First Look: Boxee Beta on Apple TV

As we reported Thursday, the Boxee beta has come to hacked Apple TVs. It's available via either atvusb-creator or aTV Flash ( Macworld rated 4.5 out of 5 mice )--two utilities that allow you to hack the Apple TV by jacking a USB flash drive into the Apple TV's USB port.

Installation

If you already have a hacked Apple TV compatible with the latest Apple TV 3.0.2 software, you can update your version of Boxee simply by moving to the Launcher menu, choosing Downloads, selecting Boxee Beta, and pressing the Play/Pause button to install the beta. If your Apple TV is unhacked or running the version of atvusb-creator compatible with the Apple TV 2.x software, you need to download the latest version of atvusb-creator (currently version 1.0.b13) or aTV Flash and install it on a compatible flash drive. Compatible is the key word. I had to try three different flash drives until I found one that worked (a SanDisk Cruzer drive).

Before installing I restored my Apple TV to factory settings and then updated to the latest Apple TV software to ensure that no remnants of any old software got in the way. I then unplugged the Apple TV, jacked in the USB drive, waited for atvusb-creator to do its stuff, unplugged the Apple TV once again, removed the USB drive, and restored power to the Apple TV.

Look and feel

Once the Apple TV rebooted, I moved to the Launcher menu, selected Downloads, and installed the latest versions of XBMC, Launcher, and Boxee. I then launched Boxee, entered my username and password, and a Boxee interface almost exactly like that found on my Mac appeared.

The important difference you'll note is the absence of Netflix from the list of applications. The Clicker application lists it as a source, but you can't view Netflix content without logging into your Netflix account via the Netflix application, which is nowhere to be found on the Apple TV. Some members of the Boxee forums have suggested that Netflix and Silverlight's demands are too much for the paltry 256MB of RAM in the Apple TV.

Boxee's performance was regrettably not as good on the Apple TV as it is on my Mac Pro. Once I got the atv-usbcreator hack installed I had problems off and on with Boxee. Like some others using the Boxee beta on their Apple TVs, I've run into situations where, after launching it, I hear sound but see nothing but a black screen. The only way out is to restart the Apple TV--either by unplugging it or holding down Minus and Menu for six seconds to switch it into troubleshooting mode, where you can choose a Restart command.

Some content played back nicely--shows from Revision 3, for example--while others were problematic. Just about every show I streamed via Hulu was choppy. When I paused shows and waited a couple of minutes in an attempt to load more of the show into the buffer, Boxee became very slow to react to my commands. Once I finally got the show to start playing again, it would sometimes play the audio without advancing the video or return to choppy playback.

Audio wasn't a problem. I fired up the BBC and NPR applications and I could play and pause the programs easily.

To ensure that this wasn't a bandwidth issue (my DSL connection runs at approximately 5Mbps down) I played a few movie trailers within the Apple's TV's movies area. They all streamed perfectly.

Work in progress

I checked with a Macworld colleague on his experience with Boxee on his Apple TV and it echoed mine--some crashes and poor performance from Web-based videos. This confirms that the Boxee beta on the Apple TV is very definitely a beta. It's great that Boxee hasn't given up on the Apple TV, as it's a terrific way to extend what has become a limited device for many. Now it's simply a matter of making it work reliably.

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