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What is Apple TV? The streaming device fully explained | Digital Trends

By now, you’ve surely wrapped your head around the fact that TV shows, movies, sports, and all that fun stuff no longer come into our homes solely through a coaxial cable connection or an antenna fixed to our roofs. Streaming boxes, sticks, internet-connected TVs, and other devices are the king of the hill when it comes to our entertainment, and there are few devices that deliver it as well as Apple’s ubiquitous Apple TV.

It’s been around since 2007 and has survived and grown with the latest and greatest TV tech and formats — through HD 720p all the way to the latest 4K models — as well as deep integration with its own Apple ecosystem, smart home devices, gaming, music, and much more. The most recent iteration of the Apple TV, the third-generation 4K model released in October 2022, is the best it’s ever been. But the streaming device competition is fierce, so if you’re curious about the Apple TV, you’ve come to the right place. Our guide will take you through exactly what Apple TV is and what it offers.

Apple TV basics

The Apple TV is a streaming media device, aka a set-top box, a squarish device that’s designed to sit by your TV and deliver you content. You connect it to your TV with an HDMI cable and to your home’s wireless network (or via Ethernet on some models); then you can use Apple’s tvOS platform to watch your favorite streaming apps and view a variety of online content, such as Netflix shows and streaming music. It can’t connect to your cable or satellite, but it is a potential substitute for cable and works well within the Apple ecosystem.

Competitors include the Amazon Fire TV Cube and the Roku Streaming Stick 4K. However, note there’s a difference between dongles like a Roku Streaming Stick or a Chromecast and a full set-top box like the Apple TV. The Apple TV typically has more storage than a dongle and tends to have more powerful processors inside, like the latest Apple TV’s insane A15 Bionic chip.

Recent Apple TV devices

There are currently two different Apple TV 4K models for sale officially by Apple, although a couple of older models are still frequently used and can be found with third-party sellers. Let’s take a look at recent models and how the Apple TV has been upgraded.

Apple TV HD

Originally launched in 2015, the Apple TV HD (formerly known as the fourth-generation Apple TV) was the first Apple TV to run tvOS. This was a 32GB model that included an HDMI 1.4 connection, Ethernet connection, USB-C port, and 802.11ac Wi-Fi support with MU-MIMO compatibility. It used an A8, 64-bit processing chip and was the first to include the much-criticized swipe-based touchpad remote. It was rebranded in 2019 as simply the “Apple TV HD,” but Apple discontinued this model in 2022 when new Apple TV 4K devices were introduced. It was on the market for seven years.

Apple TV 4K (first- and second-gen)

The first generation of the Apple TV 4K launched in September 2017. Externally, this 4K version of the Apple TV looked very similar to the HD version. Inside, there were several important differences: The HDMI port was updated to support the 2.0a standard and dual-band Wi-Fi support had been added. The processor was updated to an A10X Fusion chip for faster performance and supported up to 2160p resolution and 60 frames per second (fps), as well as Dolby Vision and HDR10 for improved video quality. Dolby Atmos was added with an update to tvOS 12. In 2021, it was given an upgrade to the second-generation 4K model, adding a more powerful A12 Bionic chip, Wi-Fi 6, HDMI 2.1 with ARC and eARC support, a new Siri remote, a Thread remote to support better smart home integration, and a few more improvements. Apple stopped selling this model in October 2022, when it was replaced with newer versions.

Apple TV 4K (third-gen)

In October 2022, Apple released a massively updated Apple TV 4K with two different versions to pick from. The first is a budget model sold at $129 with Wi-Fi only and 64GB of storage space. This Apple TV 4K (2022) received a new A15 Bionic chip with more power, support for HDR10+ content as well as Dolby Vision, and another updated Siri remote with USB-C charging (no more Lightning).

A second, larger 128GB version was also released, with Wi-Fi and Ethernet connectivity for a high-speed cable connection to the internet, something important for those who want the smoothest streaming and people who game a lot on the Apple TV. Thread server support is also present (more on this below) in this model as well, and for just $20 more than the 64GB version, it’s a wonder why anyone would opt for the cheaper model.

Apps and compatibility

Apple 4K TV 'Watch Now' page on a tv.

Apple TV supports more than 50 different apps and channels that you can load onto the device and sign into to watch your favorite content on your TV. That includes traditional streaming favorites like Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, HBO, YouTube, Amazon Prime Video, and so on. It also includes smaller network channels like ESPN, ABC News, CBS, and more, as well as larger platforms like Sling TV and Spectrum. If any of these services offer live TV content or streaming equivalents of cable channels, you will be able to view it with the Apple TV, too.

You also have the option to buy or rent movies and shows directly from Apple and store them on your Apple TV for easy viewing, within the limits of the device’s storage. Or you can download games from Apple Arcade and play them from your Apple TV. The Apple TV works with most Bluetooth gamer controllers, including popular controllers from PlayStation and Xbox.

Controls and interface

The Apple TV 4K user interface.

Apple TV controls are easy to master through the remote, although the old trackpad remote was a source of frustration for many users. The addition of the updated Siri remote added a smaller touch surface in the center of a directional ring so users could have the best of both worlds when it comes to navigation. You can also download the Apple TV Remote app on a mobile device and use that instead.

The home screen itself is simply a collection of apps you can enter. It’s bare-bones but also customizable, as you can move apps around to make sure your favorites are up top. This is also where you can find settings, updates, and other straightforward tasks.

Apple’s own TV app user interface has an especially friendly design that is similar to that of Netflix or many other services, with options to resume watching content and recommendations for what to watch next. You can also go to different sections for Movies, TV, Sports, Kids, or a full Library of your content — and this can connect with other popular apps like Hulu and HBO so you can see their content from the TV app. Overall, searching and switching between profiles is made very easy, and you can quickly turn off the Apple TV, your TV, and any other connected devices all at once.

Apple TV and tvOS

The Apple TV platform is called tvOS. Like iOS, iPadOS, and macOS, tvOS gets consistent updates that can improve quality, add new features, and change the appearance of the interface. Apple also likes to recommend that developers use the tvOS SDK when creating video games so they will be guaranteed to work well on your screen.

Smart capabilities

The Siri Remote in someone's hand.

Starting with that remote and its microphones for Siri, the Apple TV has a variety of smart features for greater control and automated functions. Here are some of the most important:

Siri: While it may seem strange to talk to Siri right on your remote, this actually provides a number of useful shortcuts. Commands like “play the latest episode of [your favorite show]” or “what football games are on now?” can help save a lot of time. You can also tell Siri to open individual apps, play your favorite music, browse a certain genre, and more.

AirPlay: Apple TV has AirPlay compatibility, which means you can send content from your mobile device to your TV to change where you’re watching a show without losing track, as well as share other types of content from the web, etc.

Parental restrictions: For family households, Apple TV lets you set a variety of restrictions, including blocking the ability to make purchases or access any content marked as explicit. You can also choose to filter content based on foul language, ratings, or age markers, as well as disable multiplayer gaming and location services, depending on your goals.

Family sharing: Multiple profiles don’t have to buy the same content, thanks to family sharing. When one person buys something, everyone can watch it.

Bluetooth compatibility: You can connect a keyboard, headphones, and game controllers to your Apple TV through Bluetooth to customize your experience. AirPods can automatically pair and connect, too, if you want a more private experience or to take advantage of the immersive Spatial Audio.

House hub: If you use HomeKit-compatible smart devices, Apple allows you to designate a device as a home hub to manage those smart devices in concert. This adds new automation features to the Home app, more suggestions about how to set scenes with your smart home, and generally easier controls. Apple TV is one of the devices that can be set as the home hub, along with the Apple HomePod Mini and newer iPads. This is primarily a background activity done via iCloud, but it’s nice to know that it’s there.

Thread compatibility (for the newest Apple TV 4Ks): The 2022 Apple TV 4Ks also support Thread. Part of the Matter protocol for smart home compatibility, Thread essentially makes it more secure to connect to compatible smart devices around your home, with less chance of dropped connections. If you like using your Apple TV to control smart devices with, say, Siri commands, it’s a great feature to have.

Apple TV versus Apple TV+

The Apple TV Plus home screen with Black Bird.

In case you’ve been living under a pile of old cathode ray TVs, there’s also a service called Apple TV+, which understandably causes frequent confusion for newcomers. Apple TV is the device itself. Apple TV+ is a separate service that Apple offers, its own streaming service with a monthly fee and access to a variety of content, especially original Apple content and games that aren’t available anywhere else.

Apple TV+ is not required to use the Apple TV and is primarily designed for those who want to add Apple’s own content to the streaming apps they already use. However, you do get three months of Apple TV+ free when you buy an Apple TV. Otherwise, it’s $5 per month.

Future Apple TVs

Apple’s latest 2022 Apple TV 4K release wasn’t that long ago, so we don’t expect any new Apple TVs for quite some time. If you’re looking for the latest Apple TV technology, make sure to choose one of the new models, and you’ll be set!

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