We have an Apple TV. Love it. We dumped cable TV, have no broadcast antenna, the Apple TV is it. We get the shows we like, that we’re curious to see, and watching as we want, when we want, to pause when we need to, no commercials, I’m all for it.
But there’s one problem.
Sometimes we go to start a show and the load time takes… well, it never loads. It’s mighty frustrating and unsatisfying when you sit down ready to relax with a favorite show, and you can’t get the show. Instead, you spend 10 minutes trying to troubleshoot and fiddle around to get things working. Reboot this, check configurations, etc..
Only some things have this problem. It seems to be high-def movies/shows. Music is rarely a problem, older shows encoded at lower quality no problem. So that tells you something.
But what gets further odd is streaming direct from the Internet (instead of the internal media server) is usually fine.
The signal strength is good. I even ensured to force it onto the 5Gz WiFi. I’ve checked the strength of other wireless devices in the same general area and they all get good, fast, transfer times.
This is not an uncommon complaint. A little Google searching turns up many people with similar problems.
At this point, I can only assume the Apple TV’s WiFi antenna sucks or has some other sort of throughput problems. Some network software I looked at seemed to show the Apple TV was only getting like 6 Mb/s data rate, which would explain the problems.
The solution? Ethernet. But there’s just no way I can run a wire through my house like that.
In my latest bout of frustration, I came across Powerline adapters. Basically, it’s a way of using your home electrical wiring as network cable. You buy at least 2 adapters: one plugs into the wall with a cable to your Ethernet hub/switch/router; the other plugs into the wall with a cable to the Ethernet port on the device (Apple TV in this case). If all goes well, you’ve now expanded your network through your electrical wiring! Ta da!
Now there seem to be caveats.
- There are a lot of standards, and you want hardware that conforms to the latest, fastest. What that is will vary as standards evolve. But again, Google will be your friend here. (e.g. “Powerline AV+ 500” or “HomePlug AV2”)
- Your home wiring quality will affect speeds.
- Be aware of how circuits affect connections. It does seem that if the adapters are all on the same wiring circuit, things should work. If they are on different circuits, it may or may not work — it just all depends how the wiring is all set up.
- In my case, the model I bought required the adapters to be on the same circuit to reset the encryption keys, but are working in normal function on two different circuits.
- So in short, ensure there’s a good return policy if things don’t work out for you.
- It’s never going to be as good as proper wiring, so you have to see if the trade-offs are worth it.
I bought a Actiontec 500 AV Powerline Network Adapter Kit (Retail SKU: PWR511K01). I stumbled upon a CNET review of a bunch of different Powerline adapters, and bought based upon their review of the Actiontec. Why this model? Because it was touted as the cheapest solution that basically worked, good for someone who wants to dabble but doesn’t want to spend a lot of money to do so. Yes, I wanted to go right for their recommended top pick of the Linksys PLEK500 because I like getting good stuff, and brands I know and can somewhat trust (who the heck is Actiontec??!?!). But for a first time? Fine, and if it didn’t work I could return it. The trade-offs for the lower price were things like the lack of a pass-through power socket (not a problem for me), using a regular Ethernet jack (not a problem as 100-Base-T should be sufficient for my need, and I expected line quality would be low anyways).
So how did it go?
Unboxing was nice. I didn’t expect to get 2 Ethernet cables with it, but I did. That was nice (I’ve got a box of cables, so I didn’t bother purchasing). They are small, and crafted to easily work on the wall jacks without taking up too much space and/or blocking the other jack from being used.
But then, the suck.
They make it sound easy, like plugging it in and away you go.
No signal, no nothing.
Their website troubleshooting doesn’t tell you much to really troubleshoot, but it does talk about resetting the encryption keys. Could that be the problem? Tried it, but the lights didn’t blink right. Used their online chat tech support. The first guy was not helpful — just wasn’t clear enough in his instructions. Then the session was abruptly ended; I was left with the impression he didn’t want to deal with me any more and killed the session. I tried following the instructions and still no dice. I contacted support again and this time got a much more helpful support person. He pointed out a key thing — both devices have to be on the same circuit for resetting the keys (tho they don’t for normal operation). So I tried that and managed to get everything reset, matched, and then went I plugged it all back in, it worked!
According to das blinkenlights, I’m getting less than 50 Mbps. Far from ideal, but testing so far is working well. Shows and movies that may not have loaded or took forever are loading fine now. So it may not be blazing, but it seems “good enough”.
For all the move to wireless (it felt weird to have no Ethernet port on my new MacBook Pro), it’s still tough to beat a good wired connection.
Updated (Aug 2014): Since I wrote this, I have dumped the Powerline approach. I think it might work out ok, but it would have sporadic issues that were a major pain to resolve, such as things seemed “out of sync” between the devices and it would be a major undertaking to try to get them to sync up and communicate with each other again. This possibly could be worked out with a better with a set like the Linksys, but I can’t say for sure (didn’t buy, no plans to buy). I also don’t know how much my house’s wiring was at play, with an older house and certainly having to “jump” circuits. But whatever the reason, this wound up being more trouble than worth.
So I went back to Wi-Fi.
Oddly, it seems to be working OK now.
What changed? I really can’t say. Maybe updates to the AppleTV software, maybe updates to iTunes.app, maybe both. Maybe the stars aligned better.
Sometimes things still get stupid, and usually restarting iTunes on the home media server and restarting the AppleTV clears things up.
I have wondered if a RAM upgrade on my server Mac Mini would help. It’s only got 8 GB and tends to run on the edge of that; maybe that’s a factor. But a 16GB RAM upgrade is a little expensive for me to justify right now.
Anyways, hopefully this helps y’all solve your problems.
Updated (January 2016): A few things have changed (improved) since I posted this.
First and foremost, the 3rd generation Apple TV that I originally wrote this about is no more. I have upgraded to the 4th generation Apple TV. Been using it for a few months (had one since before they were commercially available – I’m a developer and I was lucky enough to get one early) and I have to say it performs much better. For example, there’s a MUCH faster CPU in the 4th generation. But more relevant here is better networking. The 3rd generation only did 802.11 a/b/g/n, and the 4th generation adds ‘ac’. So if speed continues to be an issue for you, it may be worth considering getting a 4th generation Apple TV, and also looking at updating your wireless routers – that ‘ac’ may be helpful. As well, the 4th generation Apple TV brings in a host of other features and advances that I’ve found well-worth the upgrade.
Second, I finally did something about our Wi-Fi network. I always knew that I was losing signal towards that area of the house, and in the past I tried to boost it through various mechanisms, but nothing really worked out for one reason or another. Well, I opted to give it another go. I picked up a Mac app called WiFi Explorer and was able to see how the reception was in various parts of my house. I was also able to see how there were lots of other WiFi networks from my neighbors, which I knew about, but being able to see the channel overlap helped me find the least-populated channel and force my WiFi network to use that channel. That seemed to help a bit.
As well, I picked up an Apple AirPort Express and set it up as an extender. Is this the best way to extend a WiFi network? Nope. But given I already use an AirPort Time Capsule as our base network, I figured the setup and running of this would be easy and while there are trade-offs, I figured it was a cheap-enough investment to see if it would help things.
Sure enough, it’s proven to be quite a help. Yes there’s been some tradeoffs (as with any wireless extenders), but overall performance has been boosted and now the only problem we have is when Apple burps with Home Sharing every so often. Our “buffering” and waiting problems are generally a thing of the past.