How Apple TV Works

Apple TV
Apple Inc.

If you haven't used one, exactly what Apple TV does may not be completely clear. Being able to use it to stream iTunes Store movies and Netflix may basically make sense, but questions about how it works with HBO, iCloud, Beats Music, and other apps and services may not be as easy to answer. If you'd like to know more about the Apple TV but don't know where to start, look no further. This article provides a quick, easy-to-understand overview of how the Apple TV works.

The Basic Concept 

The Apple TV is a small set-top box (like a cable box, but much smaller) that connects to the Internet and your home entertainment system in order to deliver Internet-based content to your TV. While many TVs these days include "smart" features that allow them to stream Netflix and other services, the Apple TV was developed before those TVs were common. 

The Internet-based content the Apple TV can access is fairly diverse, ranging from the virtually anything available at the iTunes Store (movies, TV, music, etc.) to Netflix and Hulu, from Internet-only streaming services like the WWE Network and HBO Go to YouTube, iCloud features like PhotoStream, and more.

Because the Apple TV is an Apple product, it's deeply integrated with the iPhone, iPad, and Mac, making it a powerful tool for Apple users.

There is only one model of the Apple TV, so the buying decision is pretty easy. The Apple TV costs US$149 to US$199 direct from Apple.

Setting Up the Apple TV

There's not much to setting up an Apple TV. Essentially, you just need to connect it into to your Wi-Fi router or cable modem for the Internet connection and then plug it into the HDMI port on your TV or receiver (you'll need to buy an HDMI cable; it's not included). With that done, plug it into a power source and follow the onscreen setup instructions.

Controlling the Apple TV

The Apple TV comes with a basic remote control for navigating onscreen menus and selecting content. This remote is very basic, though: it offers just arrow keys, play/pause buttons, and buttons to navigate through menus/select items. Not bad, but selecting one letter at a time while searching for shows can be pretty slow.

If you have an iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad, there's a more flexible and efficient way to control your Apple TV: the Remote app. This free app from Apple (Download at iTunes; link opens iTunes/App Store) turns your iOS device into a remote control. With it, you can navigate through the Apple TV easily and, when you need to search for something, use an onscreen keyboard. Much faster and more flexible!

The "Channels"

The home screen of the Apple TV is filled with tiles for different "channels" or apps. Some of these—Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, ESPN—will be familiar, while others—Crunchyroll, Red Bull TV, Tennis Everywhere—may not be known to you. 

Some of the apps, like the iTunes Store, let you browse content, but you need to pay for it in order to view it (you can rent and buy movies and TV shows through iTunes, for instance). Some of these apps, like Netflix and Hulu, require subscriptions in order to work. Others are available to everyone.

The top row of apps are all from Apple: Movies, TV Shows, Music, iTunes Radio, and Computers. The first three allow you to access content from the iTunes Store and/or your iCloud account. The iTunes Radio app lets you use that service on your Apple TV, while Computers lets you display content from any of your computers on the same Wi-Fi network at the Apple TV.

Can You Use All Streaming Video Apps?

While the Apple TV is packed full of lots of interesting apps that promise a ton of great content, you probably won't be able to use every one of them. That's because different apps have different requirements to access them:

  • Pay per use: The iTunes Store app works like this. You only pay when you want to rent or buy content.
  • Cable subscription required: Many of the apps—such as ESPN, FX Now, and other basic cable channels—require that you have an active cable subscription that includes that channel in order to view them. If you do, you simply activate your Apple TV with that network and your cable company (you can do this online; just follow the instructions on the Apple TV screen) and you can enjoy them.
  • Special cable subscription required: Premium channels like HBO and Showtime require that you already subscribe to them in your cable package in order to use them here. Again, activating your Apple TV with those channels unlocks the apps here.
  • Online service subscription required: Some services—Netflix, Hulu, WWE Network, Crunchyroll, Beats Music, etc.—require that you have a separate subscription to access their content. If you do, you can log in to your account on the Apple TV and start watching. Some of these apps let you sign up for subscriptions directly on the Apple TV; others require you to go to their websites to sign up.
  • Free to use: Things like YouTube and iTunes Radio can be used by anyone, for free.

Can Users Add Their Own Apps/Channels?

No. Apple controls when apps are added and removed from the Apple TV. For more information about how this works and what this means for users, check out:

Other Features and Services

The Apple TV also has apps for things like displaying slideshows of your digital photos, streaming Internet radio stations, listening to podcasts from the iTunes Store, watching movie trailers, viewing concert footage from Apple's annual iTunes Festival in the U.K., and more.


One really cool feature of the Apple TV is AirPlay, Apple's technology for streaming content from Macs and iOS devices. Not only that, but it supports AirPlay Mirroring, which allows you to project the screen of, say, an iPhone onto your HDTV via the Apple TV. To learn more about those features, check out:

What's Next for Apple TV

The future of the Apple TV isn't entirely clear. For many years, rumors were strong that Apple would release its own TV set. Those rumors have since died down, replaced by the idea that the set-top box would roughly stay the same, but that Apple would provide innovative ways for consumers to subscribe to an individual or limited bundles of channels. Check out this page to keep up on the latest Apple TV rumors.

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