Apple TV 2014 rumour round-up: What’s Apple planning for its next set-top box release?

It's been over a year since Apple has updated its set-top box. And you know what that means...rumours galore.

From a dedicated Game Store and built-in TV tuner to Chromecast-like design and Airport Express functionality, several media outlets and reports have claimed they know what the fourth-generation Apple TV will include at launch. But that's just the thing: no one really knows when the next Apple TV will launch. Some have said it'll land in March and others have said we still have to wait another year.

And let's not forget those far-out reports from analysts like Gene Munster, who have repeatedly claimed Apple wants to abandon its hobby device in favour of a full-fledged Apple TV set. Yeah, sure. Sticking to what's actually plausible at the moment, Pocket-lint has rounded up all the reports, speculation, hearsay, and everything else related to Apple's next streaming media device. Keep reading if you'd like to know what's (possibly) in store.

READ: Apple in 2014: Pocket-lint predicts

Design

The current-generation Apple TV is small black box that measures a dinky 22.9 x 99.1 x 99.1mm.

With zero buttons and only a single, white status light on the front, everything is controlled via an aluminium remote. Around the back are the ports needed to get you connected to your TV. That means you get power in, HDMI out, optical audio out, Ethernet and a Micro-USB socket (for updates and support). You can connect your Apple TV to your home internet connection via wireless 802.11b/g/n. Also, in the box you'll get the Apple TV, the remote, and a power lead. Nothing else.

But all that could change, according to a new report. Citing sources close to Apple, website App Advice said the new Apple TV could look very similar and smaller than the current model. Strangely, the website also said it could take "visual cues from the Google’s Chromecast or Roku’s Streaming Stick, and simply attach to a television’s HDMI port". Other Apple TV-related rumours in App Advice's report include a branded game controller and a new remote controller.

Faster processor

Apple's current set-top box (officially called the third-generation Apple TV) features the A5 processor, a 32-bit system-on-a-chip designed by Apple and manufactured by Samsung. The A5, which is the successor to the A4, debuted in 2011 with the release of iPad 2.

According to a February report from Bloomberg, Apple's fourth-generation set-top box will likely feature a "faster processor". It is unclear if that means the next Apple TV will ship with the A7, Apple's latest 64-bit system-on-a-chip that first appeared in the iPhone 5S in September 2013.

READ: Apple TV with faster processor, new UI, and TWC video content coming this year?

User interface

The user interface used in the third-generation Apple TV features a rounded rectangle tile interface. The tiles serve as app-like buttons or channels to Apple's streaming services, such as iTunes Radio and iMovie Theatre, as well as third-party services like Netflix and HBO Go.

The upcoming Apple TV, according to a February report from Bloomberg, will feature an upgraded or revamped user interface. This new interface will supposedly make it easier users to "navigate between TV shows, movies, and other online content". Tech blogs 9to5Mac and iLounge have also recently claimed the next Apple TV could feature fresh types of content and an Apple-designed interface layered on top.

Video content

Apple allegedly wants to introduce its next Apple TV alongside a fancy content partnership with US cable company Time Warner Cable, according to a report from Bloomberg. As of February, Apple was negotiating with Time Warner Cable on a deal involving more video content. Tech blog 9to5Mac echoed Bloomberg, claiming Apple has been developing a new strategy in recent years in which it is trying to establish partnerships with the television and distribution companies.

It is unclear if a Time Warner Cable partnership would eliminate the need for an actual cable box that you’d otherwise rent and hook up to a coaxial cable. The next Apple TV could serve as an over-the-top box that requires an internet connection and no coaxial connection, or Apple might want a TWC TV app for Apple TV (like the one on Xbox 360 that required a Time Warner Cable modem and internet connection). Either way, you'd need a cable subscription.

Either way, you'd likely need a Time Warner Cable subscription.

Update: In a US Federal Communication Commission filing from Time Warner and Comcast, which pleads for the companies' impending merger, there's is a brief mention of Apple. Specifically, the filing said Apple is developing a new set-top box. Although the mention offers no direct evidence and could be based on speculation, it could also mean that Time Warner and Comcast has let slip some internal hardware plans at Apple.

If Apple and Time Warner Cable are in the middle of negotiations, then Time Warner and Comcast could very well know that Apple is developing a new set-top box with video content provided by cable companies. And that also means both companies are capable of accidentally leaking forthcoming Apple TV plans.

READ: Time Warner and Comcast FCC filing hints at new Apple TV set-top box

App store

Speaking of Apple TV apps, 9to5Mac indicated the next Apple TV could have its own full-fledged App Store. The tech blog has previously claimed Apple was working toward letting content providers make their own channels/apps, and it was even attempting to streamline the app development process by making it easier for partners to build them.

There’s not been much else said on the topic of an Apple TV App Store, though 9to5Mac also said a dedicated Game Store for Apple TV could be in the works instead…

READ: Apple reportedly plans new Apple TV set-top box 'soon', with possibility of App Store

Gaming support

The next Apple TV might bring gaming support, meaning the set-top box could double as a living room gaming console. Tech blog iLounge reported in January that “developers are currently working on Bluetooth controller options, and it’s expected that games could be downloaded directly to the Apple TV rather than relying on another iOS device as an intermediary”.

9to5Mac added to iLounge’s report, claiming the next-generation Apple TV is now undergoing testing, should be released within the next couple of months, and could feature a Game Store at launch that lets users download games directly to their Apple TV. It is unclear how games would be stored locally on the Apple TV. Although, Apple might just use iCloud as a main storage facility for Apple TV games.

And finally, website App Advice, which cited sources close to Apple, said the next Apple TV would focus exclusively on being a gaming console. Specifically, Apple is "putting the finishing touches on a new digital marketplace that looks very similar to the App Store". The digital marketplace is for Apple TV games and apps - and it might even feature a couple exclusive games. The new Apple TV could also ship with a branded game controller.

TV tuner

Apple allegedly wants to take its Apple TV set-top box a step further than being a platform that simply delivers content from iTunes, Netflix, etc.

Tech blog 9to5Mac reported Apple is testing a built-in TV tuner that would allow users to control their existing cable boxes with an Apple-designed user-interface layered on top. A similar feature is found on the new Xbox One. If true, a built-in TV tuner could ideally work with the rumoured Time Warner Cable content partnership. It would also make the Apple TV a TV Guide and navigational menu, of sorts.

READ: Next-gen Apple TV could include built-in TV tuner, wireless router

Wireless router

And finally, 9to5Mac's built-in TV tuner report also claimed that the fourth-generation Apple TV could come with a built-in AirPort Express. Apart from eliminating the need for a separate wireless router, integrating 802.11ac into the Apple TV might improve video quality and stability. This feature could be a premium option that costs extra, though.

Release date

This is the big question, isn’t it? Unfortunately, the answer varies widely.

We know that Apple hasn’t updated the Apple TV since January 2013, so the set-top box is long overdue for a refresh. Reports have claimed the fourth-generation Apple TV will launch in April, while some analysts have said content deals are delaying the release until 2015. Ultimately, your guess is as good as ours.

READ: Apple TV set delayed until 2015 thanks to content deals, says analyst