Apple TV, Take Two follow-up: AirTunes

In my previous blog entry, I described the three features I liked best in the new Apple TV "Take Two." A couple of reader comments made reference to a new feature in Take Two that was not on my list. In fact, I had not realized the feature was even there at first: the ability to use AirTunes to play iTunes content on an audio system connected to an Apple TV.

This is indeed a great new feature. So much so, that I decided to cover it here as a follow-up to my previous entry. As to why I didn't notice the new feature in the first place—after accepting responsibility for failing to look closely enough—I would add that Apple has hardly promoted this new feature. In fact, if you go to the Apple page that lists the new features of Apple TV Take Two, the word "AirTunes" is not even mentioned. I could similarly find only one Apple support document that acknowledges its existence.

Complicating matters further, for many users, it will not be immediately obvious what this new feature adds. Apple TV "Take One" owners are already familiar with streaming iTunes content from a secondary shared computer (not the one that is synced to the Apple TV). Take Two continues to do so. The Take One version of Apple TV could stream movies and TV shows from a Mac. That's not new either.

So what is new with AirTunes support? It provides the ability to stream any audio content in your iTunes Library to your Apple TV, even if it is not in a playlist. Actually, with AirTunes, you can stream audio content from any computer on the same network as the Apple TV, even if it is not a Mac being shared or synced with your Apple TV! Not only can you play all your music from your Library via this method, but you can play Audible content or Internet radio stations as well!

To do all this, just enable the connection via the same method that is used to connect a Mac to the AirTunes feature of an AirPort Express: At the bottom of the iTunes window on your Mac, access the Computer pop-up menu and select the name of your Apple TV. Next, select an item to play. Done. There is no setting on the Apple TV itself that needs to be enabled or selected. [Well, that's not 100% true. There is an Apple TV setting to enable AirTunes, located in Settings > Audio. However, it is on by default.]

You can use your Apple TV remote to pause/play or skip items. If your Apple TV doesn't respond to your remote here, you need to enable the necessary preferences item in iTunes: Go to iTunes' Preferences and select Advanced > General. From here, make sure the AirTunes option to "Allow iTunes control from remote speakers" is enabled.

The key thing to remember in setting all of this up is that, unlike other Apple TV connections, you do not make the connection or select the music to be played from the Apple TV itself. Instead, you do it from iTunes on your Mac (again, the same way as if you were connecting to an AirPort Express rather than an Apple TV).

Note: If iTunes is open on the Mac that is synced to your Apple TV, you automatically have access to most content in your iTunes Library, via streaming, even without using AirTunes. Just make sure that the option to "Show only the synced items on my Apple TV,” in the Apple TV Summary pane, is not enabled. There is no longer a separate listing for synced vs. streamed content, as in Take One. This is just one more of the many differences between Take One and Take Two in the areas of streaming, sharing and syncing—most of them still not documented well (if at all) by Apple. Apple has some work to do here!

The AirTunes feature is apparently still a bit rough around the edges, as I have seen several reports of problems with it getting it to work. I have had one of these problems myself. When playing audio via AirTunes, if you select Music > My Music > Now Playing on your Apple TV, you should see the name and artist of the currently playing song. I don't. Instead, all I see is "untitled" and "unknown." I haven't yet figured out why some users have this problem and others do not—or how to fix it. But I am working on it (I did see one report that said a "factory restore" of my Apple TV would fix this; I haven't tried this as yet and am reluctant to do so). It is almost certainly an issue with the Apple TV rather than the Mac, as I have the same symptom no matter what Mac I use.

{revised slightly on 2/17/08}