Last week Apple, as it is wont to do at this time of year, made a bunch of product announcements just ahead of the holiday gift buying season. While the new gaggle of iPods received the lion's share of the attention, there was this thing called Apple TV that also held the spotlight for a brief time.
Apple TV is not a new product. The original one came out in early 2007 and had pretty much languished ever since. Apple did update its OS a couple of times and added a larger hard drive, but that's about it. They never really seemed to take it seriously or want to make much of it. Steve Jobs himself referred to it rather famously as a hobby.
Still, there was a lot it could do since it was basically a mini Mac Mini. It had an Intel processor and enough horsepower to enable it to stream 720p HD content smoothly. If you were fully invested in Apple's media technology (using iTunes, iPhoto and iMovie on your Mac), you were sitting in butter with the Apple TV because they work together very, very nicely.
For me, however, the stock Apple TV wasn't enough. I wanted more. I wanted something that did not require me to go The Apple Way. I don't buy content through the iTunes Store. I don't use iPhoto. I prefer other means of acquiring content and storing photos. Thus, Apple TV ownership simply didn't make sense.
About two years ago I heard about XBMC for the first time. I found a tantalizing article about turning an original Xbox into a media center. Now THAT caught my eye! For the price of an old Xbox and a few bits and bobs, I could create an Apple TV-like box and view content from my own stash without using iTunes or iPhoto. Sold! Between Ebay and Gamestop I found all that I needed to get the project done. A few weeks later (on and off, mind you) it was done. The results were far less than I had hoped for, but after spending some time finding the right settings I got it to work well.
At about the same time I discovered Plex, which is XBMC specifically for the Mac. I fell in love. It feels more refined than XBMC and offers more features--like Netflix streaming and access to content stored on my Tivo. Sweet! Only problem is that in order to use it I have to either watch TV on my Mac or hook it up to the big TV, which is kind of a pain in the ass.
Stick it to the man!
A short time later I heard about aTV Flash, a very clever hack for the original Apple TV. For a reasonable $50 you download their software and installer onto a flash drive, hook it up to your aTV and it does the rest, installing and configuring a series of programs that open up whole new worlds of possibilities to the old hardware.
Chief among these enhancements is XBMC. Suddenly it because possible to run XBMC on Apple TV. As if that weren't enough, Apple TVs were getting cheaper on Ebay, and a free equivalent of aTV Flash became available. It was time to take action.
Within a couple of weeks I had my Apple TV and flash drive ready to go. Following the instructions, I set up my box and got it fully hacked within thirty minutes. That was it! By that time I already had a big-ass hard drive shared on my network, so I was able to stream all of it into my living room via Apple TV. Life was good.
Act IV: Epilogue
I can't tell you how wonderful it is for me to have this rig set up. The main reason to do it was to have all of the TV shows I have on DVD available in one place. If I want to watch an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation I no longer have to sift through 48 DVDs to find the one I want. It's all right there. An old Bugs Bunny cartoon? Done! Five seasons The Simpsons, two of All In The Family and so much more are there just waiting to be viewed–all without touching a single disc.
But wait! There's more!
As nice as all of that is, there's something else this Apple TV setup allows me to do: watch home videos. No tapes, no DVDs, no camcorder wired up to the TV. I just copy the files to the hard drive and call them up via XBMC. What could be simpler?
Needless to say I'm a huge fan of XBMC running on an original Apple TV. The latest version is nice and I'll be curious to see how the hacking community fares with it. Until then, however, I'll sit back and watch my video library the way I want to watch it.