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What is Apple TV?

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. Let’s start with the basics!

Apple TV basics

Apple TV 4K

The Apple TV is a streaming media device, a.k.a. a set-top box, a squarish device that’s designed to sit by your TV and provide content. You connect it to your TV with an HDMI cable, and to your home’s wireless network; then you can use Apple’s 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 Stick and the Roku Premiere.

Available Apple TV devices

There are currently two different Apple TV models for sale, the Apple TV HD and Apple TV 4K. Both come with an Apple TV remote that holds microphones for Siri, a touchpad for navigating, and buttons for controlling volume, menus, and more. But the Apple TV 4K is the more advanced model, and we recommend it if you’re considering a purchase.

Apple TV HD

This is a 32GB model that includes an HDMI 1.4 connection, USB-C port for serving, Ethernet connection, and 802.11ac Wi-Fi support with MU-MIMO compatibility. It uses an A8, 64-bit processing chip. As the name indicates, it can support up to 1080p video formats and up to 60fps with the right H.264 video standard.

Apple TV 4K

Externally, the 4K version of the Apple TV looks very similar to the HD version. Inside, there are several important differences: The HDMI port has been updated to support the 2.0a standard, and dual-band Wi-Fi support has been added. The processor has been updated to an A10X Fusion chip for faster performance. This model supports up to 2160p resolution and 60fps, as well as Dolby Vision and HDR10 for improved video quality. You also have the option to bump up storage to 64GB, if you like storing movies or games on the Apple TV itself.

Apps and compatibility

Apple TV
Jeffery Van Camp/Digital Trends

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 so on, as well as larger platforms like Sling TV, Spectrum, and AT&T TV. 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.

Controls and interface

Apple TV controls are easy to master through the simple remote, although the touchpad may take a little getting used to. Apple TV can also sense your remote’s position, so you can move it around as a cursor by waving the remote, although this can be a bit unreliable. 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, apply updates, and other straightforward tasks.

Apple’s own TV app user interface has an especially friendly design that evokes Netflix, with options to resume watching content and recommendations for what to watch next (it’s a pity the home screen doesn’t look as good). 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, although many big apps like Netflix and YouTube still aren’t supported. 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

Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

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

Amazon Prime Video on Apple TV
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

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.

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 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.

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 and newer iPads. This is primarily a background activity done via iCloud, but it’s nice to know that it’s there.

Apple TV vs. Apple TV+

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 a free year of Apple TV+ when you buy an Apple TV. Otherwise, it’s $5 per month.

Future Apple TVs

You may be asking yourself, “With the Apple TV app available on all my devices, do I really need an Apple TV device? I already have a smart TV, after all.” This line of thought is why some wonder if Apple will continue its line of Apple TV devices. Rumors suggest that a sixth-generation Apple TV device is on its way, one that includes more storage for Apple Arcade games, a revamped Kids mode, and updated processors to handle more complex tasks, maybe even something similar to an Apple TV game console. But until it does, who knows? We’ll keep you updated if this develops further.

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