Hacking the Google TV Box Without Rooting It, Part 1
Oct 28, 2011 5:00 AM PT
Day 1: Installing Honeycomb
I've long held the opinion that the most effective way to get Internet-based content onto a TV is to simply hook a laptop up to the flat screen with an HDMI cable. The laptop acts as an oversized remote control. You get a full Flash-based Web browser, hard drive and keyboard on your TV.
It's not the lean-back user interface that you get with a cable or satellite subscription, but you do get a la carte programming through Web-browser streaming services like YouTube, Hulu, Netflix and others.
"Set-top" products are out there that let you replicate the cable-like lean-back experience with Internet-based streaming services. They include the US$59 Roku and D-Link's Boxee, among others.
However, none of them allow you to view the ad-supported Hulu service -- they force you into a $7.99 a month Hulu "Plus" service, and none of them provide a solution that lets you watch a Slingbox. Slingbox is the place-shifting streaming device that lets you privately "sling" a stream via the Internet from one TV source to another location.
This looked like it might be changing. Along came Google a year ago with a "set-top" product based on Android, called "Google TV," that appeared to address at least one of those issues, in that it featured a Chrome browser. Hulu is viewable through Chrome.
Did this not mean that for a few hundred dollars I could tuck away a box in my TV cabinet that would allow me to get my laptop back? Well, the answer to this question was "No," because Hulu promptly blocked Google's product from accessing its streams, along with CBS and others.
I forgot about my quest and Google TV over the year -- resigned to my laptop being forever tethered to the TV -- until two things caught my eye. First, Logitech, a maker of Google's device, slashed prices from $249 to $99; secondly, rumors began that the original semi-failed and poorly reviewed software would soon be upgraded to Honeycomb (Android 3.1 -- the flagship Android OS.)
This meant that a possible solution for my laptop claw-back could be affordable, and if it was anything like Honeycomb on a tablet, could be infinitely customizable -- just like a PC is.
I started to investigate and discovered a band of developers inhabiting a forum and wiki called "GTVHacker." This band of modders had successfully rooted the Logitech box, allowing complete control over apps installed, and later had stumbled across a leaked, early version of the continually delayed Honeycomb upgrade and had unofficially gotten it to work on the box. Honeycomb on your TV? Was a TV not a giant tablet waiting to happen?
I chose the leaked Honeycomb-update route for my endeavor, rather than the root. The root uses pre-Froyo Android 2.1 and requires some soldering on a virgin box -- a box that's never been updated. Although I bought a virgin Logitech Revue Google TV box, my last soldering project -- on a smartphone GPS chip -- caused the device to perpetually overheat. I decided to play relatively safe with my now further discounted $89 box.
The first thing I did after unboxing was hook the thing up to my TV to check out the original software. Netflix reportedly worked well, although I didn't try it, and You Tube functioned well. The CBS owned Clicker app would not let me watch CBS's latest "Person of Interest." As I knew, Hulu did not work.
After about five minutes of fumbling with this disappointing experience, I Fat32 formatted a USB drive and loaded it with the leaked, long-windedly named update file. As advised, I renamed the file "update.zip."
Following GTVHacker's instructions, along with scary disclaimers about bricking the box, no way to go back and so on, I booted the Logitech Revue with the USB stick attached. Waited two seconds and pressed the button labeled "Connect." I let the box boot to the logo, automatically boot again and get back to the logo, at which point, advised by the hackers, I released the "Connect" button. An arrow and a "barbershop scroll" appeared.
Continuing my potential destruction of a Benji's worth of gear, I pressed the "FN" key and the left arrow button and the recovery menu appeared. I chose "Apply update from sdcard:/update.zip" with the "Enter" button on the keyboard. The "OK" button between all the arrows did not work. The box went through various boots and flashings until a new, revised logo came up, at which point I knew I had a successful update. My TV was now a large tablet -- I hoped.
Stay tuned: The next phase of my plan was going to be figuring out just how to get apps and content onto the Logitech Revue Google TV box. The leaked Honeycomb 3.1 operating system was now, for all intents and purposes driving a giant Honeycomb tablet.