Nintendo Switch lets you game like a console in your living room, then pick up and take your gaming on the go. Instead of an Apple TV — or NES! — box, it's more like an iPad that can dock to your TV for room-filling fun. Google's Chromecast achieves something similar but in an entirely different way: through a dongle rather than a dock. Even Amazon's latest Fire TV offers a lot in a small, cheap package.
There's much to recommend Apple TV 4K's dedicated, powerful device approach, including separate local storage, A10X processing, and updates that won't depend on big media houses supporting hundreds of different "smart-TV" platforms. But what if we could have the best of all worlds?
Last year I traveled a lot to do training for some of our new writers. In one of the offices, we had two old-school Apple TVs attached to two big screens on opposite sides of the building. They were used as inexpensive and convenient conduits for AirPlay — Apple's wireless content beaming system — so we could quickly share what was on our Macs, iPads, and iPhones, with everyone in the room.
When I travel to San Francisco I often stay at a hotel that has old-school Apple TVs attached to every television set as well. That way, once you're on the hotel network, you're just a few steps away from AirPlaying any of your stuff to the big screen in front of you. Rather than having to learn a new channel grid or suffer through yet another terrible set-top box experience, you get content that's yours through an interface you're already familiar with.
But those are both exceptions. I'd love a rule.
The Play's the thing
Like CarPlay, which lets your device and content take over the interface of the car — and eliminates the confusion historically associated with everything from upgrades to rentals — AirPlay does much the same anywhere there's a television. It's so great that, when I end up in an office or hotel room without an Apple TV, I miss it tremendously. Sure, I could pick up an extra Apple TV box and make sure I have it with me at all times, but that feels like overkill. I don't really need a box, Siri, or apps for that. I simply need AirPlay.
I need it enough that it makes me long for something like Google's Chromecast dongle — a tiny device that plugs into an HDTV and then simply lets me stream from my iPhone, iPad, or Mac to the big screen. Chromecast Ultra already supports 4K, so I assume a light-weight Apple TV dongle could do the same.
I'd love it if Apple built the basic Apple TV experience into iOS 12, where the logic stays on the iPad or iPhone but the interface and content projects onto your television through the tiny device — AirPlay Express or Apple TV Express, or whatever name best fits.
The TV app already exists on iPhone and iPad. Making it the doorway to Apple TY Express may not be that much of a stretch.
It would be great for offices where all that's wanted is screen mirroring, great for travelers who want the smallest amount of hardware possible in their pockets or luggage — great for anyone who just wants what's in their hands to be up on their TV. And, like CarPlay, it would make hardware updates less of a concern — every time iOS is updated, Apple TV Express would be updated as well.
Room at the bottom
Apple has Airport Extreme and a less expensive Airport Express. The current Apple TV 4K is supplemented on the lower end the previous Apple TV (1080p). But it's still much more expensive than competing streaming boxes. An Apple streaming stick could be a great alternative: The full-on Apple TV for those who want a dedicated box and an Apple TV Express for those who simply want to project content onto a screen right now.
There's any number of reasons why Apple would never make a TV streaming stick. But every time I think about it, I wish they would.
What do you want to see?
Would you use an AirPlay streaming stick? What else would you want to see in iOS 12? Let me know in the comments!
Updated September 28, 2017, to include recent product changes, competitors, and the next big software release, iOS 12.
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Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.