AppleTV and Me

My home entertainment center is probably second only to my computer(s) inn “things I interact with every day.” Barely a day goes by when I don’t spend a little relaxing time watching TV or movies.

I have a Hitachi 1080p 42-inch television, an Onkyo receiver attached to a 5.1 surround sound system (Polk Audio subwoofer and Energy speakers), a DVD player (that rarely gets any use anymore), a VCR (that gets even less use) and a PlayStation 3. But the star, and my single favorite piece of equipment in my living room is my AppleTV.

Yup. My AppleTV.

You might be asking why I profess love for a device that many people consider to be a failure. After all, the way some people, including some of my coworkers, talk about this device, you’d think it was Battlefield Earth bad. The kind of bad that you ask for your money back after using. The kind of bad that makes you regret waking up that day, and makes you want to drown your sorrows with a pitcher of Natural Ice.

And yet I, as an AppleTV owner, am trilled with it.

I love it simply because of its typical Apple simplicity: it’s all the best parts of a HTPC without all the bull** that comes with having a HTPC. Powerful enough to be usable, and yet simple enough that my wife - whom I love, but is most definitely not a computer person - can figure it out. It was simple enough to set up that all I had to do was plug it into my TV and get it on the network. And, it integrates incredibly well with the rest of the Apple products in the house.

And now, Apple has come out with a new AppleTV, and I could not possibly be more thrilled, because it addresses almost all the issues I had my current AppleTV, and with an upgrade price of $99, it’s a no-brainer. I might buy one for every TV in the house.

Let’s go through some of the differences:

  • No onboard storage. I have two AppleTVs. One in the living room - a 160gb model, and one in the bedroom, a 40gb model. You know how much storage space I’m using on them? Zero. Nothing. I stream everything off my iMac upstairs. Sync’ing is slow, and I have way more content than could even fit on the 160gb model. Moreover, streaming from iTunes shares works seamlessly, so there’s really no reason to use the local storage at all. Apple did away with it.

  • No composite. Non-issue. I use all HDMI. The new AppleTV has only three plugs on the back: power, HDMI, and ethernet. Perfect.

  • Movies from the iTunes store are rental-only. I don’t quite agree with this, but it’s not very strong. I never purchased a movie from the iTunes store. But I did rent on more than one occasion, so I don’t foresee this being an issue, especially because of …

  • Netflix support. That’s right. You can stream all the free content on Netflix straight to my AppleTV. This in and of itself is enough reason for me to want to upgrade.

In other words, it’s as if Apple fixed the device to exactly reflect how I use my current one. Since Steve Jobs never called me, I can only conclude that there were a lot more people out there using AppleTVs in the way I use mine. Frankly, at this point, the only things that it’s missing that I really wanted were 1080p and Hulu.

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Creating an iTunes Dropbox on a Mac

Download I recently added a Mac mini to my setup at home, that I’m using to drive my in-home “video on demand” system. With many of the TV’s in the house on AppleTVs, any TV in the house can watch any movie in the library at any time. I put the mini (headless) in the closet, along with the Drobo and a printer. But, the new Mac mini lacks an optical drive. So, how to continue ripping the DVDs I already own? The solution, it turns out, is to continue doing the actual work on my iMac when it comes to ripping, filtering the files through iDentify and MetaX. But I don’t want to have to go to screen sharing on the Mini and add a file to iTunes. I want that to happen automatically. That’s where Automator - one of the most underrated pieces of software that comes with every Mac - comes in. With Automator, you can attach an action to a folder, so that that action will be performed whenever anything is added to that folder. So here’s what I did to get files from a folder into iTunes: Create a folder somewhere on your system. I put mine in my user directory. Open Automator. From the dialog box, select “Folder Action.” At the top, where it says “Folder Action receives files and folders added to,” select “Other” and select your new folder. Search for an action called “Set Var of Value”. Drag that action over to the right. From “Variable” select “New Variable.” Call it “Source” Search for an action called “Import Files into iTunes”. Drag that action over to the right underneath the variable action. Be sure to select “Library” from the empty dropdown. Search for an action called “Get Var of Value”. Drag that action over to the right underneath the iTunes action. Be sure the selected variable is “Source”. Search for an action called “Move Finder Items to Trash”. Drag that action over to the right. Search for an action called “Run AppleScript.” Drag that action over to the right. In the AppleScript action, paste this: {% highlight applescript %} on run {input, parameters} tell application “Finder” to empty trash return input end run {% endhighlight %} Save the action. You’re done.

Merging M4V files on a Mac ... with chapters!

As I’ve mentioned a couple of times before, one of my projects right now is ripping all the DVDs I own so that I can watch them on my AppleTV (or any AppleTV in the house). Well, one of the problems I’ve run into a couple of times is longer movies that are distributed on two discs. This is usually movies like the Lord of the Rings Extended Edition or The Ten Commandments. Really, they’re one movie, but are distributed as two separate movies because of the restrictions of physical media. Well, digital media imposes no such restrictions on us, so why have two separate movies listed on the AppleTV? So after much trial and error, I finally discovered a way to get everything play nicely together. Unfortunately, this is not an easy problem to solve and even involved me writing a small script that could merge chapter files together because every single method I could find would eliminate chapter markers. So here, in abbreviated form, is the process for merging m4v files together and preserving chapter markers. Note: This tutorial assumes some level of technical proficiency. This is not a point-and-click process (yet :P) and requires the use of multiple tools and the shell. Tools you’ll need: Handbrake or whatever tool you’re using for ripping your legally obtained DVDs. MetaX and/or iDentify Subler remux Quicktime, which is now built into Mac OS X. chaptermerge, a script I wrote that merges chapter files together. The proces: Rip both movies from their individual DVDs using Handbrake or whatever other tool you’re using. Be sure that you’re adding chapter markers. Load each movie into MetaX and download the chapter names. That’s really the only thing you need to add to the file. Save the files with chapter names. Load each movie into Subler and extract the chapter files. To do this, select the chapter track and select File -> Export. Now, open the first movie in Quicktime. Drag the second movie on top of the first one. Quicktime will add the two together. Save the movie for use on an AppleTV. Get a beer or 6, because this takes awhile. While the movie is saving, use chaptermerge to merge the chapter files together. See the docs on how it works. Once the file has finished saving as a Quicktime MOV (it’s actually still h.264 inside the file), fire up remux and convert the merged file back into an m4v. Drag the file into remux, set the output to m4v, and save. Should be pretty quick - a matter of minutes. Load the merged file back into Subler and add the merged chapter track. Drag the chapter file into the Subler window. Save the file. Load the merged file into a tool such as iDentify or MetaX and add the remaining metadata. That’s it! You now have a merged file with both parts of the movie, accurate chapter markers and full metadata, ready to be copied to iTunes and viewed on your AppleTV.