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Reasons why content doesn't show up on Apple TV

As the Apple TV doesn’t let you connect a drive directly with your content (it requires a ‘middle man’ of iTunes) getting your content to show up can be a little trying at times. Some of the reasons why it goes wrong are:

  1. The Mac serving the content isn’t on
  2. The Mac serving the content has dropped off the wifi network (happening a lot in Lion)
  3. The Mac serving the content doesn’t have iTunes open
  4. The Mac serving the content has iTunes open, but Home Sharing isn’t turned on (or using the same login as the one specified on Apple TV)
  5. The drive where all the content is stored has become unmounted, so iTunes can’t access it
  6. You’ve remounted the drive, but there’s a bug where if iTunes has tried to play content stored on the network drive, it corrupts the file path data, replacing it with some other obscure file (in my case, it seems to be a photo folder bizarrely)

In short, there’s too much to go wrong, and Apple TV is on the naughty step until these steps can be bypassed without hacks. Rant over.

Removing MLB from the Apple TV 2 menu

If like me, you have no interest in MLB, will never use it, and would rather you didn’t have it so prominent in your Apple TV menu, this tip is for you.

It’s a bit of a rigmarole, but if you’re really keen to remove it, here are the steps you need to take:

  1. First of all, if you haven’t already done so, jailbreak your Apple TV with Seas0n Pass
  2. ssh into the Apple TV (in something like Transmit, Flow, Cyberduck etc.) using apple-tv.local as the server, root as the username, and alpine as the password. You can of course do it Terminal, using ssh root@apple-tv.local but I find the file editing part a right faff personally!
  3. Navigate to /private/var/stash/Applications/AppleTV.app/Appliances/Internet.frappliance
  4. Open info.plist (I used xcode)
  5. Find ‘FRApplianceCategoryDescriptors’, and delete Item 1, and save.
  6. On the Apple TV, restart lowtide via Maintenance > Settings (or just pull the plug out and pop it back in again)

…and it’s gone!

ATV Flash and Boxee 1.1

Two media-centre related things I’ve done recently: Jailbreak my Apple TV to install ATV Flash Black, and update my Boxee Box to v1.1. Heres a quick report of how it went:

First the ATV: When the beta of ATV Flash Black was announced last December, I looked into and disregarded, the jailbreak process. Too much hassle if you had updated your ATV from the factory supplied version. Now, the process is straightforward with Firecore’s Season Pass app and a micro-usb cable. Likewise, installing ATV Black was easy when following the instructions, and I was able to add extras onto my Apple TV.

The result, I have to say, was promising, but not wildly exciting. I had hoped that Coachsurfer (the Browser) would allow me to use BBC iPlayer, but sadly, videos wouldn’t play. Vimeo did work well however! The Plex client and Media Player work OK, but they are in Alpha, with playback issues ranged from taking an age to buffer, quitting mid-play and stuttering on high res files. What I really liked though was the Last.fm plugin which was a joy for playing my ‘recommend artists’.

Overall, worth a look, but I’m undecided whether it’ll be worth keeping up with the updates.

On the flip side though, installing the 1.1 update on the Boxee Box has invigorated it. The UI has seen some refinement, and it’s all the better for it. Gone is the murky background, replaced with a rich, dark starry sky reminiscent of the v0.9 backdrop. Simple thing, but it makes such a difference. The typeface is improved (if a little tightly spaced) and the section icons are simple, but no longer over-simplified. This is just the tip of a raft of the many improvements and fixes that make the Boxee Box feel like its fulfilling it’s original promise. Along with the impending announcement of UK content providers, things are looking up! Hurrah!

(Music is still shunted off into a ‘files’ menu sadly…)

Apple TV 2 review

Short Review

ATV2 may lack support for playing any video codecs other than mp4’s, and any apps/expandability, but it’s bloody good at what it does do. It’s tiny, inexpensive, silent and doesn’t even get warm. It streams far smoother than I expected it to. I absolutely love it, and may have to get another one for another room.

Long Review

Yeah, I couldn’t resist. I got an Apple TV 2 as well. If you’re bored of all this, imagine how my wife Leigh must be feeling!

My main fear about using this as my Media Centre, was that it required a Mac running to serve the files, and where those files could be stored. Computers will never have enough space to store everything I need, and I’d rather that I stored them on a RAID drive so that I don’t lose everything when a HD fails.

As it turns out, I can stream just about any content from NAS to iMac to Apple TV. The NAS stores all the media, iTunes on the iMac accesses it from there, and serves it to the Apple TV, all over N wifi. It sounds (and is a bit) clunky but streams brilliantly. I expected stuttering and buffering over such a setup, but there wasn’t. It buffers for a few seconds before playing, but once it’s going, it’s flawless. Very impressive! Only on large 1080p content did it have a couple of hiccups (I know ATV can only output 720p, but it does accept 1080p input and I wanted to test a big file) but still not enough to spoil the movie.

The hardware is non-descript compared to the Boxee Box, but it’s tiny, silent and runs cold! The opposite of my PS3 basically. I also own the 1st generation Apple TV, which while quiet, was large and hot enough to fry eggs on.

The ATV interface itself is pretty bland and unexciting, but at least its inoffensive, (unlike the current Boxee). Besides, the best interface for the ATV2 is actually the remote app for iOS devices. It now lists all the iTunes Libraries and their content on the network, so you can play all your files using the remote without ever having to use the UI. This is especially useful if you want to play music without having the TV on. Unlike ATV1, sharing is setup by turning on Home Sharing, rather than inputting a passcode to pair it – so much easier. Also, the decision to stream, rather than store and sync on the limited ATV1 hard drive, turns out to be very wise. While you can’t purchase directly from the ATV, it does remove the doubt of whether something has synced or not.

Airplay works as well as advertised, and if it’s enabled for third party apps (as Steve himself has apparently promised) that opens up things like BBC iPlayer too. In general though, Airplay feels like a bit of Red Herring at the moment. Native apps would still be better in most use cases. Handy if you’re watching a movie on the iPad, and then want to finish it off in the living room. AirFlick looks like a promising addition in this area, allowing streaming from Mac to ATV.

More functionality is going to be added by Firecore with their ATV Black hack to add a browser and Plex Client. Be warned though – what the product page conveniently doesn’t tell you is that you need to jailbreak your ATV first, and at the time of writing, there isn’t an updated pwnage tool that works with the latest version (ATV 4.1, which is iOS 4.2.1). My experience with a hacked ATV1 wasn’t great, it wasn’t very stable and felt like more trouble than it was worth. Hopefully ATV Black will change this.

Downsides

  • No support for codecs like mkv or disk images (.iso’s and .img’s). ATV Flash may yet solve that.
  • The UI is bland and unexciting (but inoffensive, and with the remote app and Airplay, you needn’t really look at it all that much)
  • I’d still prefer to go to ‘Movies’ rather than ‘Computers > iMac > Movies’.
  • The ‘TV Shows’ menu item is missing in the UK, as we don’t have any TV Shows to rent yet. Obviously Netflix won’t work in the UK either.
  • iTunes Extras don’t work on the Apple TV2 (but did on 1st generation) which is very odd. Surely these will be available in a future update?

There is perhaps one more downside. Buying DRM’d Movies and TV Shows from iTunes is a whole lot more convenient than ripping and handbraking DVDs or Blu-Rays. The Apple TV2 just gives more more motivation to do that, especially when it scratches the ‘quick, we need a new movie to watch RIGHT NOW’ itch.

As for the advantages:

  • Streaming local media quality is excellent, and Airplay will be a winner when third party apps can access it
  • Streaming rented movies works well
  • YouTube app is what the Boxee Box app should’ve been like
  • Remote App makes it possible to choose any content from any iTunes library on the network
  • The Podcasts app allows you to store favourites, allowing easy access to all sorts of online content like Onion News and The Big Web Show.

If you already have the 1st generation ATV, you may be wondering why you want this one? After all you can’t store anything on it, and it’s rental-only – no other purchases. Well, dramatically better streaming (presumably due to N wireless card, rather than just G), easier operation (no syncing) and the whole smaller and colder thing.

As the saying goes, your mileage may vary, but is it ‘the one’ for me? It might just be! In the last few weeks I’ve had the PS3, Boxee Box and Apple TV all set up. When I want to watch something, or listen to music, I’m finding it’s the ATV that I go to instinctively. The PS3 is still in use for iPlayer, 4oD, DVDs and BluRays (and gaming of course), but the Boxee Box doesn’t get a look in. This might have been different if the v1.0 Boxee firmware wasn’t such a downgrade from 0.9. It still might be different with future Boxee updates, but at the moment, it’s the Apple TV 2 that I’m glad I bought.

The Boxee Box wins

I’ve been banging on about them for ages, but I’d finally whittled down my choices of “what Media Center to adopt next” to just 2 choices: the New Apple TV or the Boxee Box.

Why not a HTPC? I’ve tried that route before, and while I could run Boxee/Plex/whatever from a PC such as an Acer Revo, I want to use something that was designed to be controlled by a remote, and run just the media center app. No OS getting in the way, or needing a mouse and keyboard to keep it running.

Both ATV2 and Boxee Box appealed to me. ATV is small, relatively inexpensive and slots in easily to my current Mac ecosystem. I’ve been hoping to see ATV apps, either official or jailbroken, which would really make it useful in a Netflix-starved country like the UK. I can’t make a purchase based on what might happen though (might never happen?).

After a lot of thinking, the decision was clear. It had to be the Boxee Box for me. Here’s why:

  • ATV2 requires you to have a Mac open to stream content from, which in itself isn’t too bad, but where do you put the content? If the HD isn’t large enough (that’s always going to be a losing battle), you’ll need some sort of external storage. A USB drive would do the job, but then you run the risk of losing everything when the drive fails. A RAID network drive makes so much more sense. If I copy a file to my NAS drive source, Boxee will scan it and gather metadata by itself. Much easier!
  • The Boxee Box consolidates all your media from various sources into one library type – movies, photos, TV shows or music. The ATV2 approach is to make you navigate to each source via a ‘computers’ menu.
  • Boxee plays just about any file format you have, including launching ripped DVDs with full menus. ATV2 would require me to re-encode quite a few of my movies. Life is too short.
  • Some folks give the reason of Boxee’s 1080p output compared to ATV’s 720p only as their reason. At the moment, that isn’t a problem (my telly is only 720p) but it’s good to know the potential is there should I ever upgrade.
  • Boxee gathers metadata and cover imagery for you, whereas ATV requires you to use another app like iFlicks to manually add all that information
  • Of everything I’ve tried, the Boxee interface is the most well though out and aesthetically pleasing I’ve found. ATV looks really dull and bland in comparison, and I’ve not got on the with default Plex UI. Without any fiddling around with settings and themes, Boxee looks and works how I want a media center setup to work.
  • I haven’t even started on the apps side of Boxee, particularly being able to access BBC iPlayer and 4OD.

So, I’m looking forward to getting mine as soon after the 10th November as the postal service allows, and will post a review here once I’ve had a good play!

Apple TV 2, double take


After the announcement of the new Apple TV my disappointment was perhaps inevitable. I try not to let the rumours build up my expectations of a unannounced product, but in the case of the AppleTV I couldn’t help it.

2 weeks later, and I’m coming around to the idea. I’ve calmed down about the whole rental thing, and realised that I’ve missed the ramifications of Airplay. Thinking of Apple TV 2 as more of an airport express that does video and photos, and it suddenly starts to feel right. The ability to stream from Macs and iOS devices is very appealing, and could well be the winning aspect. I can see how much better this is than syncing in the long-run, I just wish it could pick up content from a NAS drive rather than having to have a Mac running all the time.

It’ll be really interesting to see the tear-downs when the box starts shipping. How much local storage is there? Enough to run apps, or hack it? Even Steve Jobs hasn’t ruled that out

He tells Bloomberg Businessweek that when the time is right, Apple could open an App Store for the TV that could do for television sets what all those apps have done for the iPhone.

Who knows how far off that is though?

In the meantime, I’m eyeing up and deliberating over both an Apple TV2 and a Boxee Box (finally available to pre-order in the UK from Amazon !), but only one can be purchased of course.

Apple TV 2


As I’ve waffled about before on The Hickensian, I’m on the never ending search for the right digital media centre setup. For quite a while now, the PS3 has given me what I want, due to it’s ability to do many things in one package. The only areas where it lets me down is that its too fussy about video formats, and a lack of folders to organise videos on its hard drive. It wins over a HTPC for me, because it’s designed to be controlled by a remote, rather than keyboard and mouse.

I also own an original Apple TV. While its 160gb HD isn’t enough for a movie collection, it is for my music, and it grabs new albums from my Mac without me having to think about it. I can then play anything I want via the lovely Remote App for iOS. Musically, it’s a setup I’m very happy with.

Recently, I’ve become rather lazy though. Lazy enough to not want to go through the chore ripping and encoding of my DVDs, and have just downloaded movies from the iTunes store instead. This it very much at odds with my anti-DRM principles, but having a ‘Season Pass’ for Doctor Who this year felt SO GOOD. With the exception of the week delay to get episodes (presumably a BBC restriction) it was convenient, took zero effort, and gave me high quality, legal downloads. I know I’m getting too comfortable in the iTunes ecosystem, but it feels like an easy life. Maybe junk food is a good analogy here? It takes more time to prepare a meal from scratch, but is worth the effort in the end.

I’ve also been experimenting with streaming content on the NAS to the AppleTV, via an always-on Mac. The trouble is, with those files encoded to suit the PS3, they don’t all play well with the AppleTV. The prospect of re-encoding isn’t a pretty one. Something more flexible is needed here.

So, I waited with excitement for the announcement of the new Apple TV this week. The rumours of an iOS based box started me thinking about the possibility of a really flexible device. I could get a BBC iPlayer app, and a Plex or Boxee app to play the contents of my NAS, as well as the DRM stuff I’d bought. I’d convinced myself into thinking that the new iOS Plex App was for this purpose!

It turns out that while the new AppleTV is iOS based, it doesn’t allow the installation of other apps. You could argue that Apple might add this ability later, but I’m not optimistic. The original AppleTV had a plugin framework too with it’s ‘.frappliance’ (Front Row Appliance) files, and it was never used officially. This seems like a real lost opportunity for Apple, but it also makes the new AppleTV even more of a ‘iTunes Storefont’ than it was before. A box for their media, not mine. It’s very similar to Ping, Apple’s new music social network, which is based on iTunes store purchases, rather than Last.fm, which is what I actually listen to.

The rental-only model is a pain too, and my feelings were summed up by Dan Cederholm

Renting is great and all, but not when my kids watch Toy Story 2 645 times in a row.

I prefer to own films, even if they’re DRM restricted. The concept of AirPlay is appealing however and I can see that the Netflix integration is too, but we don’t get it in the UK, and neither do we get a great variety of rental choice on the iTunes store. So, all in all, I’m a bit disappointed. It’s small, good-looking and inexpensive, but doesn’t seem to fulfil the needs of family Hicks.

More promising is the rise of Plex, the Mac-only media centre based on XBMC. On top of a sparkling new version 9 this week, have announced that they’re partnering with LG to integrate their software into a new range of tellys and blu-ray players next year. I don’t plan to upgrade my telly, but I’m hoping that these new resources will see Plex continue to grow.

In the meantime, it’ll be interested to see what the hacker community make of the new Apple TV. Maybe a ‘jailbroken’ ATV with Plex, Boxee and iPlayer is still possible!

Thoughts on the PS3 Media Centre (+ Apple TV)

It’s been 6 months now that I’ve been using the PS3 as an all-in-one media centre, and it’s going well. It’s lasted the longest so far, but there are a few small niggles:

  • Wifi streaming is too stuttery, and has to be connected via ethernet to NAS in order to get smooth playback. Not a big issue, but it would be lovely to lose the wires and hide the NAS and router somewhere (rather than being under the TV). I could install an ethernet network, but it seems like overkill, when other devices (such as Apple TV) can stream perfectly well.
  • It’s a bit too fussy on encodings, and even certain should-be-supported .mp4’s just give either ‘corrupted file’ or errors. Wider encoding support would be great.
  • No sub-folders with the internal drive. Seems like such a trivial thing to add, but to get a folder structure you need to use an external USB or NAS drive. (I went for a NAS)
  • Playing digital music isn’t the greatest experience. The only way to navigate and choose tracks is to have the TV on, where the cover art is relegated to a tiny square. The PS3 prefers annoying visualizers.

The first three could be solved by a software update, but it’s because of this last niggle that I just picked up a bargain Apple TV off ebay. It automatically grabs new music from my laptop when it’s open and gives me THE best playback interface I’ve ever used – the Remote.app for the iPhone. If I could design a perfect music system, this would be it. Due to it’s hard drive size (160gb) it’s only really suitable for our music library, and a selection of favourite movies/TV shows. The Remote.app also avoids the overly iTunes store centric menus of the TV interface.

So it’s a brilliant device for music, but I’ve not had a lot of joy with plugin hacks enabling me to play media on the NAS drive. My experience so far has been a lot of crashes and unmounted drives. Boxee works best of all, but it isn’t a system I could expect the family to use. It takes too long to get from the ATV finder to a logged-in and ready-to-go Boxee. Compared with the PS3, it easily reads media from the NAS, via Twonky server, without fuss.

So, ideally, an equivalent iPhone app for the PS3 (now that the 3.0 firmware doesn’t cripple Bluetooth, it could be possible?) that would allow music to be chosen without a TV would be the best solution. For now, it will be ATV for music, and PS3 for everything else.

(Finally, before folks start mentioning a Mac Mini, please be aware that I’ve been that route twice already, and it’s just not the solution for me. A Mac Mini is not designed to be used remotely, and in my view, requires too much ‘admin’ to be a viable option. Also, yes, yes, XMBC, Boxee, Plex etc…)

Popcorn Hour, WD TV or Apple TV?

So, with my scrapbooking system sorted, my thoughts now turn once more to my unsolved Media Centre thingy.

To catch up: I’ve given up on the Mac Mini solution after it delivered nothing but a black screen for the umpteenth time. I’ve had various problems with it, all software related and fixable, but I was getting a bit fed up with the amount of administration it required. I spent more time in screen sharing keeping it ticking over than I did using the remote. EyeTV in particular threw up problems, from bizarre errors to app updates that caused it to crash at launch. Others may have had better experiences with their Minis, but I’ve had enough.

Giving up on the PVR side (I’ll probably end up with a Sky+ box) I’d decided to go the Apple TV route, and I’ve been saving my Amazon Vouchers to get a 160gb version. What I particularly liked about the ATV was the AirTunes function, and that it’s easily hackable with a patchstick. Now that I’m ready to buy, it’s out of stock on Amazon (and seemingly everywhere else too, including the Apple Store). It’s also 2 years since it’s come out, and all this leads me to wonder – will there will be a revision announced at Macworld next week? It’s possible, but so far the rumours have been surrounding iMacs, Mac Mini’s and the supposed iPhone Nano.

It’s also given me an opportunity to look at what alternatives are out there, and there are 2 in particular that are interesting to me:

Western Digital HD TV Media Player

Rather than a networked machine, the WD TV is a simpler (and substantially cheaper!) affair. You just plug in up to two USB drives with media (such as a WD passport drive and memory stick), and it finds it all and provides a TV interface to play it. It can play just about any format you want to throw at it (with the exception of iTunes DRM’d media of course). It can output HDMI and optical audio. It’s small, cheap (£80 on Amazon.co.uk), and gets the job done.

The main downside seems to be the interface, which while it isn’t offensive, is rather ‘Vista’:

Popcorn Hour

This ‘Networked Media Tank’ looks like another good option, and has a rave review on CNet. It comes Hard Drive-less, and you add whatever size drive to it takes your fancy. So rather than be stuck with Apple’s 160gb drive, 1TB is possible. Looks wise, its quite industrial, but I rather like it (and certainly prefer it to the plasticy looking-like-an-alien trend). Again, it takes every format you can throw it at it, and also integrates extras like a bittorrent client, and content from Flickr and YouTube to name but two. It doesn’t have WiFi, but this can easily be added with a USB dongle. In short, it’s expandable and flexible.

Again, if there is a downside, it’s the interface, and in Popcorn’s case it comes off a little worse than the WD TV. As this blog review shows, some of its screens are better than others. Apparently the menus are constructed from HTML (and CSS?), and can be hacked, but I’m not sure I want to be going down that route!

Neither of these are particularly aimed at OS X users, but as far as I’ve gathered, both will work (or can be made to work without too much hassle). I have a nagging feeling that I will end up with the Apple TV, as that best suits my iTunes centric and UI design fussy world.

So, if you have either of these devices, have successfully hacked the Popcorn Hour UI, I’d like to know your thoughts! Likewise, if there is a similar device I should be considering (that doesn’t involve another games console or XMBC), please let me know too!

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