How to recover files from an Apple TV

While there is no official way to browse an Apple TV's files, you can modify the system to gain FTP access to the device.

It's been rumored that sooner or later Apple may come out with a television with unique capabilities, but until then there's the Apple TV device for viewing movies, music, and photos on a TV.

The Apple TV syncs with iTunes and other Apple programs, so while it can stream media from computers on a network or from the iTunes Store, it can also store a fair amount of photos and other files that you can access without other systems being powered on.

While in most cases what's stored on the Apple TV mirrors what's on your computer, there may be instances where some media is on the Apple TV only and you want to transfer it somewhere else.

MacFixIt reader Ken writes:

I have an Apple TV that has lots of photos I want to keep; however, I have since the last sync purchased a new iMac and it did not transfer all those photos and slide shows from my older Mac as planned. Is there any way to save those files that are stored on the Apple TV? If I sync the Apple TV with my latest iPhoto files they'll be gone forever.

Unfortunately, there is no official way to directly access an Apple TV's contents and do this. However, just as there's iOS for the iPhone and iPad, there's a modified version of OS X for the Apple TV, which means it can be modified to support network access protocols and filesystem browsing similar to what's available on a Mac.

Because of this capability, a number of tinkerers have tried installed everything from third-party media center software to Linux distributions on the Apple TV, to stretch its capabilities and what users can do with their devices.

One of these options, Patchstick, enables FTP access to the Apple TV, and thereby will allow you to browse its contents and download files from the Apple TV to your new system.

Do keep in mind that these procedures will modify the core configuration of the Apple TV, which might cause unwanted behavior. However, many people have successfully applied these changes to their devices.

To enable FTP access on the Apple TV, you will need to get a USB flash drive that is at least 512MB in size, and follow these steps:

  • Go to the Apple TV Patchstick Web site and use the program there to create a bootable USB flash drive.
  • Next power down the Apple TV, attach the drive, and start the Apple TV back up again. This will modify the Apple TV so FTP access is enabled, and will also install optional media center programs like Boxee or XBMC, depending on how you have the USB drive configured.
  • In the OS X Finder, choose "Connect to Server" from the Go menu, and then connect to the following address (if this does not work, then instead of "Apple TV.local" use the Apple TV's IP address, which can be found in the Apple TV's settings):

    ftp://appletv.local

  • When prompted, supply the username and password combination of frontrow/frontrow to the device to log in.
  • At this point, you should be able to see your Apple TV's filesystem organization, and can browse through the files to find the files you want and copy them to your computer.

While this procedure uses the Finder's built-in FTP browsing capability, you can also use a third-party FTP browser like Cyberduck (free) to connect and browse the Apple TV.

If you would like to undo the changes made to your Apple TV, you can do so by using the Terminal application on your Macintosh (in the /Applications/Utilities/ folder) and running the following commands (from the Patchstick Web site):

  • First remotely log into the Apple TV (again, if "Apple TV.local" does not work then use use your Apple TV IP address, and use "frontrow" as the password when prompted):

    ssh frontrow@appletv.local

  • Run these four commands sequentially (one per line, which you can copy and paste from here):

    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

When this procedure is run, the Apple TV will reboot and should now no longer contain the software installed by the USB Patchstick installer drive.



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About the author

    Topher, an avid Mac user for the past 15 years, has been a contributing author to MacFixIt since the spring of 2008. One of his passions is troubleshooting Mac problems and making the best use of Macs and Apple hardware at home and in the workplace.

     

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