What Is Apple TV? How Does It Work?

Apple TV takes the idea of smart television to the next level

Apple TV 4K showing off the Wonder Woman movie.
Apple, Inc.

Apple TV is designed for streaming movies and TV shows to your HDTV, similar to Roku and Google's Chromecast, but that is only the tip of the iceburg. You can also listen to and watch podcasts on it, play games, stream music and much more. But what really sets Apple TV apart from the competition is processing power – the latest model has the horsepower of a laptop – and how it interacts with your other Apple devices like the iPad, iPhone, and MacBook.

Apple TV: What is it? And How Do You Set It Up?

First, let's start with the device itself. Apple TV is an inch-and-a-half tall and less than four inches along its sides, so it won't take up much room in your entertainment center. It comes with a lightning-to-usb cable, a power cord and a remote. It is not a television with a screen.

The only two things you will need set up Apple TV (besides an actual TV) is an HDMI cable and an Internet connection. Apple TV includes an ethernet port for a hardwired Internet connection and also supports Wi-Fi. 

Once you hook it up to your TV via the HDMI cable and turn it on, you'll run through a short setup program. This includes inputting your Apple ID, which is the same ID you use to sign into iTunes and to download apps on your iPad. You'll also need to type in your Wi-Fi information if you are connecting wirelessly. The best part is if you have an iPhone, you can use it to speed up this process.

Apple TV and the iPhone will share some of this information for you, avoiding the painful process of inputting information using a remote.

What Can Apple TV Do?

In essence, Apple TV turns your television into a "smart" TV. You can rent movies or stream your collection from iTunes, stream movies and TV shows from apps like Netflix and Hulu Plus, stream music through Apple Music and Pandora, listen to podcasts and even use it to replace your traditional cable TV subscription with services like PlayStation Vue and Sling TV.

But what sets Apple TV apart from the competition is the power of the device itself. Apple TV doesn't simply turn your TV into a "smart" TV. Apple TV is smart. Apple TV 4K has the same fast processor that powers the iPad Pro, which makes it as powerful as most laptop computers. It also has a very fast graphics processor with enough power to turn it into a game console.

Apple TV is also hooked into the Apple ecosystem, which means it works great alongside your iPhone, iPad and Mac. This allows you to view your iCloud Photo Library on your TV, including those great "Memories" photo album videos the iPad and iPhone create automatically from your photo albums. You can also use AirPlay to 'throw' your iPhone or iPad screen to your TV, allowing you to interact with any app on your smartphone or tablet using your big screen television.

Apple TV App Store and iOS 11

Games? This is the fastest growing section of Apple TV's App Store. You can even buy a traditional game controller to use with Apple TV, and if you are playing a game like bowling, Apple TV's remote can act similar to a Wii controller. With iOS 11, there is also a built-in Apple TV remote in the Control Center.

Apple TV also gives you access to Siri and can become a base station for HomeKit.

Apple TV's remote includes a Siri button, allowing you to control your TV by voice. You can also utilize the Siri-like functionality for requests such as telling you the actors in a specific movie or asking it to display all Matt Damon movies.

HomeKit is basically the headquarters for your smart home. If you have smart appliances like a thermostat or lights, you can use HomeKit to control them. You can even use your iPhone away from home to communicate with Apple TV in your home to control your smart devices.

What are the Differences Between the Apple TV Models?

There are currently two different models for sale and one model recently discontinued.

And as you can expect, there are some big differences between them.

  • Apple TV 4K. This is the flagship Apple TV model. It supports 4K and HDR video and is powered by the same A10 processor found in the iPad Pro. If you are looking to buy Apple TV, this is the recommended model. It starts at $179 for 32 GB of storage with an option of upgrading to 64 GB for $199.
  • Apple TV (4th Generation). This model support 1080p HD video and is powered by the A8 processor, which is the same processor in the iPhone 6. While you may be tempted to buy the 4th generation if you don't have a television that supports 4K or HDR, the $149 price tag only amounts to $30 in savings. And that $30 not only buys you the ability to upgrade your television in the future, it also doubles the speed of the processor and quadruples the speed of the graphics.
  • Apple TV (3rd Generation). This model is no longer for sale by Apple, but you may find one at auction sites like eBay or person-to-person sites like Craigslist. This version delivers the video streaming capabilities without the processing power, which means it doesn't have access to the app store. It usually goes for around $50-$60, but you may be better off investing in another streaming device like a Roku or Amazon Fire TV.

Tell Me More About Apple TV 4K!

If you are excited about Apple TV 4K, you should be. While the $179 price tag is enough to send waves of sticker shock across retail stores, Apple TV 4K may end up being the best bargain in streaming devices. There are a number of reasons why Apple TV 4K is great, but instead of beating around the bush, let's skip straight to the best reason: Apple will upgrade your iTunes movie library to 4K.

The average cost difference between an HD version of a movie and a 4K version of a movie is around $5-$10. This means if you have ten movies in your iTunes movie library, you are getting around a $75 value in the upgrade to 4K alone. If you have twenty-five movies, Apple TV 4K practically pays for itself. Of course, the movie will need a 4K version before it can be automatically upgraded, so older movies may show in only high definition or even standard definition.

Perhaps even better, Apple will sell 4K versions for the same price as HD versions, so there is no more paying a premium to get the same movie in its best format. In fact, this might be a great deal for everyone simply because it puts pressure on other retailers to do the same.

In terms of picture quality, Apple TV 4K supports both 4K resolution and HDR10. Unfamiliar with HDR? While 4K has all the buzz, High Dynamic Range (HDR) may actually be more important to picture quality. As Apple puts it, 4K gives you more pixels on your screen while HDR gives you better pixels. Instead of just increasing the resolution, HDR gives you a higher range of color to increase the image. Apple TV 4K also supports Dolby Vision, which is a form of HDR with an even higher range of color. 

When Apple jumps in, they jump in fully. This matches and exceeds almost anything on the market, and when you combine it with a free upgrade of your existing library to 4K – or, at least, those titles with a 4K version available  you will immediately begin enjoying the perks of 4K.

But Apple TV isn't just about streaming video. The processor in the Apple TV 4K is the same A10X fusion processor in the second-generation iPad Pro. That might sound like a bunch of buzz words, so let's put it a different way: The Apple TV 4K has the same processing power as the $649 iPad Pro. For just $179. The obvious beneficiary here is gaming, but it has so much processing power that we might start seeing productivity apps like Numbers and Pages come to the Apple TV. (And if you are wondering: yes, you can connect a Bluetooth wireless keyboard to Apple TV!)

Apple TV 4K also knocks it out of the park with Internet connectivity. Not only does it include a 1 Gigabit Ethernet port, more importantly for most of us, it has the latest Wi-Fi technology including MIMO, which stands for multiple-in-multiple-out. If you have a dual-band router, Apple TV 4K essentially connect to it twice (once on each 'band'). This can be faster than a wired connection, and it is especially helpful when dealing with 4K content.

Is There Any Reason to Buy the Non-4K Apple TV?

In a word: no. Even if you never plan on upgrading to a 4K television, the upgrade in processing speed, graphics performance (which quadruples with Apple TV 4K) and Internet speed is easily worth the $30 extra you will pay for the 4K version.

The main reason to consider the non-4K version is if you are not as interested in the various apps and games you can download from the App Store. But in this case, you may be better off looking into cheaper solutions such as a Roku stick.

How Apple TV's "TV" App Can Simplify Your Streaming Life

How many times have you wanted to watch a show only to jump through Netflix and Hulu Plus among others to find where it is playing? And this is worst when you don't know what you want to watch, forcing you to 'browse' by launching each streaming app to check out their video libraries.

"TV" is Apple's answer to the digital age of video streaming. In many ways, it is the same as what you get when you open Hulu Plus or another similar app. You'll see a variety of different shows and movies starting with those you've recently watched and expanding to suggested titles. The big difference is that these videos are coming from a variety of sources from Hulu Plus to HBO Now to your movie collection in iTunes. The TV app gathers all of this content in one place so you can easily browse through all of it. There is even a Sports channel that will show live sporting events including the current scores. 

The one big caveat to the TV app is the lack of Netflix support, which is unfortunate. But if you load Apple TV up with a bunch of streaming apps, you will love how much easier the TV app makes browsing for what to watch even if you still need to check Netflix independently.