Apple TV: No longer just a paperweight
Historically, the Apple TV didn’t get a lot of use, either in the lab or at home. This was not due to any fault in the hardware or User Interface (UI), but rather the fact that its content selection was pretty much limited to Netflix and iTunes. At some point my Apple TV’s HDMI cable was “borrowed” for another device, so it literally became a $99 paperweight (as several reviews predicted when Apple TV launched in 2010.)
But that’s all changed now, and not a moment too soon. At the beginning of August, the Hulu Plus app started rolling out to Apple TV devices. And the very same day, my old Roku HD gave up the ghost (the Roku 2 XS in the lab is still going strong.)
And just like that, the Apple TV earned its HDMI cable back. And I got a new paperweight:
While our opinion of Apple’s version of the Hulu Plus app is generally favorable, there are a few things that the standard UI does better (we’ll compare those in a future post.) Regardless, this is a huge improvement to the Apple TV in terms of content.
And Hulu Plus isn’t the only new way to get content on Apple TV. If you have a recent (more on that in a bit) Mac computer running the latest version of Mac OS X (Mountain Lion), you can use AirPlay Mirroring to watch any web video on your Apple TV. That’s right – free video from Hulu, network websites, Amazon, all can be watched on the Apple TV now.
Because this website is called “Translation Please,” after all, allow me to take a moment to explain Apple’s AirPlay, and not assume that everyone reading this knows what the heck it is.
So – AirPlay is Apple’s proprietary wireless streaming protocol, which allows you to send content between devices on the same wireless network. Originally this was only implemented in Apple’s software and devices, but is now used by third parties — mainly wireless speaker manufacturers, but the XMBC media center software (and therefore the Boxee Box) also support AirPlay.
With Mountain Lion’s AirPlay Mirroring feature, you’re sending your entire screen up to the Apple TV. And it’s handy not only for watching web video on the Apple TV, but also for presentations, photos, and the like.
For me, mirroring my laptop to the Apple TV is usually much quicker than switching over to the Mac Mini that I typically use to watch web video. From a compatible Mac computer running Mountain Lion, you just select the AirPlay icon on the top menu bar, then choose your Apple TV as the output device. Then your screen will be mirrored on the Apple TV, simple as that.
(image source: Pocketlint)
But if you’re thinking of upgrading your OS just for AirPlay Mirroring (as I did), not so fast — you’ll want to make sure your computer actually supports it first (my mid-2010 MacBook Pro didn’t.)
In general, only 2011 and later model years will support AirPlay Mirroring. This is because AirPlay Mirroring requires Intel’s QuickSync video compression technology, which was first built into the Sandy Bridge CPUs released in January 2011.
If the AirPlay Mirroring feature doesn’t work with your computer (or if you’re using a Windows machine) don’t despair — you can get a similar experience using the third-party software AirParrot ($10, www.airparrot.com)
The steps for sending the video to your AppleTV are basically the same as with AirPlay Mirroring, you just click the AirParrot icon on the top menu bar and select your Apple TV as the output device. But unlike AirPlay Mirroring – and this is important to multitaskers like me — AirParrot lets you choose a specific program to send to the output device if you don’t want to mirror your whole screen.
Even better, AirParrot will allow you to choose a specific window within a program to display on screen. This means you can have a video streaming to the AppleTV from your web browser, uninterrupted by whatever you happen to be viewing on your computer screen.
(AirParrot lets you choose a specific browser window to send to the Apple TV)
As someone who tends to multitask while watching TV, I really like this feature. In fact, I like it so much, I consider the lack of it on AirPlay to be somewhat of a demerit.
But now that the Apple TV has moved up to the coveted “Input 1” spot in my home (replacing my now-bricked Roku,) there’s something that’s really started irritating me. I find myself wishing Apple TV’s remote had a Home button, a la Roku. Because if I’ve been browsing on Hulu, for example, it can often take at least 6 or 7 presses of the Menu button to get me back to the home screen. This is the one area where Apple’s little 4-button remote doesn’t quite do the job (but I feel the need to point out, again, that Google TV’s 92-button remote control doesn’t make it much easier, for 88 tiny other reasons.)
We’ll delve into the relationship between number of buttons and useability of the remote control another time, because that’s a post in itself. Maybe more than one!