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Alternative Movie Players

As of this writing, there are three different actively-developed players that you can use, Sapphire, nitoTV and ATVFiles.

All three alternative players have their plusses-and-minuses. Sapphire specializes in TV shows and keeping track of what has already been watched. nitoTV operates outside of the Quicktime frame-work and can be used for viewing ripped DVDs in the form of VOB files. And ATVFiles provides a general-purpose viewer. All three can be automatically installed via the Awkward TV menu at the top-level (Figure 4).

Awkward TV plugin downloads

Figure 4: Awkward TV plugin downloads

I've had occasional failures doing an automatic install, so if your plugin fails to show up in the top-level Apple TV menu, download it manually from the Awkwardtv.org web site, move it to the ATV, unzip it and rename it to the /System/Library/CoreServices/Finder.app/Contents/PlugIns/ directory using a similar procedure as above.

Finally, a manual installation requires restart of the Apple TV finder. Here's a cryptic one-liner that finds the Finder process id (pid) and issues a kill command which causes it to be re-spawned:

$ sudo kill `ps -ax | grep [F]inder | awk '{print $1}'`

Once the plugins are successfully installed, you should find new top-level items on the Apple TV menu.

ATVFiles

Figure 5 shows the ATVFiles plugin when browsing my Movies directory from the home directory of the Frontrow user.

ATVFiles Movie Listing

Figure 5: ATVFiles Movie Listing

As you can see, the plugin supports movie cover art and displays it in the same way as the standard Apple TV movie menu. There is also support in place for user-gathered metadata such as title, actors, year, genre, etc. When you pause on a movie, the image shrinks down a bit and the metadata is displayed. It's a very nice plugin and fits into the system nearly seamlessly.

I found this plugin had no trouble playing any of my DivX or XviD movies, even some 720p DivX movie trailers that I mounted to the Apple TV over a NFS connection. And since it uses the QuickTime framework, all the same controls as the standard player work including resuming a movie where you last left off. The only complaint I had was the fact that the very first time you enter a large directory, it can take a long time for the plugin to react as it catalogs all the files.

Sapphire

The Sapphire plugin is similar in behavior to the ATVFiles player, except it has additional menus for seeing only un-viewed movies, marking movies as played, un-played, etc. Both of these two plugins played nearly every movie in my collection—the exception being MPEG movies, both in MPEG1 format and MPEG2 format. Apple sells a MPEG codec for $20 and others have gotten it to work on the Apple TV. But as of now, it doesn't seem to work for me.

nitoTV

But all is not lost with MPEG files. The nitoTV plugin works outside of the standard QuickTime format and supplies all of its own codecs. It also can play most of my files including all of my standard-definition MPEG movies and VOB files ripped from DVDs—even with some crude DVD menu support. Unsurprisingly, an attempt to play a MPEG2 1080i movie was unsuccessful with major pauses and stutters. The Apple TV CPU just isn't up to the task of 1080i.

One downside to nitoTV at the moment is that it's not as polished as the others. And since it works outside the Quicktime framework, it can't take advantage of the hardware acceleration used in the Apple codecs. In addition, it's not as seamless in use. When a movie is selected from a nitoTV menu, the screen flashes and goes green before the movie kicks in. And I've had persistent issues where the movie often plays "behind" the menu, i.e. you can hear it but not see it.

I assume these issues will eventually be resolved, since the plugin is in an early state of development. There's also a rumor that nitoTV will begin using the standard Apple DVD playback framework, so you'll be able to play ripped DVDs just like physical DVDs with all the DVD menu control and same user interface. That will be very cool and may cause me to finally rip all my DVDs to a big network drive.

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