We’ve pointed out that Apple’s strategy of placing its Apple TV app, plus technologies like AirPlay 2 and HomeKit on competitors’ smart TVs and media streamers means that there’s less and less need for an actual Apple TV set-top box.
And throughout 2020 so far, there hasn’t been even a suggestion from the company that it intends to launch a sixth-generation Apple TV this year. But, as they say, never say never.
From gaming to fitness, to home automation, there are still a lot of reasons why Apple might want to reinvent its little black box for the next decade of in-home (and in-hotel) TV-based experiences.
Here’s what we think Apple could announce in the not-so-distant future.
What’s missing from the Apple TV 4K?
Before we dive into the future, let’s quickly recap where we are now.
While the Apple TV 4K is a great streamer — especially for heavy Apple users — there are some flaws to address. For one thing, without a USB-A port, there’s no way to access movies, photos, or music on an external hard drive. While it’s easy to send such data from an iPhone or iPad via AirPlay 2, all other content must come from supported apps or a computer running iTunes on your home network.
The new Roku Ultra (2020) has a USB port, which suggests that even in a streaming-centric universe, there’s still a demand for this option.
The Apple TV has Siri and HomeKit built-in, which in theory should help it act as a central hub for controlling a multitude of devices, but that promise falls short when it comes to home theater gear. Unlike the Amazon Fire TV Cube, which can send a variety of commands via IR or HDMI-CEC to soundbars, A/V receivers, and cable or satellite boxes, the Siri remote can only be customized for volume control.
What will a 2020 Apple TV cost?
Thefor the 32GB version, and that bumps up to $200 for the 64GB edition. The Roku Ultra, by contrast, can be on Amazon, while the is just $50, if you’re prepared to forego a USB port and the private listening remote.
Indeed, except for Nvidia’s pricey Shield TV streamers, every other player has been scaling down their prices. Google’s $50 Chromecast with Google TV is the most recent example, sporting an impressive array of features — including forthcoming Stadia support.
Those are some big price differences. Apple has never shied away from being the most expensive option when it comes to its products, and it has defended this practice by consistently offering a top-notch physical device, with superbly thought-out software. But the TV landscape is changing, and so are people’s expectations. It would be surprising to see a low-cost stick-style Apple TV, but if ever there was a time for Apple to make such a move, it would be now.
In the past, Apple hasn’t had a lot of opportunities to subsidize the cost of Apple TVs. With only a relatively small share of in-app purchase revenue, and its iTunes rentals and purchases, it needs a way to make more recurring revenue as motivation to bring the price of the devices down.
Roku, for instance, sells advertising throughout its experience, which propelled it to over a billion dollars in revenue in 2019.
Apple will likely resist the lure of advertising dollars a little longer, especially now that it has Apple One, its multi-tiered subscription service bundles.
Apple One’s Premier tier costs $40 per month and includes Apple TV-centric services like Apple TV+, Apple Arcade, and Apple Fitness+. When Sling TV debuted on the Apple TV, the company offered to reduce the price of the 32GB Apple TV 4K model to $89 if subscribers agreed to pre-pay for three months of Sling. Giving Apple One customers a heavily subsidized or free Apple TV for the same level of commitment would make a lot of sense as a way of getting folks to try out Apple’s services.
A MoCA connection
Hotels and other hospitality venues often use MoCA (Multimedia over Coax), a cable-based networking standard, instead of Ethernet or Wi-Fi. As the name implies, it offers a way to stream secure audio and video across an ordinary coaxial cable — the kind you get from your cable company.
Apple TVs have cropped up in hotel rooms across the country, which rely on the device’s ease of use and familiar interface to entice vacationers to part with their dollars after a long day of sightseeing. Adding support via a coax cable port on the next-gen Apple TV would make Apple’s gadget much easier for these businesses to install and maintain. And being able to access your Apple streaming services when away from home is central to Apple’s long-term strategy.
A Siri that listens
Poor Siri. The way the “intelligent assistant” has been implemented by Apple on its various devices, you’d swear she has a split personality. Siri’s capabilities vary greatly from one device to another, and that needs to change.
The next Apple TV will likely let you summon Siri using just your voice via far-field microphones — e.g., “Hey, Siri!” That said, we expect the microphone button will remain on the remote for those who prefer manual control. In addition to Siri’s current Apple TV skills, the AI could be given a much-needed IQ boost, putting it at least on par with the iPhone. Just how different are the two platforms currently? Check out this comparison from Macworld. Apple TV does not shine very often.
In May, we reported on the details of a potential Apple TV 4K refresh, with information provided by tech analyst Jon Prosser. He tweeted, “New Apple TV 4K with A12X – 64GB/128GB ready to ship. Code name: Neptune T1125. Another one of those things that could drop any time.”
Assuming that Prosser was right about the specs, it’s a confirmation that Apple’s revamped set-top box will be considerably more powerful than the original Apple TV 4K, which debuted in 2017 and has never received a hardware refresh.
The Apple-designed A12X processor that Prosser references is the brain inside the 2018 iPad Pro, and it’s a powerhouse of a chip. A sixth-generation Apple TV with that CPU would be notably faster, with improvements in everything from speech recognition (voice commands) to launching apps. The main improvement, however, would be to the games within Apple Arcade, Apple’s subscription gaming service, which was added to the Apple TV in 2019.
At present, all account sign-ins, iTunes purchases, and so on are done through the terrible on-screen keyboard, or via an iOS device using the Remote app. We thought that might change with the launch of the Apple TV 4K, thanks to the late 2017 discovery by Patently Apple of a patent on the use of biometric sensors in a handheld remote, but alas it didn’t make the cut.
The diagram included with the patent (seen at the left) depicts the sensor as “a single control element” on a remote pointed at a TV. Apple actually specified that these visual representations are examples only and that the patent covers “any remote control device that is capable of transmitting instructions to [an] electronic device.”
Given the patent, we could see a fingerprint scanner included on future Apple TV remotes, which may also control Apple HomeKit. Since HomeKit acts as a hub to control compatible smart home devices, you could theoretically use a remote with such a scanner to control those devices as well. Including a fingerprint scanner adds another level of security for better, safer home control.
The Siri remote could also be given a find-my-remote feature thanks to the anticipated AirTags feature Apple is expected to launch.
Your iPhone is your passport
If a fingerprint scanner on the remote would make it easier to authenticate yourself at home, what about when you’re away? The current Apple TV 4K and its HD sibling already make excellent use of iOS devices at home to make the initial setup fast and easy. But why stop there? With its built-in biometric security and all of your stored credentials and passwords, your iPhone is like a digital passport.
The next Apple TV could be configured to automatically check for the presence of a compatible iPhone (or potentially Android phone) and then prompt the user to authenticate. As an example, let’s say you’re over at your friend’s house (or at a hotel). They have an Apple TV, but unlike you, they don’t have an HBO subscription.
When they turn on their Apple TV, it recognizes your phone and asks you to use it, e.g. “Welcome Simon. Would you like to access your subscriptions on this Apple TV for the next four hours? Use the TouchID on your phone to authorize this.” Naturally, there would be a way to prevent this from happening, and a way to change the time limit, likely with a 24-hour maximum to avoid the abuse of subscription sharing.
Jon Prosser’s original tweets suggested that we could see the new Apple TV “any time,” but as the year heads to a close, the chance that Apple will debut a new model before 2021 is steadily declining. A report earlier this year from Bloomberg suggests the timing of this new model may be further out than Prosser had originally guessed.
According to the new report, “[…] that device might not ship until next year, according to people familiar with its development.” That timing would miss the all-important holiday season.
If it’s true that a new model is on its way, but won’t hit store shelves until the new year, Apple may choose not to discuss it in 2020 for fear of affecting holiday sales of the current models. After all, why would people buy a 2017 model when the 2020 model is possibly only a few weeks away?
Apple’s next event kicks off later today — here’s how to watch it. We’ll be paying close attention for any hits (or outright mentions) of new Apple TV hardware and we’ll update you if and when there’s more news to share.