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Apple TV Update Adds HBO GO, ESPN, and More

Apple has updated the second- and third-generation Apple TV to version 5.3, adding several new content options: HBO GO, WatchESPN, Sky News, Crunchyroll, and Qello. If you’re not familiar with them, here’s an overview of each service.

HBO GO — With HBO GO, current HBO subscribers can access HBO’s extensive content library and original programming. Unfortunately, you must already subscribe to HBO through a participating cable or satellite provider — cord cutters are not welcome, nor were DirecTV customers, until DirecTV responded to voluminous Twitter complaints. While this has been the subject of much debate online, with television’s current business structure, it’s not likely to change any time soon. However, recent comments by HBO CEO Richard Plepler offer a sliver of hope that it may one day be possible to subscribe to HBO content via HBO GO without having a cable subscription.

Cable providers pay big bucks for HBO, and if HBO sold directly to the consumer, the company might risk being banished from those providers. However, a long-forgotten fact is that HBO used to be a satellite provider itself. Back in the 1990s, my family owned one of the large, old-school C-Band satellite dishes, and we purchased access directly through HBO, via a service called HBO Direct, which included all of HBO and Cinemax’s programming. HBO exited this business in 2001.

Until the industry changes, you have to activate HBO GO through your cable TV provider. Choose Settings within the HBO GO Apple TV app, choose Activate Device, and follow the on-screen instructions. You must then visit a Web site and enter an activation code.

However, HBO GO does feature a few free clips and episodes as a teaser, so the app isn’t completely worthless for cord cutters.

WatchESPN — For sports fans, WatchESPN is an exciting addition, featuring live sports and programming from all of ESPN’s channels, as well as SportsCenter. As with HBO GO, you must have an existing cable subscription from a participating provider to enable it. Or, as I have discovered, Comcast Internet customers have access to it even if they don’t subscribe to ESPN. To activate WatchESPN on your Apple TV, choose Settings in the WatchESPN app, then Verify Your TV Provider. Again, you then have to visit a Web site and enter an activation code.

As with the HBO GO app, there are some free clips available for all, including news highlights.

Sky News — Based in the UK and owned and operated by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, Sky News is a 24-hour news network. The app provides a 24-hour stream of news as well as news clips. While not my first choice for news, it’s nice to have an alternative to the often-spotty Wall Street Journal channel, and it’s absolutely free.

Crunchyroll — Anime fans may appreciate access to Crunchyroll, which is like a Netflix for anime and Asian television. You can sign up directly through the Apple TV for $6.99 per month for the Anime Membership or $11.99 for the All Access Membership, which also includes live-action drama.

Qello — Like to watch concerts on TV? Qello offers HD recordings of concerts and music documentaries. You need a free account even to browse the selections, and to watch much of any of the content, you must sign up for a subscription, which costs either $4.99 per month or $29.99 per year.

WWDC — Though it has been there for a while, you can still view this year’s WWDC keynote from the Apple Events app. However, if you’re a registered developer and want to watch session videos, you’ll have to AirPlay them from Safari or the WWDC iOS app.

What’s Still Missing — While these are all welcome additions to the Apple TV, its selection continues to pale in comparison to the vast array of content channels offered by Roku. For all the talk of how locked-down iOS is, it’s a regular free-for-all compared to the tightly controlled Apple TV, which still lacks support for Amazon Instant Video, PBS, Blockbuster on Demand, Crackle, and many of the hundreds of other channels available on Roku. While you can use AirPlay to send video from many of these services to an Apple TV, it’s a clunky solution for long-term viewing.

However, there might be a third-party solution to the Apple TV’s paucity of content. The developers of the Plex media management software have launched PlexConnect, a clever hack that expands the Apple TV’s selection.

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