Resurrecting the First Generation Apple TV

Apple TV Apr 24, 2021

Back in September 2019 I wrote about what I'd done with the ATV, namely after Apple chucked a spanner in the works, then the entire toolbox, I replaced it with a Raspberry Pi 3B+ which itself got replaced by an Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K. The Apple TV ended up in storage until I tried to bring the breeze block out of retirement for use as some kind of linux-based device until I decided it was just too old and decrepit for any kind of use beyond its original purpose.

Well it's back in action now, right where it was before I replaced it with the Pi several years ago. As I detailed in that 2019 article I had switched over to H.265 (or HEVC as it's more widely known now) encoding for my video library, but last year I re-encoded everything back to H.264 when I came across glaring quality issues that no amount of tweaking the x265 encoder would fix. Meanwhile the Fire TV ended up being moved over to an actual 4K TV, so while re-encoding I also reinstated the separate 720p library I used to run specifically for the Apple TV, upgraded the hard drive in it (again) and hey presto.

It is largely a pointless endeavour for myself as all I'm doing is perpetuating an excuse to keep hold of my ageing plasma TV that only natively supports up to 720p resolution. However if you also plan on using your 1st generation Apple TV in 2021, here are some points to keep in mind:

  • If you upgrade the hard drive internally, use a 5200RPM with 8MB cache drive — that seems to be the key point to remember when upgrading, as when I first tried to upgrade mine it wouldn't work until I tried a 750GB drive with 8mb of cache. My latest upgrade was to a second-hand Western Digital WD10JPVX which is 1TB in size but also 5200RPM and of course has 8MB of cache and needless to say it worked first time.
  • Also if you're upgrading the drive internally, use a decent 2.5" SATA to IDE adapter — It's size that matters more than anything due to getting it to fit in the case. I used an Advantech PCM-233B-00A1E which appears to have since been discontinued but there are likely other adapters that are small enough and will work. I also used a SATA 22 pin male to female 20cm extension cable between the adapter and the hard drive to allow for better positioning of the adapter between the fan and power supply.
  • Alternatively for upgrading the hard drive, just use an IDE (or PATA to use its more modern name) 2.5" drive and do a direct swap — keep in mind the biggest 2.5" IDE drives ever made went up to 320GB. You could also upgrade to an external drive; all you'll need to do is figure out how to route the cables out of the case.
  • Use iTunes or below (personally, I use an old PowerMac G4 with iTunes 10.6.3) — Apple removed support for the first generation Apple TV in 12.7+. It should also be noted that iTunes and the previous version are the only older versions that can still access your account information, though since the Apple TV cannot access the iTunes store at all any more this is a moot point.
  • Block the Apple TV from accessing the Internet in your router's firewall (or whatever system it has for such blocking) — if you don't do this but have it connected to your network anyway you cannot reasonably use the device as it will lag and stutter on menus and video playback will be almost impossible without pauses and skipping. This is apparently due to the fact Apple changed the security protocols used to access certain features of the iTunes store which causes massive system overheads as the Apple TV continuously tries to connect.
  • Keep your video encodes reasonable — the Apple TV is old and shit and most modern encoding techniques circa the last five or so years result in unplayable videos on it. If using HandBrake for example you're going to want to make sure you use the advanced options under the video tab and put in these options for a compatible video encode: qpmin=4:cabac=0:ref=2:b-pyramid=none:weightb=0:weightp=0:vbv-maxrate=9500:vbv-bufsize=9500.