About to enter its third year of existence, the Apple TV remains one of Apple’s most hotly debated products. This compact, unassuming living room media player is a great companion to the iTunes Store. Yet its tight integration with Apple’s software (and the fact that Apple views it mostly as another way to sell content) means that the Apple TV is shut off from many formats and from the streaming, on-demand type of content available (in the US) via Boxee or Hulu.
There are a number of modifications that promise to improve Apple TV by adding services and features, but few are as thorough as Fire Core’s $US50 ($A55) aTV Flash 4. Boasting support for a browser, Boxee, USB hard drives, many file formats, EyeTV content, RSS feeds, FTP/SSH access, and additional plug-ins and apps, aTV Flash is a digital Swiss-Army knife for the Apple TV.
One of the most refreshing things about aTV Flash is its extremely simple setup. There are free ways to add many of the same features to your Apple TV, such as the open-source atvusb-creator, but most require tinkering with install files and Terminal (atvusb-creator, for example, doesn’t currently for Mac users and Apple TV OS 3 without a lot a additional work on your part). They are generally more tedious and/or clunky than difficult, but if you’re looking for an Apple-y “just works” solution to spice up your Apple TV, aTV Flash is it. After purchasing from Fire Core’s site, you download a file, plug a USB flash drive into your Mac (or Windows PC), double-click the installer, then sit back and enjoy the modern age of automation.
aTV Flash’s additional menu items.
Installing on the Apple TV is just about as simple: Unplug the power cable, plug the flash drive into the Apple TV’s otherwise useless USB port, plug power back in, and wait a few minutes as the aTV Flash installer works its magic. A drawback in this process, however, is that many of the most appealing features are not enabled by default. Granted, this is because the aTV Flash software downloads the most recent version of features like Boxee or Flip4Mac (for Windows Media support) when you want to turn them on, but it’s still a slight hassle nonetheless. Another unfortunate-though-necessary minor drawback: aTV Flash, by default, disables the Apple TV’s built-in ability to check for new updates from Apple, so you’ll have to wait on official new features. This way, the modifications aTV Flash provides to the Apple TV OS don’t get blown away by an Apple update before Fire Core issues an update of its own.
aTV Flash adds features to your Apple TV by adding them to the new horizontal menu system introduced in Apple TV software 3.0 (which aTV Flash 4 requires; it supports 3.0.1, the current software version). New menus like Media (for content you add manually outside of iTunes), Browser, XBMC/Boxee, and Maintenance appear in-line with the Apple TV’s standard media sections, making the additions feel right at home.
I was most interested in Boxee, the prospects of using my Apple TV to browse the Web on my HDTV, and USB hard drive support for iTunes syncing. In short: they’re great. After turning on USB drive support, plugging in my external drive, and rebooting the Apple TV, iTunes on my Mac Pro reported that my 1TB Apple TV was ready to gobble up our entire 650GB library. I decided to hook up the Apple TV via ethernet so the initial sync went faster, and once it was done, WiFi syncing of any new media or changes continued without hiccup.
The Web browser, which Fire Core calls Couch Surfer Pro, basically just exposes Apple TV’s built-in-but-hidden Safari, so it works fairly well. Sites loaded quickly and accurately, and you can adjust the text size to suite your needs. A big aTV Flash 4.0 advantage here is full support for Apple’s Remote iPhone app, including the text entry and flicking features.
Managing plug-ins in aTV Flash.
You can use Remote on your iPhone or iPod touch to quickly enter URLs (instead of using the Apple TV’s inelegant on-screen keyboard) or even control the mouse pointer for clicking on links or selecting text boxes. One minor drawback to Couch Surfer Pro, though, is that basic browser functions like moving back a page or accessing bookmarks are not buttons in a toolbar at the top of the screen; you have to press Menu to back out of the page to see these options in a list. Speaking of bookmarks: while you unfortunately cannot sync bookmarks from a desktop browser, you can manually add your bookmarks by using aTV Flash’s FTP features to replace the bookmarks.plist file on the Apple TV with one from Safari on your Mac.
As far as Boxee goes, we’ve talked about this rich new streaming media centreplentyalready. It can stream a ton of media from Hulu, Last.fm, Flickr, YouTube, CNN, MySpace TV, PicasaWeb—the list goes on. Boxee installed through aTV Flash is Boxee by any other name, and it works splendidly. Almost. The one problem I found is that you can’t use an iPhone for text input in Boxee, so you’re still stuck with creeping around an on-screen keyboard for signing into your Boxee account or searching for media.
The last couple of features I tested were FTP and support for DVD files backed up using apps such as RipIt. I used RipIt to back up my copy of Traffic then, after using Fire Core’s simple FTP setup guide, I uploaded the movie to my Apple TV and used the Files option to play it. The film launched as if I had somehow stuffed a DVD into my Apple TV, displaying the menu system. An aTV Flash plug-in called Sapphire can take manual media organisation like this one step further, as it hooks into various Internet resources such as IMDB to download metadata and album art to be displayed throughout the Apple TV interface.
One strange problem I found with FTPing files onto my Apple TV is that OS X 10.6.2 couldn’t copy files over. I had to whip out Panic’s Transmit FTP app to get the job done. According to Fire Core, the Apple TV may restrict the Finder to read-only access, but hopes to overcome the restriction in a future aTV Flash update. You can copy files off, but you’ll need a dedicated FTP app to copy files to an Apple TV.
Overall, I’m pretty happy with aTV Flash. Boxee is a fantastic addition to our living room, but I’m the most happy about finally being able to sync all of our media to our Apple TV, thanks to the external USB drive support. It just doesn’t seem right to have to constantly run the Mac Pro in my office—a Quad Core 2.66 GHz Xeon beast with four hard drives and a big ATI video card for gaming—just to watch an episode of The Venture Bros. because the Apple TV’s needlessly small hard drive couldn’t squeeze it in.
Macworld’s buying advice. Although there are free alternatives for installing some of aTV Flash’s features—if you’re willing to get your hands dirty with open source software and installer files—aTV Flash definitely turns the Apple TV into a powerful, streaming multimedia center for your living room. Or, to put it another way, the type of product Apple should have made itself. If the price tag isn’t too prohibitive, aTV Flash’s extremely easy setup and plethora of features make it worth the money for any media buff who needs a lot more out of an Apple TV. However, an updated version of atvusb-creator may be available soon to provide some of the features offered by aTV Flash without the additional effort currently required.