HTPC How-to

In my last post I explained how to get your computer connected to your TV and where to get some good media centre software. Before I share a few resources for getting content for your newly configured media centre, I thought I would talk a bit about my home setup and some of the more “advanced” tweaks you can make to get even more functionality and convenience from your HTPC (or HTMB, if you will).

First though, I’ll explain what I had been using until recently for a matter of comparison and diversity; as I’m sure many are stuck in apartments, like I was, without a decent TV.

What I had. The “nothing fancy” setup.

While using a computer as a media centre is certainly nothing new, I’m slow to such things. It was only about a year and a half ago I took a long look at the laptop sitting on my coffee table, playing some sitcom I couldn’t find at the DVD store, and realized there must be a way to get this on the bigger (dustier) screen a few feet away.

I had a basic unibody MacBook, and my TV was built when Jiang Zemin was still at the helm of China. So, while the MacBook had been designed to output a nice digital signal, my TV simply couldn’t handle it. Thus I needed:

  • Mini DisplayPort to VGA Adapter: This got my signal into a format that was from roughly the same timeframe as my damn TV (see photo)
  • Video Converter Box: As I mentioned in my last post, VGA signals from a computer generally don’t line up very well with PC signals, so while you can likely buy a VGA to Composite/Component cable, and you’ll be able to plug it into your old school TV, the picture won’t display right (if at all). To fix this, I needed a converter box like one of these. I used a VT-280 box and it worked decent enough.
  • 1/8″ Phono to RCA Audio Cable: Also explained in the last post — the video signal from your computer more often than not does not contain any audio and so you’ll need to connect your audio jack to the audio-in for your TV. I used a cable like this.
  • Composite Cable: This is just your standard yellow-ended line (see photo) that comes with virtually every DVD player.

To get my MacBook connected to my ancient TV, I simply plugged in the Mini DisplayPort to VGA Adapter, connected it via the VGA Cable to the Video Converter Box, connected the Video Converter Box to the TV using the Composite Cable. The audio was straight from the MacBook to the RCA (red/white) inputs on my TV using the 1/8″ Phono to RCA Audio Cable. The setup looked like this:

My HTPC Old Setup

For the most part this setup worked fine. The quality was lackluster, but the resolution of the TV wasn’t fantastic, so it was barely noticed. My TV area was a bit of a mess of cables and a computer sitting next to it, but I could watch my computer-stored media on my TV and I was happy.

What I have. A much better solution.

Recently I moved apartments and my new place came fully stocked with a large (cheap Chinese brand) flatscreen TV. If the apartment hadn’t come with one, I had already decided I was going to buy one. Though you can drop a fortune on the latest and greatest, you can buy large inexpensive Chinese brand flatscreens for a couple thousand RMB. Maybe not worth it for watching CCTV9, but as this series of posts hopes to show, that’s not your only option.

So, now I had an HD TV with the HDMI input I had been coveting for a long time. I could simply buy the MacBook Mini DisplayPort to HDMI adapter and continue using the setup I had; however, having my computer tethered to my TV and taking up space had started to get on my nerves.

Apple TV 2

The solution — an Apple TV 2.

This tiny little box connects easily via HDMI to any HD TV. It doesn’t actually store any media, but rather connects to a computer via network and streams the media from there. The best part? Uncharacteristically for Apple products, it’s decently priced (MSRP is about $99USD). The catch is it’s not “officially” available in China.

Though a lot of Apple products can be bought in China via one of the four Apple Retail Stores (if you’re in Beijing or Shanghai) or the many Apple Authorized Resellers, as best I know Apple China is yet to stock the Apple TV 2. But when has that ever stopped anyone from buying anything in China? Nihao Taobao.

A search for “Apple TV 2” netted me a pretty solid collection of sellers. Like early iPhones in China, all are from outside the Mainland. I eventually settled on this seller — buyer comments indicate it’s a Japanese model, but it’s inconsequential as it only determines the language of the owner’s manual — who reads that?

My New HTPC Setup

What the Apple TV 2 does out of the box

Unpacked and hooked up, the Apple TV 2 didn’t do much. If you’re in the US you can browse Youtube and connect to Netflix to rent movies/TV shows, but neither option is available in China (though, there may be ways around that). I could browse Flickr images and also connect to a bazillion Internet radio stations, but not much else.

Things started to shine for the little device when I set it to connect to my network-connected computer located elsewhere in the apartment. I simply loaded up iTunes on the computer, turned on Home Sharing, and was able to see (and stream) all the content in my iTunes library. This is fantastic for music and podcasts (see next post for more on video podcasts) and all movies I have in Apple’s M4V format, but this feature is limited by the regular limits of iTunes — namely it doesn’t play other video formats — and those are the ones I really wanted to play.

If only I could install xbmc, the media centre software from the previous post, on the Apple TV 2. A quick Google search and yep, xbmc has released a version for the ATV2. Getting it installed, however, requires jailbreaking the device. I was a bit apprehensive about doing anything with the word “breaking” in it to my beautiful new little toy, but it turned out to be fairly painless and easy.

Installing XBMC on Apple TV 2

Step 1 – Jailbreaking the ATV2

These instructions might change, as different jailbreaking methods are handled in different ways depending on what ATV2 version you’re using. These instructions are for jailbreaking an Apple TV 2 using the latest Apple software update (4.2.2). I updated the ATV2 the regular way with Apple first, and then applied the jailbreak. This was a crucial step I overlooked the first 2 hours (and multiple forehead slaps) of trying to get this to work.

To jailbreak your ATV2, you’ll need a micro USB cable to connect it to your computer. This is not the standard USB cable. I got mine here for 10RMB.

Next, I simply visited this article and followed the steps. It uses the Seas0nPass jailbreak and after I figured out I had to first install the standard software update (from 4.2.1 to 4.2.2) via Apple’s regular software update, it worked perfectly.

Installing XBMC

After my ATV2 was jailbroken, I installed xbmc without any fuss. The steps to follow are:

  • Connect the (now jailbroken) ATV2 to your TV as you normally would (disconnected from your computer)
  • On a computer using the same network/wi-fi connection as the ATV2 shell (SSH) into your ATV2. On a Mac this means launching Terminal and on a PC you’ll probably need a shell client (PuTTY is a good free one).
  • Once you’re in Terminal or PuTTY, type each of the following commands (one by one – each new line below is denoted with a “>” to avoid confusion with linebreaks – you don’t need to type that initial “>”) at the prompt:
    >$ ssh root@[your ATV2 IP address] no square brackets
    >root@[your ATV2 IP address]'s password: enter your password here, it should be "alpine" if you haven't changed it
    >$ apt-get install wget
    >$ wget -O- | apt-key add -
    >$ echo "deb stable main" > /etc/apt/sources.list.d/awkwardtv.list
    >$ echo "deb ./" > /etc/apt/sources.list.d/xbmc.list
    >$ apt-get update
    >$ apt-get install org.xbmc.xbmc-atv2

If those shell commands aren’t clear for any reason, view via the xbmc wiki page.

That’s it – xbmc was installed and I could then see an “xbmc” menu item when I booted my ATV2. Next I setup sharing on a folder on my computer that contained the media files I wanted to watch, then defined a new source in the Videos section of xbmc on my ATV2 and I could instantly see all the media from my computer.

Networking Notes

All video is streamed over the network, so if your network sucks, streaming will suck too. The ATV2 uses a 802.11n connection, but the speed it can stream from the computer holding the files is limited by the network router and the network adapter on the source computer. If you have decent signal strength between your computer » wi-fi router » ATV2 and are using a 802.11g network router/adapter you’ll be able to stream videos of decent quality. However, if you want to watch 1080p HD videos you’re going to need to upgrade everything to an 802.11n network. I had to do this. I wasn’t interested in getting the latest and greatest, but rather just wanted it to work well. I bought a D-Link DWA-133 USB network adapter for my PC and a D-Link DIR-655 802.11n 300Mbit router (total price tag 400RMB or about $60USD).


Just a quick mention that the Apple TV 2 does not come with an HDMI cable. You’ll have to buy it separately. I bought this one from the same dude I bought the ATV2 from. Nice having them both arrive at the same time.

Final Thoughts on the New Setup

I’ve been running the above setup for a few days now (not getting the micro USB cable initially set me back) and I love it. I simply download all my video podcasts and torrents on my regular workhorse computer (with a couple TB of storage) and the xbmc/ATV2 combo along with the ATV2’s sexy little remote allows me to kickback on my sofa and watch everything on the big screen.

There are lots of other ways to achieve similar results, and this is just the way I chose. If you use a different setup and want to share it, I’d love to read about it in the comments.

Check out the next post in the series where I share some sources for filling up your hard drive(s) with more digital media than you could consume in ten thousand lifetimes. For all posts in the series, go here.



  1. To get my MacBook connected to my ancient TV, I simply plugged in the Mini DisplayPort to VGA Adapter, connected it via the VGA Cable to the Video Converter Box, connected the Video Converter Box to the TV using the Composite Cable. The audio was straight from the MacBook to the RCA (red/white) inputs on my TV using the 1/8″ Phono to RCA Audio Cable.

    Are you sure the word “simply” belongs in that sentence? 🙂

    I’m very glad this has gotten easier with newer technology…

    • Haha, well, it sounds complicated, but really it was just sticking things in the only slots that fit. I agree though — one plug, one love…

  2. Nice guide! Recently I’ve been thinking seriously about getting an Apple TV 2 and just using Airplay along with my iPad 2 to stream PPTV straight to the TV from iPad. I built a HTPC before and used XBMC but it’s a little more hassle than I’d like (although the best XBMC setup I ever had was on an original Xbox, the only downside being it isn’t powerful enough for HD playback).

    Recently I’ve just been using a 1tb HDD filled with movies and documentaries hooked up to a PS3. I also buy Blu-Rays which cost 15 yuan here but include subtitles and are stupidly high resolution. Although messing with discs isn’t ideal, I don’t have to mess with downloading, storing, or transferring massive files anymore.

    • How long’s it been since you used XBMC? I’m relatively new to it, but there wasn’t any hassle using it — the only part that was a bit of a hassle was the jailbreak, but it opens the ATV2 to a lot more potential. Part III that will be published tomorrow links to Firecore’s aTV Flash, which looks awesome. The only (small) complaint I have about xbmc on my MacBook is that it runs the system a little hot. I just put in a new fan though, and that’s cooled things down quite a lot (so it may have just been a crap fan and not xbmc’s fault). On the aTV I’ve not noticed any such problem though.

      I considered using a HDD and just moving it between systems as needed, but my goal in all of this was to have a system where I could turn on the TV and just have it there — the setup above does that, and allows for infinite expansion should I need more space, as I just need to buy a new drive and hook it up to the computer that the ATV2/xbmc connects to.

      The one piece of automation I’ve yet to put in place is a script that runs periodically that will move all video files from a general torrent download folder into a more suitable “Movies/TV” folder which is then auto-scanned by xbmc. But even that is more just for personal organization, as xbmc only displays files it can play, and so would ignore any other bits and pieces in my “Completed Torrents” folder that aren’t playable.

      2-3 clicks on a computer is always, always more time efficient (and cost effective) than walking down to the local DVD shop and purchasing discs. The only downside is it requires a bit of foresight in that you have to setup downloads ahead of wanting to watch it. I tend to download a bunch of stuff at the start of the week that runs me straight through the following weekend (with the exception of some shows — couGameofThronesgh — which is rarely more than a few hours old when I get it).

  3. Pingback: How-to: Setup an HTPC for better TV in China (Part III – Media Sources) | Lost Laowai China Blog

  4. Nice work on the guide. I’m actually using a WDTV Live Plus [] it might not be quite as robust as an HTPC but it’s cheap ($89 or around 800 RMB on Taobao) and super easy to use. The only drawback is constantly needing to copy your media content to a flash drive or external storage and then hook it up to the WDTV to play.

    The WDTV is capable of streaming from network attached storage, but that requires I buy one and set it up. Using a flash drive is just as simple.

    • I’m fortunate in that despite my new TV being a cheap Chinese flatscreen, I can attach external media directly to it (as well as connect it direct to a network via ethernet), so that was an option for me as well. Most of my motivation to go wi-fi was to avoid having to be truckin’ an external HDD or flash drive between systems. Truth be told, functionality there or not, I would have paid the price of an ATV just to not have to navigate the crappy (though roughly in English) Chinese UI of the TV.

  5. I’ve noticed you mentioning taobao a lot. Are you buying things off taobao through your mac? Every time I want to buy something off taobao I have to reboot my computer and run it in windows. Is there an easier solution?

    • Never tried ordering from Taobao on a Mac — I’ve found that it’s pretty much strictly PC (or dual boot/shelled Windows) support for all financial/e-commerce stuff in China. It’s pretty ridiculous that I can’t do online banking unless I have a PC running IE.

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