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Consumers have never had more choice when it comes to streaming devices than they do right now. Roku, Amazon Fire Stick, and Google Chromecast have made it easy to cut the cord, bringing the world of digital media to the masses. Oddly the underdog in the market, Apple TV, was also first on the scene. Launched in 2006, Apple TV was a revolutionary streaming media box that served as an entertainment hub long before the masses knew they needed it.
Now over a decade since its launch, Apple TV has been overtaken in the market by its cheaper competition, but a recent relaunch with new and improved features looks to change that. Here’s what’s new with Apple TV and what you need to know before buying one.
What is Apple TV?
Apple TV is a set-top media center for your home TV that allows you to stream video, music, and entertainment content. Once upon a time, watching a movie meant popping in a DVD, but with Apple TV, you can access almost millions of hours of content without ever leaving your sofa. The device currently comes in three models, starting at $149. The most basic Apple TV only provides a standard 1080p high-definition picture, while the two more expensive models have 4K HDR output.
Each model gives you access to a massive library of streaming services, including Amazon Prime, HBO Now, Hulu, DirecTV Now, and more. Most importantly, it’s one of the easiest to use media centers on the market thanks to Apple’s straightforward design philosophy. If you value simplicity over affordability, Apple TV is an obvious choice.
How does Apple TV work?
Apple TV, like all streaming media centers, requires an internet connection to work. You connect the device to your TV through its HDMI port. When you first turn on your Apple TV, the system will automatically walk you through the setup process. You’ll enter your Apple ID, the same one you use on your iPhone or iPad if you have one, which automatically connects the device to your Apple account. If you don’t have one, you’ll make one.
Once you’re set up, it’s time to visit the Apple TV Store to select your favorite streaming services. There are thousands of services in the store, from Netflix to Showtime Anytime to Crunchyroll and everything in between. Longtime Apple users can even access their purchases from iTunes on the service, including music, movies, and TV shows. Most streaming channels require you to have a subscription to access them, but there are free movie-streaming sites like Crackle for folks on a budget.
If you’re looking for a live TV streaming option, Apple TV has you covered. It supports many of the leading streaming online TV services, including Hulu With Live TV, YouTube TV, PS Vue, FuboTV, Sling TV. In fact, you can get your Apple TV for free through DirecTV Now if you sign up for three months of service starting at $35/mo. That’s still cheaper than just buying a new Apple TV, and there’s no long-term contract.
Apple TV comes with Siri voice controls similar to those found on Amazon Fire and some Roku devices. Users can navigate their content by pressing the microphone button on their Apple TV remote and requesting the app or movie they want to see. You can even use this feature to get recommendations for Apple TV. Ask “what should I watch tonight,” and it will show you popular program from the apps you have installed. Siri will even help answer trivia questions like “what movies did Hugh Grant make in the ’90s?”
Finally, Apple TV also works as a game system, thanks to its A10X Fusion chip. While you’re limited to what’s in the App Store, there’s a surprisingly broad catalog of titles from Rayman to Sonic the Hedgehog to choose from. These games can be played by connecting a Bluetooth controller to the device. Your Apple TV will never take the place of an Xbox or PlayStation, but it’s an excellent middle ground.
How much does Apple TV cost?
Apple TV currently comes in three flavors. The most basic version is the $149 Apple TV, which comes with 32GB of storage for content and provides a crisp 1080p high-definition picture. Then there’s the Apple TV 4K line. The low-end Apple TV 4K comes with 32GB of storage and costs $179. Finally,the 64GB Apple TV 4K model costs $199.
Don’t pick up the standard Apple TV. Even if you only have a standard HD TV, at some point in the future, you’re going to upgrade. The $30 you save today is money you’ll spend some other time to get a new set. As for which model of Apple TV 4K you should buy, it comes down to how often you download vs. stream content. 4K file sizes are enormous, but if you don’t buy that many movies, storage won’t be a significant problem.
As for the Apple TVs guts, the 4K model is obviously more powerful, packing an A10X Fusion chip, Gigabit Ethernet port, 802.11ac Wi‑Fi with MIMO, simultaneous dual-band (2.4GHz and 5GHz), and Bluetooth 5.0. The standard Apple TV, on the other hand, comes with an A8 Fusion chip, 10/100BASE-T Ethernet port, 802.11ac Wi‑Fi with MIMO, and Bluetooth 4.0. That might sound like a bunch of gibberish, but those specs make a big difference.
Apple TV update
The biggest change to the Apple TV universe is the introduction of models that can provide a 4K picture and high-dynamic range (HDR). These features combine to bring you some of the highest quality pictures on the market. Even better, unlike some of Apple TVs competitors, you can use Siri voice search to find movies and shows in 4K instead of hunting around menus for them. (It’s important to note that you’ll need a TV that supports 4K and HDR to tell the difference. A 1080p TV will still show a 1080p image.)
Also, while we’ve already mentioned it, Siri search is one of the best voice search options on the market. Even if you’ve grown weary of Siri’s quirks on your phone, the service is remarkably useful on Apple TV. Siri can pull up movies, songs, and even games. It can even control the smart devices in your home if you’re living in a connected household.
Apple is also heavily betting on 4K in a way that’s rewarding longtime users. Users with a preexisting online Apple movie library will find that their old HD movies have been enhanced to 4K where available—free of charge. That doesn’t mean that if you buy an HD movie today, it’ll automatically upgrade to 4K. Still, for longtime Apple TV users, it’s a nice incentive to upgrade.
Apple TV app
Apple’s TV app is a way to browse content from over 60 of the most significant video services without ever having to switch apps. When you fire up the Apple TV app, it will show you a slideshow of movies and programs based on your viewing habits. The app remembers where you left off, so if you’re watching a show on your phone and switch to your TV, you can pick right back up. One of the most prominent adjustments after cutting the cord is getting used to no longer being able to channel surf. With the TV App, you get one of the best compromises on the market.
How does Apple TV stack up against the competition?
Apple TV vs. Roku
Apple TV and Roku have both recently gone through hardware updates, and Roku is the clear winner for all but the most ardent Apple disciples. The base level Apple TV will set you back $149 but doesn’t include 4K. But you can get a 4K Roku Streaming Stick+ for $69.99. A 4K Apple TV starts at $179. Both services come with voice search and a massive library of channels. Siri might be better than Roku’s search, but the difference isn’t worth $100 extra dollars for a 4K picture. That said, Apple TV has a slightly easier to understand interface than Roku.
Apple TV vs. Amazon Fire Stick TV
When comparing Apple TV to the Amazon streaming Fire devices, the question is the same as with Roku. Do you want to pay a premium for Apple service? A 4K-ready Amazon Fire Stick costs $69.99 and includes voice search. Meanwhile, Apple TVs base model is over twice as much without offering a 4K picture. Amazon’s Alexa voice search is just as good as Apple’s Siri, so that feature doesn’t enter consideration. Apple TV has a much more intuitive a system than Amazon’s devices, but not so much that most people will pay over $100 more for a menu.
Is Apple TV worth it?
There is a market for Apple TV, but it isn’t the standard streaming viewer. Buying an Apple TV means paying a premium for Apple’s system, even if you could get similar service cheaper somewhere else. Dedicated Apple fans might be able to make that choice, but your average viewer isn’t going to find these features worth the cost. If you’re already heavily invested in Apple’s content store, you might be able to make up for the price difference in upgraded 4K movies. But those users will be few and far between. Apple TV is an incredible device. It’s too bad there are so many other options out there that provide comparable service for significantly less.
John-Michael Bond is a tech reporter and culture writer for Daily Dot. A longtime cord-cutter and early adopter, he's an expert on streaming services (Hulu with Live TV), devices (Roku, Amazon Fire), and anime. A former staff writer for TUAW, he's knowledgeable on all things Apple and Android. You can also also find him regularly performing standup comedy in Los Angeles.