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HDMI 2.1 and A14x: The next Apple TV could be a powerhouse for gamers

Apple TV Review
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

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.

But the Apple TV 4K is rapidly coming up on its four-year anniversary — a relative eternity in technology terms — which makes us increasingly convinced that 2021 will be the year that Apple updates its distinctive little black box.

What could Apple do to the Apple TV to keep it a relevant and desirable product going forward?

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 lack of a USB port on the Apple TV hasn’t gotten in the way of low-bandwidth wireless peripherals like Bluetooth keyboards or game controllers, but it has meant that there’s no way to connect a webcam. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that video calling should be considered an essential service. The ability to use FaceTime from an Apple TV on the biggest screen in the house just seems like an obvious new feature.

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 infrared or HDMI-CEC to soundbars, A/V receivers, and cable or satellite boxes, the Siri remote can only be customized for volume control.

Speaking of the Siri remote, it’s remarkable how one little device can be so controversial. Those who dislike it really dislike it, and it’s mainly because of the touchpad. For some, it can be an infuriatingly inaccurate way to navigate, and it wouldn’t surprise us to see Apple offer a more traditional option that blends the Siri remote’s onboard accelerometer with a classic four-way direction pad for navigation.

What’s next for the Apple TV?

Given this current state, there are a number of ways Apple could enhance the Apple TV to keep it on shoppers’ lists. Here are the features we think Apple is working on.

HDMI 2.1 and 4K gaming

The latest rumors (prompted by references to 4K/120Hz found in tvOS 14.5 beta) point to a full adoption of the HDMI 2.1 specification in the next Apple TV. This would bring support for variable refresh rate (VRR), auto low-latency mode (ALLM), and 4K/120Hz, all of which are key for higher-performance gaming, but also better, smoother video quality in general.

The majority of 2021 4K TVs will also support HDMI 2.1, which makes this a very logical move on Apple’s part, especially if the company hopes to expand its reach with gamers via Apple Arcade — which it certainly appears to be trying to do.

Almost no movies use the higher frame rates supported by 120Hz, but sports content will be much-improved thanks to the smoothness and realism of 120Hz.

A MoCA connection

Hotels and other hospitality venues often use MoCA (Multimedia over Coaxial Alliance), 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, and they 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 enabling people to access their 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 — i.e., “Hey, Siri!” —  but we still expect the microphone button will remain on the remote for those who prefer manual control.

The Fire TV Cube has had hands-free voice commands for several years, and LG’s 2020 OLED TVs are equipped with far-field microphones for the same reason. Despite abandoning the HomePod, Apple is still very much committed to hands-free Siri via the HomePod mini — it would make a lot of sense to see this embedded in the next Apple TV.

In addition to Siri’s current Apple TV skills, the A.I. 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.

More power

In May 2020, 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.”

Other observers have said they expect the next Apple TV could even have “A14x-like” power. If these rumors are right, Apple’s revamped set-top box will be considerably more powerful than the original Apple TV 4K.

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.

Fingerprint remote

At present, all account sign-ins, iTunes purchases, and so on are done through the terrible onscreen 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 (above) 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.

Nate Barrett/Digital Trends

The next Apple TV could be configured to automatically check for the presence of a compatible iPhone (or potentially an 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, i.e., “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.

What will the next Apple TV cost?

The Apple TV 4K starts at $180 for the 32GB version, and that bumps up to $200 for the 64GB edition. The Roku Ultra, by contrast, can be picked up for less than $90 on Amazon, while the Roku Streaming Stick+ is just $50, if you’re prepared to forgo 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 Chromecast with Google TV is the most recent example — it costs just $50 despite sporting an impressive array of features, including forthcoming Stadia support. If you’re a TiVo fan, the TiVo Stream 4K is essentially the same as the Chromecast with Google TV, but with a TiVo-style remote and a few extra bells and whistles for the same price.

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.

Subsidized pricing?

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 create 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 multitiered 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.

Timing

Prosser’s original tweets suggested that we could see the new Apple TV “any time,” but that was almost a year ago. A 2020 report from Bloomberg suggested a very different timeline, one that puts a new Apple TV in stores this year.

According to that report, “[…] that device might not ship until [2021], according to people familiar with its development.”

Given that we’re now in the second quarter of 2021, and only a handful of weeks are left until Apple’s annual WWDC 2021 event, it seems unlikely that the company will announce a new Apple TV before June.

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