Apple TV, the Do It All Machine

by Chris Seibold Oct 02, 2008

There are rumors of an Apple TV update/replacement. Why change something so perfect, so completely awesome as the Apple TV? Really, it does boggle the mind. What's that you say? You've checked into it and the Apple TV doesn't do anything you that seems remotely useful? No TV time shifting, you can't watch your DVDs on it, no recording and to top it all off the hard drive is woefully undersized. I see the problem. You are using your Apple TV as Apple intended. Yeah, if you do that then the Apple TV is a waste of cash and electricity. So let's make the Apple TV great. If you already have one you'll be set, if a new one comes out you'll be able to grab the old model for a huge discount and be very happy

Let's start with the easiest trick to turn the Apple TV into a media monster: extending the storage capacity. You can (and probably will want to) hook a USB drive directly to the Apple TV and use it for storage. But that involves some non Apple approved hacking so let's start off easy. Here's the basic deal: You've got a computer with scads of ports. You've got a locked down Apple TV with no obvious way to add additional storage. If only there was some way to add a removable drive to your computer and have the Apple TV use that extra storage. No problem

Put all your content (all that will fit anyway) on the removable drive. IT could be a USB 2 or FireWire drive, it really doesn't matter. Now get ready to drag all that content into iTunes. If you just drag the files into iTunes then iTunes will copy all the files from the removable drive to your main hard drive. Wasted time and duplicated space. So before you drag the media press the option key. iTunes will add the music/movies/TV shows to your library but not copy the files.

So what does this do for your Apple TV? As long as keep iTunes running your computer you can set your Apple TV to share the library. Once it is shared, all your media goes with it. So now you have  a nearly infinitely large Apple TV hard drive. How well does the streaming work? Over a G network there is a very short pause, between two and three seconds, after you select a movie and the time it starts playin

But that just means more storage, storage that you'd go broke filling up if you bought stuff from the iTunes store. Let's take care of of why you'd need extra storage and time shifting TV in the next step. Recall that one of the complaints about the Apple TV is that it isn't a PVR (personal video recorder). But, since you are using your Mac for storage anyway it can be. This stunt involves a program called TVShows, the willingness to torrent some files and some automation trickery.

First off grab TVShows. TVShows is a torrent tracker dedicated to music. Just kidding, it is dedicated to TV shows. Launch it and you'll find a long list of shows you can subscribe to (in HD if you wish). Since it is just a tracker you'll also need a torrent downloading application. TVShows recommends Transmission but any engine will do. Installation of both apps is straight forward and the entire process (checking availability, grabbing the show) is automatic

Good news, you've got time shifted shows on your computer! Bad news, you can't watch them because the Apple TV can't read the format! Solution: iSquint, simple to use, can transform the downloaded video into something usable by the Apple TV. Bam, your Apple TV is now a PVR. With folder actions, Automator and maybe AppleScript you can get these shows added automatically to iTunes for your viewing pleasure.

Wow, now your Apple TV is becoming more useful. You can time shift TV, use as much storage as you want but what about those pesky DVDs? You can push as hard as you want but jamming a DVD into the Apple TV is really difficult

But you still want DVDs on you Apple TV, right? If you've got a fast machine this is no problem, but it is processor intensive. For example, a feature length movie takes about 10 hours to rip on my G5 tower and about an hour to rip on my 3 GHz iMac. If you've got the time and the horsepower to rip movies then grab Handbrake and start ripping away. Add the movies to your iTunes library and you'll have a box full of backup DVDs and a newly uncluttered DVD storage area

There's a ton more you can do to make your Apple TV great. You can install a browser on the thing (pretty cool), add Perian so you don't have to transcode movies, set up torrent app to skip the computer part entirely and so forth. Perhaps in a future column. But get started using the "new" Apple TV today.



  • yes, one school of thought is to pack more hardware and functions into AppleTV to make it like a TiVo, Slingbox, BluRay DVD, and Windows media server all rolled into one. but somehow i don’t see Steve Jobs going that way ...

    another is to add more software tools to make it a dumbed-down HTPC, including a browser and stand-alone iTunes media library/processor. well, maybe ...

    but my favorite idea is very different: to clone iPod Touch software on it, including all your apps, then using a Touch or iPHone as a wifi remote control for it. now that would be killer, really something new.

    Alfiejr had this to say on Oct 02, 2008 Posts: 18
  • I agree.  I wasn’t interested much in the AppleTV, either, simply because of the lack of hard drive space.  I purchased one (cheap at $200 for the low end unit) with the intention of hacking it to allow a directly-attached external hard drive.

    I downloaded the free Handbrake and started converting my large DVD library to an iTunes/AppleTV-friendly format.

    After I had converted a few movies, I stumbled across the little tip this article speaks of: If you simply leave iTunes running on the main Mac, AppleTV can pick the movies up right off the Mac.  No need to hack… this is part of the Apple software’s normal capability!  Love it!

    My wife, recovering from back surgery, can now lay in bed and scan through our whole library (which remains on shelves in the living room, downstairs), and watch all she wants without ever having to load a single disk.  All with the cheapest, bottom-end AppleTV using included, non-scary hacky built-in abilities, a cheap external hard drive from the local Best Buy, and some free software.  Genius!

    compudude had this to say on Oct 02, 2008 Posts: 4
  • Too much work, too much theft, too much garbage!

    All I want from Apple to make the AppleTV the killer product is select plugins. The current offer should be made to:
    NBC, ABC, CBS, FOX (major networks)
    NFL, MLB, NBA (major sports networks)

    Now with just Hulu, you have the vast majority of major prime time shows time shifted for free. Use the money you save by canceling cable or satellite to setup an iTunes allowance, and use that money to purchase season passes of the shows you really like. If netflix comes on board you can choose between giving them some of that money or just having more for iTunes purchases and rentals.

    The end is near for cable and satellite TV providers. IPTV is on it’s way and ultimately it will be much more affordable, providing more choices and better revenue for content developers. IMHO.

    Doug Petrosky had this to say on Oct 02, 2008 Posts: 26
  • One of the things that ATV could do IMO is make the storage user-expandable (and cutting the price accordingly).

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Oct 05, 2008 Posts: 2220
  • One mistake in the article - if you download a TV show in High Def, then the free iSquint will make the resolution lower.

    One extra mention for the article - if you convert to MP4 but not H264, conversions of your files run much quicker. Can’t do HD this way though.

    I like the AppleTV, but it needs expandability. It would be great to allow plugins - ranging from extra video codecs to “dashboard-like” applications. If Apple wants to stay on-side with the networks, then something simple like allowing access to the network streaming videos would be an interesting start.

    Greg Alexander had this to say on Oct 07, 2008 Posts: 228
  • If you are seriously going to rip your DVD collection into something the ÓTV can play without the pauses (since the ÓTV can’t yet play full bitrate 720p/1080p torrents mind you)...please, and I mean please help yourselves to MPEG Streamclip (Mac or PC) ( ).

    I am a heavy user of both Handbrake and MPEG Streamclip (my day job) and I give an edge to MPEG Streamclip for being almost an appliance. A DVD ripping toaster. There is a default ÓTV settings for those folks not inclined to play around MPEG4 H.264 profiles, etc, etc.

    Enjoy your ÓTV like I enjoy mine. Now if someone can figure out how to use the in-built USB2 to expand the ÓTV storage with those 2TB drives. Twinkle, twinkle, little star… wink

    For those a little more adventorous folks:

    FYI: even if you SCREW UP your ÓTV patchstick install, the boot code will detect the flaw and will eventually ask you to “Restart Finder, Restart ÓTV, or Restore to Factory” settings. Always select the “Factory” to start over again.

    Enjoy ÓTV hackin’ wink

    Robomac had this to say on Oct 26, 2008 Posts: 846
  • “One extra mention for the article - if you convert to MP4 but not H264, conversions of your files run much quicker. Can’t do HD this way though.” Greg

    MP4 (part 2) and MP4 H.264 (part 10) CAN do HD just as MP2 can. HD is defined as anything above 480p. Interestingly, TV uses 960x540p as its native HD mode. 480i/p movies are called standard definition (SD) as it is roughly equal to NTSC/PAL.

    Yes, MP4 can do HD just as H.264. The only difference is the video compression algorithm. Undoubtedly, H.264 uses far more advanced video compression than MP4 Part 2. And that is where the mentioned “ much quicker” is true. H.264 requires much more CPU horsepower to decode at the receiver side (meaning the PC, TV, or your set-top box). MP4 Part 2 being simpler is easier for older hardware to decode thus the perceived quickness.

    So what is the benefit of the more advanced H.264 video compression algorithms? Much smaller file sizes than plain MP4 at the expense of faster hardware. Otherwise, both use the old MPEG2 transport and program stream packet architecture you know as TS and VOB formats.


    Robomac had this to say on Oct 26, 2008 Posts: 846
  • Are you sure that MPEG4-2 can play at high definition sizes? Sorry - let me clarify - are you sure the AppleTV can play those? (I know the format handles it).

    The specs page says that it can only play 3Mbps, at 720 by 432 & 30fps. Of course… the specs page might be wrong anyway (since MPEG4-2 should be EASIER for the AppleTV to decode!) and doesn’t say what resolution MPEG4-2 is okay at 24fps.

    I’ve never actually tried.

    Greg Alexander had this to say on Oct 26, 2008 Posts: 228
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