Use Voice Search with the Apple TV

Amazon introduced its Fire TV yesterday, and one of the features the company touts is “voice search.” Using a tiny microphone in the device’s remote, you will be able to speak when searching for content, instead of pecking out letters by moving a cursor around on your TV screen. For example, you might want to look for a specific movie to watch, so you will simply say its name into the remote to have its text typed in a search field.

But you can already do this with the Apple TV; not with its own remote, but with the iOS Remote app. Open the Remote app, tap on your Apple TV, and you will be able to control it. If you go to a search field, you can dictate into your iPhone, iPad or iPod touch, instead of typing.

Say you tap the Search button in one of the iTunes Store apps: movies, TV shows, music. The Remote app displays a search field, with a keyboard below it; tap the microphone button and speak into your device’s microphone.

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You’ll see the waves dancing around at the bottom of the screen as you talk. When you’re finished, tap Done, then tap return. The Remote app will send your text to the Apple TV.

Granted, you need an iOS device to do this, but if you have an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch, there’s no reason not to take advantage of voice search right now on your Apple TV.

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How Apple’s AirPlay Streams Audio

I got a question from a reader asking how Apple’s AirPlay streams audio. The question specifically asked about how audio files are converted, and whether AirPlay reduces their quality.

Apple doesn’t provide much information about AirPlay, and I found a number of articles and forum posts where people described complex testing routines to determine the bit depth and sample rate of music streamed to AirPlay devices, such as an Apple TV or AirPort Express. But you don’t need to go to such great lengths to figure this out. Simply open Audio-MIDI Setup on a Mac, and select AirPlay.


As you can see above, AirPlay streams at 16-bit, 44,100 kHz. However, what you don’t see is that AirPlay streams music in Apple Lossless format. What this means is that no matter what format your music is in, it gets converted by OS X – not by iTunes – to Apple Lossless, to ensure the highest quality. So lossless files will be streamed as lossless, as will AAC or MP3 files.

However, high-resolution files will be downsampled to 16/44.1. Interestingly, the Apple TV outputs audio in 48 kHZ, most likely because this is 48 kHz is the standard for movie and TV audio[1]. Movies sold by the iTunes Store contain audio at 48 kHz, but only at 160 kbps.

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The Committed Podcast Looks at the Apple TV

The Committed Podcast Icon 1400x1400 01On this week’s episode of The Committed podcast, Ian Schray, Rob Griffiths and I discuss the state of the Apple TV. Once described by Steve Jobs as just a “hobby,” it has become a product category of its own, with 10 million units sold last year, generating $10 billion dollars in content sales and rental. We talk about the history of the Apple TV, and what we’d like to see in the future.

Listen to The Committed podcast, Episode 25: “The Once and Future Apple TV”, and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.

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Apple Gives Apple TV a Promotion

The Apple TV, which Steve Jobs famously once described as “a hobby,” has been given a promotion. When you shop in Apple’s online store, the Apple TV is now a top-of-the-page category of its own.


For now, all you see there is the Apple TV itself and its remote – unlike the other categories, where you see multiple devices: an iMac and a laptop; two iPods; different iPhones; three iPod models. But Apple’s promoting of the Apple TV makes it clear that the company will be turning the device into something much more important.

It’s doubtful that Apple will increase the product line; there’s no need for two different Apple TVs. Since the device merely streams content – unlike its first couple of generations, when it contained a hard drive – there’s no need to have a second model with more (or less) storage. Unless Apple is planning an actual TV set (which I doubt), there may never be a second product in that line.

I think the real reason for this promotion is that Apple will soon be unveiling new ways of getting TV, via the Apple TV. This could come through subscriptions to channels or networks, or simply season passes for TV shows that display as individual “apps” on your screen when you use the Apple TV. This could be a huge market for Apple, if the company can convince broadcasters to follow them. The top-of-the-page Apple TV image and link suggests that the company has convinced content producers. I think we’ll be hearing more about the Apple TV soon, and that this promotion is just a hint of the Apple TV’s becoming a key product in Apple’s strategy.

P.S.: My friend Doug Adams said, on Twitter, that “An Apple TV w built-in AirPort Express would be fine with me.” Interesting idea: get rid of the AirPort Express as a standalone device, and include its features in a new Apple TV.

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Stream Any Video from a Mac to an Apple TV

One of the most interesting features of OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion is AirPlay Mirroring. You can stream what is displayed on your Mac to an Apple TV (and, presumably, other devices will support this in the future). This is very useful if you want to watch videos in formats that iTunes doesn’t support, such as MKVs. The process is quite simple. Here’s how it works:

  1. From the AirPlay Mirroring icon in the menu bar, choose your Apple TV. This icon displays if you’ve checked the appropriate option in the Display pane of System Preferences.

  2. Start playing the video you want to watch on your Mac. This could be video on a web site – even Flash video – or files played with a video player such as VLC.
  3. Sit down in front of your TV and start watching.

At this point, you can sit back and watch your video. The only thing to be aware of is that if you want to pause the video, you need to do so on the Mac; the Apple TV remote won’t do this. If you have another remote, you can pair it to your Mac, so if you plan to use this feature often you can easily pause and restart videos.

I’ve found this to be quite useful. Every day at lunch, I watch the previous day’s episode of the Daily Show from their web site. I used to watch it on my laptop, but now I can pipe it into my TV, which is much more comfortable.

So if you have videos you’d like to watch on your TV, and you have an Apple TV, AirPlay Mirroring will let you watch any video that you can play on your Mac.

Note: AirPlay mirroring works with the following Macs:

iMac (Mid 2011 or newer)
Mac mini (Mid 2011 or newer)
MacBook Air (Mid 2011 or newer)
MacBook Pro (Early 2011 or newer)

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New Apple TV Constantly Dropping Network Connections

On Sunday mornings, I often like to sit in front of my stereo and listen to music, while I read a book, or the latest New Yorker. This morning, I wanted to listen to a new disc I bought (Towards the Horizon; Modificata; Incantations by Einojuhani Rautavaara), and since I had gotten my new Apple TV on Friday, and not hooked it up, I did so. Since it’s essentially the same as the previous model, I just connected it, entered the necessary passwords – notably for Home Sharing, to access my iTunes library – and sat down to listen.

Alas, this was not for long. After about 10 minutes, the connection dropped. I at first thought my router (AirPort Extreme) must have a problem, but when I went to my Mac, I saw that it was connected. Back to the Apple TV, it turned out that it wasn’t seeing any networks. I have two routers: the AirPort Extreme, with two networks, and a router provided by my ISP, which has one Wi-Fi network. In addition, I can see several neighboring Wi-Fi networks. But the Apple TV saw none of these, showing it was a problem with that device.

I went to check Apple’s support forums, and found that, alas, this is a common problem with the new Apple TV. A ten-page thread shows that many people are seeing this issue. Since the device has only been available for two days, this is especially disturbing.

I have been able to listen to music for a half hour, but at other times, the connection drops in less than a minute; often in less time than it takes to select music to play from the Apple TV’s menus.

Some of the posts in the Apple thread talk about ports and routers, but in my case, this is clearly not an issue. When the network connection drops, and I go to the Apple TV’s settings, no networks are seen, showing that it is, indeed, the Apple TV that is creating the Wi-Fi issue.

For now, I’ve resolved this by connecting it via Ethernet to a powerline networking device I have running to a video player box. But I’d rather not have to add another device – an Ethernet hub – to the many wires sitting behind my stereo and TV. Also, I’m pretty sure that 5 GHz Wi-Fi is faster than powerline.

Is anyone else seeing this?

Update: Apple has replaced the unit, and the new one works fine. So in my case there was clearly something wrong with the Wi-Fi chip.

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New Apple TV and iTunes Play Counts and Last Played Dates

With the new Apple TV, and the fact that it’s streaming content from a library, there is one change that may affect some users. The previous model was like a living-room iPod, and acted as such: when you played music, then synced the device to your iTunes library, play counts and last played dates would be updated; this was the case even when you loaded a remote library on the old Apple TV. The new Apple TV, however, works more like sharing a library from another copy of iTunes on your network, and does not update these bits of metadata. In a way, this makes sense, but if you like to use playlists that depend on the play count or last played date, this could be a problem.

The solution is relatively simple, as long as you own an iOS device: using the Remote app on an iPhone, iPad or iPod touch, control your music playback from iTunes, and choose to have it stream to the Apple TV from the Speakers menu. Doing this, it will be iTunes sending music to the Apple TV, rather than the Apple TV sharing music from the iTunes library. It’s actually a bit easier to manage with the Remote app than having to turn on your TV set just to control music playback.

Note that for movies and TV shows, the Apple TV does update the played/unplayed status, so if you stream a TV show from your iTunes library, it’ll be marked as Played on your computer.

Learn more about iTunes 10 in my ebook Take Control of iTunes 10: The FAQ.

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New Apple TV Has Its Share of Bugs

I got my new Apple TV today. It’s a nice little device, smaller and especially cooler than the previous model. I have no issues with not being able to store content on the device, and streaming works fine for me.

However, it seems that the Apple TV software has a fair number of bugs. While there aren’t a lot of threads in Apple’s forums – the device has only been shipping for a few days – there are enough to confirm that the problems I’ve had are not unique.

First, when entering info for my wifi network, the Apple TV got to a point where it displayed “Waiting for Network Services…” After a few minutes, I restarted the device; at that point, it was connected to my wifi network.

Next, when trying to enter my Apple ID – necessary to stream content, as well as to buy and rent content from the Apple Store – it failed, telling me that the password and/or user name were incorrect. A post on the Apple forum suggested resetting the device, which I did.

So, after the reset, it no longer saw the wifi network I wanted to use. (I have two networks, using an AirPort Extreme base station: one for 802.11n devices, and one for others.) I had to type its name to get it recognized. This time, entering the password worked, and I was able to enter my Apple ID and get it accepted.

I then added the library on my Mac mini, which has all my content, and found that the Playlists section showed only a blank screen. All the other sections display correctly, though sometimes there’s a lag as the Apple TV has to load the library (yet again; it seems to do this a lot). Playlists finally displayed, but only after the display had switched to show a currently-playing track. It turns out that it takes quite some time for playlists to display; more than 20 seconds. I have a couple hundred playlists, but if the library itself is copied to the Apple TV, it shouldn’t take more than a few seconds. After all, my Artists or Composers lists display immediately, or even my Songs list, which contains more than 56,000 items. At least playlist icons have colors, those that Apple removed from iTunes.

The new Apple TV’s volume is very loud; much louder than the previous model. For example, my amp was set to a volume of 45 before, and content I played on the old Apple TV was at the correct volume. I’ve had to lower the volume to 30 with the new device, which means that every time I change sources I’ll have to shift the volume more than before. You can no longer control its volume from the remote, and there’s also no volume control available from the Remote app on the iPod touch. (Though it probably makes more sense, when streaming music at least, to stream it from iTunes and control it on the iPod touch, rather than use the Apple TV’s screen; this way you can adjust the volume being sent from iTunes.)

On the up side, the new Apple TV’s interface is much snappier, so over time I’ll be able to tell whether it’s a real improvement. One thing I won’t need to do any more, at least, is sync content to it. I get the Daily Show from the iTunes Store, and I’d have to sync it after it downloaded to my Mac mini; now, in the future, I’ll just mount the library and stream, saving a step.

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