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Hack Your Streaming Set-Top Box

Streaming set-top boxes are all the rage these days, especially with the rising popularity of subscription streaming services such as Hulu Plus and Netflix. Who doesn't want to watch Web-optimized video on their fancy new HDTV?

Unfortunately, straight-from-the-manufacturer boxes don't usually live up to their promise. Many set-top boxes are limited in their features, but have the potential for much more (the Apple TV runs iOS, which means it can theoretically run any app in the App Store).

Here are some hacks to help you get the most out of your streaming set-top box. As always, be careful about engaging in potentially warranty-voiding behavior with your own gear--PCWorld isn't responsible for any damaged or bricked hardware or software that results from your trying these ideas out. We have tried the hacks ourselves, however, and they worked fine for us.

Apple TV

Apple released the second generation of its streaming set-top box in September 2010. The Apple TV 2 ($100) is about a quarter of the size of the original Apple TV, and features an 8GB solid-state drive instead of a moving-platter hard drive. The tiny set-top box permits you to stream local media, Netflix, and iTunes rentals, but it doesn't allow Internet browsing, weather apps, or streaming radio stations.

However, although it has no native support for such apps, via jailbreaking you can obtain support for them--and any other applications you can dream up.

Unlike its predecessor, the Apple TV 2 runs iOS 4.1 instead of a modified version of Mac OS X. Naturally, just mentioning "iOS 4.x" will catch the ear of the Apple iPhone jailbreaking community, so it's no surprise that people jailbroke and hacked into the device just days after it started shipping. (Of course, it helped that a teardown of the Apple TV 2 showed potential for the device to eventually support Apple's official App Store.)

Jailbreak Your Apple TV

Here's how to liberate your own Apple TV 2.

1. Gather the required materials: the Apple TV 2, the remote control, a MicroUSB cable, and a PC or Mac computer. If you need to download Apple TV 2 firmware for whatever reason, do so.

2. Jailbreak the Apple TV 2 using the iPhone Dev-Team's PwnageTool or FireCore's Seas0nPass (Mac only). Jailbreaking is pretty simple: Just plug in your device and follow the on-screen instructions.

Both of these jailbreaks are "tethered," which means that you'll need to connect the Apple TV 2 to your computer each time you boot the set-top box. (This is not such a big deal--you probably don't tote your Apple TV around with you, so you're unlikely to be sans computer when you do need to boot the device.)

PwnageTool in video:

Seas0nPass in video:

3. Install awesome, unauthorized software using the jailbreak app store, Cydia. You won't find a lot of software released for the jailbroken Apple TV 2 yet, but you can install NitoTV's simple weather app [download], or Plex [download], which is a prettier media-library interface.

If you're willing to drop a few extra bucks, you can also install Last.fm and Couch Surfer via FireCore's aTV Flash (Black). Just $20 will get you a preorder of aTV Flash (Black), as well as entrance to the beta version.

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