The pleasures of hacking the Apple TV

Hacks turn the $US300 multimedia box into a full-fledged computer

It's been barely a week since the U.S. release of the Apple TV, the new box from Apple that allows for streaming video to a television, but hackers from coast-to-coast have already been able to turn the $US300 multimedia box into a full-fledged computer.

The Apple TV comes with a stripped-down version of Apple's OS X, but retains many of its basic features, such as directory structure and file format.

Hacking the Apple TV is the latest in a series of hardware hacks on multimedia devices, including the: XBox 360 and the TiVo. Each time, hackers hope to extend functionality of the device beyond its original intent.

TIn just over a week, hackers have been able to upgrade the Apple TV's 40GB hard drive (derided by many as being too small for any serious media collection) and enable secure shell access (SSH) to the machine, among other things. Most recently, and the most practical hack so far to date (announced on March 29) is to enable the USB port, which had been disabled by Apple in software.

Complete instructions

One of the first people to detail a set of complete instructions for upgrading the Apple TV's hard drive was Ben Drawbaugh of Tampa, Florida, a contributing editor at the popular tech blog Engadget. IDG publication, Macworld, also has a well-illustrated how-to.

"Once I got the thing apart, I plugged it into my Mac and I realized that it was basically another Mac hard drive and I could recognize most of the partitions," he said.

By the end of the day on March 23, Drawbaugh had detailed precise step-by-step instructions as to how to copy the operating system to a local machine, which then allowed him to format the drive and then recopy the data to a larger disk.

The next step after upgrading the drive that many Apple TV fans are doing is enabling secure shell access. SSH, as it is commonly known, is a method by which it is possible to execute instructions on a remote machine over a network.

Enabling SSH is important because Apple made it difficult to interact with the Apple TV with a keyboard and mouse. As such, SSH circumvents this roadblock and enables power administrator-level access.

A pair of hackers from the Web site forums on SomethingAwful.com are generally credited with being the first ones to figure out how to [enable SSH on the Apple TV. They announced their find on March 23.

One of them, Daniel Weatherford, a 20-year-old software engineer in Palo Alto, Calif., who goes by the online handle "Sabretooth," said he found installing SSH to be surprisingly easy. He used Dropbear, an open-source SSH server.

"We actually first were going to enable the built-in Mac OS sshd [SSH Daemon], but it wasn't on the drive, so that was the second choice," he said. "We probably could've just copied over the proper files for sshd, but this was easier, since Dropbear is a single statically-linked binary that requires no extra configuration files."

SSH comes standard on every Mac, but Windows users can easily download it.

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Cyrus Farivar

PC World
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