How-To: Making The Most Of Apple TV With XBMC And Boxee

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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