The future of Apple TV

These moves make the Apple TV both more interesting and more affordable — and I have no doubt that the imminent return of Game of Thrones will help sell a lot of the little black boxes. But in the battle for the living room, with competition ranging from the ultra-cheap Chromecast to pricer if more potent consoles like Playstation 4, where does the future of Apple TV fit?

The next Apple TV

The battle for input 1 — the first HDMI port on your TV — is tough. You have lots to choose from: cable and satellite boxes, game consoles, streaming boxes, and more.

Apple entered the living room in 2007, the same year it launched the original iPhone. Based on a lobotomized version of OS X Tiger, the first Apple TV was a big, expensive silver box that ran on Intel, had a hard drive, and focused on syncing with iTunes on the desktop.

It was replaced in September 2010 by the second-generation Apple TV, a small black box that ran iOS on an A4 chipset, supported 720p video, and streamed from the cloud. In March of 2012, Apple bumped that little black box to Apple TV 3, the box we know and use today: It runs on the A5 chipset, supports up to 1080p video, and has been continually adding streaming services since its debut.

Some three years later, we've gone from iPhone 4s to iPhone 6, third-generation iPad to iPad Air 2, and we even almost have our hands on an Apple Watch — but that 2012 Apple TV 3 is still the latest and greatest set-top box model from Apple. And it's showing its age.

If we compile all the rumors and dreams that have been circulating since the last Apple TV update, expectations for an Apple TV 4 certainly run high: Apple has a laptop-class processor now with Cyclone, and console-quality graphics potential with the Metal framework. That combination could stream video and play games like nobody's business.

But it's also expensive. The iPad mini 2, which has last year's Cyclone processor in the Apple A7 chipset, currently starts at $299. (Coincidentally, the same price as the original Apple TV). Go to 32GB of storage, and it's $349. (Coincidentally, the starting price of the Apple Watch).

Sure, the Apple TV won't need a built-in screen the way the iPad does, but it will need a remote control cable of exploiting its functionality, which the iPad doesn't. If it has sensors on board, including Siri, it will need a way to handle that input on-device or on-remote. All this to say, a modern Apple TV will cost more than $69. Maybe quite a bit more.

To justify the higher cost, Apple would have to provide equal or greater value. Again, based on long-running rumors, that could include forward-looking support for UHD or 4K video, content deals, and/or the introduction of an Apple TV SDK that does for set-top boxes what the iPad did for tablets — turns them into a gateway to the App (Game) Store.

How we'd control it remains an open question: New, innovative remote? iPhone or iPad remote? Apple Watch remote? There are a bunch of hypothetical options to consider. (And, while we're talking fantasy, I still love Guy English's idea of MFi Nintendo controllers tied exclusively to Mario, Zelda, and Metroid for iOS...)

There's a lot that could make a new, high-end Apple TV a no-brainer — especially if it served as a Siri-powered HomeKit hub, AirPort router, or did any other number of additional, rumored things.

A hypothetical $299 Apple TV could position the "old" $69 Apple TV 3 as the entry-level option: Much like the "old" iPhone 5s or iPad Air hanging around at lower price tiers, it offers basic functionality for those who don't want or need the latest or the greatest (or the most expensive). That could be very compelling, as stand-alone boxes go. But what about streaming sticks?

Apple TV Direct

While I've not found any rumors about this, I'm sure many people looked at the Google Chromecast and wondered what a version made by Apple could do. Not a small, independent box that could browse and play content all on its own — but a tiny HDMI device that could stream content from an iPhone, iPad, or Mac. Apple has already shown decoupled interface and remote-view projection with both CarPlay and Apple Watch. They've certainly been using AirPlay to Apple TV for years.

I could easily see the future Apple TV as an interface built into iPhone and iPad as part of a future version of iOS, where the processing occurs on-device, but the interface and content projects onto your television through an HDMI dongle. It would be great for travelers who want to be able to watch what's on their phone or tablet on the TV but don't want to carry anything as big as an Apple TV through airports or on long car drives. Likewise, there are folks who simply don't want another box on or under their TV that might instead prefer an HDMI dongle.

And, like CarPlay, it would make hardware updates less of a concern — every time iOS is updated, Apple TV Direct would update as well. It could also be inexpensive — inexpensive like iPod shuffle cheap. Inexpensive like under $50 cheap.

Just the beginning...

Apple TV Direct, like netbooks and budget phones, may simply be too low-end for Apple to consider. But even without it, that still leaves the current — and currently $69 — Apple TV as a more affordable point of entry than ever before, and room on top of it for that high-end Apple TV 4 of our dreams.

Apple said at the Spring forward event that these Apple TV announcements were just the beginning. So all we know for certain is that there will be more.

Either way, given the HBO Now announcement, the rumors of more channels to come, and the potential of the platform, I find myself really enthusiastic about the future of Apple TV.

Rene Ritchie

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.

  • An Apple TV "direct" would be a nice option, and would help to align the Apple TV with the other apple products. It seems that Apple has traditionally done a three tier system. Iphone is available in 3 storage capacities, as well as three model options. So are the Mac laptops. I would expect this fall we see the addition of a dongle devices, probably with similar specs as the current gen. As well as an upgrade to the current gen, and a premium option that supports 4K. The app ecosystem would have to be supported across the board for the devices as well, for all three devices to have access to apps from Spotify and the like. Sent from the iMore App
  • Correction: you undershot by a couple of years how long the hardware has been languishing. The third generation Apple TV was in 2012, with a slight component shift in 2013. I know because I waited until the 3rd gen was released to buy on, but also see
  • Typos seem to generate more feedback than anything else. Humans are fun!
  • For the sake of input one, is it an acceptable scenario to maybe build an Apple TV that connects to cable with coaxial, and they just use one of the biggest US cable companies for their infrastructure, not their the original AT&T iPhone? Sent from the iMore App
  • That's the approach that GoogleTV took, and it flopped pretty badly. Apple would no doubt do much better on the interface side (and much worse on the search/discovery side) but the problem is that programming content is what people are there for, so whoever controls the content has the upper hand in the partnership. It seems very un-Apple for them to enter into such a partnership where they would be the subordinate. I suspect they will either find a way to do a complete end-around where they control all aspects, or they will not bother to do it at all. Sent from the iMore App
  • But there were phones when the iPhone came out too, so I don't know about bringing Google into it. If the apps (TV channels) are good, the cable company's cable signal is good, if there's an app store, and the hardware keeps people coming back every year (or two), it sounds like an already successful model. What's missing is the first powerful partner, no? Sent from the iMore App
  • What is different is who controls the content. Verizon and ATT controlled the pipe - the means to the content - not the content itself. In A TV setting where Apple overlays a cable signal, the cable co still controls the show. Already, we are seeing reports AppleTV Direct will not have NBC stations because of a spat with Comcast. Take the semi-annual license fights between the actual creators and the cablecos. The Walking Dead won't show up on a TV provider for a few weeks while TWC and AMC argue over payments. Apple is too smart to step in the middle of that unless they have the power to dictate those programming terms. (Google, whether through arrogance or naïveté, was not so smart.) That's why Apple positioned the Apple TV on hdmi 2 in the first place. They may be readying to attack hdmi 1, but I doubt they will do so in any way that cedes more than the barest whiffs of control to a third party. Sent from the iMore App
  • Completely agree with you there. I'd love to see a pass-through like the GoogleTV, simply for the sake of simplicity. Not having to switch inputs between a cable/satellite box and the ATV is a big deal to tech neophytes (i.e. the spouse, 8yr old, grandpa, etc). Being able to push a button and have the ATV take over, like the GTV does, would be great. If anyone could figure out how to make the interface work, Apple could. I owned a GoogleTV box (a Sony) and I can tell you the GTV didn't fail specifically because of the way it connected to the TV, it failed because the overall implementation was not well thought out (app quality, the remote, etc).
  • $69 is an amazing price and my ATV2 is definitley the hub of my HTPC set up but, as regards the ATV3, it's useless until it's jailbreakable. My ATV is indispensable in a singular house wide media set up, that allows me to run a singular system in every room in the house equips with a TV but only because I was able to jailbreak it to run Plex. Give us an ATV App Store, put Plex on it and then you've got the proverbial one-device-to-rule-them-all.
  • It's a pretty simple exercise to get Plex working on an ATV3.
  • Really? Because Firecore has yet to provide a jailbreak package and I would love to set such a system up for my father who is infirm. The problem is always that I've always been looking for an ATV2 for him and because of their breakable nature still go for 2-300 a piece even while the 3 drops to $69. I've been googling this like crazy. You wouldn't happpen to have a useful link would you?
  • I have an idea for the "perfect" controller for a TV (that in my hubris I imagine is the same idea Steve Jobs had when he said he "cracked it.") The perfect controller for the TV, is the TV screen itself. For instance if TV screens were touch enabled, then all the icons and on-screen controls of the Apple TV UI, would be touchable. The fact that most TVs are now flat panels that hang on the wall at just the right height to be touched is super helpful here also. Just touching the icons and the on screen controls, in exactly the same as on an iOS device, would make things happen on the TV. Since you cannot always walk up to your TV, the ideal "controller" is a smaller TV panel that sits on your lap or your coffee table, that is "live synced" with the TV. Everything you do and see and touch on the controller is instantly mirrored on the TV and vice versa. Apps and games would be aware of the controller and display touch UI overlays on either the TV the tablet, or both. It would have no buttons at all, and be a sort of "invisible" controller in the sense that it's just the same UI as the TV itself. Dad could take the controller into the bathroom for an epic dump and still keep watching the game because the controller is also a screen. Just like the iPhone when it replaced the Blackberry, instead of a bunch of remotes with dozens of arcane fixed buttons, you have a screen that reconfigures it's "buttons" for each different scenario. The only drawback is the engineering. I have no idea whether it's actually possible to keep the two screens in sync even though they are in the same room. But if that engineering problem can be solved, I think this is the best, most intuitive TV controller.
  • A touch-screen TV is about as likely to happen as a touchscreen Macbook Pro.
    However, a remote that mirrors the screen is something that's entirely possibly right now. Apple has the know-how to create this experience on the iPad and iPhone Remote Apps. Why they haven't done this yet is beyond me. Maybe too much of a UI difference between the current remote and the iOS app. Right now they are very similar. Create maybe an unfair advantage to those who don't have an iOS device??? I know that's kind of a lame argument, but the fact that the UI isn't mirrored on the iOS devices Remote App is just as lame. I'd love to see the next remote have input switching, universal power-on and volume.
  • not a 100% sure if that's the right path to go down, however I voted this up just for the epic dump comment.
  • I'm not an Apple user, but like the Watch will do for wearables of other brands, I'm excited to see what they do that will help propel the shift to streaming TV forward. Some others have started to push the technology out there, but until Apple gets on board, it will spread slowly.
  • If they do bring out a new AppleTV I really don't see it coming in at $299. Yes, that's where iPad Mini 2 starts, but it also includes two things AppleTV doesn't have/need, display & battery.
  • Good point.
  • Indeed. And it would be a 300% increase for the "main" Apple TV product once announced. The existence of cheaper options doesn't ameliorate that in any way. Although, since Apple has just changed their entire pricing model across the board, the idea of randomly increasing the price of something by 300% is certainly not impossible.
  • Yeah the thinking on the price point is WAY off. 1.) They wouldn't release a device at $299 when competitor devices are doing the exact some functionality (and with the same console level GPU potential) even down to a mature app store for $99 or less
    2.) The iPad mini retina not only includes the processor (which is about $14 per unit based on latest BOM information) but it also includes a:
    -Touch ID
    -Stylized aluminum shell
    -LTE modem (including licensing fees associated with that)
    -Saphire on both touch ID and camera coverings
    -A camera on both back and front
    -Mechanical home button
    -Volume rocker and associated circuitry
    -Mute switch and associated circuitry
    - Speakers and associated circuitry
    -Light sensor
    -Battery All of these things not needed in an Apple TV.
  • Unfortunately I think Rene is way off the mark with article. As stated Apple attempted a device in $300 dollar range with the first version of the Apple TV and it was unable to gain traction in the market at this price point.
    Talk of UHD or 4k is great, but it does not reflect the market, where is very little 4k content available. A "build it and they will come" is great for wild predictions of the future, but normally the reality is very different. While newer content is being shot using digital cameras and could be easily converted to 4K, the reality is most of the content was not and content providers are not willing to spend the money needed to convert the existing content to 4k. Look at the current Blu-ray market for a good comparison, which is about 9 years old if you expect it really began with the release of the PlayStation 3. Now count how many really bad Blu-Ray conversions exist, where the DVD seems to be better quality than the Blu-ray or even how many Woody Allen movies have still not been released on Blu-ray in USA. Besides these facts, sales of 4K TVs are extremely low.
    It has often been said of Apple that "they skate to where the puck is going", but in this case I believe it will be three years before 4K TVs are adopted in large enough numbers. If you don't think this is true, I am sure you could find an article from 2 years ago talking about the Apple TV supporting 3D movies. His comments on a ATV SDK are interesting but I don't think Apple will go in this direction. If you look at the market of "Smart TV" SDKs in the current and past markets, there has been poor developer traction and even worse customer traction. This is true whether you look at Boxee, Roku, Samsung or U-verse etc.
    So far the only products that the market has shown demand for are the current PC streaming products, i.e. Netflix, Hulu, Youtube, Amazon etc. Even for these products to be successful, content is still king, as Netflix has previously stated “The goal is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us”. I heard the rumors of the "HomeKit" hub before and the positioning of the device in the home network does not make sense to me. Why position this in a device behind a firewall, that could be difficult to use for WAN access? It would be a lot easier to position the "HomeKit" hub in Apple's networking products and then maybe a simple client in the ATV or iOS device. After all a router is a device that "bridges" different types of network why not add the bluetooth network to this device. Any local network access would be easier and more useful from an iOS device. Who wants to pause a movie to dim the lights etc? The "Apple TV Direct" is really the only part of this article where Rene and I agree, but I see this device as a replacement for the current ATV form factor rather than a complimentary product in the Apple TV range. If Apple can reduce the size of the motherboard in the new MacBook by 60%, why can they not reduce the size of the Apple TV by roughly 75% when they will be able to remove the voltage transformer from the device. One idea that I have had for a while is the integration of the Apple TV into any future displays that Apple release. A rough estimate of the current Apple TV components must be around $10 to $20 (probably a lot less). Adding the Apple TV features to a display would then allow Apple to market the display as an "Airplay Display" and fits in with the wireless future, it introduced with the new MacBook. It would also allow the display to be used to view content from the iTunes Store when no mac is connected, or as a wireless display when you connect a mac over WiFi. While I don't know if Apple would ever release a display that would be suitable for most living rooms (over 40 inches), it would be useful in college dorms, bedrooms etc. The one problem I do see with this idea is you would be not able to airplay a retina picture (at least 2304x1440 @ 60Hz) with the current wireless technologies. Of course this is all just a hot bowl of claim chowder.
  • I already have a Roku 3. It's a nice device, I like it. Although it's almost tempting to get an aTV for HBO NOW, after the exclusion period I'm sure it'll be available on the Roku anyway. Otherwise, it's hard to imagine what Apple can do to convince me. HomeKit integration? That might work... If I had any IoT appliances in my 80-year-old house. AirPlay would be cool, but not $69 cool. I already have movies through M-GO and Amazon, and Netflix, and MLB TV. I also have Plex, which rocks. Maybe when it's time to replace the Roku I can take another look, but by then the expectations for the device will have changed. And Apple will probably be 3 years behind the curve again.
  • I think the biggest problem right now for Apple to tackle is content. If (that's a big "if") they offer a streaming (monthly billed) service, they [Apple] would want to offer that service to their entire ecosystem. Content providers are really not likely (or freely willing) to agree to this. And that, I think, is the biggest reason we haven't seen a service like this from Apple yet. Look at how Hulu works. You can view content on on the TV and on a website and IOS devices, but some content you can only view on the website VS. on a STB, or your iOS device. Many of the "Channels" Apple offers now requires a cable subscription to use...even Over-Air programming from network Apps on the TV require a cable sub.. I think this is the single reason we haven't seen a subscription service from Apple yet. If they can't bring it to the ecosystem, it's not worth doing. Content providers don't want you to view everything, everywhere. That being said, now that HBO Now is out soon, this is going to change everything (my prediction). Now that HBO is going to open the doors to non-cable subscribers (at a pretty hard to swallow premium, compared to other cheaper and bigger content catalog services...meaning Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc.), I predict a lot of other networks are going to follow suit. And then services like Hulu, with their modest prices for a fairly large amount of content will be dead. The A-la-carte system that we all are dreaming of will come with the trade-off of higher prices per network and content and will make going back to a bundled service seem cheap in comparison. That's my prediction and I'd say it's a safe bet that will eventually come to be. Personally, I "cut the cord" to save money by using Hulu, Netflix and per-show iTunes purchases for my primary viewing experience. That has been a huge money saver for me for the past 3 years (over $100/mo. savings). Now that HBO is establishing such a high cost of entry (for what I'd call very little catalog compared to say Hulu+) it's establishing a bar very high for companies like NBC/Universal, FOX, Disney/ESPN to offer similar (high cost of entry) services as well. Then Apple will come in with a bundled service for all that, with limited selection but better experience content and UI. Then, we'll be back to the $100/month+ programming bills. I don't want that as much as the next person but I swear that's where all this is leading. A-La-Carte comes with trade-offs, and I'm not sure if most people realize what those trade-offs will be. Once the big dogs start offering HBO-Now-like experiences, they'll try to lower the cost by including ads. Modestly at first, but then increase them as time goes by. The boiled frog scenario. It's already happening with Hulu. When I first subscribed, there were only ads at the beginning of each episode. Now, they have just as many commercial breaks (granted only one commercial per break) as regular cable or over-air tv, and I'm paying for it. They claim it keeps the costs down, but it's just another way to increase profit, IMO. And, that will eventually happen with services like HBO Now...eventually. Even HBO Go has commercials. As for Rene's comparisons of Hardware pricing for an Updated TV, I'd say he's missing one big point.
    He said: "But it's also expensive. The iPad mini 2, which has last year's Cyclone processor in the Apple A7 chipset, currently starts at $299. (Coincidentally, the same price as the original Apple TV). Go to 32GB of storage, and it's $349. (Coincidentally, the starting price of the Apple Watch)." First of all, the 2nd gen TV was $99 and had an A4 processor, that same year they released the iPod Touch and iPhone, and iPad 2, all with the same processor. So, why is the TV $99 of the other cost a boatload more? As some said, no storage options, no screen, no battery, and no sensors or other extraneous tech. Continuing: "To justify that cost, Apple would have to provide equal or greater value. Again, based on long-running rumors, that could include forward-looking support for UHD or 4K video, content deals, and/or the introduction of an Apple TV SDK that does for set-top boxes what the iPad did for tablets — turns them into a gateway to the App (Game) Store." I'd really love to see Apps for games and an SDK for other things...and more "built-in" apps (like weather, stocks, and other widget-like apps...think WATCH glances). Also, with the current rumors and developments surrounding Nintendo, Guy English's wish might be granted in the coming years. With those added features, I can see the price of entry for a next-gen TV going back up to $99 or even $149 (if a new, more advanced, remote is included as well). I see this current price drop and HBO deal as a stop-gap. A way to get more people into the TV and Apple ecosystem within the living room. It also allows people to update their 2nd gen. models to the latest version because i bet those models will not be able to view HBO Now content...much like the 2nd gen. model can't view the latest firmware. So, I see this as a temporary measure to get more new customers using the TV and a way to entice legacy owners to upgrade...buying Apple 6-12 months for content deals to solidify. The fact they made this deal right now with HBO and dropped the price is a very clear sign that something is brewing and will soon be released. I don't think these latest updates (if you can call them that) would have occurred if something wasn't imminently coming. That's why they waited this long to release anything new to the TV, IMO.
  • Sling TV and playstation vue are the model to expand on especially the Vue with commitments from the major networks with live streaming and cloud base dvr. Yes there's a monthly fee but we can cut the cord !
  • $299 seems crazy to me. Even $199 it's have to do everything imaginable and i have a vivid imagination. even at $100, because there are other options, it needs a faster processor, better codec support for playing my own content, an app store would be great, to expand it. For my interests, several of the things people mention are not important to me at all, like gaming, siri. Right now there are other options and solutions so it's have to be a good solution at a good price point.
  • $69 Apple TV Stream (puck or stick) that streams all content available. $299 Apple TV that has HDMI pass through controlling other devices and being a home stereo via AirPlay iBeacon speakers. $3000+ Apple TV Edition that's an actual TV.
  • With its engineering chops, Apple has few problems building any Apple TV hardware it wants. The REAL problem is content deals—and not just US content. Apple is supposed to be a global company with its sights set on China. 25 or 30 channels of US content only in the US is NOT going to build a global Apple TV brand, and that is why the Apple TV will remain a "hobby" device until the international content nut is cracked.
  • We have 3 in the house to cover all TVs. It's great having instant access to Netflix & YouTube on the TV but I also buy a lot of Kids Tv shows off iTunes so the kids have things to watch in the car & it's good that they have access to all them in the eldests bedroom. Also great for streaming things I've downloaded onto my phone through various apps through AirPlay to the TV. My only complaint is Apple need to look into adding better channels out side the U.S. (UK in my case) but other than that they are essential in my house hold.
  • What would be the down side to Apple TV doubling as an HDMI switch? My thought is that by doing so Apple could eliminate the need for more than one HDMI port on the TV and protect users from ever having to endure their TV's horribly designed user interface. If the Apple TV remote could serve as a source switch, volume control, and master power button - forever killing line of sight infrared - I'd be in heaven.
  • That "direct" option makes no sense to me except for potentially one function.
    In general, I don't see the difference between "set top box" like the current AppleTV, a PS4, or Chromecast: They all take up an HDMI port on the TV so what's the big deal? Shelf space? I've got a satellite receiver/DVR, DVD player and a BlueRay player, stacked. An AppleTV can sit on top of any of those and be nigh unnoticeable. The one item that maybe makes sense for a stick instead of a box, is power. Assuming an HDMI port provides power to the stick thus eliminating a separate power cord.
  • As to how Apple would have us control it, that problem is already solved - the Remote app for iOS. Yes, this leaves out people who don't have an iPhone/iPad, but there are enough of those to make it more than worthwhile. Basic ATV stuff for those without an iOS, awesome ATV stuff for those with. Plus that fits Apple's MO pretty well.