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.
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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.