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Apple TV: State of the Hacks

by Erica Sadun
04/02/2007

In the two weeks since Apple TV shipped, an amazing array of hacks has been published around the Web. In addition to the usual suspects like the Make blog, brand new sites including AwkwardTV and Apple TV Hacks detail the various mods and hacks available to Apple TV owners. So what are these hacks, how successful are they, and what kind of skills do you need to implement them? In this State of the Hacks roundup, you'll discover what kinds of mods are out there and whether they're the right fit for your needs and abilities.

What Is Apple TV?

Apple TV, as you're probably aware, is Apple's new set-top video unit (Figure 1). It allows you to sync content to, or stream content from, iTunes. In some ways it's like a souped-up iPod. Like an iPod, you can store music, pictures, and video on it. You can play this content back while relaxing on the couch in your living room. And, in a capability that goes beyond iPod, you can select up to five different iTunes libraries from your wireless network and stream content from those libraries to your TV without having to synchronize. This is a great feature for things you only want to watch or listen to once, and you don't take up any of your unit's minimal thirty-odd gigabytes of free space. Consider that most iTunes movies are around a gigabyte in size. Each. Those thirty-something gigabytes can get used up real fast.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Apple TV moves digital media away from your computer and into your living room.

As with the iPod, using Apple TV is like using iTunes but with a simpler interface. You pick the content with your Apple remote, and Apple TV plays it for you. There aren't a lot of options; there aren't a lot of details. Apple TV moves your media out of your office, away from your computer, and into the rooms you normally spend time in while doing non-computer things in your life: your living room, your kitchen, your den, and so forth. It's just like how an iPod moves your media into your pocket.

But it's what hidden under Apple TV's simple hood that's getting hackers excited. Amazingly easy to mod, Apple TV offers you a customizable $299 OS X computer, complete with TV-compatible graphics and wireless networking. Sure, you could go out and probably buy a used Mac Mini for nearly the same price, but you'd miss out on a lot of the hacking fun. Besides, it's more the challenge than the built-in capabilities that makes this a great modding platform. And here are the ways you can mod it.

Cracking the Case

All the software mods in existence won't give you the sheer visceral thrill of physically cracking open a case to see what's inside. Apple has made it especially easy to open its case and access the 2.5" PATA hard drive inside. Yes, sure, you may violate your warranty, but when has that stopped a determined explorer? All you need is a couple of TORX screwdrivers (size T10 and T9) and an optional putty knife.

Unplug your Apple TV, let it cool down, turn it upside down, and peel off the rubber backing (Figure 2). You might want to use a putty knife to help peel because the glued-on backing can rip during this process.

Figure 2
Figure 2. The rubber backing does not peel off cleanly. Expect a bit of mess from the adhesive.

Underneath, the back panel has eight TORX-style screws. The four on the outside hold the back to the Apple TV unit. The four inner ones hold the hard drive onto the back panel. Use the T10 screwdriver to remove the four outer screws. There are two long and two short ones. Use the T9 screwdriver to remove the four short screws holding on the hard drive.

Gently pry open the case. The hard drive will remain attached to the back panel, and a ribbon cable connects the hard drive to the main unit (Figure 3). Carefully remove the hard drive from the panel (it's held on by a sticky backing), and then detach the ribbon cable from the hard drive.

This leaves you with a ventilated back panel, a hard drive, and the main Apple TV case containing the rest of the electronics. It also puts you in a position to start modding. Cracking your case is the prerequisite for pretty much every mod out there.

Figure 3
Figure 3. Inside the Apple TV case.

Upgrade Your Apple TV Hard Drive

You can google up many Apple TV hard drive upgrade tutorials around the Net these days. Some of the best include the ones from Apple TVHacks, Engadget, and MacWorld. So why would you want to upgrade your hard drive? Beyond the fact that the upgrade gives you lots more space (Figure 4), it also allows you to continue using your Apple TV as an Apple TV but a better Apple TV. If your goal is simply to improve your unit so it can store more of your iTunes library, the hard drive upgrade is a great route. You don't mess with the underlying software or operating system. Instead you clone to a larger drive.

To perform this hack, it's best if you feel comfortable at the Unix command line, but several of these tutorials offer software-driven alternatives. You do have to pay for the privilege. GUI tools to copy your drive and update your partition sizes could set you back another $100. The command-line alternatives are free with OS X.

There are, of course, possible pitfalls along the way. First, don't use just any off-the-shelf 2.5" hard drive enclosure. You need to make absolutely sure your enclosure plays nicely with OS X. Yes, I learned this the very hard, and very slow, way. If your drive suddenly starts freezing up during data transfers and your data transfer rate is mind-bogglingly slow, your enclosure may be at fault. Most of the tutorials suggest you use the Unix command-line dd data duplication utility to copy your drive. You can track a dd's progress. Issue a ps -ax command and note the dd's process ID. Enter a "kill -s INFO pid" command, and dd reports the progress to date.

Second, keep this an Intel-only operation. Do not connect your hard drive to a G4 machine. You may mess up the GUID partition table. The basis for this warning is more anecdotal than anything else but where your $300 investment is concerned, better safe than sorry.

Figure 4
Figure 4. You can find any number of tutorials around the Web that show you how to upgrade your Apple TV drive for greater storage capacity.

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