Apple TV might obsolete the x86 appliance market

Apple TV might obsolete the x86 appliance market

Summary: This may surprise you, but I'm going to order an AppleTV as soon as I can.  Some of you might be wondering "who are you and what have you done with George" but no, I didn't get kidnapped at last week's MacWorld and I am the real George Ou.

TOPICS: Hardware

This may surprise you, but I'm going to order an AppleTV as soon as I can.  Some of you might be wondering "who are you and what have you done with George" but no, I didn't get kidnapped at last week's MacWorld and I am the real George Ou.  I don't own an iPod and I don't use iTunes, but the AppleTV interests me greatly and here's why.  I'm going to make a bold prediction that AppleTV might just bring an end to the mini-ITX or mini PC market or at the very least cause a massive disruption if this article from Apple Insider is correct.

Mini PCs are notoriously slow and expensive compared to a cheap desktop size PC because they lack economy of scale.  Anyone looking to build a small, silent, fast, yet energy efficient x86 appliance as some sort of firewall, or server is going to be spending more than $600.  It might be possible to get something for $360 (money wire and shipping fees add up) if you're willing to order a sample direct from Taiwan and wait 6 weeks for manufacturing, assembly, and shipping.  For all that trouble you get a small x86 appliance that might run at 533 to 800 MHz Via processor and a 20 GB 2.5" hard drive. 

The Apple TV - at least according to Apple Insider - is built on an Intel Pentium M 1 GHz with 2 MBs of L2 cache, 256 MBs of onboard DDR2 400 MHz memory, and a 40 GB internal Hard Drive for a total price of $299!  Note that a Pentium M 1 GHz processor is roughly equivalent to a 1.5 GHz Pentium 4 processor so it's plenty fast as a dedicated server appliance.  The Pentium M 1 GHz CPU is also a very energy efficient part with a maximum TDP of 5 watts.  This specification at this price just made every mini-ITX or mini PC obsolete because you can't come close to that specification without spending double that amount of money.  That makes the AppleTV the ideal miniature appliance platform for running any x86 based application such as:

  • Linux-based IPCop plus CopFilter gateway anti-virus firewall *
  • Asterisk PBX telephony appliance **
  • Linux server
  • Microsoft SBS Small Business Server
  • Microsoft Home Server
  • Small branch office domain controller
  • Microsoft ISA firewall appliance *
  • A small/silent desktop PC (Windows XP, Linux, maybe even a hacked version Mac OS X for x86 computers) which is perfect for a car computer.  Silent car computers easily cost more than $600 and this might be the perfect solution for an in-car entertainment system.
  • Convert AppleTV to a full Media Center with a USB 2.0 tuner and MythTV to play any kind of audio and video files and not just iTunes

* Assuming it's possible to use VLAN tagging or add a second Ethernet port
** Assuming the USB port is USB 2.0, we can add a Xorcom Astribank analog telephony FXS/FXO phone port channel bank.

The possibilities for this are endless.  The only challenge is installing a second Ethernet port if you're going to use this as some sort of router or firewall appliance.  We might be able to get away with one Ethernet port if we can get 802.1q VLAN tagging working and we have a switch that supports VLANs.  Since there is an 802.11n mini-PCI Express card in the system, we will be able to strip that out and put in an Ethernet Card in its place.  The challenge will be getting the CAT-5 cable to an RJ45 socket which may not be mountable since you can see that there isn't much room on the back of the AppleTV.  We might be able to cut out a hole on the side of the unit or rip out the optical jack used for digital audio and make that hole slightly larger for the second Ethernet port.  The final option is to completely dump the AppleTV chassis and use the internal parts which would still be worth while because of the relatively low price.  [UPDATE - The best suggestion came from reader Mark which is to use a USB to Ethernet adapter for the second network port.  These are relatively inexpensive at around $15]

At this point it's mostly just speculation because we're not 100% sure if all of the leaked information on AppleTV specs are correct so hold off on your orders (unless you're actually buying it for its intended purpose).  We'll be taking one apart at TechRepublic and we'll verify if it's possible to modify the AppleTV or not.  The unit starts shipping next month so we'll have to wait and see how things go.

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Topic: Hardware

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  • I'm not sure I understand where you're going with this....

    ... but it seems to do many of the functions of the much touted "Windows Home Server" but on a smaller scale. Or is this some sort of router?

    What *IS* this device? Your blog makes it sound very "jack of all trades - master of none"

    Is it Linux or Windows or both?

    And what have you done with George Ou?
    • MS Home Server is software, this is the PERFECT hardware

      I'm saying you can take this cheap x86 mini PC and use it as the perfect hardware platform to run anything you want. This sort of hardware normally costs you more than $600 to build just in raw components!

      Microsoft Home Server is software that could run on the AppleTV hardware, and so can Linux or FreeBSD or Windows XP. What ever you want to run on it is fine.
      • Silly question....

        ... where do you insert the install disc? The device looks smaller than a CD. I presume it has USB ports for an external drive, etc and that you connect via VNC or some such software.

        Is it worth buying any other sort of hardware? Is this the long awaited "fat client"?
        • You gotta do it via USB or you dump the image

          You gotta do it via USB or you dump the image directly on to the hard drive.
  • Delerium

    Somebody check his temperature--stat stat!
    Where is George Ou when you need someone to lambast!!

    This just doesn't seem right. George Ou? Apple? Enthusiasm?
    This can't be happening.
    D T Schmitz
  • Great Idea!

    I wonder how much FORD is spending per unit to host M$ Sync. Since they will charge more than $1000, I would think that they aren't getting too good of a deal on hardware (take a loss to offer something that no one else has - until 2008 . . .). I would say that FORD should talk to Apple - but I already know they have - and Apple could care less. Funny that 160,000+ PCs was not enough of a incentive to do business - but that's just it, Apple DOESN'T do business! They certainly proved that to FORD.

    I wonder if this AppleTV box uses traditional BIOS. If it uses some funky InHell-based solution, it will be impossible to do that tasks that you are talking about . . . :(
    Roger Ramjet
    • Roger...

      ... are you "out" now? Is the worst kept secret in ZDNet finally public?

      • I have my "package"

        But I'm not "out" yet! Anyone out there need an Infrastructure Architect/Technologist? Life seems to be upside down for this 3rd generation car-man . . .

        -- Lost in Detroit . . .
        Roger Ramjet
  • How open is the hardware?

    Nice to see someone actually come up with something useful to do with the AppleTV, because based on Apple's plans for it, I couldn't see it.

    Do you have any inkling of Apple's plans here? Is the device meant to be locked down (like the Jesus Phone) or will it function as a proper computer with all the flexibility that implies?

    If so, then the Mac Mini would certainly be killed off by a device at around half it's price.
    tic swayback
    • Ain't gonna work

      Reminds me of how everyone was all jazzed about running Windows on the Intel
      Macs. Until they realized that Apple, shame on them, wasn't using 25 year old BIOS
      technology to boot their machines, but the modern EFI, and that no other operating
      system except OS X supported it.

      I predict something similar with AppleTV. In fact, I suspect Apple is selling this at a
      loss hoping to make up for it with movie purchases at the iTunes Store.
      • But it did work

        Hmm...last time I checked people were running Windows on Intel Macs.

        Would Bootcamp been released (it was apparently ready) without the hack that occured first? Who knows, but hacks of the AppleTV to open it to standard applications seem inevitable. How quickly this happens depends on whether Apple built the device to sell for a profit (as I expect), or as a loss leader for the iTunes store, as you propose. If it was built for the latter, you can expect it will be locked up like most game consoles.

        Frankly, building hardware to sell as a loss leader doesn't seem like the Apple style. Can you name one piece of significant hardware Apple has sold in the past they didn't make a profit on?
        • History lesson

          They are now. They weren't when it first came out. That was the point. People assumed you would just be able to do it because it was an Intel chip. The same assumptions are being made by Ou about the AppleTV. Chances are good he'll be wrong.
      • Re: Ain't gonna work

        [i]In fact, I suspect Apple is selling this at a
        loss hoping to make up for it with movie purchases at the iTunes Store.[/i]

        You mean like the iPod?

        none none
    • Can't compete against Mac Mini

      Modern operating systems like Mac OS X, Full Distro Linux with KDE/Gnome, Windows Vista will all craw with 256 MBs of RAM. Windows XP or a striped down Linux Distro is the only desktop OS you'll run effectively on 256 MBs of RAM. The Mac Mini is also a dual core processor so it's much more appropriate for a full blown PC.

      At this point I'm only speculating on what one can do with this hardware. We'll have to wait till we get our hands on it to verify exactly what we can do with it.
      • Thanks

        I wasn't sure if you were speculating, and was curious if you had some info that made this device sound more useful than it currently does. So far, as far as I can tell, it's not terribly useful or interesting. We'll see what happens once the hardware hacking set get hold of them though.
        tic swayback
        • Oh but it's VERY interesting for the market I talked about

          The tiny low-wattage x86 appliance may not be something you're interested in, but a lot of people are. Everyone I've talked to that's looking for such an appliance is highly interested because of the specs and the price.

          The trick will be:
          1. Does it have a regular BIOS that any x86 appliance software can run on or does it need a minor "bootcamp" style hack?
          2. Can it boot off the USB port with an attached CD/DVD drive?
          3. Were to find a mini PCI-express 10/100 Ethernet card and how to we mount the RJ45 port with no space in the back?
          • Looking forward to it

            I hope it does end up nice and flexible, as that would help make it into a much more useful device than Apple seems to see it as.
            tic swayback
  • A more elegant media center extender

    The Apple TV is hardly revolutionary as it provides similar functionality to a media center extender. I have been using my XBOX 360 as a media center extender and I love it except for two complaints:
    1. It is extremely noisy - what is the point of watching HD video if you have to turn the audio up way too loud to drown out the fans.
    2. Weak video codec support - The media center paradigm almost forces you to use WMVs. The process for converting a movie into a decent wmv is tough and the end result is not always that great.

    The Apple TV should solve those two problems. I am confident that it will be extremely quiet and the codecs that it will support should be easier to convert to. The problem that I have with the Apple TV is that it's solution for tivo-like functionality is to sell you tv shows at $2 a show. A nice price, but when you consider that I already pay a large amount of money (and watch a large number of ads) to watch tv, it would be nice if they provided an elegant way to record and watch television shows.

    I will be very interested to see the hacks that you guys come up with. If we could merge the two devices, we would have a perfect extender device.
    • put a TV tuner and PVR on you main computer...

      ...and save the files into your iTunes library for access by Apple TV.
    • You can't use Xbox 360 as an x86 appliance

      You can't use Xbox 360 as an x86 appliance. Most of the appliances on the market are geared for x86. The original XBOX was hacked a lot to run Linux but it only had 64 MBs of RAM and it's big and bulky. It also only had 10 GBs of HDD space.

      AppleTV if we can hack it is the ideal cheap x86 appliance platform.