Perhaps the most fascinating thing about last month’s release of Apple TV is the hacking phenomenon that has followed. Every several days, it seems like someone new has pried open the $299 wireless media playing peripheral, changed its hardware or software, and posted photos on the Internet. In every case, the implicit suggestion is the same: as it’s sold, Apple TV doesn’t do enough, so rather than waiting for Apple to expand its capabilities, people are doing that themselves.
Not everyone is dissatisfied with Apple TV, though: many people are just trying to figure out how to create truly great-looking video content that can be displayed on their HDTVs. So we’ve compiled a collection of information on how you can make the most of an Apple TV, regardless of whether you’re looking for more hard disk space, software-specific changes to its features, or just Apple-compliant video content to enjoy. We consider it a work-in-progress, and will update it with new information as time goes on.
Since many of the hardware hacks below will invalidate your warranty, or worse, we’re not recommending any of them. Only skilled users – or those with big enough pocketbooks to pay for the upgrades – should consider taking them on, and even then, there’s no guarantee that a hacked Apple TV will run any updated software that Apple releases in the future. Similarly, complex and sometimes confusing international laws govern even the creation of video content that can play on Apple TV; some countries allow you to convert your DVDs to Apple TV format, while others do not. For these reasons, consider all the pointers below to be strictly and completely at your own risk, and try them only if you’re sure your actions aren’t in violation of your country’s laws.
Upgrade Your Hard Drive
One of the most common complaints about Apple TV is its limited storage capacity: serious digital media fans will never be able to dump all of their existing audio, video, and photo content onto its sub-33GB hard disk. That fact led hackers almost immediately to pry open the unit’s casing and try to insert bigger hard disks – an effort that somewhat surprisingly succeeded. Consequently, you can currently more than quadruple the unit’s storage space: 2.5” hard disks ranging from 60GB to 160GB in capacity can be had for $150 or less, not including labor, with the top-sized drives providing more than four times the Apple TV’s stock capacity.
The labor involved isn’t trivial, and it will void the device’s warranty. This tutorial, provided by Apple TV Hacks, walks you through the hard disk upgrade process, which will require you to use a 2.5” to FireWire drive bridge card or 2.5” hard disk external enclosure, a Torx screwdriver, and some Mac software to complete the upgrade process. If any of those phrases isn’t familiar to you, don’t consider upgrading the hard disk on your own. Four companies will do it for you, each offering a hard drive upgrade or pre-installation service that costs $50 or so more than the retail price of the hard disk capacity you choose.
iResQ’s prices range from $199 to $259 for 80GB to 160GB upgraded drives, including overnight pickup and delivery.
iResQ uses 80GB Hitachi drives, but notes that brands may vary for all of its capacities of drives. Hitachi drives are generally considered to be very well made; Apple uses Fujitsus in Apple TVs.
MacService’s prices range from $195 to $295 for 60GB to 160GB drives, including free round trip ground shipping. MacService guarantees that all of its drives except for the 120GB Seagate are made by Hitachi.
PowerMax will sell you an Apple TV with a 120GB hard drive for a $150 premium over the standard $299 price, or $449 total. The brand of drive isn’t specified, but PowerMax provides a one-year warranty on the modified unit.
TechRestore offers upgrades ranging from 60GB to 160GB, starting at $100 and going up to $220. The company also sells pre-upgraded Apple TVs for premiums of $100-200 – a better deal, especially as $100 buys you an 80GB Apple TV rather than a 60GB unit, and $200 gets you the 160GB model. Shipping isn’t included, though, so if you’re upgrading an already-purchased unit, you’ll pay an extra $19 plus self-shipping, or $49 more for two-way overnight TechRestore shipping. No specific hard drive manufacturer is noted by the company, but a 3-5 year manufacturer’s warranty is guaranteed on the drive.
Video Format, USB, and Mac OS X/Linux Support
One of the biggest complaints about Apple TV relates to its limited video format support: as shipped, and unlike Apple’s popular QuickTime video software, the device can’t play files unless they’ve been converted into MPEG-4 or H.264 formats. Within days of Apple TV’s release, hackers had figured out how to make the device play back Xvid and Divx videos – more popular standards – with only a small amount of work, and a couple of custom parts. The bad news is that you will most likely have to void your Apple TV’s warranty in the process.
The hack, detailed here, requires two free Mac programs called Perian and Save as MOV, a Torx screwdriver to open your Apple TV, and either a 2.5” hard drive enclosure or a 2.5” to FireWire drive bridge card. Once the hard drive has been removed from the Apple TV and connected to the enclosure or bridge card, Perian is added to the hard drive, and Save as MOV performs an automatic conversion process on all of your Divx or Xvid movies, requiring about one minute per movie to render it viewable on the Apple TV. Divx and Xvid movies still need to be placed in the Apple TV’s iTunes-synchronized library so that you can browse them.
Separately, AwkwardTV has come up with a hack that adds an additional menu option – called a frapplication – to Apple TV’s main screen. This hack lets you bypass running the Save as MOV converter and synchronizing your videos into the standard iTunes Movies/TV Shows/Music Videos/Video Podcasts hierarchy, and instead plays videos it finds in a separate directory on the Apple TV hard disk.
Additional frapplications are under development, with a tutorial here. One user has run a Nintendo Entertainment System emulator on Apple TV though this method; other application hacks will surely follow.
Hackers also have figured out how to enable an unopened Apple TV to boot from a modified USB hard drive – including one containing Mac OS X 10.4 – and daisy-chain other USB peripherals such as a keyboard and mouse. Though Apple TV’s processors aren’t optimized for a full OS X install, they can run the operating system competently enough to serve as an underpowered, feature-limited Mac mini. The tutorial – usable only by expert users, and then, ones who are willing to install a modified version of Mac OS X on the drive – can be found here. In the meanwhile, a similar project to install Linux on Apple TV continues to make progress. We wouldn’t be surprised if a future firmware update disabled these OS and USB hacks altogether.
Why? Aside from questions about the OS X hack’s legality – hackers claim to have modified the operating system legally, but that’s unclear – Apple has previously suggested that Apple TV’s USB port was intentionally designed not to be used for purposes like these. From where we’re standing, most of these hacks aren’t mainstream enough to negatively affect Apple, but the company may well feel differently, and if it does, expect the next round of Apple TV software or hardware to discourage these sorts of patches.
Play it Safe
If you’re not interested in opening up your Apple TV or trying all sorts of software tricks to get around its limitations, MacMerc has compiled a nice list of Mac programs to help you create and enjoy videos in Apple’s preferred formats. We’ve added a few picks to their list of programs.
TubeSock and Video Flash Downloader: These two applications are able to grab videos from free video-sharing services – Video Flash Downloader is able to pull files from Youtube, Google Video, and other services, while TubeSock works only with YouTube. But while Video Flash Downloader only locates and transfers files to your Mac without Apple TV format-conversion, TubeSock also includes an automatic converter that creates MPEG-4, H.264, or MPEG-3 audio files that can be enjoyed on an Apple TV or iPod.
iSquint / VisualHub: iSquint is a free, fast Mac program from Techspansion that quickly creates iPod- and Apple TV-ready video files from many other common video formats. VisualHub is the same company’s newer, more powerful version that fixes issues in iSquint, which hasn’t been updated for over 4 months, and creates even better-looking, Apple TV-optimized videos. The latest version of VisualHub we’ve tested can’t convert everything – Apple’s recent .QTL trailers had issues, for example – but what it does do, it does very well, and very quickly.
HandBrake / MediaFork: After a long, confusing period of cross-development – the original developer of HandBrake stopped work, and recently permitted newer developers of MediaFork to take over the project – the Mac and PC DVD-to-iPod/Apple TV conversion utilities have been united under the HandBrake name. At least, they will be, soon.