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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:
- The Mac serving the content isn’t on
- The Mac serving the content has dropped off the wifi network (happening a lot in Lion)
- The Mac serving the content doesn’t have iTunes open
- 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)
- The drive where all the content is stored has become unmounted, so iTunes can’t access it
- 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.
Apple TV 2 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.
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.
- 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.
Apple TV 2
As I’ve waffled about before on the Journal, 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…)
Mac Mini Media Centre
(This post is a work in progress, that I will continue to update and tweak. The comments are great, with a whole variety of suggestions and details of other setups. I’ll try and keep the comments open as long as I can)
Apple TV or Mac Mini?
No getting away from it – I still yearned for a Mac based media centre. I’d hoped Wii Transfer would fit the bill, but the quality of the video streaming isn’t good enough (yet?).
That meant either a Mac Mini or an Apple TV, but that’s a hard decision. Apple TV has the ease of use that makes it ideal for the home. No fiddling about, but no PVR functionality either. In the end, I went for the Mac Mini’s potential over the Apple TV ‘just works’, and using FrontRow and EyeTV to provide the interface.
But, I’d dabbled with a Mac Mini media Centre a couple of years ago, with a G4 Mini hacked to use FrontRow. I gave up on it a few months after, but recently decided that the time was now right. So what’s different this time around?
Front Row built into Leopard – rather than tied to particular machines and requiring a hack to make it work. Front Row 2 also adopts the plugin ‘appliance’ architecture of Apple TV, as well as supporting sharing from other macs. As far as I can see it only lacks the YouTube feature of the Apple TV.
Screen sharing – After using other VNC clients, the inbuilt screen sharing facility is easy and responsive. I can barely notice a difference in performance between administering the Mac Mini and working on my MacBook Pro.
Intel Mac Minis – Compared the original G4 Mac Mini I was trying to use, the new Intel Mac Minis are faster, have larger hard drives and Bluetooth and airport as standard (which the G4 didn’t have). They also come with a built in remote and receiver. I previously used a bluetooth phone and Salling Clicker, which works, but it isn’t the kind of ‘slick solution’ you can hand to someone else and expect them to want to use it. The Apple remote works very well, and isn’t too simple (it is easier to lose though, and you can’t ring it to find out where it is.)
Leopard brings everything you need to run a media centre, with the exception of a PVR, and an automagic system for adding new content to the Mini. Finally, I was trying to run the last system through our old CRT telly, that only had 2 scart inputs. It looks like ass. Now that we have an LCD, it doesn’t.
So after studying the Apple Refurb Store for a few weeks, I picked up a good deal:
So, onto the setup…
One of the first things you’ll want to do is minimise the possibility of the OS giving you messages, so go to System Preferences > Bluetooth, and make sure this option isn’t ticked:
Otherwise you’ll get interfering messages, worrying about the lack of a keyboard attached. Likewise, go to System Preferences > Software Update and make sure it isn’t checking for updates.
This is how my hardware is setup: A Mac Mini sends video to the TV with a DVI to HDMI cable, while the sound is sent through my stereo with a headphone to dual composite cable. If I wasn’t playing music, I would just send the audio to the TV. I’m using a Western Digital MyBook external drive to store everything on, but I’d like to replace this with something larger, quieter and (if possible) no blinking lights! The only other piece of hardware is the EyeTV Hybrid dongle.
Essential Apps and plugins
You probably have a different list of essentials, but having tried a lot of potential apps, these are the ones I’ve settled into using:
A plugin that allows playback of .avi, .flv (amongst many others) in Front Row. Installs as a System Preference.
I use this to automate the adding of new content from my MacBook. You set the Mac mini to subscribe to however many Macs you want, and as long as its open on both, it will suck in any new tracks, movies etc. Works really well, I just wish it had some way of letting you know on the MacBook end that all new tracks have been imported. For Movies though, I’m finding it easier to share the Movies folder on the Mini and just drop the files in there, rather than try and get them into iTunes.
For ripping your DVDs, everyone should know about this!
Along with an Elgato Hybrid stick, this provides the PVR functionality, along with more recording features than my DVD Recorder does. Being able to set up smart recording schedules is genius, and I tend set every recording to automatically export as Apple TV, which adds it to iTunes for me.
A ‘Front Row Appliance’, which adds an EyeTV menu item to Front Row. This has now reached version 1, is easier to install, and the transitions between EyeTV and FrontRow are smoother.
Also, I haven’t tried it yet, but Sapphire looks interesting.
Moving the iTunes Library
I soon ran out of space on the Mac Mini, and while I was loathe to add yet another bloody plug to the overloaded adaptors behind the telly, it had to be done. (An external hard drive doesn’t tend to be as quiet as the Mac Mini either!). Relocating the Movies folder to the external hard drive was as easy as using an alias, but the iTunes library is a bit more troublesome. It should be as easy as choosing the new location in iTunes Preferences > Advanced, but I couldn’t manage to do this and retain paths. Everytime I wanted to play something, I had to select the new path to the file.
Instead, I created a folder on the hard drive, and rather than copy across everything manually, I chose this new folder as the library location in the advanced preferences, and used ‘consolidate library’. This not only copied everything across, but this time updated the paths to the media files, and everything plays as it should!
Switching between FrontRow and EyeTV
Everything works well in this setup, with the exception of navigating between the 2 applications – Frontrow and EyeTV. There are a few ways around this:
- Before launching FrontRow, I make sure that EyeTV is open, and on fullscreen mode (see below). Then I can go back to EyeTV by pressing the menu button on the FrontRow main screen. Pressing and holding the menu button in EyeTV shows it’s onscreen menu (in which you can do almost all the work that you’ll need to do). Pressing menu once will return you to FrontRow. Sometimes it can be annoying if you don’t remember to press and hold in EyeTV, and you get whisked away to FrontRow.
- The Pye TV plugin for FrontRow adds an EyeTV menu, from which you can launch FrontRow, its recordings, or the programme guide.
- Setting recordings to automatically export to Apple TV means that they will appear in FrontRow’s ‘TV Shows’ menu a few hours afterwards (depending on the length of recording, processor speed etc).
Finally, you’ll want to make sure that Syncopation, EyeTV and FrontRow are all set to open at startup. If EyeTV is set to ‘Start EyeTV in full screen’ (Preferences > Full Screen), then when the Mac restarts everything is ready to go.
When it works, it’s great. The trouble is that 15% of the time something happens – EyeTV crashes, iTunes has been updated and won’t let you play anything until you’ve accepted terms and conditions, or another app is telling you that an update is available.
For these times, I don’t have an easy solution, other than to screen share and sort it out with the MacBook. Sometimes (like in the instance of EyeTV crashing) you just have to restart.
I’ll add more detail and photos when I can…
Presumably because you can fit more in?
I just had to show you this piece of awesomeness, created by a friend of a friend.
The quality of the build is amazing!
Mac Media Centre part two - Software
FrontRow vs Others
So, now that everything is up and working, its time to find a GUI that will wrap it altogether. I could just use the default scripts in Salling Clicker to navigate between iPhoto, iTunes and DVD player using my phone, and this certainly works just fine. Lets face it though, a screen based interface is much nicer, and Frontrow is just the job. There’s the hack to get Frontrow running on macs that it isn’t meant to, and as mentioned above this works really well, but It’s a bit naughty, so lets look at the alternatives:
As mentioned in my sidenotes before, MediaCentral is a freeware FrontRow alternative. Its has a very simple interface – no icons or previews, just text arranged in a very iPod/Frontrow kind of way. This makes it faster to navigate, and works great. It has advantages over FrontRow too, as it also supports WebTV, EyeTV, AVI files and Video_TS folders. There is a Salling Clicker script to control it, but it isn’t as smooth as the FrontRow controller. Instead of just using the up/down/select buttons to navigate what you see on screen, it relays the menus back to the phone display, which I don’t find as easy. Also, there’s no option to view images in iPhoto.
Centerstage is another project aimed at this area, and does include the functionality to view images from iPhoto. The initial screen where you choose which media to play looks good, but the interface from then on looks a little busy. Overall, Centerstage feels less like something I would want to use to browse, but its early days yet.
iTheater also looks promising (its open source too), and a public version is due to be released on 31st of this month, although this is a date thats been moving a lot in the past. Judging by the Storyboard PDF you can download from the site, it looks like a winner, but until the public release is out, who knows? One to watch.
Those are the dedicated ‘media centre’ apps, but there are 2 iTunes apps are worth mentioning:
Coverflow is my ideal way of browsing iTunes. I’d love it if this could be integrated into something like MediaCental as another way of browsing (you’d still need to access playlists and such easily, which you can’t do in Coverflow).
Coverbuddy offers a full screen view, but as far as I know, can’t be controlled by Salling Clicker. I also find its performance a bit jerky, even with a plain background. Handy if you have a Sony PSP though, as it can be used as a remote control.
There’s also the recently announced GriffinTuneCenter, but the limitations of iPod HD sizes rule that out for me.
So far, my favourite Frontrow alternative is Mediacentral, but I’m keen to see what iTheater have to offer. None of them quite have the finesse of FrontRow or the features of Windows Media Center, but it feels as if things are just starting to warm up.
Have I missed any? Let me know!