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Escape the iTunes cell by jailbreaking your Apple TV

Apple TV Jailbreak XBMC

Jailbreaking! It sounds daunting, doesn’t it? Overly technical, perhaps? Somewhat criminal? Fear not, jailbreaking has become extremely commonplace in the past few years despite the ongoing discussion on legality. The process has been simplified to a point where anyone that can install software on their PC can jailbreak a mobile, gaming or home theater-related device.

Basically, jailbreaking is the process of replacing the factory software on a device with a custom version of that software. Groups of developers create these custom versions of device software in order to expand the core functionality of the device.

For instance, installing custom software on an Apple TV will allow users to access previously unavailable applications such as Amazon Instant Video, Last.fm, Plex and XBMC as well as expanded functionality like Web browsing and new file support for video playback.

When it comes to jailbreaking, you will often see the terms “tethered” and “untethered” when referring to the process. When a device has been jailbroken with the tethered option, this means you have to connect the device to a computer each time it boots up. In the case of the Apple TV, this isn’t much of an issue since the set-top box is always on. However, if software crashes for any reason or the power goes out, it’s definitely annoying to have to haul out a laptop in order to reboot the set-top box. Untethered is the preferred type of jailbreak. As you probably guessed, an untethered device can reboot without having to connect to a computer. This is the best solution, but you are really at the mercy of what’s available based on your Apple TV’s current firmware version.

It’s important to note that jailbreaking doesn’t remove any of the native applications or functionality that Apple has included in the base firmware. For example, you are still going to be able to access streaming video applications like Netflix and purchase premium movie rentals on iTunes.

Before Getting Started

First off, if you own the third generation Apple TV (the version that’s capable of 1080p playback), this guide will be absolutely no help to you. There’s currently no jailbreak available for the third generation Apple TV at the publication date of this article. It’s only available for the original, silver Apple TV and second generation, black 720p Apple TV.

This is the primary reason why the second generation Apple TV with factory software is currently selling for double the price of a brand new third generation Apple TV on eBay.

Apple TV Generations

Add in custom software with an untethered jailbreak and eBay prices can easily hit $350 to $400 for a set-top box that should be retailing for about $50 based purely on the hardware specifications and comparable hardware from other manufacturers like Roku. If that’s not evidence of the value of jailbreaking your Apple TV, I’m not sure what qualifies. If you do have a third generation Apple TV, setup a Google Alert for “Apple TV third generation jailbreak” and check the news from time to time. It’s possible that a jailbreak could be released one day. However, if you are lucky enough to own a second generation Apple TV, you can jailbreak your set-top box in less than fifteen minutes.

DISCLAIMER: Digital Trends takes no responsibility if your Apple TV becomes an expensive hockey puck during the jailbreaking process. Be aware that jailbreaking your Apple TV will void your warranty with Apple.

Step 1: The Jailbreak

apple-tv-about-screenFirst off, you will need a micro USB cable, access to a PC or Mac with the latest version of iTunes installed and the silver Apple TV remote control. Next, you will need to download the Windows or Mac version of Seas0nPass (free), one of the tools that can be used to jailbreak your Apple TV.

Head over to the television where the Apple TV is connected and navigate to Settings > General > About. This will allow you to view the current firmware being used by your Apple TV.

If you recently upgraded your firmware to the most recent version (5.2.1), I’ve got some bad news for you. You can jailbreak your Apple TV, but it’s going to be tethered. However, if you have a version prior to 5.2.1, it’s likely there are untethered options for you. For instance, there’s an untethered jailbreak for version 5.2 and you will get to keep all the features recently added by Apple like compatibility with Bluetooth keyboards, Airplay for video and iTunes cloud service.

If you have an older firmware version, download TinyUmbrella (free) for Windows or Mac and connect your Apple TV to the computer with the micro USB cable. Select the Apple TV in the left column of the TinyUmbrella interface and click “Save SHSH.” Basically, this backs up your old version of the firmware and allows you to upgrade using that firmware instead of downloading the new version.

seas0npass-menuYou are now ready to kick off the actual jailbreaking process, so start up Seas0nPass. If you backed up your older version of the firmware, right click the “Create IPSW” graphic and select the firmware number that corresponds with your older version.

If you already have the latest version or want to upgrade to the latest version, simply left click the “Create IPSW” graphic to launch the process. At this point, Seas0nPass will automatically download and create a custom version of the Apple software.

After the download and conversion is complete, Seas0nPass will prompt you to plug your Apple TV into the computer with the micro USB cable. Do not plug the power cable in; it’s simply not necessary. When the light on the Apple TV starts to flash, point the remote control at the set-top box and hold down the Menu and Play/Pause button at the same time for seven seconds. When the software says “Found Device in DFU Mode,” iTunes will automatically be launched and the Apple TV will be restored using the custom firmware.

Step 2: Tethered Boot

If you upgraded using an older version of the firmware that was untethered, you can skip this step. You can immediately plug in your Apple TV and start taking advantage of the custom software. You will notice the graphic for the Settings application has been changed temporarily to the Firecore logo, specifically to visually verify the jailbreaking process. So feel free to pass GO, collect $200 in Schrute bucks and head to step three.

SP-tether-promptHowever, if you used software that requires a tethered boot, connect your Apple TV to the power cord near your television and bring a portable computer over to the set-top box. However, don’t connect the HDMI cable yet. Launch Seas0nPass again and click the graphic above “Boot Tethered.”

At this point, the software will prompt you to connect the Apple TV to the micro USB cable and use the remote control to enter DFU mode again. Seas0nPass will automatically boot your device and prompt you when complete. The entire process takes about twenty seconds. The moment the process is complete, you need to quickly remove the USB cable from the back of the Apple TV and plug in the HDMI cable. Basically, you want to do this before the light on the Apple TV stops blinking.

Step 3: Installing Software on your Apple TV

There are a couple routes you can take when installing software on your Apple TV. If you have the technical aptitude to connect to your Apple TV with an SSH application installed on your PC or Mac, you can install software on your Apple TV by entering commands and knowing where to look. For instance, here are detailed instructions on how to install XMBC on an Apple TV that’s at least version 5 or higher. While the process is obviously going to be technical and complex, the upside is that you don’t have to pay for installation costs. If you want to learn more about this route, there are plenty of guides on the Web and YouTube videos that will walk you through the process.

atv-black-maintence-pageHowever, if you don’t want to go through a plethora of technical steps to kickstart your jailbreaking lifestyle, check out aTV Flash (black) for the second generation Apple TV. While there’s a premium price attached to the software ($30), you are paying for an incredibly simple installation process and the ability to avoid hunting down applications on the Web.

The process involves little more than starting the program, choosing the Apple TV on your home network and waiting for the files to be installed. After installation, the user navigates to a new Maintenance application in the menu and can start installing new applications such as:

  • Couch Surfer Pro – Web browser which can play HTML5 video.
  • Last.fm – Streaming music application similar to Pandora.
  • Media Player – Plays additional file formats beyond what Apple offers. Also can play ripped DVD files.
  • RSS Feeds – Allows you to read articles in the RSS format on your HDTV.
  • Weather – Brings up the local weather forecast in your area.
  • nitoTV – A platform that offers additional tweaks and add-ons to the Apple Tv interface.
  • PLEX (Firmware prior to version 5.1) – A platform that allows users to stream Web content as well as stored content.
  • Remote HD (Firmware prior to version 5.1) – Third party remote control application that brings the Apple TV display to an iOS mobile device, includes AirPlay support for the first generation Apple TV.
  • XBMC – An extremely comprehensive media manager that offers the ability to install tons of add-on applications.
  • Rowmote – Another third party remote control for the Apple TV.

This list really just scratches the surface of what you can install on your Apple TV. When you start exploring the different add-ons that are included with applications like XMBC or nitoTV, the Apple TV finally starts to approach the Roku 3 in terms of Web content that can be streamed through the set-top box.

xbmc

You will be able to watch Amazon Instant Video, for instance, or Hulu on your HDTV without having to pay for Hulu Plus. Is the experience as fluid as the native Amazon application on a Roku device or the Hulu Plus application on the Apple TV? Absolutely not. However, there’s currently no Amazon Instant Video application available for the Apple TV and Apple doesn’t allow Airplay streaming of the application on the iPad and iPhone. There are also advantages to using Hulu over Hulu Plus, specifically accessing videos that are restricted to the Web.

Is This All Really Worth It?

The answer to this question really depends on your personal needs. I wouldn’t recommend jailbreaking if you want to use the Apple TV as a platform for basic Web browsing or quirky Internet widgets. Couch Surfer Pro, for example, is ridiculously slow when compared to modern Web browsers, even on the fastest Internet connection. There’s absolutely no reason why anyone would want to suffer through that when Airplay could be used to mirror a Web browser display from an iPad or MacBook on the HDTV.

Also, if you have used more recently released hardware like the Roku 3, you will notice a general slowness issue with the Apple TV when launching applications, loading streaming video and other general tasks. This is basically just the hardware showing its age.

However, if you have a vast library of media stored on your home network, there’s significant value in expanding the functionality of the Apple TV and installing a media manager like XBMC to help navigate your content. If you want to access a large variety of streaming video on the Web, both the Plex server and XBMC are fantastic options. If you want to access tons of free television episodes from networks such as ABC, NBC, FX, USA, SyFy, The CW and many others, the Bluecop Repository installed within XBMC can provide that. If you want to customize the layout of the navigation menus, add custom backgrounds and tweak all kinds of other settings, jailbreaking will get you there.

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