With the new Apple TV, did Steve Jobs really just introduce a $99 Macintosh?

With the new Apple TV, did Steve Jobs really just introduce a $99 Macintosh?

Summary: Does it have enough in common with the old Apple TV to do what the old Apple TV could do?

TOPICS: Apple, Hardware, Mobility

As you no doubt know by now, Steve Jobs did his one-more-thing thing and just introduced a $99, palm-sized Apple TV.

On the surface, the new Apple TV is disappointingly mundane. It seemed almost completely likely that the new Apple TV (what everyone was convinced would be called iTV) would be iOS-based and essentially give you a big-screen iPad with a 10-foot interface.

What Apple introduced instead was -- wait for it -- the Apple TV. Only less. Less features, as in no hard drive. Less money, as in $99 instead of $229.

For those of us who've had and used an Apple TV for all these years, there's nothing new here. Oh, sure, you can rent some TV shows for 99 cents, but only from some networks. Big whoop. Plus it'll play Netflix. Been there, Roku'd that. It's not exactly the game changer everyone (including yours truly) pretty much expected.

But here's where the new Apple TV gets interesting.

Apple has now introduced a cheap, $99 CPU that has a USB port, an HDMI port, an Ethernet jack, and optical audio. Like other cheapo $99 gadgets before it, the newly refreshed Apple TV is likely to be catnip for hackers.

The real question is this: how much does it share architecturally with the old Apple TV? If you're not aware, the Apple TV was essentially a half-height Mac Mini running a crippled version of Mac OS X that launched straight into Front Row.

This configuration made the Apple TV wonderfully hackable. The ATV Flash guys built a simple upgrade image that could be written onto a thumb drive and would open up the Apple TV to an SSH shell and tons more applications.

Then, in 2007, it happened. Someone managed to hack the Apple TV to run Mac OS X. Although there were certain weirdnesses in the Apple TV's architecture, hackers figured a way around it and soon the Apple TV-based Mac OS X computer was born.

So here we are in 2010. Apple's introduced a $99 box. What's inside? Does it have enough in common with the old Apple TV to, well, do what the old Apple TV could do?

Would it, in fact, be possible to run OS X on a little, tiny, $99 Apple TV? If so, then there you go. You've got your $99 Macintosh.

Obviously, this would likely be more curiosity than useful device, but it would be fun nonetheless. More to the point, like with other very cool, super-cheap computers, I have no doubt that this Apple TV will likely be one of the most hacked devices of 2010.

Update: Jason Perlow tells me the new Apple TV is based on a different processor than the old Apple TV, an A4 chip like the iPhone and iPad, rather than the Intel chips of yore. Still, we'll see. I wouldn't put it past Apple TV hackers to make this thing do interesting stuff.

If you were to hack this thing, what would you put on it? TalkBack below.

Topics: Apple, Hardware, Mobility


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • It might make a good ChromeOS box.

    • RE: With the new Apple TV, did Steve Jobs really just introduce a $99 Macintosh?

      @DonnieBoy Now that would rock
  • By the way, the thing to notice here is that Arm is making tiny, dirt cheap

    high performance devices a reality. The A4 that also packages the RAM on top of the CPU is brilliant. How long before they also package 64GB of flash? Then, all you need is a mouse, keyboard, and screen.
    • Not really that innovative dude...

      @DonnieBoy Packaging ram and the CPU on the same die is not a new trick by any stretch of the imagination... Try 1970s technology. I also really hate how they don't design storage to be modular... is it so much to ask for the ability to buy your own SDHC flash card for 30$ rather than pay apple 100$ extra for more space?

      Plus Arm chips have always been small and cheap...
      • Not on the same die, the same package. They put 1GB of RAM above the

        microprocessor. It may be old, but, why have we not seen it in mainstream products? It would be great to have a single package with 64GB flash, 2GB RAM, dual- core processor, GPU. Add ChromeOS or Android, and we are talking a very powerful device even smaller than the new Apple TV.
      • That is the issue with the idea, DonnieBoy

        is would it be worth the expense? Linux does not appear to be the operating system of choice, Windows and OSX easilly out number it.

        Would a company ever recoupe their expenses where they attept to build and market such a device.

        Logic would indicate it could not.
        Tim Cook
      • Removable storage on Apple TV == bad idea

        @snoop0x7b Yes, it is. Removable storage adds too much complexity to the user experience, including too many opportunities for error, for lost data, for user confusion, which leads to more need for customer support and lower user satisfaction.

        Those negative intangibles far outweigh the extremely minor (when amortized) payout to Apple for storage.
        God of Biscuits
      • Flash - what now?


        What do you mean $100 extra for more space?

        This plays files from the internet and from your computers.

        The storage is as much as you want it to be - and you will probably be buying it from Seagate or Western Digital.

        Apple doesn't sell any extra storage for this device, nor does it require extra storage - so what are you talking about?

        You are certainly not expected to buy a second unit for storage - that would not give you any storage?
      • Connectors cost money

        @snoop0x7b: Any kind of connector costs money. You've got the connector itself, internal mounting hardware, more complexity to the plastic box, etc. I'm sure it could be done for a few bucks, but on a $99 box it still cuts into the margin.
  • still waiting...

    ...for the version with flash memory and an App Store. Then it will be interesting. Maybe the USB port on this thing will be used to add storage when they finally upgrade the OS to include an App Store?
    • interesting question


      You bring up a most interesting question... why does this thing need USB at all? In it's current announced use, is there any use for the USB port at all? Hmmm....
      • USB

        @snberk341 USB is for hacking :)
      • it's strictly a service port like in the old model..

        @snberk341 ...
      • The answer is simple

        @snberk341 Firmware updates. Just like you need to plug in, your iPhone or iPad into your Mac to update it's firmware with a new iOS version, the Apple TV will likely use this USB port to enable the same thing. My guess is, A4 chip = iOS on the Apple TV, just a dummed down version of it.

        Alain Grignon
    • Yeah... right.

      @rynning Yeah for an added fee you'll be able to buy an official Apple hard drive, but no other hard drive... That's how Apple works why would we expect otherwise.
      • That's total bull.

        @snoop0x7b And you know it. Go to store.apple.com and find me an Apple-branded external hard drive.

        And no, the MacBook Air's external superdrive doesn't count. That's special-case hardware for a particularly compact form fact.
        God of Biscuits
    • Use for USB?

      @rynning: Maybe the USB port is so you can add a mouse when you lose the remote! ;-)
  • A4 Processor

    nuff written..
    • Question is: When will Apple deliver a 12 inch laptop with A4 dual core????

  • RE: With the new Apple TV, did Steve Jobs really just introduce a $99 Macintosh?

    Game On!
    Scott Stokes