What Is Apple TV? How Does It Work?

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

Despite the name, Apple TV isn't an actual television set. Apple TV is a streaming device similar to Roku and Amazon's Fire TV. The little black box is an inch-and-a-half tall, less than four inches along its sides and runs on a platform similar to the iPhone and iPad, which means you can download a whole host of apps and games beyond standard streaming video from Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc.

Apple TV: What Is It? What Does It Do? And How Do You Set It Up?

Apple TV is centered around apps and 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 iceberg. You can also listen to and watch podcasts on it, play games, stream music, and much more. It all depends on the apps you install. Some apps are free, some cost money, and some are free to download but have a service you have to buy to use the app (think HBO).

The only two things you will need to set up Apple TV (besides an actual TV) is an HDMI cable (NOT included) and an internet connection. Apple TV includes an Ethernet port for a hardwired Internet connection and also supports Wi-Fi. It also comes with a remote control.

Apple TV 4K showing off the Wonder Woman movie

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 entering your Apple ID, which is the same ID you use to sign in to 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?

Illustration showing a woman using an Apple TV to watch a show on her television
 Lifewire / Maddy Price

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.

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 Works With HomeKit

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 supports 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 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!

While priced higher than all of its competitors, 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. 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. 

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. 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 connects 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.

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

Since we live in a world of streaming where lots of things are available at any time, it can be a bit paralyzing to figure out what to watch. And thanks to so many different services, where to watch it.

Apple's answer is a new app simply called "TV." 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. Unfortunately, Netflix is not integrated into Apple's TV app, so you'll still need to check Netflix independently.

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 are 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.

There are two storage levels in the Apple TV 4K: 32 GB and 64 GB. The difference is $20 and it seems silly to not spend the additional $20 to get more storage, but Apple has never given a compelling reason why you should spend the additional money.