Apple TV Hacking and Final Thoughts

Hacking the Apple TV

This is something that has picked up faster than I ever thought it would – Apple TV hacks are all over the place even though the device has been shipping for a few weeks.  Here’s the short list of what exists:

  • Full Mac OS X install
  • Upgrade the hard drive
  • Enable SSH
  • Apache web server
  • RSS Reader plug-in
  • Boot off of USB drive
  • Play no-iTunes video (DivX, Xvid, etc)
  • Emulator for gaming (NES, SNES)
  • Apple TV OS on standard Macs

Now, all of these hacks exist in various levels of stability and support; some are easy to do and others involve quite a bit of modification to the system.  Some can be done without even opening the system!  The one key here that I didn’t realize initially is that you must have a Mac OS computer running in order to install and run some plug-ins since you need to be able to read and modify the Apple TV drive and file system. 

The possibilities with these hacks, as they become easier to install and more reliable, are very interesting as it could really make the Apple TV a device that the Xbox 360 and others could wish to be.  If we could play ANY video on the Apple TV, regardless of where it came from, as well as read updated RSS feeds (thus getting our news from Apple TV), connect an external hard drive for more content and maybe play some emulated legacy games while listening to some new audio tracks, the Apple TV would be an incredibly useful addition to your digital home. 

So far, these hacks have not been condemned of “fixed” by Apple meaning that they haven’t taken the time to update the firmware to prevent these hacks.  And in reality, there has been no indication from Apple that they will or will not do so in the future — many are speculating that the hacks are actually welcomed by Apple especially with the recent push for non-DRM music percolates through the system.  Hopefully Apple will continue to turn a blind eye towards this and let the Apple TV develop into a cult-status item; or maybe even open up more features themselves!

You can check several places for more info on the Apple TV hacks:

Quality of Experience

With all the hardware and software analysis out of the way, this really comes down to is what kind of experience the Apple TV provides, how it compares to other similar options on the market and if it’s worth the money you need to shell out for it.

For Joe Sixpack consumer, the Apple TV offers a great out-of-the-box experience without much headache.  By simply plugging in the Apple TV and turning it on, setting up the wireless network and then matching it with iTunes on your computer, I was streaming audio and video within 5 minutes or so.  If you have a large collection of audio and/or video already in an iTunes library setup, the Apple TV will very easily allow you to stream this content to anywhere else in your home where you have an ED or HD television and enjoy it a more home theater type setting.

Apple TV Review - Bringing Digital Media to your TV - Systems 42

The audio quality is very good here and since the data sizes are pretty small for this, this makes sense.  The video qualities are a different story: the quality of video when blown up on an HDTV is always going to be bad when the image starts at a low resolution.  Most of the TV shows, music videos and movies are sent out in 320×240 or 640×480 (in the case of movies) and thus stretching that to a 1280×720 or 1920×1080 (1080i) is going to produce sub-par video quality. 

High definition video is the next wave, in the form of HD-DVD and Blu-ray discs and HD content available on the Xbox 360 marketplace, and not having that in the current form of the Apple TV and iTunes makes it seems slightly aged in design.  There is just starting to be some HD content on iTunes in the form of Washington Post HD video cast — and it works fine on the Apple TV and looks pretty good.  Hopefully we’ll begin to see more of this in the near future!

Compared to the Xbox 360 working as a media extender, the Apple TV is missing some features such as the ability to find new content easier and the ability to buy that content over the extender itself instead of having to do it on your PC.  The ability to “rent” HD videos on the Xbox 360 is definitely something that is worthwhile (if you had more than 20GB of space) and value to the system as a whole.  In general though, these are iTunes issues not really anything specific to the Apple TV.

Final Thoughts

The Apple TV is a very elegant solution to a sometimes difficult problem: getting all that media from your PC to your TV.  If getting your music and iTunes videos to your TV where you can watch them more easily is what you are after, the Apple TV is a perfect device for you.  If you are trying to get the latest technology and HD content from your PC to your TV, the Apple TV has a few hurdles you’ll have to deal with including possible hacks or just waiting for Apple to start offering that content.  The $299 price tag might seem pretty steep at first, but with all the hardware and software involved in the Apple TV, and considering this is the lowest priced Mac computer ever made available by Apple, it’s ALMOST a steal. 

The Apple TV has great potential and opens a lot of doors for the digital home for everyone. 

If you have any comments or questions on my review, or would like to see what others are saying about the Apple TV, join in the discussion in this thread of the PC Perspective forums!

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