Wednesday, June 15, 2011

From HTPC to Apple TV... One Man's Journey into The World of Crystalbuntu

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This self-indulgent post is all about how I've ended up with a Crystalbuntu AppleTV in basement. The How to begins in the Next post: Part 1 - An Introduction to Crystalbuntu

Prolog: I love digital media...

And, I especially love the techie gadgets that make it all possible. In fact, I think I may have a bit of an obsession dating back 2002 when I bought a shuttle SS40 to make a (seriously over priced...) MP3 Jukebox complete with serial remote and monochrome LCD character display. At the time I had not even considered the possibility of using a computer to play video on my TV for anything more then a novelty, but that first try at a media PC started me me down the path to building the ultimate HTPC media hub. Now, a few years later and with literally dozens of motherboards, cases and video cards bought and sold on Craigslist, I finally gave it all up in favor of an Apple TV...

I think that says a lot about the current state of the set top box media player industry since it is now possible to spend about $100 and get all the video processing power that used to be locked inside a full blown computer. My very last HTPC served me quite well running both Media Portal and Hulu desktop. The fact that I could have a relatively cheap device (grated it was the size of a desktop computer...) that looked like a piece of stereo equipment and would allow me to use Netflix, watch live TV and play high-def videos with ease was a point of pride. I mean seriously, what kind of techie worth his or her salt doesn't have a PC in the living-room?

The problem though... was that the whole setup was just a bit too buggy for every day use by anyone but myself. Inevitably, when my wife would want to watch something there would be some kind of windows update or other Media Portal quirk that made the whole setup useless. Not to mention the fact that a PC is loud, requires someone to push the power button when you want to turn it on and... Was never really polished enough to act like set top box that just works. Sure, I could have spent more time and money making it really, really good, but at the end of the day, its a hobbyist toy for a techie and not a user friendly appliance.

So, about a year ago I needed a way to play AVI and MKV videos upstairs in the family room and I purchased a WDTV instead of another HTPC in an attempt to solve the usability issues. Out of the box it was great and with the help of some modified firmware from the team at WDlxTV, we had a device that did what we needed, cost about $100 and had that "it just works" factor that was essential for the whole family. I still used the HTPC down stairs with the big TV in the media room, but for every day use in the family room, the WDTV ruled the day. Simple menus, simple remote and the ability to connect to my NAS drive to play whatever video we wanted. For the family, the WDTV was just right, but for me... I still missed the slick menus and episode info included in more advanced media centers like my HTPC. But for $100, I was not about to complain.

Then the AppleTV 2 came along and everything changed. I ventured into the world of AppleTV blind, having never really used one in any kind of jail-broken capacity. It took a day or two to successfully Jailbreak the AppleTV 2 and then I stumbled upon XBMC. Originally I was just looking for a way to stream NetFlix in the family room, but XBMC changed everything... I already had a NAS in the house with 2TB of videos and music. I pointed XBMC at my library and in a few minutes it had scraped everything and appended it all with thumbnails and fan art... Simply amazing. Now, instead of boring menus and lists of videos, I had a library of videos complete with episode information, fan art and posters. For the same $100 that the WDTV cost I now had a set top box that could play any MKV file I had (limited support for AVI, but I'll get into that later,) stream Netflix movies, and play anything I already had in iTunes. All of the sudden, the HTPC looked a lot less attractive.

A few weeks passed and the more I used the ATV2 the more I wanted one in the basement to replace the HTPC that was now so painfully obsolete. My wife loves the AppleTV 2 since she can use Netflix and also has access to all the content on the NAS. Its easy to use, always on and just works. But... My TV in the basement no longer has any working HDMI ports (shot but embarrassing story involving both techie bravado and static shock...) So I needed a device with component video. The WDTV has it, but I am very fond of my fancy menus at this point and I decided to look elsewhere.

This is where Crystalbuntu on the original AppleTV enters the story. The next few posts describe how to build the AppleTV 1 with a Broadcom CrystalHD decoder and then how to install and configure Linux for what may just be the ultimate set top box media player available today. Its about the size of a couple CD jewel cases stacked on top of each-other, draws about 20w of power, has no moving parts and plays any video you can throw at it with ease all the way up to 1080p MKV files.

I now use a second generation AppleTV upstairs for the family room and a first generation Apple TV in the media room. Both run XBMC and I could not be more satisfied! Check the next few posts for an in-depth how to!

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