I’ve been using Windows Media Center for years. I run WMC on my desktop computer to a projector and speakers. We don’t have a TV, so this is how I get my fix of Netflix, DVDs, and loads of downloaded documentaries I stream from my Synology NAS (home file server). This has been a cost effective setup, but it always had disadvantages. The main issue is that the computer serves dual purposes but can’t multitask – it isn’t possible for one of us to play a game and the other to watch a movie (first world problems, I know). It also lead to some interesting issues with speakers, cables, and training guests how to use the system.
Today my need for WMC is essentially dead. For around $100 (or even less depending on your needs) you can get almost the same experience without WMC (minus DVR functionality) in a dedicated, energy efficient device. There are others (including the interesting Raspberry Pi) but the main contenders for me were Roku and Apple TV.
Out of the box, the Roku was the easy winner – it supports playback for everything on my file server (extracted DVDs, MKV files, etc) and has a number of streaming content channels. The main strike against Roku is that it doesn’t support any sort of AirPlay. I would need to add another device in order to link the home theater system into whole house audio (I use speakers and airport express devices to link audio in other rooms).
The base Apple TV simply wasn’t a contender. AirPlay solves many issues, and the Remote App software for iPhones or iPads is very nice. But the bottom line is that the only non-walled garden content available is from YouTube and Netflix. The rest of the time you are stuck with Apple only video formats (mp4) and integration into iTunes (no NAS support). This simply pales in comparison to the Roku.
There is however, another choice. The most recent firmware of Apple TV allows for jailbreaking. Well, allows isn’t really the right word as the next version of Apple’s software updates is sure to try to break this option. In any case, this jailbreaking opportunity puts a lot more options to extend the Apple TV on the table. One of the most popular (and free) options is to run XBMC, which is mature media center software which has plugins to do almost anything you need. The negative aspect of the current XBMC on Apple TV is that it isn’t integrated within the existing Apple TV menu system – instead it launches its own system to play back media.
Instead of XBMC I went with a product option which has a much more simple and integrated approach for my jailbroken Apple TV. I purchased a software package called aTV Flash. Once installed it easily connected up to my NAS, allowed for file management and folders, and favorite sections in the main apple tv menu without having to launch something separate. It feels like it was part of the Apple TV from the start. It plays everything I throw at it from the NAS with ease – movies, mkv files, etc. It also preserves all of the things that Apple got right – remote app support and the built in apps like Netflix and AirPlay.
I was worried that the lower output on the Apple TV would be an issue (it supports 720p instead of 1080p), but I can’t see a difference for the vast majority of the content I’m consuming, and the stuff that is 1080p still looks great. I’ve only had it running a few days, but I’m quite happy with the Apple TV & aTV Flash so far.