Saturday, December 6, 2014

Restart Apple TV Without Pulling the Plug

Apple TV has been a great addition to our household: streaming Netflix to our TV wirelessly; streaming content on our Apple iPad or iPhone to the big screen - it's been well worth the $99.
But it's not perfect. As with any computing device, on occasion it can hang. We'll be starting up a Netflix movie, only to see it keep loading… loading… loading. Finally an error message. After trying one more time, and getting the same thing, we know the problem: Apple TV is hung.

The problem: how to restart a device that has no keyboard?  Apple TV is just a black hockey puck-like sealed device.  Ah, no problem.  When in doubt, pull the plug!  And sure enough, that works.  Replug it after 60 seconds, wait for the Apple logo for a minute or two, and problem solved.
Well yeah, it works, but it's a bit of a pain reaching into the bowels of the entertainment center, unplugging the Apple TV, and especially trying to replug the cord without being able to see what you’re doing (your entertainment center is probably less cluttered). There must be a better way.
So after doing this for almost a year, it turns out there is an easy way to restart Apple TV – with just the Apple remote.  For Gen 3 Apple TV simply hold down Menu and the Down arrow on the remote for a few seconds to initiate an Apple TV restart. (For Gen 4 Apple TV it is different: hold down the Menu and Home buttons and release once the white LED starts flashing on/off.  Yes!  But, um…how is anyone supposed to figure that out?  C’mon Apple: a tiny little restart button on the remote – is that too much to ask?
But I guess beggars can't be choosers.  You can restart Apple TV from the comfort of your couch just using the remote: no unplugging required!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Apple TV with PC Monitor

Apple TV is a great option for high-def video streaming to your TV.  We have it and love it.  But often forgotten is that Apple TV is a computer in and of itself.  What can Apple TV do if you untether it from your TV and get a little creative?

Apple TV on its own can handle the streaming and wifi connectivity part of the equation.  So if you take away the TV, you need display and sound capability, and a way to connect these to your Apple TV device.

Hmm.  Would Apple TV work with only a PC monitor? To test this,  I took my Dell monitor, connected it to Apple TV with an HDMI cable.  Turned on the Apple TV remote, and big as life the Apple TV start screen showed on the monitor!  The remote worked just like with a TV display, I could start up Netflix and stream a movie.

Now for the sound.  If your monitor has built-in speakers, your hdmi cable connection will bring both video and audio and you're set.  But my monitor does not have speakers.  However, looking at the back of the monitor, it did have a 3.5 audio out port.    Took a pair of PC speakers, plugged the green ourput 3.5 male plug into the monitor's audio out port, and tada: sound!

Here's my working bare-bones Apple TV configuration:

  • Apple TV
  • HDMI cable
  • PC Monitor
  • PC speakers (with audio out cable)

What if your monitor does not have an HDMI input?  Although I did not test it, using an HDMI-to-VGA cable should do the trick.

A little trickier is if your monitor doesn't support sound at all, i.e. no audio output. In this case, you have to connect speakers directly to the Apple TV device.  Not easy, because Apple TV only supports Digital Audio output. You need:

I have tested the above sound configuration and it works fine with Apple TV and PC speakers.

Where might a minimalist Apple TV setup come in handy? It could bring video streaming to rooms in your house where it would normally be impractical. Obviously, you don't want to be carting a 50 inch TV around the house - but moving a 24 inch PC monitor is no big deal. For example you could set up temporary video streaming for party purposes in non-TV rooms or outside.

Apple Airplay and mirroring works fine with this altered Apple TV setup. By adding an iPad or iPhone you could stream selected photos, videos or apps. Again, great for parties or other temporary setups.

Old PC that doesn't really handle video streaming?  Apple TV and a monitor could be a stopgap alternative.

Of course, Wifi is needed for all these options.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

iTunes Video Streaming: One Option

Having recently canceled our Netflix DVD subscription, our family has gone all in on streaming video. Mostly we stream TV shows, which Netflix is ideal for, which we do through Apple TV. But what about new movies? This is where Netflix is somewhat weak, so I figured I could stream rental movies from iTunes through my iPad to the TV big screen.

Renting my first iTunes movie, I just could not believe there was no streaming option. Seriously? But sure enough, my only choice was to download the movie to my iPad before being able to view it. Since the HD download ended up taking 2+ hours, there went our Saturday night movie. We were bummed.

Well, it's not obvious, but it turns out there is a way to stream iTunes movies. One Apple device will let you do it. But not the iPhone. Nor the iPad. Or the iPod touch. You can stream iTunes movies through Apple TV! Apple TV has only very limited storage - it couldn't hold a downloaded movie - hence the grudgingly-provided streaming option.

I needed to test this streaming option out before getting too excited. Sure enough, going into iTunes through Apple TV and choosing a rental, iTunes will stream the video to your TV.  It worked great, streaming was error-free with no hiccups.  No more super-long downloads before watching an iTunes movie rental!

Ah, think you're clever, and will start the stream on Apple TV and then switch to another device, say your iPad? Nope they thought of that. The rental is in "Apple TV format" and can only be watched through Apple TV.

Still, beggars can't be choosers. Once you rent the movie, you have 30 days to watch it. This doesn't mean you can watch part of it tonight, and the rest of it anytime before the 30 days are up. No, once you start the movie, you have to finish it in 24 hours. So the 30 days is really only procrastination time prior to starting the movie.

If it's within the 24 hours, technically you can watch the movie as much as you want. If you get to the end, and wanted to re-watch portions of the movie, no problem. Another family member could re-watch the entire movie as long as it was within the 24 hours.  And it seemed, once we were bumping up against the 24-hour deadline, if you were in the middle of the movie it wouldn't cut you off. But you might run into trouble if you exited iTunes; I believe we saw a warning message that that was the point of no return: you exit you're done.

A small loophole, but it's there: you can stream iTunes movies. But only through Apple TV.

Older TV?  Apple TV Works with That!

Monday, September 1, 2014

iPod touch or iPhone Won't Charge: A Simple Solution

I recently ran into a serious problem with my iPod touch: it would not charge. IPhone owners have had similar problems. However, before you make that trip to the Apple Store, or worse, give up and order a new device, maybe the simple solution that worked for me will also help you.

I first noticed the problem when I had plugged in my iPod touch to charge it overnight. In the morning, instead of being all charged up, it was dead as a door nail. I tried replugging it again, nothing. But when I plugged it into the USB port of my laptop it charged okay. I thought maybe the electric socket or the charging plug was bad.

But next time I had to recharge the problem was still there, only this time the USB charging option did not work. I tried swapping out the lightning cable with the one from my iPad, no change: the cable was okay. I tried using the iPad charging plug, still no charge. Went back to my original cable and plug, and tried different plugs in the house - finally it was able to charge.

But each charge was an adventure. Normally, you'd plug it in to charge, and there would instantly be a "ding" and a message that the device was charging. Sometimes, it wouldn't charge at the beginning, but then charge a little later.  Or, really weird, it would charge but periodically "ding" on and off throughout the charging cycle!
Okay, this problem was not going away, and if I couldn't solve it, in short order my iPod touch would be a cold brick.

Doing further research, it seemed this was not an uncommon problem for iPod touch and iPhone users. I tried a few things, but restarting or resetting my device did not help.

But here is what did work: I took a wooden toothpick and gently poked out all lint that had accumulated in the lightning charge port. Like many guys, I carry my device in my pocket, and over time, the exposed lightning port slot had accumulated a good amount of lint. I was surprised at the amount I was able to pull out of that tiny hole.

I then plugged in my lightning cable to begin a charge and instantly received the "ding" charge acknowledgment. My iPod touch was back to normal charging!

My very high-tech device was brought down by a very low-tech problem: lint! The lint was preventing a clean electrical connection: hence the varied symptoms I saw.

Interestingly, what works so good in the PC world, a compressed gas duster that blows air, did not do the trick. The lightning port is so small, and somewhat deep, that the lint gets really pressed down in there - even with the compressed air the lint remained. Only with the toothpick was I able to get it lint-free.

Of course, your mileage may vary, but lint removal is an easy thing to try to fix your iPod touch or iPhone charging problem.
The culprit

Monday, January 20, 2014

Sync Outlook, iOS Calendars

My wife and I had what seemed on the surface to be a simple goal: establish a shared, online Family Calendar. My calendar is kept on my Apple devices, either my iPad or iPod touch. My wife, on the other hand, keeps her calendar in Microsoft Outlook (which contains the bulk of family events).  My Family Calendar simple request now required bridging the Apple, Microsoft worlds and the mobile, desktop worlds. Could this be done? Ultimately, yes, but not without some bumps in the road.

Sharing your iOS Calendar 
I had already done the first step: sharing my iOS calendar with my wife.  To do this, Edit the calendar you want to share, and add the person(s) under "Shared With".

Outlook sharing turned on

iCloud  Outlook calendar sharing checked

From this point it seemed clear what to do: install iCloud on my wife's laptop, configure it to share her Outlook calendar, and we should be good to go!

In short order I accomplished both of the above, and for good measure told Outlook to share, turned it on, and...nothing.  Nada.  Zip.

She dutifully continued to make Outlook calendar entries, which my Apple devices dutifully ignored. So much for easy cross-platform syncing.

After additional testing, the problem (surprise, surprise) seemed to lie with Outlook. Even though iCloud was set up for syncing, it seems the native Outlook calendar is not syncable.  The solution: ditch the native Outlook calendar and make all calendar entries in the shared (but different) calendar in Outlook.

Outlook showing only the shared calendars
This seems to work well. Outlook can be set up to show all calendars, shared and unshared. If you make entries in the shared Outlook calendar, iCloud will pick these up and sync it to your shared Apple devices. When my wife would create/change calendar of events in her Outlook on the shared calendar, these would be synced over to my mobile iPad and iPod touch.

However, a big problem remained: how to get the several dozen existing events from her native and unshared Outlook calendar over to the shared Outlook calendar. This would seem to be easy: do a  Select All/Copy in the original calendar and then a Paste into the shared calendar. Alas, Outlook won't let you do a Select All/Copy from the calendar view.  In Outlook 2010 you can change the calendar from a calendar view to a List view and then you can do your Select All/Copy/Paste from one to another.

Outlook 2007 View by Category

But my wife still uses Outlook 2007, which doesn't have a calendar list view feature. After a few more deadends, I found the answer: if I switched her native calendar to a "View by Category" view, I could copy all the entries from the native calendar and paste them into the new, shared calendar.

This worked!  All her original calendar entries then synced between our two calendars and -  finally - we had a Family Calendar shared between Outlook and iOS!

So, in summary, to sync your Outlook Calendar with your iOS devices:

  1. Share your iOS Calendar
  2. Install iCloud on your PC
  3. In Outlook, copy your native Calendar to an iCloud shared Calendar
  4. Make future changes only to the Outlook shared  calendar

Outlook Calendar Event now shows on my iOS Devices

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Shuffle by Genre for iOS Music App

It's common to shuffle your songs when listening to music on your iPhone or iPad using Apple's Music App.  Shuffle all your songs, shuffle for an artist, shuffle a playlist - no problem.  So how about shuffle within a genre, say hearing all your Rock songs in random order?  Alas, inexplicably, the latest iOS Music App does not provide a genre shuffle!

Of course, one could use the PC or Mac iTunes and create a Smart Playlist only for that genre and sync it.  But that's a hassle, and I really would prefer a mobile device-centric solution.

Fortunately, there is a workaround - simple, but hardly obvious - use Siri!  Give Siri the command to shuffle music by a certain genre, and assuming you can get her to understand you (often a challenge), your music can be genre-shuffled.

For example, both of these Siri commands shuffle by genre.  There are probably numerous other variations possible.
  • "Shuffle music by the rock genre"
  • "Genre shuffle Jazz"

Since it's possible to have Siri shuffle by genre, that capability obviously exists in the Music app - making it all the more odd that Apple excludes it from the music app's user interface.  Hopefully it will be added in the near future.

Thanks to my brother for this tip!