As much as we enjoy the refreshing breeze our open door provides, we recently got word that Apple TV might finally become useful as more than just a doorstop
We've long maintained that there really is only one use for Apple TV. And that's as a doorstop. Some people told us we were idiots, and that the thing gets so hot it's also useful for frying an egg, but to be honest, we like to keep food and technology separate.
Luckily, there's a little company called Boxee that can turn your doorstop into something you can use to stream media to your TV. The purpose of Boxee is to generate a social network around media -- when you're watching TV shows or Internet streams, other people can see what you're doing. The system is underpinned by open-source XBMC Media Centre software. This is rather appropriate, since XBMC started as a project to turn the original Xbox into a media streamer, because Microsoft didn't want to.
Of course, in order to make Apple TV do cool things, it needs to be hacked. That sounds cool, and very '1337', but it's actually so simple your grandmother could do it, as long as she has access to a Mac (Windows tools will be available soon). All Granny needs to do is grab a 1GB USB memory key, format it on a Mac and run a simple application that writes some data to that key.
Then, you simply start the Apple TV with the USB stick inserted, and after a very short period of what can only be described as total and utter pwnage, your Apple TV is ready to run Boxee and XBMC. Once you boot the Apple TV again -- having removed the USB key -- you'll see a new menu option, 'XBMC/Boxee'. You need to download updates over the Internet using the built-in updater, but that's as easy as everything else, and takes about 10 minutes.
The good news is that your original Apple TV functionality will remain the same, you'll still be able to use it as before, and you'll still be able to access your iTunes library. Boxee can even be removed by running the Apple update, which should mean that unless you mess something up, Apple will never know. (This might be important if you need to get it fixed on the warranty, although we can't say for sure if Boxee will void it.)
So what does Boxee allow you to do? The good news is you'll be able to play all sorts of media, including stuff encoded using the ubiquitous XviD codec. You'll also get access to RSS feeds for videos, audio and even torrent files, each added online at the Boxee Web site. The hacking process also allows you SSH access to the Apple TV, which means you can customise it more, and have a fiddle with the inner workings of the system.
One frustration is that MKV playback, while supported, seems too complex for the Apple TV hardware to cope with. This means that 720p files in MKV containers stutter quite badly, and 1080p files are unwatchable. This issue may eventually get sorted, but it's going to be hard.
As good as Boxee is, we can't help but think you'd be much better off buying a Popcorn Hour A-110, which does everything the hacked Apple TV does, but has the added advantage of doing so out of the box. It's also cheaper and can accept any SATA hard drive you care to throw in it.
Looks like our door isn't in any danger of slamming shut any time soon. –Ian Morris