I Need to Pause the Movie and Look Something Up...
November 20, 2009 3:40 PM   Subscribe

Which is the best method for adding codec, playing video from remote shares, and most of all usable web browsing to an AppleTV?

Okay, so I picked up a $99 refurb AppleTV on a whim, with the hope of hacking it into being a fuller-featured couch computer. It's still virgin in the box at the moment.

My four main requirements are:
1. Play video from remote fileshares, not through iTunes.
2. Handle a typical wide variety of codecs, not just the Apple-endorsed handful.
3. A decent web browser, preferably Safari or Firefox
4. Use a remote keyboard and mouse (don't care what type)

I know there are many, many, many partial solutions to this, up to and including the nuclear option of installing a full version of MacOSX, which of course would achieve all of the above and much more. I'm comfortable doing that if necessary. I'm a pretty "power" Mac user and can handle Unix hackery if needed. I see there are lots of other, lesser/specialized mods out there, and I'd like to know if anyone has experience or advice for any of them:

XBMC or Boxee? Classic choices, and both include web browser plug-in apps I think, but I can't find info on keyboards/mice.

NitoTV talks a lot about USB support.

aTV Flash looks awfully sweet and is getting a lot of nice buzz lately, but the site seems to contradict itself on whether there's a web browser or not (it's listed both as a feature and as a "coming soon".) I don't think there's a demo of aTV Flash, just a paid version, so I can't test it easily, either.

Patchstick seems to be a bundle that adds most (all?) of what I want to the existing AppleTV OS, or at least makes things like codecs and Safari web browsing installable.

Or do I just bite the bullet and install full OS X on the cute little thing?

Other suggestions very welcome. I'm playing quick catchup on all this.
posted by rokusan to Computers & Internet (5 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I've flashed my AppleTV with the aTV Flash software and it works fairly well. My AppleTV spends most of its time running XBMC rather than the FrontRow interface. I have a ReadyNAS NV+ on my network that's acting as my media storage location. I've chose XBMC as my media manager and playback program mostly because the user community is quite large and there are many skins and plugins being actively developed for it. I love that there are scraper plugins built into the latest versions that have pulled down IMDB-like data about my movies and TV shows. There are several skins that are developed to help display this information.

The video playback controls in XBMC are superior to Frontrow's. I can, on the fly, change a video file's aspect ratio, zoom, or scaling. The media player has played just about every file format I've thrown at it. The AppleTV only has a 1GHz processor and has trouble handling true 1080i .mkv files...it's just not fast enough. For this reason, I wish I'd chosen a Mac Mini as my media center rather than the AppleTV, and unless Apple finally releases a newer faster model, my next media center will probably be a Mac mini running XBMC.

You can achieve almost everything aTV Flash does for you without having to actually purchase the aTV Flash software. It's not overly easy, but you sound like you have some chops and the wherewithall to find the answers via Google. It's all documented. I chose the aTV Flash route because I didn't want to spend endless hours building my media center. It's really just a collection of free softwares anyway, bundled into an easy-to-use installer.

Firefox worked for me in an older version of aTV Flash (via Nito). I have not tried it in the newest version that I updated to a few days ago. There are many threads on the aTVFlash forums discussing keyboards, mice, and Firefox. You should check there for specific model information, softwares required, etc.
posted by mrbarrett.com at 5:29 PM on November 20, 2009

I have an AppleTV although I mainly just wanted to a) watch Hulu via ATV and b) watch videos from my computer via ATV, so I can't speak to the browser and keyboard stuff.

I went with the patchstick and mostly use Boxee. The playing files from my computer/external hard drive part has gone perfectly, it handles about everything (although as mentioned the 1080i is too much for ATV). The rest has honestly been kind of a PITA. Every time someone comes out with a update (boxee, apple, hulu) something is messed up. The nice thing, of course, it that's it's free and super painless to install and uninstall. So if you just want to give it a whirl you aren't going to lose more than 10-20 minutes of your time.

I'm thinking about trying out aTV, but if I knew unix better I'd probably just install the stuff myself. As it is all I can really do is sudo myself a sandwich.
posted by grapesaresour at 7:44 PM on November 20, 2009

You can't use a keyboard/mouse or browse, but the ability to play .avi files remotely on your TV is worth the effort to install Boxee.
posted by digsrus at 7:43 AM on November 21, 2009

I'm a little late to this question, but since I spent an inordinate amount of time restoring my hacked Apple TV setup after it decided to update itself to 3.0, here's what I've done:

1. Use the atvusb-creator and a flash drive to make a patchstick to install SSH access. It also installs Boxee, which makes it possible to access a good amount of non-YouTube streaming video that the Apple TV doesn't otherwise support.

2. Install Nito TV, which adds support for opening files from network shares and also installs Perian and mplayer codec support, which makes it possible to play just about any file that the Apple TV's meager processor can handle.

Unfortunately, the installation procedure for Nito TV is very confusing and not particularly well documented. It took a lot of initial trial and error to get it working correctly, but since then, reinstalling it after OS upgrades hasn't been much of a problem.

I don't know about a web browser or keyboard/mouse support. Nito TV does have an option to install Couchsurfer and Boxee includes some amount of Firefox that it uses to play videos from Hulu.
posted by andrewraff at 10:23 AM on November 24, 2009

For anyone threadlurking, I solved this with help and emotional support from the answers above.

There seem to be 100 ways to do this, but very few good guides online. The answer for me was: any USB bootstick just to get SSH working, then NitoTV, which does almost everything I want, then install all the apps I wanted, and finally some bluetooth hacking around to get wireless kb/mouse.

I can now:
1. Mount any remote share (I made a startup script so they're always there)
2. Play any codec (NitoTV includes Perian and Flip4Mac installers)
3. Surf with keyboard/mouse and Firefox
4. FTP or SSH in from any Mac into my AppleTV to drop apps into the Applications folder.

In addition to Firefox, every other Mac app I have tried works fine. VNC in particular has been a godsend for remote-controlling other computers from the couch ("let's see if that download is done yet").

I'm using an Apple BT keyboard and mouse at the moment, but will switch to something more compact soon, probably a DiNovo Mini. The NitoTV menus are a bit unwieldy and awkward (hm, was that in System/Config, Config/Options, or Settings/Config/System?), but I'll figure out how to tidy them up sooner or later.

Other that that, it's perfect. A++ would buy again for grandma.
posted by rokusan at 9:54 PM on November 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

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