This is a guide that, if followed, will unchain your Apple TV from its cruel iTunes tether, turning it into the useful living room conduit of music, video and web-based content it should have been all along via the media centre software Boxee. Boxee can be installed fairly easily via the ATV's USB port to bring Hulu and Comedy Central streaming, playback of any video or music file anywhere on your network in virtually any file type imagineable, and a bevy of internet A/V sources like Flickr, Last.fm, NPR and BBC podcasts and tons of others—all upping the usefulness and fun of Apple's notoriously underachieving box by a factor of 10, easily. If you have an ATV, Boxee is a must-install, and it's 100% free. Let's get started.
The stock Apple TV has never been able to decide what it's supposed to do. Is it a device to store all your videos? Its built-in hard drive would suggest yes, but the fact that everything needs to be piped through iTunes makes this a hassle if you store your videos in any other way. And why are we downloading and storing anyway? Streaming is the way things are headed, and for streaming, Apple TV doesn't make a ton of sense, especially when a box a quarter its size and a less than half its price can bring Netflix's massive library into your living room with zero download delays and zero added cost, soon in HD, even.
Aside from adding the golden goose of Hulu streaming, Boxee's other main advantage is freeing your Apple TV from its direct connection with your iTunes library. No longer will it be necessary to convert all of your video files into iTunes compatible formats to get them to your TV—Boxee will let your Apple TV read just about any video codec you can throw at it (full list of codecs here) from any computer or network-attached storage device on your network, or read files off the Apple TV's own hard disk—all while leaving the default OS untouched and 100% functional. So let's do this.
What You'll Need:
• Apple TV with software version 2.0 or higher
• A USB flash drive 512MB or larger
• ATV USB Creator [download: 1.0.b7 version - Mac only, for now]
• An invite into Boxee's semi-public alpha (use this link especially for Giz readers to jump the line a bit)
Prepare Your USB Drive
Just like the iPhone, the Apple TV is basically an OS X computer (running a 1GHz Intel processor), so Boxee installs just like a regular desktop app in the Applications folder, which is hidden normally. Why Apple hasn't opened up the Apple TV to third party developers is anyone's guess, but thankfully, with a prepared USB stick it's all pretty painless.
1. After unpacking the ATV USB Creator application, start it up with the USB flash drive you intend to use mounted. Select "ATV-Patchstic" as your installation option and "Boxee for Mac" as the installation type. At the bottom, select the BSD location of your flash disk. You can find this with System Profiler under the USB section (probably a good idea to unmount any other USB drives so you don't accidentally wipe them).
2. Click "Create Using ->" and your USB stick will be formatted and loaded up with the appropriate software.
3. Power off your Apple TV (by unplugging it), drop your USB patchstick into the ATV's USB slot, and plug it back in. You'll see Tux and a bunch of code streaming on your screen as the software installs.
4. When it's done, remove the USB stick and restart the ATV.
Download Boxee via the Boxee Launcher
5. The USB patchstick installs a launcher that can then pull down the latest version of Boxee from the web. The first thing you'll want to do, then, to ensure you have the latest version, is update the launcher itself. Go to the new option "Boxee" in the ATV menu, choose "Update" and then update the Launcher.
6. Now, go to the new Boxee menu and choose "Update" -> "Boxee alpha..." to pull down and install Boxee itself. Once it installs, select "Boxee" from the new menu "Boxee/XBMC" menu to start it up.
7. Enter the user account you registered on boxee.tv (via our invite link above). Boxee also adds some nifty social networking features—if you have any buddies also using it, you can see what they've recently watched, added to their collections, or recommended to you via Boxee's home screen.
8. First thing you'll want to do once you're in is make sure Boxee displays perfectly on your screen. Settings are accessible by pressing "left" on the ATV remote at any time, so go to "Settings - Appearance - Video Calibration..." to set overscan and sizing options.
Add Your Sources
Right now, under the "Videos" menu, you can browse and stream the complete offerings from Hulu, Comedy Central, Revision3, and a ton of other web video sources. But Boxee really shines when it can play your media files from anywhere on your network.
Add an SMB Share
This can be a network attached storage drive (you've read our guide for getting the best NAS setup, right?) or simply a shared folder on a Mac or PC on your network (to share a folder in OS X, enable File Sharing in your Sharing settings, enable SMB shares under "Options" and add your media folder. Boxee will then auto detect your shares.
9. In Boxee's Settings menu, select "Media Sources and Applications -> Network Sources" and choose "Add New Source." Select your share in the menu that comes up and mark it wither Video, Music or Photos. Boxee will now monitor this folder and add any TV shows and movies it recognises (complete with cover art, episode descriptions, and the like) to the main videos menu (Boxee's full of little surprises like this). It won't catch everything though, so you can always access your added folders manually by choosing "Sources" under the main Video menu.
Access Apple TV via SSH For Copying Media Files
Aside from streaming from SMB shares, Boxee can also of course play files stored locally in its own file system. You can connect to the Apple TV via SSH/SFTP for copying files directly over your network and accessing your Apple TV's main file system.
10. In an FTP program like Transmit or Cyberduck (but using SFTP), connect to appletv.local with the username and password both set to "frontrow" - this will log you in to your Apple TV's file system, which has a structure exactly like OS X's. You can also connect via SSH from the terminal if you prefer the geekier side.
11. In the folder /Users/frontrow you will find folders labelled Movies, Music and Pictures. Any media added to these folders will be automatically recognised and playable after copying.
Yeah, Boxee can also download Torrents. It comes with a listing of public domain movie and TV Torrents under the "Public Torrents" source, but you can also have your Apple TV download whatever Torrents you want.
12. To add a Torrent to Boxee's download manager, simply copy the .torrent file to the Users/frontrow/Library/Application Support/BOXEE/UserData/Torrents folder using the SFTP technique above and it will immediately begin downloading. Awesome.
Uninstalling All Traces of Boxee
Should you want to wipe your machine totally clean of any Boxee related tinkering, it's easy. Fire up a Terminal and type in the following commands, each on their own line:
ssh [email protected]
sudo rm -rf /Applications/Boxee.app/
sudo rm -rf /Applications/XBMC.app/
sudo rm -rf /System/Library/CoreServices/Finder.app/Contents/PlugIns/XBMCLauncher.frappliance/
rm -rf /Users/frontrow/Library/Application\ Support/BOXEE/
rm -rf /Users/frontrow/Library/Application\ Support/XBMC/
What's Next For Boxee
Boxee is on the move. Over the course of three alphas I've used (I can't believe this is alpha software) over only the last month or so, this thing has improved by incredible bounds—interface is getting better, weirdness and inconsistencies getting less common, all good signs.
Eventually, Boxee wants to be in set top boxes and on every platform (Windows is coming before the end of the year)—since it supports practically every audio and video codec known, it's aiming to be the Firefox of multi-platform connected AV setups, featuring plug-ins and add-ons of its own. It doesn't support DRM of any kind, so don't hold your breath for Boxee to be picked up by any of the majors. Fine with me.
Feature wise, Netflix streaming (yessss) and ABC.com are first on the Boxee folks' list.