Is it the end of the line for the second-generation Apple TV?

Even though they look the same, there are some big differences under the hood between the second and third generation Apple TV. Users are starting to feel the pinch: The newest Apple TV software release isn't supported on the second-gen Apple TV. Does this spell the end of the line for that model?

A brief history

Apple's first-generation Apple TV came on the scene in 2007. Designed like a flattened Mac mini, the original Apple TV had inside a 40 GB or 160 GB hard disk drive. You could mirror your entire iTunes library on it, giving yourself access to music, movies, and photographs that you could show on your TV.

Essentially a little computer, the original Apple TV used Intel Pentium hardware inside paired with an Nvidia graphics chip. It operated a special version of OS X and used an interface reminiscent of Apple's Front Row software, an early attempt at a media center control system for OS X.

It was an interesting experiment but with a high price tag - $299 to start, $399 with more storage capacity, and a penchant for being warm enough to practically fry eggs, the Apple TV was a niche product that garnered interest from Apple enthusiasts but few others.

The next generation

2010 was a big year for Apple. The company rolled out the iPad that year, and the iPhone was already into its fourth generation. That September Apple rebooted the Apple TV concept, offering a rather radical reimagining of the concept. Instead of making a dedicated-purpose home entertainment PC — essentially the role of the original Apple TV — Apple turned the new Apple TV into a streaming media box.

Inside the tiny new black Apple TV was an A4 processor — the same kind used in the iPhone 4 and the iPad. It had no internal hard drive, with 8 GB of flash storage to cache streaming content, and 256 MB of active memory. It also got rid of analog video connectors, requiring HDMI to carry a video signal to a host television. It was also much less expensive — $99.

Apple continued that design of the Apple TV going forward: The 2nd generation model was replaced in 2012 with a physically identical third-generation version that uses the A5 processor and has twice as much memory. It can operate at a higher resolution — 1080p, as opposed to 720p on the older box.

Turning the corner with iOS 8

Last week Apple pushed out a new build of the Apple TV software — version 7.0. The new release sports a more flattened interface and a different typeface used throughout, and also adds a new channel — Beats Music, Apple's recently-acquired premium music streaming service.

That update hasn't been pushed out to second-generation Apple TVs. They're relegated to version 6.2.1 instead. And it's unlikely that they will get the update. Here's why:

The second and third-generation Apple TV runs a variant of iOS, and the new Apple TV 7.0 software is the first release based on iOS 8. iOS 8's minimum system requirements exclude the original iPhone 4, which uses the same microprocessor as the second-gen Apple TV.

That's also why the third-gen Apple TV also gets features like Family Sharing and Ask to Buy (which allows kids to ask their parents to buy content they want). These are features pegged to iOS 8, specifically.

Living on the bleeding edge

Going forward, Apple may update the second generation Apple TV with bug fixes and other minor enhancements. New channels are even a possibility, as evidenced by the recent addition of FX Now, though the addition of Beats Music only to 7.0 sets a bad precedent. Chances are that we've seen the last of any major improvements for the second-gen Apple TV, however.

Third-gen Apple TVs have other unique features that the second-gen unit doesn't get, besides higher resolution support and the ability to run Apple TV software 7.0. Tap to setup is a feature unique to third-gen Apple TVs, for example: You can configure them using an iOS device running iOS 7 or later.

But If you thought you were off the hook just because you have a third-generation Apple TV, guess again.

There's a new feature in iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite called Peer to Peer AirPlay which lets you stream content from a Mac (running Yosemite) or an iOS 8 device to a nearby Apple TV without first connecting to the Apple TV's host Wi-Fi network.

This is a big boon for businesses that may want to offer up Apple TV-connected projectors for guests, but don't want to give them network access, for example. Same goes for your home — someone wants to show you a slideshow of their recent trip to the Caribbean, but you don't have to let them on your home Wi-Fi for them to share it with the party in the living room.

Only one problem: Apple says the feature will only work on the most recent third-generation Apple TV. The "Rev A" box which came out in March, 2013. That model uses a different graphics subsystem than the original third-gen Apple TV.

Having the Apple TV use a common platform for other Apple products (iOS) makes it easier for Apple to add new features over time. It's unfortunate that second-gen Apple TV customers are finding themselves with a product that's increasingly end-of-the-road, and even many third-gen Apple TV owners will find themselves with a product that doesn't work with the same feature set as the very latest one.

But that's the price of innovation, and we all have to decide when it's the right time for us to buy into a new technology understanding full well that if it's successful, it'll be incremented and improved until whatever we're using is out of date.

What's your take?

For my part, I'm still using a second-gen Apple TV and I'm pretty happy with it. Our main use for it is to watch Netflix and Crunchyroll content, and to stream music. So I'm holding off on replacing it with a new box for now. I'm hoping that Apple is working on a newer Apple TV with even more features than the current model has.

How about you? Are you using a second or third-generation Apple TV? Or does the Apple TV not interest you at all? What would it take for Apple to make a set-top box you'd use? Let me know in the comments.

46 Comments
  • I know this might sound dumb but how can I tell if mine is 2nd or 3rd gen? Are they both the tiny, black square ones? Is there an "About this Apple TV" in the settings? Sent from the iMore App
  • Model numbers are on the bottom of the device, in small print...
    http://support.apple.com/kb/HT200008?viewlocale=en_US
  • I currently use a 2nd gen Apple TV. We use it for Netflix and AirPlay from iPhone Apps like the Global app and Air Video. Everything we watch is pushed through our Apple TV and unless it stops working I don't expect to be upgrading.
  • For those us us outside the US, the current Apple TV is almost devoid of local content, and so is about as useful as a chocolate teapot. The next Apple TV either needs a full fat app store, our Apple's content people need to realise there are more countries in the world than America.
  • I find it quite useful in Canada. ITunes Store is amazing for buying/renting movies or shows and can even play itunes music. I also use it for netflix and crackle and watching video podcasts.
    Apple events as well once in a while, also Vimeo is fun to look through also. Not sure how it not useful...would like a ufc app though. Sent from the iMore App
  • I am also in Canada and find the value equation for Apple TV is well worth it, but "moroboshi" is right as well. There are only a very few items that are on AppleTV that are available outside of the USA, and most of them are sports, or other niche markets I'm not interested in. When you add in the fact that most of the "channels" on AppleTV have advertisements, or you pay for them, (or both!), the situation is pretty grim overall. Flickr has an app but it's just atrocious. Vimeo has an app too, but there are only so many crap videos by wanna-be playboy photographers, and advertisements for fashion shows that one can watch. I use mine for Netflix and streaming from my iTunes almost exclusively, but the "streaming from iTunes" part is kind of sucky to be honest. It's really more about enticing you to buy things for Apple these days, as is iTunes and all the rest of their stuff. Enabling the user to look at their own local content is clearly secondary now.
  • You can rent exactly the same lineup of content from dozens of sources now, including several that are platform agnostic (such as Amazon). Netflix is also on pretty much every streaming box ever made. From a UK perspective streaming here is largely about one service- BBC iPlayer. It's as popular here as Netflix is in America, so it's by far the most important service for any streamer to have. It's on all the games consoles, all the smart TV's, the Roku, Chromecast, and of course Android and iOS. It's not on the Apple TV. That alone renders the ATV worthless here. The other big services here are Amazon Instant Video, Netflix, 4OD, Demand 5, and ITV player. So as you can imagine, the Apple TV makes zero sense to UK streamers. Personally I use a PS3, as it has all the main UK services, plus some smaller ones too, including a great arthouse movie service called MUBI.
  • Whilst I support your wish for and frustration at the lack of the various iplayers in the UK, I can't agree that it's useless. I use it more than standard tv for AirPlay with which you can use the bbc iplayer etc. Add to that podcasts iTunes etc I wouldn't be without it! Sent from the iMore App
  • The price of watching Tv I the UK is ridicules. My mother paid £30+ per month. I bought my mother the iPad mini and Apple TV. Now she can stream all the broadcast channels from her ipad. Her TV is essentially a big screen output for her ipad. Much more convenient and pays for itself within a few months.
  • You could have made your mother's life far more convenient by just buying her a Roku. It has all the UK catchup services built right in, so has no need for a master device to drive it.
  • Less money but not really as convenient. She can use the iPad to watch stuff where ever she is and only turns on the big screen to get a "tv" experience. The ipad is the principal player here. I could say more but I think it's enough to say that Apple has done a superb job to make technology to get out of the way, between grandmother and grandkids.
  • I'm disagree that it isn't useful without the channel lineup outside the U.S. I'm in Sweden and have an AppleTV 2nd gen in each of my kids' rooms for Shared Library streaming and AirPlay'ing content from iOS apps. I won't replace those unless they lose functionality.
  • I've heard the airplay argument before but it really doesn't hold any water. Why should you have to use two devices when one should do? You don't need to tie up your phone or tablet to stream from a Roku or a Fire TV (for example). Apple should either give the Apple TV an app store, or support it properly in countries which aren't called America. Take a look at the Apple TV page on various international Apple sites. The difference in app availability between America and other territories is astounding.
  • Oh, I'm in total agreement for equal content access internationally. We pay more than Americans for Apple hardware and get access to less software and services. I'm still waiting for iTunes Radio, can't try out Beats, don't get TV shows in iTunes. I use an alternate AppleID I created for the US store but that leads to a messy library and most of the US AppleTV apps are useless without activation and some flat out block non-US ip's. All those concessions, I still love the added value and convenience AppleTV brings for the aforementioned, as well as OS X extended desktop and mirroring. Not useless.
  • Since Apple is in the game to make money it only makes sense for them to concentrate their marketing and programming to the most populated markets doesn't it? Expecting Apple to devote resources to minimally financially productive markets is unrealistic and if you thought this was what you were getting I suspect you did not do your research and/or ask the right questions. So I would think you would be happy to get the programming that is available or I suppose you could go to one of the other providers offering more of what you want. And that would be who?
  • Wow, what a charmer. Classy stuff. By your rationale then, only America is profitable, as Apple have put next to zero effort into the Apple TV in every other territory. Funny how other streaming TV providers, such as Microsoft with their xboxes, Sony with their PlayStations, Nintendo with their Wiis, Roku, Amazon, Western Digital, Google, and many smart TV makers have all managed to secure plenty of European specific content. Only one company hasn't, and that company is Apple. I guess there is some money to be made from us worthless foreigners afterall.
  • Bite me you whiney English fag. I don't give a fuck if you ever watch television again. If those other services are so great shut the fuck up and go watch them and stop bitching about Apple TV. If Apple does not meet your needs I have a big news flash for you. They don't have to and they don't owe you an explanation. By the way, your comparison of all the companies you listed is like comparing apples and oranges as none of the companies provide the kind of content that Apple does. If they did you would not be complaining about not getting that content from Apple as you would happily be getting from one of them. Are you really that astoundingly stupid? Seems so. You appear to have made a carrier out of writing about this but I choose to do other things so your future bitching will go unnoticed by me. So long jerk.
  • I'm still enjoying my 3rd Gen Apple TV with Netflix and streaming movies from my Mac and the all the channels they've added over the past year. Looking forward to a 4th Generation. Sent from the iMore App
  • I'm ready to replace my 2nd gen ATV, a choice made easier since it was the last model that could be jailbroken, and therefore can be sold on eBay for almost double the retail price of a new one. The main thing holding me back is knowing how this device is way overdue for a major update, with the last minor revision over a year and a half ago.
  • I'm glad you made a comment about the 2nd gen resale value! I checked Ebay UK and some are selling north of £200. I have three so it'd be silly not to upgrade if a new one is announced.
  • Note that it's worth more if the software is pre v.5.1. That makes the difference between a tethered and untethered jailbreak.
  • I sold my 2nd-gens on eBay long ago for a nice profit, and replaced them with 3rd-gens.
  • It seems that the way things are lining up that Apple getting its house in order to release a new model of their Apple TV box. Which would make a lot of sense as the Gen3 is now a little long on enamel. I'd love to see that be Cook's "One More Thing" next month. Sent from the iMore App
  • I'm happy with my second gen AppleTV. I use it mostly to stream video from a server in another room and to watch YouTube not much else.
  • Yay I just updated. 3rd gen here Sent from the iMore App
  • When I bought the 3rd gen model, I was kind of disappointed with myself as it seemed like a stupid move given that it looked (and mostly worked) exactly the same as the 2nd gen I already owned. Now I'm feeling like the smartest person on the block. I am pretty pissed off about the fact that iOS 8 killed Internet radio on the AppleTV (the ten second crash thingie). I know not many people listen to Internet radio, but if you do, being without it is a drag. Apple better include a fix for it soon or I'm gonna have to go out and buy an actual "radio" radio or a ghetto blaster or something.
  • 3rd gen user here. I like my AppleTV, but I just don't understand why they don't make an app store for it. I hate having to spin up another device (or airplay from my phone) to watch things on Amazon Prime or other services.
  • App store is probably on their roadmap. Amazon Prime, maybe not. I don't think Bezos wants to pay any royalties to Apple. Look at how you can't buy any books on the Kindle app.
  • I have a 2nd Gen ATV and use it primarily for Netflix, Occationally to rent a movie via iTunes (But that is expensive) and to stream media from a Mac that I have set up as a media server. I am looking forward to a 4th Gen unit to replace this one on my main TV and move the 2nd Gen unit to a bedroom TV.
  • I currently have an old wdtv player which honestly tops almost anything out now in terms of playing my large local content library. And it does subs, darn near every format, 1080p perfect. I have a xbox 360 for netflix and other stuff. If i were buying a new device Apple wouldn't be my first choice. I think they need like an app store and a whole lot more functions and i'm not talking about simply more ways to buy stuff from itunes. i mean features. Also, couldn't give a toss about games on it.
  • There would have to be a pretty big feature added (such as third-party apps) to make me want to upgrade to the AppleTV 4. Right now, my AppleTV 2 works great for our wants.
  • I just bought an Apple TV. I've been waiting for a new one to come out but it's been years so I just gave up and bought it. Sent from the iMore App
  • I've been waiting and waiting and waiting for an updated TV and i'm getting a little tired of waiting. I'm giving it until WWDC of next year and then I'll upgrade. I don't know why I decided that but I think it has something to do with whether Apple will roll-out a API or dev package for it. If so, WWDC might be the best time to do it. However, now that we've seen the WATCH release, they rolled out WatchKit with it. So I don't know.
    It just feels really wasteful to upgrade to a new TV if a new one might be within a year away. Not to mention there's really nothing wrong with the one we have. It streams just fine and never hiccups. And the fact that the 3.0 and 3.1 models have very little changes from what I already have. Sure mine is 720p, but i don't really notice the difference between that and watching a BD. The only thing wrong with it now is the slew of channels and a very tired UI.
    Every time they updated the previous versions I increasingly get more impatient for a 4.0 release. New UI, remote and App store Please!!!
  • You can cut down on the unwanted channels by simply hiding them in Settings.
  • I already do, duh...
    I keep my apps down to about one screen's worth, besides the immovable top shelf apps.
  • Still sticking with my 2nd gen till its dead. Hell, I can't even remember the last time I updated it. Maybe one day I'll go for a 3rd gen or whatever happens next but right now I see no reason. I'm fine with Netflix and Hulu Plus as well as some XBMC since I jailbroke it.
  • You might want to hang on to it. Yours is the last model that has been jailbroken. Two newer models have come out in the last two years and so far no jailbreak for those.
  • I've got a 2nd and a 3rd gen ATV however even though mine is the A1469 model it still doesn't work with the peer to peer facility. Reading the various support pages this is a common finding although there appears to be many inconsistencies across all recent Apple updates with features coming and going in a totally random manner! Sent from the iMore App
  • I have a 3rd Generation Apple TV that I got late last year. What are the new features? I'm confused Sent from the iMore App
  • Make sure to do a restart after installing the update. Sent from the iMore App
  • I've restarted, reset and tried numerous permutations to no avail, which seems to be a common experience! Sent from the iMore App
  • If you mean new features with the software update, all you get is a slightly restyled UI and a Beats app.
  • I think Peer to peer will be a niche loss at best but not getting new channels moving forward is not good for second gen owners. Sent from the iMore App
  • Have been waiting since spring for a new Apple TV
    Waiting for a new iMac as well Retired and want to display all the stuff on my old iMac Sent from the iMore App
  • I would like for Apple to do what Google did with the (really crappy) Google TV box of which I was stupid enough to buy. Have two HDMI ports, one "in" and one "out" – that way I don't have to switch inputs. I can then easily switch back and forth between using my Apple TV and using my Cable Box. Then I only have to switch inputs when I want to watch a Blu-ray. It would also be more useful if they ever decide to add FaceTime calling, I can watch something on Cable and still get notified of the call on Apple TV.
  • Like Peter, I'll wait till spring for rumors of an upgrade to apple TV. Then the 2 will move to another hookup.