Create your own Apple TV with any Mac

While AppleTV is nice, out of personal preference, I’m not a big fan of iTunes, iPhoto and other Apple media solutions. Let’s look at how you can take any old Mac and turn it into something better than the AppleTV can even think of becoming.

What makes Apple TV special:

First off, AppleTV has a slim form factor and looks nice. It has embedded HDMI, and Component video ports as well as Optical and Analog RCA audio ports. In addition it has a 40GB or 160GB hard drive, 10/100 Ethernet, 802.11n Wireless and one USB port.

What AppleTV doesn’t come with is – a TV / Monitor, cables for connecting your a/v gear and an internal DVD drive for playback. Also, Apple doesn’t specify what processor is in the AppleTV which is a red-flag indicating its not much. Granted, powering video for viewing doesn’t require heavy lifting but it’s a red flag nonetheless.

Basically, it’s a low power computer with built in ports for A/V equipment that’s built on the premise of using iTunes store content for your media needs.

Want it to do more? Don’t feel the need to be bound to the iTMS? Let’s see what else we can do..

Choosing a Mac to use:

A great use for an older Mac, especially one with a nice display is for it to become a Media Center machine. With a nice TV though, even an older Power Mac will work fine. Our only requirement is that it’s a Mac that’s able run OS X 10.4.11. If it’s a newer or slightly better Mac, 10.5 Leopard.

One major limitation of an older computer with a slower processor would be dealing with 720p and 1080i HD TV Tuning. You’ll need at least a Core 2 Duo processor for that.

You’re also going to want one with a graphics card. What you choose for a computer will depend on you budget, what you have lying around and what you can get your hands on.

Upgrading your Media Mac:

For this project, upgrade the RAM as much as you can. You aren’t going to like stuttering video as the Mac pages back and forth from the drive during playback. Seeing that media files take up a ton of space, you’ll want the biggest Hard Drive you can find.

If you have an iMac or Mini and upgrading the hard drive is beyond your technical ability, an external drive is an easier choice.

Additional A/V Gear:

Depending on what you have already, your A/V needs may differ. We’ll look at dealing with the interfaces you’ll need for a typical setup (Watching/Recording TV, DVDs and Video files).

TV Tuning:

You’d think that with a name like AppleTV, it would have a TV tuner inside. It doesn’t. Apple wants you to buy shows through iTunes, not watch them for “free” with your cable subscription. Some highly recommended TV Tuners are:

- Elgato’s EyeTV Hybrid TV Tuner.
- Hauppauge’s WinTV-HVR-950 Hybrid TV Tuner for Mac and PC.

Video Ports:

Most older Macs are going to have VGA out. Some will be DVI (Mac Minis, Power Macs). What you’ll need really depends on your TV. If you have a digital DVI port on the back of your Media Mac, all you need is a HDMI-to-DVI Video Cable. Unfortunately, VGA and HDMI aren’t compatible and VGA has a lower quality but many TVs do have VGA ports on the back of them.

For component video, you’ll need either a VGA to Component Video Cable or a DVI to Component adapter. Here’s one for ATI specific video cards.

Of course, it your Media Mac happens to be an iMac, skip the video needs, as you’ll probably be using the iMac’s display. If not, you’ll need the appropriate Mini-DVI to VGA or Mini-DVI to DVI adapter.

Note: Before running out any buying everything, make sure your TV and Mac will be compatible with each other. Know the limitations of the Mac as well as your TV. With an older machine, don’t expect 1080p HD running HDMI perfectly.

Audio Needs:

If you have an Intel iMac, Mini or Power Mac, you’re all set in the audio department. You’ll just need the appropriate Optical Toslink to 3.5″ Mini Toslink cable. If you have an older Mac without the built-in optical port, I’d recommend the inexpensive M-Audio Transit.

Software:

Now that we’ve tricked out our Media Mac hardware-wise to resemble an AppleTV (and more), we’ll need some Media Center Software to make our experience complete. Which software you choose is entirely up to you – I recommend you try them all before deciding.

Some recommended Media Center Software Applications are:

- XBMC Media Center.
- Boxee.
- Plex Media Center.

Note: You can even just use Front Row, Quicktime/VLC, DVD Player and Elgato’s EyeTV software if you like.

Transferring Data:

Lastly, the subject of getting the media onto your Media Mac. I’d recommend just simply using a shared folder using Apple File Sharing. Just make sure your internet connection is behind a firewall. If you have an Airport Extreme, you can attach an external drive to it and use that for storage.

One advantage your Media Mac will have over an AppleTV is that most iMacs and Power Macs have Gigabit Ethernet (10/100/1000) built in. AppleTV only has the slower 10/100 Ethernet. Sure you can use 802.11n but even that doesn’t touch Gigabit speeds. Even FireWire 800 doesn’t hit Gigabit speeds.

Have you built a Media Mac?

If you’ve built a Media Center Mac, by all means share your experiences and what you used in the comments below.

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3 Comments

  1. Paul says:

    Minor correction – Firewire 400 is actually faster than gigabit ethernet. Unbelievable huh? You can test it yourself. I actually find that in order of speed: Firewire 400 > USB2 > gigabit ethernet. Theoretically, it should be the exact opposite, but the way Macs are designed, it doesn’t seem to work that way. It also depends on whether you transfer one large file or many small files and whether you transfer a lot of data (which is where Firewire shines).

  2. David Balogh says:

    @Paul – It definitely depends on what you’re transferring. Firewire excels at large file transfers with less overhead. Regardless, Apple TV doesn’t even include a Gigabit connection (only 10/100) which won’t come close at all.

  3. depression nerveuse says:

    Hi…
    I agree that Firewire 400 is indeed far faster than Gigabit Ethernet. But when it comes to Mac, it depends on whether you want to transfer mass data or small chunks of data.