TV.

Professionals and Educators

Don’t assume the Apple TV is all fun and games. If you use a Mac, iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch for your work, and regularly give presentations, the Apple TV is a must-have.

I’ll show you how to connect an Apple TV to any projector or SMART Board and what to keep in your laptop bag to be ready for any situation.

Want to use AirPlay to collaborate? I’ll tell you about the Apple TV’s Conference Room mode and how to block out potential pranksters.

I’ll also share some great AirPlay apps for controlling presentations and managing a classroom, all vetted by my wife, who’s a high-school teacher (thanks Hannah!).

Gamers

I won’t lie—the Apple TV isn’t a hardcore gaming device. But, that doesn’t mean that you can’t play games on it—thanks to AirPlay—including some that are great at parties.

A few clever iOS developers have created games that are perfect for AirPlay, and I show you the best, along with tips to make gameplay more enjoyable.

Power Users

If you’ve wondered what’s inside that little black box, and what you might be able to do with it beyond what Apple provides, we’re not done yet! In the final chapter, I’ll show you adventurous types how to supercharge your Apple TV with Plex, fireCore Infuse, and Air Video, giving you even more content options on your Apple TV. I’ll also show you how to use the El Gato EyeTV HD to turn your Apple TV into a DVR.

I might show you how to jailbreak your Apple TV… if a jailbreak is released for the current Apple TV software before this book is published.

Read More: About | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11

 

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Comments about Take Control of Apple TV, Chapter 1: Introducing Apple TV

Tareck Elass  2013-11-07 09:56
Josh, one area which is rarely covered in such ebooks or guides, I believe, is how those of us living outside the US can configure Apple TV to work well thru a foreign ISP, with or without VPN services. Would love to see a section in a chapter on challenges faced by expats (or nationals who like North American sports or content), and suggestions on overcoming these challenges.
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-11-07 11:01
Hi Tareck! Unfortunately, the book is pretty US-centric, since testing the Apple TV in multiple countries is nigh-impossible.

I had originally planned a sports chapter that would have covered using a VPN to access free NFL game streams. (The NFL streams games for free in Europe to drive up interest, but doesn't offer that in the United States.)

The problem was, when I signed up for a popular VPN service that would allow this, the NFL blocked it almost immediately because it was receiving so many connections from it.

So, yes, I could talk about changing your DNS server on the Apple TV to view content outside you country, but I couldn't recommend any services, because it's a constant game of cat and mouse.
Andrew James  2013-11-12 18:30
Hi Josh, I'm one of those foreigners for whom Apple TV's offerings is less compelling due to region restrictions on content.

Some years ago, I went down the path of buying a used Mac mini as a HTPC (Home Theatre PC) and have loved the flexibility of it. None-the-less, I've eyed the Apple TV for a couple of years trying to think of the compelling reason to buy one (sucker for design at low price!) The answer to that question is AirPlay, as we have various iOS devices in our house.

But then I came across an elegant solution that solved my AirPlay requirement for a fraction of the price- AirServer. Instead of spending AUS$129+ for an Apple TV with additional power and cable requirements, AirServer (US$15) installed on my existing Mac mini HTPC turned it into an AirPlay receiver.

Not sure if this little tidbit [sic] is useful for this TC title but thought it is useful for others who already have a HTPC (either Mac or Windows) and want AirPlay.

Cheers,
Andrew.