This article is a pre-release chapter in the upcoming “Take Control of Apple TV,” by Josh Centers, scheduled for public release in February 2014. Apart from “,” these chapters are available only to ; see “ ” for details.
Over the course of this book, you’ve learned all about what Apple designed the Apple TV to do: how to watch videos, listen to music, and take full advantage of AirPlay’s power.
What’s left to try are advanced hacks like super-charging your Apple TV with Plex, working around regional restrictions that prevent people in one part of the world from watching video aimed at another, and even turning your Apple TV into a digital video recorder for capturing broadcast video. I’ll be talking about Unix commands, DNS configuration, and things Apple never intended you to do with the Apple TV.
Put on your hard hat and follow me… if you dare. And if you don’t, because some of this stuff gets pretty geeky, that’s totally fine — I won’t hold it against you in any way.
Frustrated by the limitations of the Apple TV’s apps and iTunes? Perhapscan help. Plex is a freemium media player and management system that runs on a computer or other device and serves content to your Apple TV. It offers capabilities far beyond what Apple provides, such as:
Plex has a client/server architecture: You run the Plex Media Server on a computer or a supported NAS (network-attached storage) device. Clients connect to the server. Just about any device can be a client, but I talk about two: an iOS client and a clever hack, PlexConnect, that connects your Apple TV directly to your Plex server.
Plex Media Server can run on a computer or a supported NAS (network-attached storage) device. I’ve been running it on my MacBook Pro laptop. It works fine, but sometimes when Plex is streaming, the MacBook spins up its fans to cool the laboring CPU, which gets noisy. I’d prefer to run it on a different Mac, like a local server, or on a NAS device.
Here are the pros to dedicating a computer to Plex:
It’s not all good, though. Here are the cons:
Try Plex on a non-dedicated computer first. Then decide if you would prefer a dedicated computer or NAS. If you install Plex Media Server on a Mac, make sure it is running Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard or later, and has an Intel Core 2 Duo processor or better plus at least 1 GB of RAM.
Start by downloading the latest version for OS X. The free download is about 70 MB. Expand the ZIP archive (if it doesn’t unzip automatically), move the resulting Plex Media Server app to your Applications folder, and launch it.
Plex Media Server begins running in the menu bar and opens a configuration page in your default Web browser (if it doesn’t, you can get there by choosing Media Manager from the Plex iconin the menu bar). Plex may change the exact procedure, but generally, you’ll be creating an account (if you haven’t already) and signing in. Next, you’re presented with a page where you handle a few administrative details, including naming your Plex server and signing up for, or in to, the myPlex cloud service, which lets you access your Plex library remotely and share media with friends.
After working your way through the basic set up questions, you reach the page where you set up your media library.
Click the Add Section button (outlined in red in Figure 1), and select a media type from the box: Movies, TV Shows, Music, Photos, or Home Movies. Then, click Add Folder, select the folder where you store that type of media, and click Add. It may take a few minutes for Plex to scan the folder for media. When Plex finishes, you see that section listed below the Add Section button, as shown in Figure 1.
When you’re done adding sections, click Next.
Now, you get to install Channels, which are Plex apps used to access online content. You’re shown only a handful of featured channels, like Apple Movie Trailers, Revision3, TED, TWiT, and Vimeo (Figure 2). To install one, click its icon, then click Install. If you don’t see any you like, don’t worry, you can install a much wider selection later.
When you’re finished installing channels, click Next.
Finally, you reach the Congratulations page. Click Done to finish setup.
Plex shows your Media Manager home page, which now lists the sections and channels that you’ve installed, as I describe next.
If your Media Manager home page isn’t already open (Figure 3), while the Plex Media Server is running, click its iconin the menu bar and choose Media Manager to open it in your Web browser.
Let’s take a quick tour of the Media Manager:
Bear in mind that Plex is folder based, so to add more media to Plex, add the file to the folder that you’ve assigned to that section. Then, update your library. The easiest way to do this is by clicking the Plex iconin the menu bar and choosing Update Library. Likewise, to remove an individual item, remove it from the folder and update your library. In either case, you may need to refresh your browser to reflect changes.
If you want to add another folder to a section, open your Media Manager home page, click Edit Sectionsin the My Library heading, click Edit for the Section you want to add a folder to, then click Add Folder. To remove a folder, click the Delete button associated with that folder, then refresh your browser.
You can access your entire Plex library from any iOS device with the 4.99. Start the app while your iOS device is connected to your local network, and it should connect to your Plex server immediately. The interface is similar to the Web interface, so you shouldn’t get lost (Figure 4).
Most importantly, you can AirPlay media from the app to your Apple TV. To do so, near the lower right, tap the Castbutton and select your Apple TV from the list. Yes, that’s right, you tap the Cast button — the Plex app recently added support for Google’s streaming dongle, and the developers combined AirPlay and Chromecast functions into a single button. You can also tap the same button to see what’s currently being AirPlayed.
When you’re AirPlaying media to the Apple TV, the app turns into a remote control, with controls that vary depending on what sort of media you’re playing (Figure 5).
The best part of the Plex app is that, unlike most third-party AirPlay apps, it continues to work even after the device is asleep. You can start a movie on your iPhone, AirPlay it to the Apple TV, and then put your iPhone to sleep and back into your pocket!
But there are a couple of things to be aware of. First, the Plex app doesn’t AirPlay photos, which is disappointing. Second, a bug in the app causes a conflict between videos and music. If you’re playing a movie and start playing a song, the song will play over the movie, leading to a huge mess. Be sure to stop playback on videos before playing audio.
The Plex app for iOS is great, but a clever hack called PlexConnect brings Plex natively to your Apple TV by hijacking the Trailers app. It’s easy to set up if you’re not afraid of the command line:
openssl req -new -nodes -newkey rsa:2048 -out ~/Desktop/trailers.pem -keyout
~/Desktop/trailers.key -x509 -days 7300 -subj "/C=US/CN=trailers.apple.com"
You should see something like the following, and two files named
trailers.key appear on your Desktop:
Generating a 2048 bit RSA private key
writing new private key to '/Users/josh/Desktop/trailers.key'
openssl x509 -in ~/Desktop/trailers.pem -outform der -out ~/Desktop/trailers.cer && cat
~/Desktop/trailers.key >> ~/Desktop/trailers.pem
This creates another file on your Desktop, called
trailers.pemon your Desktop, and move them to
Press Return and enter your administrator password when prompted
PlexConnect: IP_self: ###.###.###.###, where numbers should stand in for the hashtags. That’s the IP address of your computer, and you’ll need that to connect the Apple TV. Now:
You should now see a trailers.apple.com profile listed.
Open the Trailers app from the main menu. If everything went according to plan, you should see the PlexConnect interface instead of movie trailers. (Figure 6).
OK, stop the maniacal laughter, because there’s a slight problem: as long as the DNS server on your Apple TV is set to your PlexConnect server, your Apple TV must be able to connect to the PlexConnect server to access the Internet and function in any meaningful way. That’s both a hardware (because if you close the lid or turn the computer off, your Apple TV can’t connect to the Internet) and a software problem.
The software problem is easy to fix: set up PlexConnect as a daemon, a process that runs in the background and relaunches automatically when you restart the Mac. Here’s how to do that:
sudo ./install.bashand provide your administrator password when prompted.
That solves the software side of the problem. As for the hardware half, the obvious answer is to dedicate a machine, like a Mac mini, to Plex and PlexConnect.
Unfortunately, not everyone has a spare Mac laying around. In that case, my advice is to set up PlexConnect only on Ethernet. When you want to use PlexConnect, plug in the Ethernet cable. If your server isn’t online, just unplug the cable and the Apple TV will switch back to an unblemished Wi-Fi connection.
An annoyance of the Internet is the artificial borders erected by content providers. For instance, if you’re an American traveling abroad with your Apple TV, you may not be able to access the streaming services you pay for. And even if you can access those services, your content options will almost certainly be different than they are at home.
There are a few ways to get around this. One is to manually change your DNS server to one that sits inside the desired country. To do this, you’d open Settings on the Apple TV, and navigate to General > Network > Wi-Fi and choose the name of your Wi-Fi network. Select Configure DNS and choose Manual; then enter the IP address of the desired DNS server. Unfortunately, public DNS servers come and go all the time, so you may have to do this regularly; search Google on “public dns server list by country” to find sites listing them.
If that sounds fussy, consider a service that lets you switch your DNS nationality on the fly. The one I tested is, which costs $4.99 per month with a 1-week free trial (no credit card required).
Once you’re signed up, choose a region from the Unblockus home page and click Update. It’s called Netflix Region Picker, and works best with Netflix, but can be used with other services (Figure 7).
On the Apple TV, change the DNS on your connection (Wi-Fi or Ethernet) to 18.104.22.168 (note the IP address of the original DNS server if it isn’t set to Automatic). Then in the Settings app, go to iTunes Store > Location and select your desired location. Press menu to return to the main Settings page, then scroll down and select Sleep Now. Unplug the Apple TV, wait 10 seconds, then plug it back in. Your Apple TV should now appear to be from a foreign land!
This works particularly well with Netflix, since the viewing region isn’t tied to the region of your credit card or iTunes account. However, those of you who are not initially in the United States should note that for some other services, such as Hulu Plus, you must sign up with a U.S. iTunes account using a U.S. payment method. I’ll leave how to do that to your imagination.
Another method to try is subscribing to a VPN service in your country of choice, then configuring your router to direct traffic through that VPN. Check your router’s documentation for instructions.
The Apple TV doesn’t record live TV. But you can use an (about $170) with your Mac to record TV shows and automatically add them to your iTunes library, where they’re accessible by your Apple TV. The EyeTV HD uses an IR blaster (a cable with an infrared LED at the end) to emulate a remote control. In theory, the EyeTV HD can change channels on any set-top box (such as a cable box, satellite receiver, or a digital converter box).
Why would you do this? I can think of a few reasons — the best one being that you’re a cord cutter who relies on free over-the-air broadcast channels (which often provide better picture quality than cable and satellite) for live TV. You can connect an over-the-air antenna, like the (about $40) to a digital converter box (like , which features component video outputs that should work nicely with the EyeTV HD), then connect the converter to the EyeTV HD to capture free broadcast TV to supplement native Apple TV content.
In my case, I have the cheapest cable package that my provider offers. The included cable box is terrible, and with the EyeTV HD, I can skip its interface entirely.
The EyeTV HD requires a few connections. I won’t repeat its setup guide, but I’d like to offer a few pointers:
Another option, and the one I chose, was to place my cable box in my office, connecting it to the living room set-top box with 25 feet of coaxial cable.
The idea is that you connect a high-definition set-top box to the TV via HDMI and also connect it to the EyeTV HD with component video, which is the only analog output that can do HD. (Composite and S-video are only standard definition.)
But, how you connect the set-top box to the EyeTV HD depends on your setup. I have a bare-bones cable box with only composite (yellow for video, white and red for audio) outputs, so I connected it to the EyeTV via the aforementioned breakout cable, forgoing connecting the cable box to a TV. (I can watch live TV on my Mac through the EyeTV software.)
With the hardware in place, you need to install the software and configure the EyeTV HD for your set-top box. I’ll warn you in advance: this process can be finicky and frustrating.
Start by installing the software from the included disc. If you don’t have a disc drive, then you can.
When you first launch the EyeTV app, it presents three windows on the screen: the Live TV window in the upper left, the Setup Assistant in the center, and the On Screen Controller in the upper right (Figure 8). You can’t interact with the Live TV window while the Setup Assistant is running, so leave the On Screen Controller alone. If you accidentally pull up a menu in the Live TV window, you won’t be able to dismiss it until you’ve completed setup.
Here’s how to work through the Setup Assistant:
If the Live TV window hasn’t already displayed a picture, it should now. If you see No Signal in the Live TV window, check your connections and make sure you’ve selected the right input. Once you have a picture, click Next.
The EyeTV tries to turn your set-top box on. If it powers up, click, “Yes, it turned on.” If not, click “No, try next remote.” Keep going through codes until your set-top box turns on. If you don’t need to program them in manually, skip to Step 11 (quite a bit ahead).
The reason this is so frustrating is that you have no idea if the EyeTV software has the wrong code, or if the IR blaster isn’t hitting the right spot. Be sure to give it a few seconds between each test, since some set-top boxes are slow to turn on. Once the Setup Assistant has cycled through all the codes, you can either click Previous to go through them again or teach it your remote’s codes manually. To do this, click “No, it remained off,” select Learn Codes, and click the Next button.
Get out your set-top box’s remote control, because at this point, you need to teach the EyeTV HD its signals. At the next screen, you’re presented with a number pad with Enter and OK / Select buttons (Figure 11). Aim your set-top box remote at the front of the EyeTV, click an onscreen button (start with 1, for example), and press the corresponding button on your remote. This process is finicky, and you have only a few seconds to train each button. I recommend clicking the onscreen button, then repeatedly pressing the remote button while waving the front of the remote about an inch in front of the Eye TV HD. When a button is learned, a green checkbox appears on it in the Setup Assistant. Be patient, it may take several attempts for each button. When all the onscreen numbers have green checkboxes, pour yourself a drink and click Next.
On the next screen, you’re given the opportunity to test each of the buttons you set up in the previous screen. Turn on your set-top box and try each button to see if it works. Move your IR blaster around if you need to.
If you ever need to run setup again, fortify yourself with a stiff drink and choose EyeTV > EyeTV Setup Assistant.
There are many things you can do with the EyeTV software, but let’s cut to the chase and talk about how to record TV, add it to iTunes, and then view it on your Apple TV.
First, you need to change a few settings:
On the Recording pane, you can change where your EyeTV archive is stored, which is your Documents folder by default. Recordings can be quite large, so you might want to move your archive to an external disk. Note that this folder doesn’t store the videos you’ll actually view from the Apple TV, but the raw recordings stored in Elgato’s proprietary format.
Close the preferences window. It’s time to record!
If you’re not there already, switch to the EyeTV Programs window by choosing Window > EyeTV Programs (Control-P). In this window, you access recordings, set recording schedules, and view your program guide. In the sidebar, select Program Guide.
You see a grid of what’s showing on each channel, which should look familiar if you’ve ever subscribed to cable or satellite service (Figure 13). To find a show, scroll around, or use the search box in the upper right. You can choose different dates using the selectors at the top of the window; the diamondbutton takes you to the present.
To set a single show to record when it comes on, click the little circlein the lower left of the episode listing. The circle turns red. To cancel a recording, click the circle again.
To export your manual recording to iTunes so you can play it on the Apple TV, click Recordings in the sidebar, select your recording, and click the Apple TV button in the toolbar (Figure 14).
To automate the recording of the entire season of a show, click its listing in the Program Guide, then click the Record All button (Figure 15).
This creates a Smart Guide in the sidebar. To delete a Smart Guide and cancel future recordings, select it in the sidebar and press Delete.
To automate the export of Smart Guide recordings, select the Smart Guide in the sidebar, and click the Options button in the upper right of the right-hand pane. From the Export To pop-up menu, choose Apple TV HD or Apple TV HD 1080p, and then click Save in the lower right (Figure 16).
To view your TV recordings in iTunes, navigate to the TV Shows section of your library. To view them on the Apple TV, open Computers > TV Shows. (For more about how to stream iTunes content to your Apple TV, see in Chapter 4.)
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