I hacked my Apple TV! With XBMC!!

Not sure if this or MPSIMS was the right forum - mods, feel free to move this.

I’ve been toying with the idea of ripping my entire DVD collection to my home server, and streaming into the living room. I’ve been flirting with this project in fits and starts for about a year now, but lacked a clear direction.

I’ve been in a pickle over whether to stream to my PS3, and wrestle with all the back-end stuff that you need to have to make that happen smoothly (whilst dealing with the Xrossbar interface - urgh), or whether to deal with the Apple TV’s rigid format/codec constraints, but nicer interface/simpler iTunes back-end. Or just stream to a PC I built a while ago for Netflix streaming and web browsing (mooted now that the PS3 has Netflix support).

So I went to AVSForum last week to ask for advice, and after the requisite discussions over different encoding methods, streaming backends, etc., someone said “why don’t you just hack your Apple TV and install XBMC?”

Well, I’d played with an earlier version of XBMC (Xbox Media Center - an open-source media center front-end) on Windows before, and even with a full Linux flavor, and didn’t come away with a great impression - the Windows version was buggy, and the Linux version lacked driver/codec support. But I figured, what the hell, I can always restore my Apple TV to factory defaults, and I installed it. It was pretty simple - download a Windows “patchstick” creator, that allows you to create a USB stick that the Apple TV sees as bootable, then reboot the Apple TV with the stick plugged in.

A bunch of startup dialog strolls by, I removed the USB stick and rebooted, then did a couple short updates (25 minutes start to finish, tops) and lo and behold, I was looking at a completely new interface, that had instant detection of all my network shares, and played nearly every single file I threw at it - AVIs ripped in XVid with MP3 audio? No problem. DivX with AAC? Yup. h.264 Mp4s? Easy. It even plays ripped DVD backup folders, with raw VOB files and IFO files intact, albeit slowly over a wi-fi G connection.

So I’ve taken that neat little niche box that is the Apple TV, which I had only really been using for my music library and for movie rentals, and I’ve increased its functionality exponentially. And it took just 25 minutes! And it has like 20 skins to choose from to match my browsing style, and content provider plugins so it can stream directly from networks’ web sites (the SciFi streamer has some really cool stuff).

And since I took the PC out of my living room, I’m now using it for a dedicated ripping station so I don’t tie down my main PC doing Handbrake encodes - right now it’s sitting at home happily churning away, converting my Firefly and Buffy backups to MP4 while I work.

This geek’s new year is off to a fun start.

How big is your DVD collection? How much storage space do you expect it’ll take to store everything?

It’s modest by most standards - 20 grownup movies, about 30 kids’ movies, and some TV collections (complete Buffy, Farscape, Firefly, and some compilations of other series). About 100 DVDs total (guesstimating, as I’m at work now).

I was planning on storing simple DVD backups as ISOs without compression, but realized that if I did this, I would run out of room pretty quickly - I have my home server in a small nettop, with only space for two drives for a total of about 790GB of usable space. Since I use my home server’s file duplication system (kind of an ad hoc Raid 1 that copies any content marked for duplication to a separate drive), I need to manage my space carefully in order to keep space for my music collection and backups, and for new movies. Sure, I can swap out drives, but the chassis makes this a real pain. (As an aside, upgrading this to a new system that will support more than 2 hard drives is my next project.)

With compressed files, I’m only using about 30-35% of the storage that full backups take, and the quality is near-DVD - I just ripped Firefly, and it looked amazing, in a file almost a quarter the size. For those few “epic” type movies that I just have to see in full detail (about 10 or so, like Lord of the Rings, or Jurassic Park) I am planning on storing them as full ISOs.

With this strategy, I predict that the 100 DVDs we have will take less than 300 GB, while uncompressed, the whole thing would exceed my current capacity.