A few months back I decided to cut the cord. Tired of giving $150+ per month to Comcast, my wife and I decided we could live without cable TV for awhile, a decision made easier by the NBA lockout. As it turns out we didn’t cut the cord entirely, as the infinite wisdom of Comcast’s billing department made it cheaper for us to keep basic HD cable along with our internet service then to kill of the TV subscription entirely. For all intents and purposes, however, we’ve “cut the cord.”

As a result we’ve been watching more content streamed from Netflix and our DVD collection. The latter is usually consumed in the form of mp4 files ripped to my Mac and streamed to one of the two Apple TVs in the house. For awhile we tried Hulu Plus, but once the Fall TV season started up, we found ourselves with plenty to watch between live/TiVo’d network TV and older series available on Netflix. Also, I had hard time getting around having to watch commercials on Hulu Plus streams even though I was paying a monthly subscription fee; it felt too much like the cable model I’d finally decided to shun.

Between our newfound reliance on streaming video around the house and the Sonos system that’s been seeing daily use since it arrived, my MacBook Pro was seeing near-constant double duty as a media server. The setup worked fine so long as I remembered not to put the machine to sleep at the end of the workday, or to set it back up after using it in the field. Also, since I use the laptop for a lot of video work, the hard drive is often near-capacity; most of my video files are stored on an external drive, and so I marke sure that’s on, as well. None of these qualify as huge problems, but when it’s 10 PM and you’re settled into bed, pick up the remote, and get excited to watch an old episode of The Golden Girls, it’s a drag to have to get out from under the covers and go turn on your laptop and USB drive.

Yes, The Golden Girls. We’ve got every episode in our library. Don’t knock it ’til you try it: Sophia’s a riot.

But I digress: Here’s where we get to the $20 Mac.

Like I said, we have two Apple TVs in my house. One’s a first-gen unit with a 160GB internal hard drive, and the other’s a second-gen box. I also have an old Windows Vista laptop that hasn’t seen much use in awhile. I installed iTunes on it, loaded a ton of music and video files onto the hard drive, and set it to stay constantly awake even with the lid closed. The thing literally crashed once every forty-eight hours doing nothing but running iTunes as a Home Sharing server. Frankly I’m not a Windows power user, and so after messing around with it a few times to no avail I started searching for another solution.

My needs: A low-cost, energy-efficient iTunes (and, ideally, Sonos) server.

My first-gen Apple TV wouldn’t work because Apple, in their infuriating wisdom, won’t let one ATV box stream content to another. But an old Mac would work. So long as it could run iTunes 10.5 (required for using Home Sharing with a 2nd gen Apple TV), it didn’t really matter what else the machine could or couldn’t do. I wasn’t planning to use the box for anything even as taxing as playing back HD video files – it literally needed to serve media in an Apple TV (and Sonos) compliant manner and I’d be happy.

So I started looking at Craigslist and eBay in search of an ultra-cheap Mac with a G4 or newer processor. And I wound up buying another first-generation Apple TV for twenty bucks. What the? All will be explained in Part Two…