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ATPM 16.10
October 2010


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by Mark Tennent,

aTV Flash, Almost Essential

Our biggest complaint with the otherwise excellent Apple TV is the limited number of video formats it will play. Our Mac Pro spends many hours converting films into a format our Apple TV can use. The conversions often take as long as the recording takes to play, which can mean all-night sessions. We also want to stream BBC iPlayer videos, so we were keen to try aTV Flash.

This is a gentle hack of the Mac OS X 10.4 running the first-generation Apple TV, opening it for adding extra video codecs, Web browsers, and adding other applications to play on the Apple TV. After all, an Apple TV is basically a cut-down Mac, running a 1.0 GHz Pentium M. Plus an 802.11n wireless chipset, fast Ethernet, and an Nvidia GeForce Go 7300 graphics card.

There are various free ways to delve into the Apple TV such as atvusb-creator and atv-win. The Apple TV is Windows-compatible as is aTV Flash. The drawback being that you need to be nifty at typing commands. On the other hand, aTV Flash has a simple point-and-click installer.

First, we watched the very helpful screencast video, which shows installation step-by-step. It really is a case of downloading the software, double-clicking to install on a USB memory stick, then bunging that into the back of the Apple TV. The rest is nearly all automated, and aTV Flash will even download most recent versions of some things from the Internet.

Looks Familiar

Once installed, the Apple TV looks almost the same but with many more options along the menu bar. These include access to the built-in Web browser or to install Firefox, being able to play ripped DVDs, creating playlists, and much more. The aTV Flash Web site lists the extras. Better still, aTV Flash activates the USB port so that you can add a keyboard and mouse, external hard disk, or other peripheral.

You can also add files to the Apple TV by FTP. When you connect to the Apple TV via FTP it shows that it is just another computer complete with System, Applications, and Documents folders. This takes some of its magic away but also means you don’t feel daunted by trying some of aTVFlash’s other functions. As you are only messing with software you can always reinstall the system and start from scratch.

In use, aTV Flash fits neatly into the Apple TV menu setup. With many more options and some, like Web browsing, needing text entry, Apple’s little remote controller quickly becomes inadequate.

Luckily, there is a free iPhone application called Remote, which must be the easiest way to exhaust an iPhone battery. The application can control the Apple TV via an iPhone’s screen, turning dragging and tapping into “mouse” control, and adding the iPhone’s virtual keyboard for text entry. Remote will also control and mirror an iPhone library.

After installing aTV Flash, we are able to play many more types of videos than the standard Apple TV software. Ripped DVDs play as if a real disk, complete with all the options. Web browsing on a large screen TV is an entirely new experience. Copying files by FTP is very fast, and all the other aspects to aTV Flash are easy to select and operate, including changing the iTunes library from the built-in disk to an external one plugged into the back of the Apple TV.

We haven’t streamed directly from the BBC iPlayer yet. You have to install Flash and Firefox, then use an alternative input device such as the Air Mouse iPhone app or a real one connected via the USB port. This is simply due to lack of time rather than a failing in aTV Flash.

As there is no ROM flashing or anything which would invalidate the guarantee, I wish we had got aTV Flash when we bought the Apple TV. Apple should stock it in the Apple Store or, better still, buy the idea from the developer and upgrade Apple TV’s software.

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