For some time now I’ve been experimenting with different ways of getting Internet-based video to my widescreen LCD HD televisions.
Often people think, why not simply hook up a regular desktop computer up to the TV. A desktop computer can be set up to play back virtually any video file type. The problem is, desktop and laptop computers are optimized for use on a desktop, not from a living room chair.
Is the ultimate media extender a set top box of some sort? The trouble with most set top boxes is that they are either walled gardens, or they miss the boat in very important ways.
A media extender should be able to play files stored on a home network, as well as be able to easily stream from services such as Netflix, Hulu, etc. Once set up, everything should be accessible through a simple remote control. Also, for my purposes, I’m willing to pay up to $250 for a box for each television in my house. It should also be able to play ripped DVD collection files that have been ripped to a central home server or network attached storage device.
I’ve hit on an interesting combination that seems to do everything I want it to that involves hacking a standard Apple TV and adding Playon TV server software to another computer on my home network. Playon TV software sells for $39.99.
Recently I purchased a commercial Apple TV hack called ATV Flash, which sells for $49.95. You download either the Windows or Mac version and install it on your computer. When you run the program it will ask you to insert an empty USB memory stick that it will write the installation files to. Then you plug the USB memory stick into your Apple TV and power it up. It will upgrade the Apple TV to be able to play a much wider variety of files, as well as adding Boxee and XMBC playback. It also retains all of the standard Apple TV functionality.
Next, I added the Playon TV software to my HP Windows Home Server. It could have easily been any other computer on my home network that meets the software’s minimum performance requirements. Once Playon TV was installed, I added my credentials for my Netflix account, as well as my Hulu account.
Finally, on my hacked Apple TV I simply start the XBMC application and navigate to UpNP devices on my home network, where Playon TV shows up. I now have access to Hulu and Netflix right on my Apple TV.
The Apple TV itself does not have enough processor horsepower to play back Netflix or Hulu Flash streaming without stuttering and freezing. However, playing it through the Playon TV software causes much of the processing to take place on my Windows Home Server machine, which has plenty of horsepower. Playon TV works by converting the Hulu and Netflix Flash streams into UpNP streams that the hacked Apple TV running XMBC can easily play without stuttering.
So, with this setup I’ve got access to all of my regular iTunes material, including HD and SD video podcasts, as well as a wide variety of streaming material from popular services such as Netflix and Hulu. It would be easy for me to buy additional Apple TV units, apply the ATV Flash hack to them, and attach them to other HDTV’s in my house.