Making the most of an Apple TV

I picked up an Apple TV a few months ago and I’ve got far more use out of it than I expected. The following are some app’s and tricks that I’ve found handy in that time.

The sole reason I picked up an Apple TV was PlexConnect. PlexConnect is a hack to allow an Apple TV to playback media from you local Plex library. It works by routing requests from the Apple Trailers app on the Apple TV to your Plex install and sending back results that the Apple TV expects that is really your Plex library. A clever hack but as with all hacks at risk of Apple making changes to disable it in the future.

An update a couple of months ago to add new channels changed the trailers app to only work with https. This was enough to break PlexConnect. Bad Apple. A few days passed before a fairly straightforward work around was published that looks worse than it is. Follow the steps and PlexConnect was back up and running.

At this point I found some issues with playback – stutters, frame drops. I was convinced that PlexConnect was no more and I would need to move to another solution – Roku or perhaps invest in a Mac Mini. It turns out my network switch was at fault so a swift replacement later saw PlexConnect returned to it’s former glory. I love it, all my movies available on the Apple TV without having to worry about converting to a compatible format.

If Plex and PlexConnect seem like hard work but you want the flexibility of playing back any media on your Apple TV without converting to a compatible format then Beamer for Mac is a great option. Install and launch Beamer on your Mac and you are presented with a small window. Drop a movie of any format (AVI, MKV, MOV, MP4, WMV, FLV) on to the window and a few seconds later it will playback on your Apple TV all via Airplay.

Like any other movie on the Apple TV you can control playback via the Apple remote and Beamer supports 1080p and also 5.1 surround sound, both Dolby Digital and DTS. Subtitles are also supported.

On the movies I tested there was no issue at all. Smooth, quick and great sound. Considering this removes the need to convert films, jailbreak older Apple TV’s or mess around with PlexConnect the £12 cost is trivial.

iOS Setup
Setting up the Apple TV can be painful. Typing in the wi-fi password is an exercise in frustration with the remote. One shortcut is to use your iOS device. Switch on the Apple TV, connect it to your TV and touch the Apple TV with your iOS device. The Apple TV (once you zap in a password) will then copy wifi settings and automatically configure itself. Smart, and the touch isn’t really necessary as it’s not done via NFC but it’s just Apple’s way of ensuring that you get the iOS device in close enough range for bluetooth to work effectively.

Apple Remote for iOS
If you do have an iOS device, download the Apple Remote and use it to control the Apple TV. It makes for a far better experience and if you’ve used the physical Apple remote to search for music in a large library you will find the iOS version infinitely better.

For £99 the Apple TV is good value and I’m getting a lot of use out of it. However I think I’d point people to the Roku 3 that has finally come out in the UK as it offers a lot more for the same money and a store where you can pick up app’s like Plex to further improve the Roku. Hopefully the tips above thought will make for a better Apple TV experience…and maybe one day Apple will bring an App store to it’s TV platform.

So I bought an Apple TV

Hardly a new device and probably the wrong time to buy an Apple product just two days before WWDC, but I purchased an Apple TV and really only for one reason. Plex, or more specifically PlexConnect. The most notable feature of the latest Apple TV is that it cannot be jailbroken which has lead to the unusual situation that older models are worth 2-3 times more on eBay as they can be jailbroken and you can then install app’s like Plex on it.

So I was surprised last week when catching up on my feeds that PlexConnect had been developed and announced on the Plex blog. It was a hack, and undoubtedly a hack that Apple will stop with a future firmware update but it was enough for me to stump up the cash and give it a whirl. Setup is pretty easy. Set your Apple TV to a fixed IP address, set your Plex computer to a fixed IP address, change your Apple TV DNS to point to your Plex computer and then launch PlexConnect. Boom. (photo’s are pretty poor – hastily snapped from my iPhone as I couldn’t be bothered getting DSLR, tripod etc – blame my cold!)


Grid view for movies
Grid view for movies
Browse by genre
Browse by genre


The reason it’s a hack is that you access Plex via the trailers app on your Apple TV. PlexConnect works as follows:

  • re-use an already available app (like YouTube, Vimeo, Apple Trailers, …)
  • re-route the request to your local Plex Media Server
  • re-work the reply to fit into AppleTV’s XML communication scheme
  • let iOS do the rest

So far I’ve been impressed. All movies and TV shows have worked without issue. It’s not got the full Plex experience but it’s so close that it’s not really noticeable and all from a £99 tiny box with a dead simple remote. I sold my Mac Mini late last year and the one thing I really missed was having Plex – the bluray player I picked up is great for blurays and for playing content accessed via USB, but streaming is awful.

Some quick thoughts on the Apple TV itself. It’s tiny and quiet and the remote feels nice in the hand, is simple and probably does just enough considering what the Apple TV offers. It’s very much tied to the Apple ecosystem and I guess that what frustrates so many people. It’s a platform waiting to be exploited and the hardware is fairly capable – it’s playing 1080p without much trouble. I do think it’s a next gen device though before we see an App Store. It’s weak link is the remote. It allows you to browse around apps easily enough but thats about it. It wouldn’t act as a good interface for games, browsers etc. You can use the remote application on iOS to control the Apple TV, but I don’t think thats a route Apple would go down – buy a device for £99 and spend upwards of £200 to get a touch controller.

Icon order changed on the Apple TV
Icon order changed on the Apple TV

The front end feels old compared to Plex, XBMC etc and allows for very little customisation. You can move the app’s around and thats pretty much it. One way to remove apps is to enable Parental Controls and hide the applications. Makes for a slightly cleaner interface but with so little on the front end it makes only a minor difference.

Parental controls enabled - you can hide unused icons!
Parental controls enabled – you can hide unused icons!

Music playback from a local library or iCloud is fine although again the interface feels simple and lacking some options and customisation. It is nice to be easily able to play podcasts on the TV again. Airplay also works really well – it’s great to throw a video onscreen rather than view on the iPad.

Overall I’m pleased with PlexConnect. It’s early days for it but it already works well for me. Your mileage will depend on where you host your Plex library. Some NAS devices aren’t supported or will struggle if they need to transcode the file to display on the Apple TV. If it wasn’t for Plex though I’d get a limited amount of usage out of the Apple TV. It still feels like a cut down product – Apple could and some day will do so much more with the television market, undoubtedly not with this generation of Apple TV. I really look forward to the day that there is an App Store on an Apple TV where we can buys apps like Plex and have access to a wide variety of apps and games. Until then, PlexConnect will do nicely.