Apple TV Hacking: (Only Temporarily, Inevitably) Subdued
Speaking of Apple TV…I’m utterly fascinated, I freely confess, with the hacking community’s adept skills at transmogrifying hardware and software in order to expand and redefine its characteristics, inevitably improving on the product the original manufacturer crafted in the process. Living room game consoles and their controllers, handheld game units, cellular phones, routers, NASs…the mind boggles when attempting to comprehend clever hackers’ myriad accomplishments.
- Adding support for more audio and video codecs via Perian, such as those used by XviD and DivX
- Adding support for Apache, Asterisk, Firefox, GPS, Joost, Perl, RSS, Skype, SSH, VLC, VNC and countless other supplemental applications
- Replacing the internal HDD with a higher-capacity alternative
- Supplanting or supplementing the internal HDD capacity via a USB2 tether to an external drive
- Extracting Apple TV’s unique variant of OS X and running it on other hardware, such as the Mac mini, MacBook or even a generic PC platform (i.e the so-called ‘Hackintosh’ phenomenon), and
- Running generic OS X or another operating system such as Linux on Apple TV, since like the first-generation Xbox, it’s comprised of generic computer building blocks
That last hack might sound particularly appealing at first glance, given that the 40 GByte HDD variant of Apple TV is regularly available refurbished for $199…quite a bit cheaper than even a sub-$500 refurbished or prior-generation new Mac mini. Consider, however, the following ‘gotchas’:
- Apple TV contains a fairly anemic 1 GHz Intel microprocessor, in order to keep both bill-of-materials cost and generated heat at reasonable levels.
- Apple TV’s 256 MBytes of DRAM is barely adequate (and, in most cases, insufficient) to run a modern operating system and application suite…and because it’s soldered to the motherboard, it’s non-upgradeable
- There’s no integrated optical drive; you’ll need to tether an external drive to the system over USB2 (and add the drive’s price tag to the comparative cost equation)
- No VGA/RGB output for you; your only options are component video and HDMI
Qualifiers aside, if you’re interested in hacking your Apple TV, either to aggressively turn it into a full-blown computer or to more modestly expand its capabilities (perhaps to put it in your car?), hit the following resources for more information:
A (short-term) warning, though; as TUAW’s intrepid Apple hardware hacker, Erica Sadun, found out two nights ago, Apple’s latest software upgrade for the unit has blocked O/S accesses that the hacking community was previously using. This cat-and-mouse game is reminiscent of the one that Apple’s playing with the iPhone, and I suspect the outcome with be equally iPhone-reminiscent. Within a day or a few, hackers will find another TIFF-delivered or other buffer overflow exploit, or another unprotected O/S back door, and they’ll be up and running again.
One other Apple TV observation in closing: last night at about 8:30PM PST, I decided to re-audition Once (which, if anything, was even more endearing the second time around), since its 24-hour rental period hadn’t yet expired. I was surprised upon powering up Apple TV to find that the unit had already deleted Focus; with the Xbox 360, in contrast, if you try to access time-expired material, you’re given the opportunity to pay for access renewal. Apple seems to be leaving some money on the table with their approach, although it’s probably a bit more consumer-comprehensible.
I periodically paused-and-resumed Once, as well as hitting the ‘menu’ button to back out to the GUI, to see how the soon-to-expire material would behave. The content expired at ~9:30PM PST, and although I was able to continue pausing and resuming playback past that point, when I hit the ‘menu’ button the following warning appeared on-screen:
Nice touch, Apple, in (after, presumably, tough negotiations with the movie studios) allowing consumers to complete their one-time viewing even after the 24-hour official performance period has elapsed.