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Friday, October 31, 2008

Polish the Apple TV

A hack that takes the limits off Apple’s video-streaming box

Living Up to Its Potential: The aTV Flash software adds new options to the AppleTV’s menu, so you can surf the Web, view RSS feeds, and watch videos ripped from DVDs or in other formats. Luis Bruno

Like its more popular cousin the iPhone, the AppleTV is a beacon of simplicity in a category—set-top boxes that download and stream video from a computer or other device to your TV—crowded with wonky and complex options. Also like the iPhone, the AppleTV has its needless limitations: It plays video only in iTunes formats or from YouTube. No home movies or video (legally) downloaded from other sites are playable unless they’ve been specially converted.

Fortunately, a crop of unofficial software has sprung up that enables the AppleTV to play just about any video format, including ripped DVDs. There’s also a Web browser you can put onto the box that lets you navigate to any site, including video sites like Hulu or, and programs that display local weather or RSS feeds onscreen. Most of the software is free or inexpensive, but the DIY methods for loading it onto the box can be a pain. Instead, we used a $50 program called aTV Flash that gives you an idiot-proof installation—just load it onto a flash drive, plug it into the AppleTV’s USB port, and turn on the power. Remember that there’s always a risk of damaging the device when installing unofficial software. One other note: While Apple Core, the company behind aTV Flash, claims that installing it would not void your warranty, an Apple rep we spoke with says it would. If you need warranty service, restore your box to the original software and no one will be the wiser.

Give Your AppleTV More Room : Since the AppleTV stores the video it’s playing on an internal hard drive, more storage means more movies at the ready. The box comes with a 40- or 160-gigabyte drive, but you can install your own; a 250-gig, 2.5-inch drive is only about $100. Cracking the case is easy, but copying the system software to the new drive involves a few steps. Find directions at Luis Bruno

Hack Your AppleTV

1 Purchase and download aTV Flash from The program costs $50 and comes with a year of upgrades. An extra $30 extends that to lifetime upgrades—which will be useful if Apple updates the box’s software and disables the hack.

2 Follow the instructions in the downloaded file to install the software on a USB memory stick. Not every brand of memory stick works; Apple Core recommends using one that’s a gigabyte or less.

3 Make sure your AppleTV software is up-to-date. Unplug the box, insert your USB stick into the back, and plug it back in. The software installs itself and restarts the box. You’ll see your new programs in the main menu.