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  • Now Here Is Nowhere

    • 10 out of 10
    • Secret Machines
    • The Secret Machines' inaugural album, Now Here is Nowhere is both old and new in its sonic assault. The trio's surprisingly big sound evokes Pink Floyd (without ever sounding like any Pink

  • Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not

    • 8 out of 10
    • Arctic Monkeys
    • Get on your dancing shoes
      You sexy little swine

      -Arctic

  • Another Day on Earth

    • 10 out of 10
    • Brian Eno
    • In his first proper solo release since 1996's relatively cold "The Drop," Brian Eno has constructed a whimsical and ecclectic masterpiece which is arguably one of the year's strongest records thus fa
  • Spanks for the Memories

    • 8 out of 10
    • Asylum Street Spankers
    • The Asylum Street Spankers are...well...The Spankers. Hailing from Austin, where I saw them live dozens of times, the band played entirely acousti

  • Velocifero

    • 6 out of 10
    • Ladytron
    • "Back to the future" isn't the right turn of phrase for Ladytron's newest album,

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In-Depth Review

Fire Core’s aTV Flash Brings Internet, More to Apple TV

There are several ways to open up the capabilities of the Apple TV to play DVDs, access the Internet, and enable the USB port for external storage or a keyboard. Fire Core, LLC has developed the, aTV Flash, and it does a lot of the geeky, heavy lifting so the user can engage exciting new prospects on the Apple TV. It does so without violating the Apple TV Warranty.

Hacking the Apple TV may give some customers pause. If one goes the home brew route, along the lines of the ATV USB Creator, one can get lost in technical details that aren't fun for those who just want to get to the good stuff. The Register recently wrote a good article about how to do that from the ground up.

Apple TV

Apple TV still runs Tiger

What's important to remember is that one essentially builds a bootable USB flash drive, inserts it into the Apple TV, reboots the unit, then the software installs itself. With that, the user can add extra storage, play DVDs, connect a keyboard and mouse, access the Internet - and watch Internet TV.

There are a few gotchas to be aware of. First, while Fire Core's aTV Flash makes the process easier, it's still necessary to build the bootable flash drive, install software on the Apple TV and go through a post install process. Also, the Apple TV is fine tuned in the hardware to display MPEG video from disk and not display Internet video, via browser plug-ins. Accordingly, if one wants to settle for a wide ranging but somewhat limited visual experience, this approach to hacking the Apple TV is fine. However, it's not an exercise in excellence for those with very specific interests.

For example, those who want to focus on Netflix or ABC.com's excellent browser plug-in are better off connecting a real Mac to the HDTV with a properly set up HDMI connection. Tiger on the Apple TV is also missing a key component required for Adobe Flash. (More on that below.)

TANSTAAFL.

In the case of Netflix, one could buy the Roku box or Netflix enabled Blu-ray player that's designed from the ground up to display HD in 1080p.

aTV Flash logo

Fire Core's aTV Flash for the Mac (and PC) enables the following features on the Apple TV without violating the Apple TV warranty or license agreement..

aTV Flash Features

aTV Flash Features List

Installation

aTV Flash comes with an installer for the Mac (or PC) and an install guide in PDF format. It's necessary to follow the install guide very carefully because 1) the application MUST be installed from its mounted DMG image, and 2) it's going to totally erase the volume the user designates. It better be the flash drive.

Speaking of flash drives, it's important to note that not all USB flash drives are bootable. Customers have had the best luck with Memorex and SanDisk while not so much with Kingston. (My Kingston Data Tareveler did not work.) It should be at least 256MB but no larger than 2G. If the drive has U3 on it, it must be deleted. Users have a wide variety of experiences with varius flash drives, and some of their experiences have been posted in the aTV Flash Forum.

The installer takes the user through the process of building what's called a patchstick, basically a bootable USB flash drive loaded with software and driven by a UNIX shell (.sh) script.

aTV Flash install options

aTV Flash Install Options

I recommend checking the boxee, XBMC, and keyboard magic boxes as well, shown above. It only takes a few minutes to build the patchstick, and because the first USB flash drive selected didn't work, (and other snafus) I had plenty of experience building the patchstick. It always went smoothly.

At this point, the instructions guide the user to cut the power to the Apple TV, insert the patchstick in the USB port, and power the Apple TV up. The execution of the shell script will be echoed to the screen, as shown below. The user then powers down the Apple TV, removes the patchstick, and reboots.

aTV Flash shell script

Install Script (.sh) Echos to TV Display

After the Apple TV reboots, there will be new menus available, but the user isn't quite ready to proceed. There are still some post-install actions, housekeeping, that need to be taken care of before the system is ready. The most common post install instructions are listed in the Install Guide along with links to the aTV Flash wiki where the reader can learn more.

 

Post Install

Some Recommended Post Install Actions 

These steps will ensure that the Apple TV is ready to have a USB keyboard and mouse plugged in. I noted during the process that the default Web browser, Couch Surfer, is not yet mouse enabled. For that, one needs to install and use Firefox. Fire Core reported that they're working on mouse support for Couch Surfer, so it's probably better to stick with Firefox for now. Alternatively, one can use Couch Surfer combined with the iPhone/iPod touch Apple Remote which works for light Web surfing and eliminates the need for a keyboard and mouse.

The New Apple TV Menu Items

Operation

If one knows how to navigate the Apple TV menus, then it's trivial to navigate the additional menus aTV Flash provides. The first thing I did was experiment with boxee and CBS TV shows: two of my favorites, NCIS and Numb3rs are available along with a host of others. (The screen shots below were taken of my home TV with an iPhone and have some unavoidable room reflections.)

boxee on Apple TV

boxee on Apple TV

The first thing I did was to fire up an episode of Numb3rs and check it out. These episodes are not in HD, and the Apple TV plus aTV Flash and boxee all did an acceptable job of displaying a watchable SD TV show.

 

Numb3rs

CBS: Numb3rs, (via boxee) Morena Baccarin and Dylan Bruno (w/daytime reflections)

Navigating the various menus has a little bit of lag, more so that one would like, but it's not a major irritation. I should also note that in order to go straight to the Internet TV Webstes like hulu.com or tv.com, one will need the Adobe Flash plug-in installed. However, because the Apple TV still uses Mac OS X 10.4, Tiger, and Fire Core doesn't have the license to distribute a key Tiger component, the user will have to obtain a framework file from a copy of Tiger and FTP it to the Apple TV before Adobe Flash will work correctly. If that's not done, an error message comes up.

Flash error

Installing Adobe Flash: Error Without Tiger Framework Item

That's not too hard to do because the install process above enables FTP and SFTP/SSH access to the Apple TV. Just go to the network settings and read off the IP address of the unit. Then one can use a variety of FTP clients to connect and upload the required file. A simple GUI-based FTP client is fine, and because one is working at home in a closed, secure network, passing the password with an insecure protocol like FTP isn't a problem. I used Panic's Transmit, as shown below, to access my Apple TV.

 

Transmit

Partial Screen Shot: Panic's Transmit

For more information on how to do this, Fire Core's wiki site has extensive instructions on how to connect and upload files using several different protocols.

aTV Flash wiki

Fire Core's aTV Flash Supporting Wiki, wiki.atvflash.com

Another nice feature of the ATV Flash product is the ability to convert your DVDs, for convenience, to either mpeg files or a VIDEO_TS folder for easy access on an external USB storage drive connected to the Apple TV. I didn't try this feature, but I'm told by Fire Core that this is a very popular feature.

Documentation

The Install Guide is just six pages and nicely laid out, with large type, and colorful headings to make it easy to digest. While the process of exploiting the added functionality requires a bit of curiosity and possibly some social networking, Fire Core didn't try to load up the manual with excruciating detail that would confuse the reader. That's always a laudable goal, and I approve.

That said, the typical Apple customer who is accustomed to everything being beautifully laid out and supremely easy to use may find that they'll have to apply a little bit of science fair experimentation. aTV Flash doesn't solve every problem, but it opens doors for those willing to dig in and have some fun. That's something important to remember.

And if things go wrong. which I judge to be not likely, one can always do a factory reset of the Apple TV. The Apple device has a special partition where it keeps a copy of the factory Tiger OS, and a reset can restore the Apple TV to a good state. Nothing lost.

It Ain't Like Dustin' Crops, Kid

FireCore's aTV Flash is a solid product that will get the experimenter and tinkerer, in spirit, up and running without a lot of pain. It's well conceived and well documented, but potential buyers should know that in any enterprise where one is working with lots of components, licensing issues, step-by-step builds, installs, and a DIY approach to hacking the Apple TV, one will have to dispense with expectations born of pure and simple Macintosh and iPhone software.

You'll still be Scotty in the engine room, but that's no reason not to have some computer assistance, and that's what Fire Core's product will give you for a fair price.

Jericho

CBS's Jericho (via boxee), Skeet Ulrich and Ashley Scott

Just The Facts

aTV Flash from FireCore

MSRP US$49.95

Pros:

Makes initial preparation easier, automates install of key Apple TV components, easy to follow directions, nicely priced.

Cons:

Still requires attention to a detailed methodology. DIY experimenters only product.

2 comments from the community.

You can post your own below.

Max V said:

Thanks for the recommendation.  The setup was simple, and it works great.  Saved me hours of forum searching.

   Quote

Jim Bailey said:

I was very pleased to find this site.I wanted to thank you for this great read!! I definitely enjoying every little bit of it and I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you post. fire blanket

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