New Apple TV shifts to Micro-USB port, challenging hackers

New Apple TV shifts to Micro-USB port, challenging hackers 1

Initially paid little attention on the first-generation Apple TV, a rear-facing USB port has been changed on the second-generation model—a point not mentioned during Wednesday’s introduction of the new Apple TV in San Francisco. The old port was a full-sized female USB connector, physically capable of connecting to keyboards, other peripherals, and even Apple’s own Dock Connector to USB cables; the new port is a female Micro-USB connector, located immediately beneath the HDMI port and labeled only with a small USB icon. Apple describes it as being “for service and support,” without further explanation.


Apple TV’s full-sized USB port was included on the original Apple TV solely for use by authorized service professionals, enabling a crashed device to be restarted and potentially diagnosed at an Apple Retail Store with appropriate tools. It was never supported by Apple for any type of accessories during the product’s three-year lifespan, despite some user interest in adding additional storage capacity, TV tuners, keyboards, and other peripherals to the device. However, hackers seized upon the USB port to enable unauthorized improvements to the device’s software, using inexpensive USB memory keys to create “patchsticks” that installed customized modifications, including services such as XBMC and Boxee.

Due to the change, USB to Micro-USB adapters will now be necessary to connect common devices to the second-generation Apple TV—assuming that hackers succeed in enabling it to be used for something other than service purposes. Until and unless that happens, the Micro-USB port will remain “for service and support,” only. (Thanks, Brian.)

  1. Hi Jesse/Brian:
    Just checked my camera bag. Must have a dozen of the micro cable. (Wiring not standard, no problem just cut the cable and re-wire.) This model will be a jailbreaker’s paradise. And it’s based on iOS4 so it can bring all the iPhone/iPodt & iPhone features to the new ATV. And that mini-usb (SERVICE!) port can add Trackpad and disk storage.

    Just a question of how long (next month!) this begins to unfold.


  2. @Terry (#1): I don’t doubt that anybody who would bother to take the time to hack their Apple TV will likely find this to be a minor issue once the OS issues are figured out. The lack of internal storage means that it may be more akin to re-flashing the device (like jailbreaking an iPhone) as opposed to simply installing a modified operating system — the lack of any requirement to actually store content on the Apple TV 2G implies that the iOS is more embedded than even on the iPhone, although if it’s upgradable over-the-air I’m sure it’s also flash-able via the USB port.

    What the micro-USB port may deter, however, is the number of less experienced users who are installing stuff on their Apple TV’s without fully knowing what they’re doing. In the last year or so, patchsticks became so easy to build and use that a lot of people were hacking their Apple TV’s without really understanding what they were in for.

  3. Er.. how exactly is anyone going to bring ‘all the iPhone/iPod Touch & iPhone features to the new ATV’ when it doesn’t have a touchscreen? Or a Camera? Or Phone functionality? How is anyone going to hack it like an iPhone when the iOS 4 hacks so far IIRC have relied on the device already running iOS and some sort of app layer for a web browser or such?

    The Apple TV is not an iphone in a box. It’s running some of the same hardware and probably the same kernalbut that appears to be about it. Any hack and app that requires anything more than the kernel to present – which is all of them – isn’t going to work without a hell of a lot of effort.

    Is the new AppleTV hackable? More than likely. Will it just be a case of doing whatever works for the iPhone? Almost certainly not. Will it ever be able to run the majority of iphone apps? I’d bet serious money against it. The 2G Apple TV may some day run Boxee or XBMC but it’ll never run Angry Birds.

  4. Micro-USB may be a common interface, but Micro-USB storage devices are not common at all. USB memory sticks were the method most commonly used to hack the Apple TV, since the first-generation could be convinced to boot from an external USB storage device like a memory stick.

  5. When I heard the new Apple TV would have an USB port I thought it would be for external storage (external harddrives or memory sticks) just like all the other media players on the market. Just service and support? Not good, Apple. If the Apple TV can’t use external storage, but need a dedicated server……it’s simply not for me.

    PS. Micro-USB is common. My camera and my mobile (my other mobile) uses it. So I have a couple of cables for it.

  6. Wouldn’t a simple USB to micro USB adapter make all these “countermeasures” on Apple’s part pointless? Found one for $1.75 of Amazon, so I am a little unconvinced this is a challenge to hackers, more likely just a way to shave a little space off the internals.

  7. I agree that’s the primary purpose, although the extra challenge is a slight bonus for the reasons I stated earlier: A determined hacker will hack their Apple TV anyway, but it will dissuade many of the novice users, who probably shouldn’t be messing with things they don’t understand, from being able to do this too easily.

    Patchsticking an Apple TV has become as easy as jailbreaking an iPhone in many regards, with one-click installers available that will create a XBMC/Boxee patchstick with little to no effort, after which the user simply plugs it in to the USB port, plugs in the Apple TV, and suddenly has a hacked unit in about five minutes.

    I spoke to one of the guys at the Genius Bar a few months ago who mentioned that there had actually been a rash of people bringing in hacked Apple TV’s for service and repair — one guy even complained that Hulu wasn’t working properly and expected the Apple Store Genius to fix it (and this was at an Apple Store in [i]Canada[/i], where Hulu is obviously not available).

    I remain convinced that all of Apple’s efforts to make hacking their devices more difficult are not targeted at the legitimate tech-savvy hackers, who are a small minority of users anyway, but rather to prevent idiots from screwing up their devices with a “one-click jailbreak” and dodgy system extensions.

  8. Apple’s approach to the iTV or ATV (or whatever they want to call it) is so counter to the rest of their product line. Instead of upgrading performance and/or options, they’re dumbing it down! This tells me Apple is still not comfortable with video streaming – and considering the increasingly sophisticated competition – this may doom the new product as quickly as the old one.

    Even adding Netflix is old-hat: newer blu-ray players and Tivo already have that. Some newer flat panel TVs do that as well.

    It’s also clear that the dumbing down strategy is an attempt to lock it firmly to Apple’s own media options. That’s like creating a network that tries to make the internet proprietary! It may work but it will never succeed. Apple needs to sell millions of these to make it worth their while. Good luck!

  9. Has anyone been able to get a micro-usb flashdrive to boot the Appletv? Since it is not an active drive I cannot get the ATV to actually “boot” from the micro-usb. The micro-usb port will only activate if you unplug the power and HDMI cables. Any thoughts or website links that could answer this question?

  10. Hang on a sec, isn’t the real issue here that the atv2 is a USB device and not a USB host?

    I could well be wrong as I seem to recall the ipad had the ability to attach cameras to it, but it’s probably more relevant than the size of the socket.

  11. I’ve been trying all my micro usb cables here, and non seem to fit the apple 2.1 A1378 Apple TV black hockey puck…is it an apple-only micro-usb connection? The hole seems a lot wider than a normal micro-usb connector.

  12. So apple moved from a dated USB connector to the new now “universal” usb connector and it’s supposed to stumble hackers? You do realize that every modern cell phone (besides the iPhone) uses that connector for data and for power. So i’m sure that a majority of the population purchasing an Apple TV will have a slight clue as to what and how to connect that port to a computer. I do not see this stumbling even the most un-educated of it’s users….
    I would love to run boxee and hulu and XMBC… Please hackers! Figure out that mind boggling connector ASAP so you can get your HACK on!

  13. I have a way! shave down the HDMI cables plug area where it gets all fat and plasic ish, then plug it in and the micro-usb cable, worked for me!

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