The Apple TV 4K is coming up on its second anniversary. Two years isn’t necessarily old age for an Apple product, and it certainly holds up well against its rivals. With support for Dolby Vision and Atmos, and all the cool enhancements coming to tvOS 13 this fall, it’s arguably the most capable streaming box around. That said, it’s very much a continuation of the old line—it looks and operates like the 4th generation Apple TV, released almost four years ago.
That doesn’t mean there’s no room for improvement. Apple’s pushing hard into streaming content, enabling you to subscribe to other providers from within the TV app with the new Channels feature and launching its own subscription service, Apple TV+. Between streaming video and HomePod, Apple’s spending billions on the living room; it’s clearly very important, and that’s why we think it’s time to reexamine its streaming hardware.
The Apple TV HD and 4K are fantastic streaming devices, but they have, hands-down, the worst remote in the business. Worse than any other streaming box, worse than any cable box, worse than any stereo equipment you’ve ever used. The Siri Remote is Exhibit A for every argument that Apple is concerned with form over function.
A remote is meant to be held in your hand, but the Apple TV remove is too short and too flat to fit comfortably. A remote is meant to be used while looking at your TV, but Apple’s is so symmetrical, buttons are so similar to each other, that it’s almost impossible to blindly tell which way you’re holding it or which button you’re pressing.
The touchpad was a nice idea, but in practice it makes the interface harder to use, not easier. The tiny size and our limited thumb precision means that you’ll often overshoot your intended destination and have to swipe back a bit, which takes longer and feels like failure.
I don’t think the Apple TV remote should be loaded with buttons like so many others are, nor go overboard with a power-hungry built-in display. The current feature set (including accelerometer) is fine. Just replace the touchpad with a four-direction pad and select button in the center, similar to the second-generation aluminum Apple TV remote. Make the remote a little longer, and ergonomically curved to fit in your hand in one obvious direction. And make the buttons feel distinct enough under your thumb to know which one you’re pressing without looking at it.
Redesign the box, too
The Apple TV box doesn’t look bad, but the design hasn’t change in ages. Apple’s design language in general is overdue for a refresh, but while we lament the lack of “fun” throughout most of Apple’s lineup, a box that sits in your entertainment center, right in your line of sight, should probably not draw attention to itself.
Black is the obvious color choice for TV gear, as it fades out of sight, especially in a darkened room. Just take the glossy finish and make it matte instead.
The overall size of the Apple TV box is fine too, but I would prefer it to be wider and flatter—about 40 percent longer along each edge and half as tall, giving it the same volume. This will make it easier to slip on top of or in-between our other TV gear, or at least less conspicuous on a shelf.
A hub you can talk to
There may be a very good reason not to make the box wider and thinner, though: it could be a wonderful little mini HomePod. Apple has no answer to the Google Home Mini and Amazon Echo Dot, and piggybacking off its comparatively popular home streaming box may be the best way to overcome that deficit.
Optimized for using Siri with HomeKit devices, controlling your streaming experience, and of course general assistant tasks, our hypothetical Apple HomePod TV would not aim to deliver really great-sounding music. Apple could copy the outward aesthetic of the HomePod, but with without all the big speakers inside.
Picture a HomePod with a smaller diameter, just a couple inches tall, with no glowing LED array on top, and a handful of ports on the back.
The benefits to Apple are obvious—it’s another way to get Siri enmeshed in people’s lives. The benefit to users is big, too—imagine being able to say all the stuff you can say into the Apple TV remote, without picking up the remote.
The A12 SoC
The Apple TV 4K comes equipped with the A10X system-on-chip, which is more than powerful enough for a great 4K streaming box. But the Apple TV isn’t just for streaming. There are lots of useful apps, from weather and news to smart home monitors, and of course Apple is pushing gaming on your Apple TV more than ever with the coming Apple Arcade service.
Apple TV boxes also serve as a HomeKit hub, which is necessary to control your HomeKit devices from outside your home. The new HomeKit Secure Video feature coming later this year processes and encrypts video entirely on your HomeKit hub device, which means it needs a reasonably fast SoC.
Apple should upgrade the A10X to the A12 in the next Apple TV. That would give it better CPU and graphics performance along with the second-generation neural engine, which will really help with video processing on those HomeKit Secure Video cameras.
There’s no need to make the leap to the A12X found in the new iPad Pro. Sure it’s a lot faster, but it’s not still not powerful enough to compete with a PS4 Pro or Xbox One X on the gaming front, it’s overkill for the kinds of apps the Apple TV is used for, and it would surely cost a lot more.
USB-C for external storage
Apple has been improving the ability of iOS to access data from external devices, and that should carry over to tvOS and a new Apple TV, too.
Slap a USB-C port on the back and let users plug in a drive to play media from it. The Music app could access music files, and video files could be accessed by third-party video players like Plex or VLC.
Developers would surely appreciate an easier way to test and debug their apps and games, too.
This is sort of a power-user feature, but could help justify Apple’s premium price.
Practically give it away
If there’s a criticism of the Apple TV 4K, it’s that it costs too much. Apple wants $179 for the Apple TV 4K with 32GB of storage, or $199 for 64GB. Those prices aren’t bad for the hardware you get, but a Roku Ultra is $99 and a Fire TV Cube (which is also essentially an Echo device) is $119.
Apple probably can’t make an Apple TV much cheaper, not if it’s going to also be a mini HomePod and have enough power to serve as your HomeKit hub and let you play high-quality Apple Arcade games. But by the end of this year, the company will have two new, desirable services it can use to amortize the costs.
We don’t know what Apple TV+ or Apple Arcade will cost, but let’s assume their each $9.99 per month. Apple could easily run a typical long-term subscription discount deal. For example: Subscribe to two years of either service, or one year of both, and get the new Apple HomePod TV for only $49.99!
Why not a streaming stick?
Why shouldn’t the new Apple TV go in the other direction—a very affordable “streaming stick?” The Roku Streaming Stick+ and Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K are $49.99, and that price makes them very attractive 4K streaming devices.
Unfortunately, these stick devices come with a set of compromises that wouldn’t work well for Apple. The form factor and price make these devices necessarily low-powered. An Apple TV Stick could certainly run video and music streaming apps (both its own and third-party apps like Hulu, Netflix, or HBO Go) but it would make a terrible Apple Arcade gaming device and a questionable HomeKit hub.
A cheap, low-power, limited-utility Apple TV device would split the tvOS app development market and tarnish Apple’s “premium only” reputation. Better to strive to make the best streaming box and rely on bundling it with service agreements to drive down the cost for consumers.
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I have written professionally about technology for my entire adult professional life - over 20 years. I like to figure out how complicated technology works and explain it in a way anyone can understand.