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Summary:

The Apple TV, as envisioned by Apple, is truly a very niche market device. You’re basically paying money for something that lets you pay more money to buy or rent music, movies and TV shows from the iTunes store. Sure, you can also stream content from […]

AppleTV-xbmc-boxeeThe Apple TV, as envisioned by Apple, is truly a very niche market device. You’re basically paying money for something that lets you pay more money to buy or rent music, movies and TV shows from the iTunes store. Sure, you can also stream content from iTunes on a computer, but when trying to stream from a central generic media device, the out of the box software just doesn’t cut it.

It is, however, possible to customize your Apple TV with unauthorized third party software (much like a jailbreak for iPhones/iPod touches) to transform it into a fantastic cheap media player (with certain limitations).

Suitable For Your Needs?

Now I have a Mac mini downstairs connected to my HDTV with EyeTV USB tuners and I think this is the ideal setup. However, upstairs in my bedroom I have an old SD TV that was paired up with an old HP laptop running windows with XBMC. The HP’s lack of stability finally became too frustrating, so after researching my options, I spent AU$330 (~US$276) on an Apple TV box and put XBMC on it.

My SD TV has component plugs so Apple TV works fine with it, and I’ve not had one hiccup while streaming .avi files from my file server over my wireless network. Its important to note, however, that some 720p HD playback can be a bit jerky, due to XBMC not having hardware acceleration support — but if you’re like me and wouldn’t want to watch 720p downscaled this doesn’t matter. I’ve finally got a totally stable (and completely silent) wireless TV streamer upstairs that I can control with my iPhone.

Here’s a complete guide on how to load XBMC and Boxee on to your Apple TV to make it much more useful.

Required Tools

*A USB Memory stick with at least 512MB that can be formatted.
*A PowerPC or Intel Mac. The procedure can also be done from a windows box, but since this is TheAppleBlog, this guide is exclusive to Macs.
*An AppleTV device with firmware version 2.3 (the most current at the time of this writing).

Preparing

Head over to http://code.google.com/p/atvusb-creator/ and download the OSX version of the atvusb-creator. This will let you boot your Apple TV from the USB stick and install the required patches to your device.

First, you should remove all USB drives from your computer as a safety precaution to prevent accidentally picking the wrong USB device to create your patchstick. Insert your empty USB stick and run atvusb-creator.app:
AppleTV-Hack1
The default options as above are suitable for most, so you can go ahead and click the “Create Using ->” button (assuming your usb pathstick is the only usb drive connected as recommended). This will partition and format the patchstick and then copy all the required files to it. With this done, it’s time to go to your Apple TV.

Patching Apple TV

Unplug the power cable from your Apple TV and put the USB stick in the port at the back.

ATV-usbport

Plug your Apple TV back in and watch the custom Linux OS do its work. This will take a few minutes and you will see lots of lines of text:

ATV-linux-patching

When you see the text “Please unplug your Apple TV to reboot/reset the device” you can unplug your USB stick and reset. When it boots up again, you will now see a slightly altered menu:

ATV-menu1

You now have both XBMC and Boxee installed on your Apple TV — however its best to update your system to the latest releases. From the new XBMC/Boxee menu on the left, go into the “Updates” menu on the right. Then select the Launcher 3.1 download:

ATV-menu2

This will be a quick download and update process. You should then also turn off Apple TV’s ability to automatically update itself. This is to prevent any new updates from Apple breaking your ability to use XBMC or Boxee. This can be done in the “Settings” menu by toggling the “ATV OS Update Enabled” option to “No”:

ATV-menu3

You can then download the latest stable release of XBMC and/or Boxee in the newly renamed “Downloads” menu. The standard Apple TV Remote works fine in both XBMC and Boxee. There are also a number of iPhone/iPod touch apps that let you control these directly.

Running the Latest Bleeding Edge XBMC

If you’re brave (or some may say foolish), you can also run the latest nightly builds of XBMC. To do this you’ll need to telnet into your Apple TV and set a preference via the command line to make this option appear in Launcher’s Downloads menu. From a command line tool (such as Terminal that comes with OSX) type:

ssh frontrow@appletv.local

When prompted for a password, enter frontrow and then type:

defaults write com.teamxbmc.xbmclauncher XBMCAdditionalDownloadPlistURLs -array http://www.sshcs.com/xbmc/Info.asp

This will then enable the option in Launcher to download a latest nightly build of XBMC:
ATV-menu4

Restoring to Factory Settings

If you want to restore your Apple TV to its vanilla settings, simply follow these steps. From a command line tool type:

ssh frontrow@appletv.local

When prompted for a password, enter frontrow and then type:

sudo rm -rf /Applications/{Boxee,XBMC}.app/
sudo rm -rf /System/Library/CoreServices/Finder.app/Contents/PlugIns/XBMCLauncher.frappliance/
rm -rf /Users/frontrow/Library/Application Support/{BOXEE,XBMC}/
sudo reboot

It’s a shame Apple doesn’t seem interested in unlocking the power of their home media device themselves, but at least doing it on your own isn’t as difficult as you might expect.

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  1. The AppleTV is such a nice little machine it’s too bad Apple only sees it as an avenue for selling iTunes stuff on. I am not interested in purchasing video/music from anyone. Neither am I interested in the social networking that seems to be the emphasis in Boxee. My only interest in it as a media center would be to play my collection of DVD that were ripped (Video_TS) into my server. I did try hacking it when it first came out and then later I tried early versions of Boxee on it a couple of times. Unfortunately I could never get it to quite do the trick for me so I found another use for it. Early on I installed Debian Linux on it and carried it in the same fashion that some people carry a dumb external USB hard disk as it is smaller than most when you account for the power brick. I had it setup so that it did automated backups on my laptop, it acted as my Subversion server, well , in short, it was a full fledged portable server. Some months ago my needs changed so now it just sits around. Maybe I’ll give XBMC/Boxee a try a third time now that you’ve reminded me of it.

  2. abednarz.net » How-To: Making The Most Of Apple TV With XBMC And Boxee Tuesday, August 18, 2009

    [...] how at The Apple Blog Categories: theAppleBlog Tags: Comments (0) Trackbacks (0) Leave a comment [...]

  3. Such a shame that it’s underpowered. Would be great if it played HD smoothly.

    1. It plays 720P h.264 fines if you use a low profile settings when encoding. I am using Handbrake for windows with the default appleTv template. The only thing I did is rise up video resolution to 1280×720.
      Plays perfectly with both XBMC and native AppleTV player.

    2. Just going to add up that most movies and tv shows torrents use H264 high profile, so most of this stuff wont play fine. If you rip and make your own stuff from your Bluerays, you wont encounter this problem since all you have to do is use the proper encoder settings.

  4. None of this works outside of the one country (USA).

    How polite of you to mention that (not).

    1. Thats funny, since I’m in Australia and it works fine.

    2. Funny, I’m in Canada and have been using XBMC on my AppleTV for months.

  5. links for 2009-08-18 at So It’s Come To This: Tuesday, August 18, 2009

    [...] How-To: Making The Most Of Apple TV With XBMC And Boxee (tags: howto apple Hardware hacks TV) [...]

  6. so, I’ve been using my aTV almost exclusively with boxee since Dec 08 to stream video from my iMac. it works great (except for HD content as you mention, but seeing as I’m an HD newb it hasn’t bothered me… after 2 years with no cable/satellite the availability of content was more important than the picture quality.)

    but thing is, I’ve never tried XBMC… is it worth a look? what advantages does it hold over boxee?

    will either of them ever do true HD?

    1. Boxee is actually based on XBMC, with all the online content on top. I’m not interested in online content, just the content of my local SMB shares, so XBMC is the quickest way to get there.

  7. I have 2 AppleTVs with boxee on both of them. It works great for me and was the simplest solution for streaming video content I have on my computer to the TV. Haven’t had any of the jerkiness mentioned, just looks great. I have a windows box so creating the patchstick was more complicated than necessary but I believe they now have a true windows release so it should be easier for most. Also, I can access Hulu, though it’s been an on and off again thing, but right now it is on. I love Boxee.

  8. I am using hacked AppleTVs to play Video_TS files as well, but I prefer the nitoTV interface, it’s much cleaner. I do use Boxee to stream Pandora and to watch the Daily Show. Boxee has a great iPhone remote app that will displays the current Pandora song.

  9. “Its important to note, however, that some 720p HD playback can be a bit jerky, due to XBMC not having hardware acceleration support”

    No, this is because like other generic media extenders your ATV tries to playback content as well as it can, it can’t guarantee playback unless you fix the media to a standard profile. In connecting it directly with open content of any profile you’ve bypassed iTunes’ QA step (convert to AppleTV) that ensures the content will play back on the ATV. This step means consumers aren’t exposed to the sub-par experience you describe as it provides the same guarantee that allows DVD Video profile media from any source to play on any DVD Video player.

    Let’s hope the hackers will provide their own QA function and see it as a critical requirement rather than part of a locked-down system which is trying to oppress them! (probably some kind of self-assurance that they’re actually important enough to oppress). Until then my ATV will remain un-hacked.

    McD

  10. I have gone down the road with Boxee on my ATV using ATVFlash for software. All came to a grinding halt when I discovered that I had to be using an Intel Mac as host. I am still using a PPC iBook!
    Should I give this patch a try? … Can I get XBMC and maybe even Boxee to work using my PPC?

    1. The atvusb-creator (http://code.google.com/p/atvusb-creator/) has a PPC version so you should be fine. All you need the Mac (intel or PPC) for is creating the USB stick.

  11. Plex is the way to go for Macs

  12. Just installed Boxee and XBMC onto my Apple TV. Couple of questions arise. Is their an easy way to get Boxee to recognize and play iTunes music? That would include old DRM-infested music, newer purchases without DRM, and music ripped from CDs. Also, what to do about applications on Boxee that just do not work?

  13. I have my ATV running XBMC and Boxee. As for playing DVD’s, the USB port becomes live if you install the kextloader update in NitoTV. I attached a 1 gb USB drive that has DVDshrink ripped DVD’s, works like a charm.

  14. I’ve tried using the code above to get the download for the nightly build but I get an error whenever I try to start the download through Apple TV.

    I’m using the latest launcher, on the most recent Apple TV software. Am I doing something wrong? I see it there on the bottom of the selections in downloads (like in the screenshots) but it doesn’t work… any ideas?

  15. I’ve been using an ATV & XBMC for over a year, I’ve never even touched the other stuff it comes with.

    I prefer the ATV to a mini because it’s eaiser to explain to my wife how to get XBMC started if the system crashes for what ever reason.

    The only drawback is the in ability of the system to play back full HD (@ 1080), which I’ve had my mini do.

    While some might say an optical drive would be nice, the purpose of having the system run the xbmc is to do away for need to these things…but that’s my opinion…

  16. links for 2010-02-08 | .:: a few thoughts on the subject by rob wright ::. Monday, February 8, 2010

    [...] How-To: Making The Most Of Apple TV With XBMC And Boxee (tags: apple appletv boxee xbmc) February 08th 2010 Posted to Links [...]

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