Thursday, July 22, 2010

Can you cut the cord with an Apple TV?

A couple of friends of mine have Apple TVs and I had an opportunity to spend some time playing with one.  The one I'm using has been "hacked" to enable Boxee, XBMC, etc.

First of all, it isn't really fair to compare an Apple TV to a full blown Media PC like mine (or Mac Mini).  Even a minimal Media PC might be at least 2 times the price or more.   Of course, a Media PC is also significantly more powerful and has features that (IMO) justify the price.

Nevertheless there is a lot of interest in Media Streamers (or Media Extenders) and the competition is intense.  You can get some streaming media devices for as little as $100.  The Apple TV is a compelling box at a little over $200 and is very hackable.

So, let's see what it can do and explore it's features.

More importantly, lets find out if you can cut the cord with an Apple TV!

First, let's go over some of it's basic features:
  • It has a 160GB hard disk for storage
  • It has a full set of digital / analog output ports
  • It can play 720p HD video (but not 1080p)
  • Wired Fast Ethernet
  • 802.11n wireless
  • comes with a (extremely) tiny remote
If you've read about Apple TV, you probably already basically know what it can do:
  • Rent / buy movies from iTunes
  • Watch YouTube
  • Stream content from you Mac or from Apple TV's hard disk
  • Play local music or internet radio 
For more info, see Apple's site.  Wikipedia has a pretty comprehensive article that will get you started.

Here are a couple more pictures

On back, you can see (from left to right): Power, USB, Ethernet, HDMI, RGB out, L/R audio out, digital (optical) audio out.

One tiny remote!

This is a very small remote and clearly a major oops on Apple's part.  You can navigate with the large circle.  The Menu button doubles as a back button and the play is also a select key.   It works, but you have to wonder why they didn't provide more buttons.

You can also use your iPhone (iTouch) as a remote, but I didn't try that out.

What is missing from Apple TV that you might want?
  • No 1080p video support
  • No BluRay player
  • No TV tuner
  • No Keyboard
  • No Netflix
  • No Pandora
I'm sure there are others as well.  However, low cost media streamers are about convenience and ease of use rather than complete feature set.

Totally hack-able!

What Apple TV lacks in features, it can make up for in it's ability to be modded.  I've read that hacking is simply a matter of booting a specially prepared USB stick.  You can read about that here.  There is lots of information and blogs about the Apple TV.  For hacking, check out

The list of mods and extensions to the Apple TV seem endless, from booting from an external drive, running a full version of OSX, and others.  If you want to play and are a Mac fan, this will be a great toy.

The Apple TV isn't new, and has already been updated from a 40GB to a 160GB model - still pretty tiny compared to most other disk-based media devices.  The one I used was a 40GB unit (and already hacked), but I've read that it is otherwise the same as the 160GB unit.  I was running the 3.0.2 software which I believe is fairly recent.

Here are some instructions how to upgrade your hard disk to a much larger one.  However, some say 40GB is plenty, as it is a pain to sync content (especially over wireless) - see this thread.  They say it is better to use it as a streamer instead (requiring another computer, of course).  This makes sense to me and also happens to be how I use my Media PC too.

Screen shots

XBMC, Boxee and Browsing

I'll have to say that the remote is totally inadequate for internet browsing.  Other than the novelty of using a browser, you'll want to reach for your laptop to do any serious surfing.

Doubles as a hot plate?

The AppleTV only uses about 16 watts when idle (per my kill a watt).  This really isn't very much and is certainly much less that the 50 or so used by my Media PC.   Nevertheless, the box does get relatively hot (and doesn't have any fans).  With the flat design it sure is tempting to use it as a hot plate.  If you need to keep something warm, it might just serve double duty!

Certainly if you have one, I would keep it in the open as I'd worry it could overheat if it didn't have sufficient air around it.  It is however, really nice that it is virtually silent!

Things I didn't quite like

The remote (obviously!).  Also, menu navigation was slow, as was launching certain apps.  There seemed to be significant lag when pressing buttons.   While playing around with XBMC, I was able to get the box to hang.  The only way that I could get it unstuck was to pull the power cord.  If there is a reset button, I couldn't find it.  Finally, I was never able to get the box to stream movies from my PC (I didn't have a Mac handy).  I sure you can stream movies, I just didn't play with it long enough to get it working.


As I said above, it is not fair to compare an Apple TV to a Media PC.  They aren't the same price and you can't expect it to have the same features.  The Apple TV certainly isn't an (out of the box) do it all device.  If you want to cut the cord and are looking for only one device, this probably isn't for you.

However, my friends like their Apple TVs and if you are already using iTunes, it is very reasonable / inexpensive choice.   I do like all of the hackable features and it does make a fun toy to play with!

If you plan to use it as a Media Extender/Streamer and pair it up with a Mac (and a USB tuner), you could have a very nice setup.

Finally, it does do a lot for the price and doesn't take up much space!


  1. Aside from the capabilites with Boxee, is there any way to get Live TV through it with a usb tuner card

  2. I didn't find much info on tuners for the Apple TV, but my gut says that the box isn't up to the task of being a fully functional DVR. Certainly the disk is too small without expanding it. I think you'd be better off finding a low cost used Mac mini before spending too much time adding on and expanding the AppleTV. Of course, if you are doing this for fun that is a different story.

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  3. Most all of the features of Apple TV are already in my television. I can access the internet, stream or download content, browse photos, listen to music and the DVR aspect is in my satellite receiver. the fact is I rarely do most of those things. I do them on a computer sometimes but in the TV?!? It'sa TV after all where channel surfing is king!


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