While Apple’s event next week is fully expected to focus on its new 2019 iPhone 11 lineup, with the Apple Watch Series 5 also very likely making a debut, one product we haven’t heard much about is a new version of Apple’s set-top box, the Apple TV.
In fact, the rumour mill has been almost dead quiet about the debut of such a box, which is somewhat understandable considering that all of the focus is on Apple’s much bigger product — the iPhone — and even reports about the Apple Watch have taken a backseat to that.
There’s also the question of what a new Apple TV could actually add compared to the Apple TV 4K that’s already on the market. In fact, even that model, debuted back in 2017, was a largely incremental update over the prior 2015 model, adding 4K support and better Dolby sound tech, plus performance improvements that were good on paper, but marginal in practical terms.
On top of that, there’s also the fact that Apple has been expanding outside of its own hardware ecosystem, bringing many of its video features to smart TVs and even competing set-top boxes. This arguably makes the Apple TV a far less critical component in Apple’s content strategy.
However, if prior tvOS Apple TV models say anything about the company’s release cycle for the set-top box — although two models isn’t enough to demonstrate a trend — this year the little device could be due for another update, even if it’s merely a spec bump.
While Apple has invested a lot of money in original video content, that’s only one part of Apple’s services strategy, and there’s a second big service coming that isn’t going to be addressed by Apple’s embrace of smart TVs and other hardware platforms.
Two Words: Apple Arcade
Apple Arcade is expected to launch this fall — as early as next month in fact — and one of the promises of the new subscription gaming service is that users will be able to play their games on their iOS devices, their Macs — and their Apple TV.
While Apple promises that both the Apple TV HD (what the original 2015 model is now called) and the Apple TV 4K will both be supported by Apple Arcade, both of these set-top boxes fall short of what Apple’s current iPhones and iPads are capable of — not to mention the new A13-equipped models that we’re going to see unveiled next week.
To put this in perspective, the original Apple TV HD only includes Apple’s A8 processor — that’s the same one that was found on the company’s 2014 iPhone 6, which most will agree isn’t quite up to the standards of modern iOS gaming.
While the 2017 Apple TV 4K got Apple’s A10X Fusion Chip — the same one found in the iPad Pro models of the same era — it’s still a two-year old chip, and by the end of next month will be three generations behind Apple’s current technology. The A10 also predates Apple’s “Neural Engine” which didn’t arrive until the 2018 A11 Bionic generation of chip.
Of course, faster chips don’t really help with streaming video content — the A10X is more than up to the task of 4K, and we’ve never had any complaints about the Apple TV HD for standard 1080p content — they make a huge difference in supporting the kind of high-performance and graphically intensive games that Apple is no doubt hoping to feature as part of Apple Arcade.
While Apple is unlikely to exclude older devices from Apple Arcade — it naturally wants to attract as many subscribers as possible — it’s not inconceivable that some of the games that it’s got in the pipeline are going to put heavier demands on its hardware, and in fact it wouldn’t even surprise us if we see some that require a modern A12 or A13 to support certain features or better graphics.
At least one unconfirmed rumour on Twitter also suggests that a new Apple TV refresh may be coming to bump the chip up to an Apple A12, which sounds like a reasonable upgrade to provide a gaming powerhouse for Apple Arcade.
But that’s not all…
New technologies such as Auto Low-Latency Mode will automatically adjust settings on the connected television or display to eliminate lag, and the spec also offers support for things like variable refresh rates and quick frame transport technology, according to Tom’s Guide. These features allow for ultra-fast video frames and almost zero latency between what the source device is sending and what the TV is displaying.
Of course, both ends of the connection have to support HDMI 2.1, and it’s such a bleeding edge spec that you’ll need to have a 2019 or later TV that specifically supports it, and even a proper HDMI cable. So we wouldn’t necessarily assume that HDMI 2.1 alone is enough to justify a whole new Apple TV — Apple rarely leads the pack at adopting brand new protocols like this — but since it’s fair to say that the Apple TV needs a processor spec bump anyway, so the addition of HDMI 2.1 would be an easy enough thing for Apple to throw into the package as well, and would certainly be a nice bonus at helping to reinforce that Apple is getting serious about gaming.