Dec 14

AppleTV Hacked!

Posted by Carlos in Hacks

appletv_patch I have had an Apple TV pretty much since it was released, and although I have read many articles on how to ‘enhance’ or ‘patch’ the AppleTV for additional features I never had the urge to try it on my unit.
Until now…

I read a couple of articles these past couple of weeks on how to add applications to your AppleTV and it got my interest piqued.
Actually, what really started me thinking was the release of the Watch It Now feature on Netflix for Macintosh Users. I thought wouldn’t it be great if I could play these movies right on my 40 inch TV versus my computer.
So I got to work.
I had read before that the only way one can hack the AppleTV was to take the hard drive out, and to be honest that may have been one of the biggest deterrents that kept me from hacking it. But lo and behold, the first link I get when I do a google search for ‘hack AppleTV’ was AppleTV Hacks‘ ‘Hack the AppleTV without opening the case‘ so things looked promising. Upon further research I found the concept of the ‘patchstick’.
The patchstick is basically a USB flash drive that has been configured to boot the AppleTV and run scripts that automatically add features to the device. The best patchstick project I found was one from Google Code’s website, ATV-bootloader. It is concise and pretty easy to follow. It allows you to create the patchstick to install the stuff you want, most others are already configured to install specific packages. For those faint of heart, there is also the atvusb-creator, this project has a Mac OS X application that does all the hard work for you. You insert your usb flash drive and run the software and in a couple of minutes you have a ready to go patchstick. I decided to go this route and created my patchstick. It worked the first time. I was now able to SSH and FTP to my AppleTV and boy was I estatic!.

As you recall, I started this primarily to try and get Netflix’s Watch It Now running on the AppleTV, so the next step was to install a browser and SilverLight 2.0. So I found instructions on how to install Firefox and get it running on the AppleTV ( Firefox – AwkwardTV ), first thing I notice is that one needs a keyboard and mouse for Firefox to be useful. I looked for alternatives and stumbled upon Brandon Holland’s Couch Surfer, a Safari webkit based browser made specifically for the AppleTV. The software was easy to install (especially now that my AppleTV was hacked! :D). Next was installing Silverlight, luckily easy to follow instructions were on the Firefox page of the AwkwardTV wiki. I performed the install and went to Netflix‘s Watch It Now section to see if all this work was going to amount to anything. It was. The viewer showed up and it was easy to select movies and they played. The video was at times choppy ( we watched ‘Shut Up and Sing‘ ), but it was watchable. I don’t know if the choppiness was due to bandwidth or the AppleTV ( I suspect both ).

I then began looking for what else can I do with this thing, and I found Boxee, Jaman, and Sapphire amoung many other interesting applications that can be installed on the AppleTV. During my search, I stumbled upon Apple Core’s ATVFlash, a commercial AppleTV patchstick that brings many of the most interesting applications to the device simply and easily. After reading thorough the forums, I decided to go ahead and use this tool as they bring many of the tools I want to use. I followed the simple instructions and after a couple of minutes (with a system restore in the middle of all of it [my fault]) my unit was patched and running Couch Surfer (now managed by ATVFlash) and Boxee with the promise of other great tools in the works.

ATVFlash’s benefit (it is a commercial product so you want there to be a reason to use it) is that the developer keeps the software up to date. They have also built in many scripts that will update the software already installed on the AppleTV without having to patch it each time a new release is out. They also work with other vendors (such as Boxee and Jaman) to get those tools updated and working on the unit (especially after an Apple Update). The current version (3.4.2) is fully compatible with AppleTV’s 2.3 software version. It contains many of the cool tools mentioned above, plus enough codecs to run virtually any video file out there.

Now that my AppleTV is hacked, I start thinking what’s next… I think I am going to enable bluetooth support and get a bluetooth wireless keyboard so I can install Firefox and other cool applications. I will keep you up to date with what I find and encounter.

This is sooo cool! :D Thanks to all those great developers that took time out of their lives to get these tools together. As you can see, adding additional functionality to your AppleTV is not as scary as it used to be, and depending how much you want to invest (whether in time and effort or cash) doing this is anywhere from free to a few bucks. If you patch your unit or find a cool application that you think one can’t live without, please let me know.

Happy Hacking!