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Apple TV’s new firmware lets you stream straight from the cloud

Apple released on Friday an update to Apple TV, which allows AirPlay streaming of music, TV shows, and Movies from iCloud rather than directly from iOS devices. The update also includes access to iTunes Radio, podcast syncing, and enables purchasing of content from the iTunes store through the Apple TV set-top box. 

Perhaps the most notable new feature in Apple TV 6.0  is AirPlay streaming from iCloud – at least, it should be (see below). Previously, users had to stream TV shows and Movies purchased through iTunes from their devices over a Wi-Fi network, a practice which was a drain on battery life and subject to Wi-Fi signal strength. Now, users can simply stream from the cloud directly to the Apple TV box. The update is also meant to allow a simpler way to play purchased content on someone else’s Apple TV without the hassle of switching iCloud account logins – just cue up a stream directly from an iOS device, and the foreign Apple TV will begin to play it. To enable AirPlay from iCloud, users must click Settings > AirPlay > “Play from iTunes in the Cloud,” and select “auto.”

In addition to the aforementioned features, Apple TV will now play back photos and videos from shared photo streams and automatically updates apps.

We gave the new update a spin, and it works more or less as expected. Purchased movies and TV shows now show up under a “purchased” tab and can be played without the involvement of an iOS device. iTunes Radio, at first blush, works in the same way it does through iTunes, and we were able to view both photos and videos in our Photo Stream without a hitch.

What isn’t immediately apparent, though, is when the Apple TV is taking a stream that originates from an iOS device and turning to the cloud as its source rather than streaming through the device itself. During our tests, we began a TV show using our device to stream to Apple TV via AirPlay. Some reports indicate that playing from the cloud can result in a long buffering period, but we’ve not yet witnessed that phenomenon. We tried turning our iPhone off and the stream stopped, indicating Apple TV requires the device be on for authentication purposes at the least. We also tried killing our cable modem to ensure Internet access was no longer flowing though the network. The TV show continued, indicating it wasn’t coming from the cloud, unless Apple has built in some sort of protocol that reverts back to the originating device as the content source.

Still, since the TV show we were streaming is not stored on our device, we know that it was coming from the cloud, we’re just not certain when/whether Apple TV sources the content directly from the cloud, or through an iOS device. And that’s a bit of a frustration since, as we see it, one of the proposed benefits to AirPlay streaming from the cloud is that the device doesn’t have to do all the work, sparing the battery. 

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