Hacking the AppleTV: Get Your Boxee On

Update - With the latest Apple TV update breaking Boxee users install of the media center software, I thought it would be a good time to re-run our popular post on installing Boxee on your Apple TV, enjoy.

“Hacking” the Apple TV probably can’t get any easier that it is right now. I put quotes around the word hacking because you are really adding software to the Apple TV and all it’s current functions remain intact and untouched. Also, a factory restore will put your precious Apple TV back to as good as new. I prefer the term “patching”. 

In the past the choice has been to go to the various sites such as AwkwardTV or Apple TV Hacks and do it yourself or buy the install image and “how to” from a commercial site. I’ve tried the commercial offering and I prefer not to mention names but I’ll just say it’s not good value for money, more so now. Thanks to the folks at the atvusb-creator project on Google code, creating a patchstick is really easy. A patchstick is really a USB thumb drive or “key” that contains a boot image for the AppleTV that installs applications on its hard drive. The AppleTV is designed to boot from it’s USB port when powering up and if a suitable image is found it boots the USB image instead of the hard drive. The image created on the patchstick is written there by the atvusb-creator application - it’s really as simple as plugging in the USB key and running the program. 

Once you have the Apple TV patched you can install Boxee and XMBC from the included installers on the patchstick. I won’t go into Boxee and XMBC in this post, I’m still trying each of them out. I’ll report on what I found out in a future post.

Here’s my step-by-step guide for patching your Apple from a Mac:

  1. Get a suitable USB key or thumb drive. Unfortunately not all are guaranteed to work and get one that is less that 1GB in size (although people have had success with larger sizes - the minimum size is 512 MB). In my case I used a 1 GB SD card plugged into a USB card reader! It was the only thing I had around and I was shocked it worked. I suggest if at first you don’t succeed try a different USB key. NOTE: any data on the USB key will be lost during this process. If you have anything useful on it now, back it up.
  2. Download the atvusb-creator application. This downloads as a tar file which you can expand in your download folder or move it somewhere else. Since it’s likely you will run this once or twice you may not need to move this to the Applications folder.
  3. Unplug or eject any other USB drives at this time. You will be asked to choose a drive to format and you want to make sure you pick the right one!
  4. Insert the USB key/drive and start the atvusb-creator application.
  5. Change the Installation type to ATV-Patchstick and select the Boxee for Mac option (from the drop down that has a green check mark and “ssh tools” selected by default).
  6. Select the USB target device - if your thumb drive is the only USB drive mounted, it should be the only one present. You really want to be sure your selecting the right drive because you will be formatting the USB drive.
  7. You can select the Choose a DMG button if you have downloaded the Apple TV update image already. Otherwise the application will download it for you. You will likely know if you have done this before - the file is 2Z694-5428-3.dmg.
  8. Click on the “Create Using ->” button to begin the process. If you need to download the update image it will take a while to complete. Also, writing the image to the USB will take some time. You should end up with the following when done (note in my case I have already downloaded the update image so you don’t see this in my screen shot).
  9. Now that your patchstick is hot of the presses you need to install it on your Apple TV. Simply insert the USB key into the USB slot on the back of the Apple TV. The slot is vertical so you may need some maneuvering to insert it.
  10. Remove the power cord from the back of the Apple TV and insert it again - this will perform a complete cold boot. You should see a bunch of text scroll past on your TV as it boots up - and a final success message at the bottom (sorry I didn’t record exact text but something to the effect that patch was successful).
  11. Remove the USB key from the back of the Apple TV. Remove and insert the power cord to do another cold boot.
  12. Your Apple TV should boot up as normal and when all the intro stuff is over you should see two new options at the top of your main menu: “Boxee” and “XMBC”. The patchstick image does not contain these applications only installers. You need to install Boxee and/or XMBC if you plan to use them.
  13. To install Boxee, select Boxee from the main menu and select Install. The installer will download the latest version and install it on your Apple TV. Repeat for XMBC.
  14. Once installed, you can run Boxee. You will need an account so apply for one here. Note that SSH is now enabled on your Apple TV so you can login and start to do all sorts of cool things. Just remember that you must specify “-1″ in the ssh command line and the address is typically AppleTV.local although in my case it is AppleTV-2.local (where is the other AppleTV??). You can always use IP addresses if you know them. 
That’s it. Pretty straightforward. It’s possible it won’t work as smoothly for you as it did for me. A few troubleshooting tips:
  • Failures to boot seem to be related to the USB key. If you can, try another. Many new large USB keys apparently do not work.
  • You should see an obvious “patch succesful” message when the Apple TV is patched from the USB key. Any other message or incomplete output likely means failure. Again, it might be the USB key.
  • If all else fails you can do a factory restore and get everything back to normal.

Written by Bill G. on February 25, 2009

Filed Under: How-To

Comments (9)

Howard

October 15th, 2008 at 8:02 am    

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My Apple TV is fine, why would I need a patch???

James Papadopoulos

November 4th, 2008 at 3:20 am    

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Check out my review of the install and Boxee itself at TechSpank.com - here’s a permalink:
http://techspank.com/?p=30

Gnome

February 16th, 2009 at 6:44 am    

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@Howard:

Wow, nub of the month.

Dave

March 3rd, 2009 at 7:29 am    

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You can even use a 1st gen 512 MB ipod shuffle as a patchstick.

BillG

March 3rd, 2009 at 10:32 am    

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@Dave - great suggestion, I have one of these too. I have found it difficult to find another one that works - a 1GB Kingston DataTraveler did not work. I think this is likely the biggest technical hurdle of doing this. Anyone who goes to trade shows has an advantage since they have likely collected a dozen small USB sticks by now :-)

Adam Solomon

March 10th, 2009 at 7:11 pm    

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Appletv didn’t recognize my patchstick, even though the patchstick created correctly. Nothing installed on it. Any idea why this happened? Thanks.

BillG

March 10th, 2009 at 7:31 pm    

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@Adam - this is really the only symptom of the USB stick not working - it doesn’t boot - even if it gets formatted correctly. Unfortunately, its hit and miss with picking the USB stick. Some work and some don’t. This is in general not all USB sticks will boot PC’s either. Take a look on Google for brands that might work or check out the forums for the ATV patchstick.

Chris Quatraro

April 7th, 2009 at 1:59 pm    

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Has anyone had a problem with the patch working but boxee not installing when in the main menu?

Bill G.

April 8th, 2009 at 6:58 am    

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@Chris it’s been a while since I’ve done this but you need to go to the launcher menu option and download boxee before it’s available to run. From then on, you go to the launcher menu option and then select boxee.

Let me know if this works or not…

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