The Apple Set Top Box 
Written by AnubisTTP on 2006-10-28  



Back in 1995, Apple manufactured a prototype set top box for use in a trial run of an interactive TV service in Great Britain. The service, as near as I can tell from what little information I have gathered,was supposed to provide video-on- demand and pay for view services and it is claimed less than 1000 of the STB2's were made. I have obtained one of these prototype units, and the following is all the information I was able to obtain from dismantling and testing it.

Exterior Appearance

The STB2 is about the size of a small VCR, but only half as thick. The top of the unit features a sliding cover secured by a single black metal screw in the rear of the unit. Case screw damage to the back of my unit indicates it had been opened prior to my obtaining it. The front of the unit is made of black plastic and slightly curved out to the front. In the center of the front panel is a 1/2 inch by 1 inch piece of translucent black plastic with a rainbow Apple logo on the upper portion, and an infrared receiver behind the lower. I am told that this is not a full IRDA port, but merely a receiver for the remote unit, which I do not have. At the left edge of the front is a round Power button and a red indicator diode. On internal investigation it appears this power button is wired to pin 2 of the onboard ADB interface, and functions similar to the soft power key on standard Macintoshes. The left side of the unit has no distinguishing features but the right side mounts a standard ADB port and a security sticker applied by its previous owner. The bottom of the unit is made of unpainted sheet metal with four twist-lock plastic feet and an FCC sticker, warning that the unit has not been approved by the FCC and can not be sold in the US. The bottom is completely devoid of all the other product stickers, serial number stickers, barcodes, and safety warnings that you find on a released product.



The rear of the unit features all of the interesting stuff. There are three RCA jacks for left and right audio out and video out. There are two composite coaxial RF jacks, one for input, and one for output, and a switch to select between channel 3 and 4. There is an HDI 30 SCSI port, similar to the SCSI ports found on Powerbooks. There are European-style SCART connectors labeled SCANTV and SCANVCR that are covered by plastic DO NOT REMOVE plugs. There is a standard Mac serial printer/modem port, an S-video port, and what appears to be an Ethernet port. (ed: I have since been informed that this is an ISDN connection.) There is a standard three prong power input socket and a toggle power switch. And last but not least there is a tantalizing plastic expansion card slot cover, that is secured by two metal screws and also covers up the units security slot. The expansion slot in my unit had no card installed , though there is an extremely rare video card made for this machine that would allow it to be connected to standard Macintosh monitor.

I have since been informed by an engineer that worked on the STB project for British Telecom that this example was intended for a separate trial run in the US market, due to the fact that the SCART connectors on the back of the device have been capped off. Another collector has informed me that STB's of this type were deployed in a trial run in various Disney theme parks during the mid-90's, suggesting this as a possible origin for the unit shown here.

Internals



Internal access to the STB2 can be obtained by removing one screw in the rear of the unit and sliding the cover off. Inside, the unit's CPU is a 68LC040 processor and there is also a dedicated MPEG decoder chip. I have been told the motherboard is based off of an LC 475 series Mac. The unit had a single 72 pin SIMM slot that was empty, the unit also appeared to have an unknown amount of ram soldered to the motherboard. The unit has its ROM stored on a separate removable card, in all of the units I have heard mention of from other sources, the STB2 featured a special ROM with an all red circuit board.


Image courtesy Applefritter

This "Red ROM" is a rewritable ROM card used during development, that allowed rapid upgrades to the device's firmware while the ROM was installed in a device. The unit I have lacks this however, it has a plain vanilla green ROM card installed instead. The unit has a standard LC style power supply unit and also has a circular mount for either a fan or a speaker, the unit I had did not have anything in this mount. There were solder wells on the board for a 20 pin floppy disk drive connector, though there is no jack connected to this mount, it appears one could be added by anyone with good soldering skills. The unit also has an odd looking expansion card slot, it looks like an LC PDS slot but is oriented in the wrong direction. The slot has a plastic carrier secured to the board with a plastic screw, apparently expansion cards were seated facing to the motherboard. There is also a mysterious RCA connector in the side of the carrier, whose function I could not determine.

Tests of the Unit

I had heard that when the unit was plugged into a TV and turned on, it would show a blue screen with the words APPLE in the center when it did not find the TV service it was supposed to use. I tried to plug the unit into a TV but got no response on the screen. I also tried using the RCA jacks with the same results. Unfortunately I could not test the S-Video connector because I do not have an S-Video adapter. I had also been told that the STB2 could be booted with a standard Mac system on a hard disk connected to the HDI 30 SCSI port. I hooked up a Zip drive to the SCSI port with a HDI 29 adapter cable, hooked a keyboard and mouse to the ADB port, and attempted to boot the unit. This trick works on Powerbooks; the Zip drive uses standard SCSI protocols and the bootstrap loader will recognize the drive as a boot volume without having to load any drivers, but it did not work on the STB2. The power key on the keyboard activated the unit, but there was no evidence of hard disk activity and the power indicator remained red.

Next, I tried booting off of a 350MB hard disk loaded with a version of System 7.5. The unit accessed the hard disk on startup, but only for a few seconds, and the STB2 did not draw anything to the screen. I next tried a 150 megabyte hard disk loaded with System 7.0. The unit would check the hard disk at startup, and again once every minute thereafter, but it did not boot, and did not display anything to the screen. I next tried using a 250 megabyte hard disk lifted from a Quadra 700, my reasoning being that since the Quadra had a 68040 processor, it was the most LC 475 friendly system I could obtain without lifting the hard drive from an LC 475. It did not work, the STB2 did not even attempt to boot the drive. All three of the hard drives were set to SCSI id 0 and should have been terminated.

After that, I tried starting up the unit while holding down Command-Option-T-V while hooked up to the RCA ports, as suggested by an owner of another STB; it had no effect. I tried zapping the PRAM (Command-Option-P-R) with no effect. I tried resetting the CUDA chip by holding down the button on the motherboard for several seconds (At least I hope it's the CUDA reset) but this also had no effect. I tried removing the ROM and starting it up, hoping that some board-level functionality of the LC 475 series might take over the boot process. There was no effect. I tried booting up with a 16MB 72-pin SIMM added to the SIMM slot. Once again, there was no effect. At this point I had done everything I could have possibly done, if this were an LC 475 I was trying to boot, and I would assume the unit had a fried motherboard.

Up to this point, Apple has made three different prototype set top boxes, not including the Pippin game console. None of these set top boxes ever went to market, for all of its research Apple never sold a single unit. The first set top box, referred to as the STB1 or the STB GREY by collectors, is pictured below.



I have been unable to find any hard information on the unit, what it was designed for, or how many were made, but the few chance bits of information I have gathered suggest that it has an internal floppy drive, an internal hard disk, and a 15 pin Macintosh monitor connection. There are a handful units on the market, and they occasionally appear on Ebay.



Here is a picture of the innards of the STB1. You can clearly see the floppy drive secured to the top of the unit.

The STB2 was Apples second attempt at a set top box. The person who sold me my STB2 also sold between ten and fifteen more units. I managed to track down several of the people who had bought the persons other units by scanning the Applefritter forums. I discovered several things from them. The green ROM is a Mask ROM intended for production units. This suggests that the STB2 I have was one of the last ones made, and Apple must have pulled the plug on the project right before the units went on sale, if production ROMS were made. The other buyers were having the same amount of trouble getting them to boot as I was, suggesting that this batch of STB2's was defective.



At the time this was written the STB3 was Apple's last foray into the set top box market. I have heard only that the STB3 was a mock-up unit made out of wood, and that no prototype was actually built.

Given all this information I could only think of only four things that would cause the units failure:

1. The unit is defective.
2. The unit will not boot because the Mask ROM does not have a bootstrap loader.
3. A special key combination (like the Cmd-Opt-t-v) or some other trick is required to boot Mask ROM units.
4. The unit requires a special version of the Mac OS or drivers that I do not have.

Update 2006

The situation with the "Green ROM" set top boxes has continued to evolve over the past few years. People continue to try to develop a way to get these boxes to boot, and several people clam that they have successfully gotten the boxes to boot System 7. All parties refuse to reveal what steps they took to revive the boxes however, though there is suggestion that a special video driver may need to be installed on the boot disk before the units will work properly.

Update 2013

It has now been pretty much confirmed from multiple sources that Green Rom units (as well as many Red Rom units), will not boot correctly without a special video driver that is loaded at startup. Though people occasionally still appear within the Apple collector community that claim to possess these drivers, none have ever managed to produce them when requested, and most collectors consider the STB drivers lost forever to the mists of time.

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