It’s been a busy week. With the lack of ability to jailbreak the Apple TV 3 and the rising prices of the ATV2 due to it’s jailbreak friendliness I was torn between spending a lot of money on another Apple TV 2 or going down a different media centre route.
I’ve always used XBMC since it’s birth, even before when it was Xbox Media Player & my family have become accustomed to how everything works. It works wonderfully for our needs & we now don’t have any subscription TV services (granted we download TV episodes but we have a TV license & could watch them for free on our set top box so hardly a crime). We also convert all our DVD’s into .mp4/.m4v/.mkv files so we can watch them without going to find the disk.
I really love the XBMC on the jailbroken ATV2 and it’s served me well for almost 2 years, but I have a few gripes with it. Firstly it’s reliant on a jailbreak, which isn’t ideal. Secondly, whilst videos play perfectly due to hardware acceleration available in the ATV2, the menus are certainly not as snappy or responsive as they are on XBMC on our macs. This is understandable as the ATV2 is essentially an ipod touch without the screen. Also it tends to lock up using addons such as streaming video addons & can’t handle 720p Xvid or Divx files. So I went on the hunt for an alternative. It came in the form of an original 1st Generation Apple TV.
This box is a low powered computer with a 1ghz mobile intel processor, 256mb ram and a 40GB hard drive (it is available with a 160GB drive but as my stuff is all stored on a NAS it’s not required). It includes a Nvidia graphics chip and a wide array of I/O ports.
As standard the Apple TV is really showing it’s age. It’s slow & can just about display some types of 720p files using XBMC. As such it is not an ideal candidate for a modern 1080p media centre. However, if you head over to eBay and purchase a Broadcom BCM970012 Hardware HD Video Decoder Card this low powered computer becomes a media powerhouse. I purchased the following card for £14 and it’s a worthy purchase .
To fit the card you open up the case (4 torx screws) and remove the pre-installed wifi card. This will leave your Apple TV with Ethernet only, unless you add a USB wifi dongle which is possible, but for 1080p content I would really recommend an ethernet setup. You then install the Broadcom card in the wifi cards place & you are good to go.
Now there are drivers available for the standard Apple TV software. You will need to use Firecore’s ATV Flash software to create a patchstick. You can then install XBMC and the CrystalHD drivers from the new maintenance menu. As I said before the Apple TV is showing it’s age & the native menus are very clunky & slow. This is where 3rd party Linux distros come into place.
You have 2 options, Crystalbuntu by Sam Nazarko or Openelec. I used Crystalbuntu for a good few days & it is flawless, however the installation procedure is a little harder & Sam (the developer) seems to be concentrating support more on Crystalbuntu for Raspberry Pi. I have since switched to OpenELEC 2.0 (RC 1) – 1.99.1 ATV i386 and I’m really impressed.
To install openelec is a breeze. You will need a USB flash drive, I used a Sandisk Cruzer 16GB drive.
Installation instructions for Apple TV are available here.
Installation is a breeze. Just make sure you have the Apple TV connected via Ethernet. The Patchstick will partition the internal HDD and you will lose the native Apple TV OS – no big deal. It will then automatically download the latest available version and install openelec XBMC. This is essentially a highly customised version of Linux with only the required files to boot on Apple TV, and only the required drivers for the hardware. Footprint is a couple of hundred Meg.
Post installation you will have a fast booting & extremely responsive XBMC installation. The Broadcom CrystalHD drivers will be installed automatically & selected for Hardware Acceleration in XBMC.
Now simply add your media sources & build your library. This is a really fast media centre & will play anything I throw at it. I can watch my 1080p blu ray rips with ease & stutter free. Truly a wonderful addition to our media centre collection.
The Openelec install also has various options in settings so you can configure wifi (either built in if you opt not to install a broadcom card, or USB dongle wifi if you so wish).
The openelec install is self updating (set to auto update in openelec settings) & comes with Samba setup so you can access the Media Centre from any machine on your network, making it easy to copy files, access logs, change keymaps or mess with advancedsettings.xml
This truly is a great media centre setup & I cant beleive all in it cost less than an ATV3 for so much more than that box is capable of.
The next mod maybe is to install a larger HDD or even an SSD. I’m also tempted to get a few more Apple TV’s to mod as media centres to replace the ATV2’s I have. The connectivity & openness of the system is brilliant, as is the tiny footprint & speed of the media centre. It’s so far proved to be rock solid. Boot time from power on is around 15 seconds & power consumption under full load is around 23 Watts, measured with a Kill-a-watt. It’s not relaint on Jailbreaks & the Openelec project is constantly improving with each beta & release candidate.
My advice to any XBMC fans it to test this route out. It’s a handsome box, the optical audio out & connectivity is a real bonus & the UI responsiveness makes this one of the most frugal Media Centres I’ve ever built. I intend to build a Raspberry PI XBMC but I’m told the UI is still a little clunky so I’ll be sure to make a few more ATV XBMC’s.