What's next for the Apple TV, and when will Apple launch the fifth-generation model? Is the Apple TV a 'hobby' product, or has the company started taking television seriously?
In this article we look at the future of the Apple TV, its set-top box combining a digital media player, a games machine and a platform for apps with the ability to stream content from iOS devices and Macs to a TV. We examine the rumours and speculate on when Apple will update the device, and discuss the new hardware and software features (such as 4K and HDR, backed up by the HomePod leak) to expect from the fifth-generation Apple TV.
If you're looking for information about the fourth-gen Apple TV - the first Apple TV device to allow users to install apps - unveiled by Apple in 2015, we've got plenty of details, including pricing and the best places to buy in our Apple TV buying guide.
When will the Apple TV 5th gen be released?
A new Apple TV, capable of playing 4K content, may launch this year, according to a Bloomberg report. This fifth-generation Apple TV, codenamed J105, will also offer "more vivid" colours, according to Bloomberg's sources.
There's more weight to speculation that an Apple TV 5 is on the way thanks to developer logs spotted in March 2017 that reveal a mysterious new Apple device.
The co-founder of Firi Games spotted the new hardware, which showed up as 'AppleTV6,2' in the logs. Perhaps tellingly, the current fourth-gen Apple TV carries an 'AppleTV5,3' identifier, so this could be a logical step forward. The new device is also reportedly running tvOS 11.0, adding to speculation that this is a whole new Apple TV device.
As for when in 2017 the new Apple TV will launch, it seems most likely that a new Apple TV box would launch in September alongside new iPhones and a new iOS operating system (as it's likely that the new Apple TV will use new features in iOS 11 - you read more about iOS 11's new features here.)
The Apple TV currently sells for £139 (with 32GB of storage) or £179 (64GB). That's more than twice the price of its predecessor, which cost £59 until it was discontinued in 2016. But the newer model can do far more, adding the TV App Store and a wealth of apps. The old model's price was more in line with competing set-top boxes (we look at a number of the competitors to the Apple TV here).
As the above referenced article outlines, competing gadgets such as Amazon's Fire TV (£79.99), Google's Chromecast Ultra (£69) and Roku's Streaming Stick (£39) cost a lot less than Apple's offering. We think Apple should drop the entry price of the new model.
We predict that there will be three Apple TV boxes available at three different price points, based on the idea that Apple will offer a lower-priced entry-level model to make up for the fact that it no longer sells the third-generation model:
- 32GB £99 ($99)
- 64GB £139 ($149)
- 128GB £179 ($199)
One of Apple's customs is to continue to sell an older model as the lower priced entry level option. For that reason we anticipate that Apple may continue to sell the 2015 Apple TV as the entry-level model.
Rumoured hardware changes
While we don't expect that the box itself will look any different, there will be a number of changes to the components inside in order for the new box to offer 4K support. We outline these below:
There has been some criticism that the current Apple TV isn't capable of supporting 4K video, especially given that the iPhone 6s can shoot in 4K and other competing devices do support 4K (Amazon, Roku).
There are a number of reasons why the time wasn't right - until now - for a 4K Apple TV. To name a few: movies on iTunes being in 1080p; capacity of the Apple TV being limited to 64GB; 4K requiring the HDMI 2.0 standard - some 4K TVs don't even support that and the current Apple TV only offers HDMI 1.4.
But this all looks likely to change. The Bloomberg report mentioned above claims that Apple had been testing a 4K-capable Apple TV for possible release this year, and further evidence since then backs this up.
4K HDR Apple TV? CONFIRMED! ?? pic.twitter.com/nBKg022A4B— Guilherme Rambo (@_inside) August 5, 2017
Rambo followed up with the additional information that the Apple TV will support the Dolby Vision standard as well as basic HDR10, and offered a glimpse of Hybrid Log Gamma into the bargain:
Finally, following a lead from its forums, MacRumors has confirmed that certain films on iTunes have started listing as "4K, HDR" in users' purchase history. (The information may be region-specific at present, since the same films have been observed with and without this label in different territories.)
This hefty pile of evidence suggests that Apple is gearing up for a push on 4K - following the hire in February of Timothy Twerdahl, who headed the team in charge of the (4K-capable) Amazon Fire TV - and that the 5th-gen Apple TV will support 4K and a range of HDR standards.
Will it have a bigger hard drive?
If Apple offers 4K capabilities in the new Apple TV then an increased storage allocation seems likely. We anticipate that Apple will add a higher-capacity model to the line-up, while bringing down the prices of the existing models.
We expect that Apple will add a 128GB offering, but it is conceivable that a 256GB version could be added. Mind you, we suspect that Apple's customers don't need so much, since they are streaming content and storing content in iCloud.
Will the 5th-gen Apple TV have a faster processor?
Another requirement of a 4K Apple TV would be a faster processor. Apple's current Apple TV uses the A8 chip, which was launched with the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus in September 2014. We expect that Apple will use a newer chip in the new Apple TV; the A10 Fusion, introduced with the iPhone 7, would be a good contender.
Will it support AirPods with Siri?
It is possible to use Bluetooth headphones with the Apple TV, but there are some limitations as to how many Bluetooth devices can be paired, especially if one of them is an audio accessory. You can at least pair the Apple AirPods - and although at the moment it doesn't happen automatically over iCloud as with the iPhone and other iOS devices, automatic pairing is on the way with tvOS 11.
Unfortunately you can't activate Siri on the Apple TV via the AirPods - something we imagine will change in future updates.
Will Apple make its own game controller?
Apple currently offers the Siri Remote with the Apple TV. There have been calls for Apple to make its own controller for gaming on the Apple TV, especially as some gamers feel that the games available for the Apple TV are hampered by Apple's insistence that games work with the Siri Remote, but it is unlikely that Apple would develop its own controller.
While the hardware may not be overhauled, we expect that there will be significant improvements on the software side. The current software is laying the foundation for the future of the Apple TV, according to CEO Tim Cook; he made the following remarks in Apple's Q3 2016 conference call to announce the company's financial results:
"The introduction of Apple TV and tvOS last October  and the subsequent OS releases and what's coming out this fall ... think of that as building the foundation for what we believe can be a broader business over time. I don't want to be more precise than that but you shouldn't look at what's there today and think we've done what we want to do. We've built a foundation that we can do something bigger off of."
One area where Apple is taking the Apple TV seems to be original content. During the Q1 2017 earnings call Cook said: "We've come a long way in a year and it gives us a platform to build off of. We are learning a lot about the original content business and thinking about ways we could play it."
We discuss what could be coming to the Apple TV software below...
tvOS is the version of iOS that works on the Apple TV. It was introduced with the Apple TV in 2015 and brought with it the Apple TV Store.
In September 2016 tvOS 10 arrived, adding a Dark Mode option to the Apple TV, along with improved Siri search, a new design for Apple Music, and added HomeKit accessory control options. Then in January 2016 tvOS 10.1 added a TV app that unified all TV shows and movies from the various apps on the Apple TV into one place.
We expect to see an update to the tvOS in September alongside iOS 11. While Apple didn't focus much on tvOS at its WWDC 2017 keynote, it did release a developer beta for the tvOS 11 update. It looks likely that whenever Apple TV 5 comes out, tvOS 11 will be out too.
Will Apple expand the TV app?
Speaking of the TV app, according to the Bloomberg report, it is a stripped-down version of what it was intended to be. The app was to be a portal for accessing a live stream of shows, but Apple's talks with content providers came to nothing.
However, Apple is now making its own shows, and the TV app will be a way for users to discover that content. (Read more about the programmes Apple is making here: Apple's streaming and video-on-demand service plans).
The introduction of the TV app is proof that Apple wants to offer a more centralised experience for watching media, even if the content it wanted to provide isn't there yet. We expect to see more developments here. More on that below.
Will it support face recognition?
In February 2017 it was revealed that Apple had acquired a company that specialises in facial recognition. While rumours suggest that this tech could be used to unlock a future iPhone, some suggest the technology could also come to the Apple TV.
A future Apple TV could also include face recognition technology so that once your Apple TV 'sees' you it could automatically pull up your specific preferences for music, TV and - should HomeKit be integrated into the Apple TV - your IoT devices such as heating and lighting.
While it's an interesting idea, we don't think it'll be a key feature of the fifth-generation Apple TV.
What will Apple's new TV content be like?
Apple is preparing to launch some TV shows - actual original content. There is more information about the Carpool Karaoke and Planet of the Apps programmes in this article: Apple's streaming and video-on-demand plans.
Over the past few years the company had been attempting to reach agreements with a number of production companies - it was even rumoured to be considering buying Time Warner - but Apple's talks with production companies broke down, according to Bloomberg.
The company hasn't given up on the idea, and may just let others do the hard work for it. As Apple's head of services Eddy Cue said: "Whether we're providing it or somebody else is, it really doesn't matter to us. What we're trying to do is build the platform that allows anybody to get content to consumers. If a Time Warner [Cable] or a DirecTV wants to offer a bundle themselves, they should do it through Apple TV and iPad and iPhone."
Apple may have changed its tactics in providing access to content to watch on the Apple TV, but we expect it will be overhauling the way it offers content over the next few months. We anticipate a move away from the pay-per-programme and film-rental format of iTunes now that Netflix and other services offer this content to subscribers.
We expect that the new Apple TV for 2017 will pave the way for this...
Is TV still important to Apple?
With the iPhone being such a large part of Apple's business, and the Apple Watch potentially being the device that takes it into the future, could the Apple TV fall into oblivion? In the past Apple has let years pass without updating the device - could the same thing happen again? We doubt it.
As we mention above, the original Apple TV was announced in January 2007, shipping in March 2007, making this year its tenth anniversary (we think Apple could be planning a new Apple TV to celebrate this milestone). A lot has changed in the past ten years. Initially Apple referred to the Apple TV as a hobby product, but in recent years it has become a much more significant part of the business.
In fact, TV was an area of great interest to Apple's late co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs, who told his biographer Walter Isaacson: "I'd like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use... It will have the simplest interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it." The appearance of this quote in the Steve Jobs biography led to years of speculation that Apple would launch a TV set. Despite those rumours, an Apple TV set never appeared, but Apple remained interested in the area.
Apple CEO Tim Cook said in September 2014: "Think how much your life has changed, and all the things around you that have changed, and yet TV, when you go into the living room to watch TV or wherever it may be, it almost feels like you're rewinding the clock and you've entered a time capsule and you're going backwards. The interface is terrible, I mean it's awful. You watch things when they come on unless you remember to record them."
Apple's first move to reinvent the TV came with the release of the updated Apple TV in 2015, and with it tvOS and the TV App Store. Over the months that have followed Apple has provided some software updates to users, but no new hardware... yet.
That doesn't mean Apple's given up on it: the hire of former Amazon Fire TV chief Timothy D Twerdahl indicates that TV is still an important area for Apple. Twerdahl is the new vice-president in charge of Apple TV. He was previously the head of Amazon's Fire TV unit, and before that held executive positions at both Roku and Netflix, so he has plenty of experience when it comes to streaming TV services.
However, a Bloomberg report claims that Apple has had to make many compromises that mean it is unable to fulfil Steve Jobs' dream of reinventing the television, or CEO Tim Cook's ambition to transform the way we watch TV.