Watching Hulu (and much more) on Your Apple TV

With all of the attention I've given to the iPhone in recent months, I'd almost forgotten about Apple TV.

More specifically, one of my chronic complaints about the iPhone is how Apple keeps it so closed that you can't access its operating system files or even mount the iPhone as an external drive on your Mac — without jailbreaking the iPhone.

What I'd almost forgotten is that the Apple TV, from its very beginning, has been subject to the same sorts of complaints: You can't do a standard boot from an Apple TV (even though it's running Mac OS X), you can't copy files to or from an Apple TV (except via iTunes), and you can't access the Internet from an Apple TV (except for the Apple-approved locations) — again unless you do some sort of hack. Essentially, many users would prefer their Apple TV to be a scaled-down Mac mini with special media features, rather than what it is. Apple clearly sees it differently.

What is perhaps the most tantalizing and yet frustrating feature of Apple TV is its USB port. Apple's official position is that you should ignore the port. It does nothing. Apple tech support may get to play with it, but it's off-limits for you.

Come on! This is like putting a favorite cookie in front of a toddler, saying not to touch it and then leaving the room. Chances are very good that the cookie will be gone when you return. Similarly, the odds that everyone will listen to Apple's admonition, and leave the USB port untouched, are approximately zero.

Indeed, within days of Apple TV's March 2007 release, Web sites were already reporting successful use of the device's USB port. Probably the most widely-reported hacks came from AwkwardTV. They figured out a way to boot the Apple TV from an external USB drive, eliminating the need to crack open the box in order to hack the device.

At the time, I took a look at this and other hacks. I eventually passed on trying any of them. Maybe my risk tolerance is too low, but they seemed too much of a hassle, too likely to have something go wrong, and of too little practical benefit to be worth the bother. And that's where I left things. As I said, when the iPhone came out a few months later, I forgot about hacking the Apple TV altogether. Until very recently.

Apple TV, Boxee, and Hulu. A few weeks ago, I stumbled over several articles detailing a simple-to-implement and quite practical use of Apple TV's USB port. You may already be aware of this news. However, if you're like me and have tended to tune out Apple TV stuff, get ready for a surprise: With almost no hassle, you can install Boxee on your Apple TV. This gives you access to an array of Internet media sites, including CNN, Comedy Central, Flickr, Picassa and most notably the now-very-much-in-the-news Hulu. Yes, you read that last one correctly. Anything you can watch via Hulu on a Web browser (which these days means almost every available TV show), you can now stream to your Apple TV.

Getting this to work is incredibly quick and simple. Start by running ATV USB Creator on your Mac, with a USB flash drive mounted. This installs the required Apple TV software onto the drive. Next, remove the drive from your Mac and plug it into the USB port on your (currently powered off) Apple TV. Turn the Apple TV on. The software automatically transfers to the Apple TV during its startup. When done, you'll find a couple of new items in Apple TV's leftmost menu: Launcher (it may have another name until after you update the software, as described next) and Software Menu. You're now just about ready to reap the benefits of your hack. [Note: If you want more detailed instructions, check out this great Gizmodo page. Much of what I wrote here is based on what I learned from this article.]

Update the software. Before doing anything else, I recommend updating the software you just installed (as ATV USB Creator does not necessarily install the latest versions). To do this, go to Launcher > Downloads and select to install the latest versions of Boxee and Launcher. Also worth doing, go to Software Menu > 3rd Party Plugins > Check for Updates. When done, select the Restart Finder command from the Software Menu. There should now be a third item added to the main leftmost menu: Files (which you can ignore unless you later plan to access attached USB drives).

Go directly to Hulu. You're now ready to have fun. First, go to Launcher > Boxee. The first time you do this, you'll need to enter your Boxee username and password (register on your Mac if you don't already have a Boxee account). On subsequent tries, just select your name and you're logged in automatically. Once Boxee is running, you'll have numerous options.

Navigating the Boxee menus can be a bit confusing at first, but you'll get the hang of it after a bit of experimentation. Hint: Press the left arrow button to access Boxee's main menu choices. Unsure where to begin? As I suggested before, I'd recommend going directly to Hulu (go to Video > Internet > Hulu Feeds). You can now select from their incredible collection of television shows, sit back and enjoy them on your large screen.

My mini-review. Okay. All is not perfect. Hulu's video resolution is sometimes not as good as I expected (based on viewing the same content from a Web browser, even accounting for the differences in screen size). But it's certainly watchable. Much more irritating, the video playback speed was often so poor that it seemed as if I was watching a slide show of still photos rather than a streaming movie. I did not have the same problem when watching the same program, via the same 802.11n network, on my MacBook Pro. Not even in full screen mode. I checked the network speed on the Apple TV; all seemed well. Still, the stuttering typically persisted. This remains the number one issue I have had with Boxee/Hulu. [Note: I have never had this problem when watching movies on Apple TV rented from the iTunes Store.]

If you forget to pause a show in progress before exiting back to the menus, the sound continues to play in the background. Annoying! Happily, there's a video setting ("Pause video when exiting playback") that you can enable to prevent this.

Some good news: I tested out the rest of my Apple TV, to make sure that the hack had not done damage to any of the device's pre-existing features or content. No problem. Everything worked just as it did before.

Even without the video playback problems, I'm still not sure how often I would use Boxee on my Apple TV. This may be because I am fortunate to already have so many other options. I have Comcast cable and TiVo. TiVo, in turn, gives me access to the "Watch Instantly" movies in my Netflix queue (as well as numerous other Internet options). And I have a beautiful 24" Cinema Display and external speakers, if and when I want to watch stuff on my Mac. Still, for those who depend mainly on an Apple TV for non-broadcast video viewing, this hack makes the device much more useful.

SSH/SFTP access. For those of you more "technically inclined," installing the ATV USB Creator software offers an additional bonus: You can access your Apple TV from your Mac, via SSH or SFTP (assuming they are on the same local network). For example, using Terminal on your Mac, enter ssh frontrow@appletv.local followed by frontrow as the password. That's it. You're in. It's the equivalent of accessing a jailbroken iPhone.

Alternatively, you can use a utility such as Fetch to establish an SFTP connection (appletv.local is the host, with frontrow as both the username and password).

Among other benefits, you can use SSH or SFTP to copy media files from your Mac to Boxee folders on your Apple TV (in Users > frontrow, which is where you'll find yourself after logging into the Apple TV). Having done this, you are freed from Apple TV's tether to iTunes; you should be able to play your transferred files via Boxee.

Unfortunately, I could not get this to work. I copied video clips to the Movies folder, using Fetch. I next navigated to Boxee's Movies folder on the Apple TV. Nothing was there. I must be missing some critical step. I've given up trying to figure it out for now.

If you are more intrepid, there are ways you can further modify the Apple TV so that it recognizes media on a drive plugged into its USB port or over a network. [For details, check out the above-cited Gizmodo article as well as this useful blog entry; this is where the above-cited Files menu comes in to play.] Again, given my initial failure with SFTP copy, I haven't even attempted to do any of this yet.

Bottom line. If you have an Apple TV and wished it could do more than Apple allows, this may be exactly what you've been waiting for. It's certainly worth a try. Especially since it's so easy to do and has almost no risk.