Giving Cable the Boot

May 19, 2009

Month after month, we receive our cable & Tivo bills and cringe at the near $100 total. Before Will, I was able to justify the cost a lot more, but with the economy and less time in front of the TV it is more difficult to do so. With this in mind, Rebekah and I decided to experiment with the AppleTV to see if it could meet our needs of watching videos from our hard drive and streaming Netflix and Hulu with reasonable quality.

The first thing was getting the AppleTV, not too tough since the University Bookstore carries them. This worked well for the potential need to return it, no need to deal with shipping or restocking fees. After getting it home, I started it up connected to the TV via HDMI and the receiver with an optical cable. All worked well and I had a working AppleTV that basically allowed watching iTunes content. We did know going into it that we would need to hack the AppleTV to get Hulu and Netflix (via Boxee or XBMC), so that was the next step.

I decided to go the easy route and try the atvusb-creator. This was a piece of cake, downloaded and ran the app, installed to the USB key and done. I then rebooted the AppleTV with the USB key connected. The installer just did it’s business and after the restart, there were a bunch of new options on the menu. This is when things were not as easy as I would have preferred.

I tried starting Boxee and nothing came up. I tried the same with XBMC, and nothing. I started getting a little concerned, so I started poking around the settings and found an update section. I ran the update for the Installer program, and then the Boxee and XBMC programs after that. Luckily that got both of those working, I just wish there had been a little more documentation about that beforehand.

I decided to try Boxee and it instantly went to a blank screen. After some checking online, I found I had to update the AppleTV software and then do all of the hacks again. This took some time, but after that Boxee came up just fine. I logged in, tried out Hulu and found that it was a bit choppy. I tried Boxee on my laptop as well to confirm it was not a Boxee issue, and Hulu ran just fine through that. I decided to give Netflix a try and it wouldn’t even start on the AppleTV through Boxee, again, something that worked great on my laptop.

It was a this point I checked and found that the AppleTV only has 256MB of RAM, not really enough to handle HD streaming. Because of this, we have decided to return the AppleTV and instead go with a Mac mini. The mini is on the way from China, so there will be a followup to this when we get that setup. We are both optimistic that this will work better and be the cable replacement we are looking for, so stay tuned next week for an update.