Apple TV 2015: What’s Apple planning for its next set-top box release?

It's been a long time since Apple refreshed its set-top box - three years, in fact. And recent price drops of the existing model have led to a flood of rumours and speculation on a new version.

From a dedicated game store and built-in TV tuner to Chromecast-like design and Airport Express functionality, several reports have claimed to know what the fourth-generation Apple TV will feature at launch. But that's just the thing: no one really knows when the next Apple TV will launch.

Some said it would land at Apple's Spring Forward event that happened earlier this month, but only a collaboration with HBO and a price reduction of the current model was announced there. Instead, smart money is now on an unveiling at the company's Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) in June.

So, considering that is relatively close, Pocket-lint has rounded up all the reports, speculation, and everything else related to Apple's next streaming media device.

READ: Apple in 2014: Pocket-lint predicts

This is where Apple TV is at today:

It has been well over 800 days since the last refresh to Apple TV.

There was a 553-day space between the second-generation Apple TV and the third-generation Apple TV, so many fans are wondering when Apple is going to finally update its latest hobby device.

That's not to say the company has ignored its set-top-box over the years, having boosted functionality through content offerings and firmware improvements, but it has fallen behind rivals in kit specifications. Content deals are one thing, but ease and speed of use on more recent devices like the Amazon Fire TV, Chromecast or Roku boxes have surely prompted a new plan.

Certainly, in the interim Apple's CEO, Tim Cook, confirmed that television remains an area of "intense interest" for the company.

Priced at £59 ($69) now ($99 then), the current-generation Apple TV originally released in March 2012, with 1080p video support and redesigned software. This latest generation box received a minor update in January 2013, adding a smaller A5 chip but leaving core functionality untouched.

It's still a small black box (that measures 22.9 x 99.1 x 99.1mm), and when you purchase it, you only get the Apple TV set-top box, the remote, and a power lead.

Design

With zero buttons and only a single, white status light on the front, the Apple TV is simply designed and must be controlled via an aluminium remote. Around the back of the device are the ports for connecting it to your TV.

You'll see 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.

Processor

Apple's current set-top box (officially called the third-generation Apple TV) features the A5 processor and 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.

User interface

Alongside iOS 8, Apple released new software for Apple TV that included a redesigned interface. It made the set-top box's interface look much more like iOS 7. It's not a very dramatic overhaul, but some icons, such as Movies, TV, Shows, etc, have been changed to look bright-coloured and flat. The software also brought a new typeface: Helvetica Neue.

It's the same typeface used throughout iOS 7. Dated fonts and all skeuomorphic elements found within older versions of iOS were thrown away after Apple let go of Scott Forstall, the former senior vice president of iOS software at Apple, and replaced him with designer Jony Ive as the leader and director of Human Interface software.

The current user interface used in the third-generation Apple TV features a 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.

Other features

In addition to playing movies, music, podcasts, and television shows through iTunes and third-party channels, Apple TV supports AirPlay, allowing iOS devices and computers running iTunes to send streaming music to the television, as well as several features that are built into iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite, such as Family Sharing and iCloud Photo Support.

READ: Apple TV concept takes on iPod nano-like remote with iPhone-like gold design

And here's all the rumour about the new Apple TV:

Design

Citing sources close to Apple, App Advice said last year that the new Apple TV might look similar-yet-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 interesting Apple TV-related bits in App Advice's report included a branded game controller and a new remote control.

9to5Mac also said a new remote is coming. It claimed in March 2015 that Apple has finished working on a slimmer Apple TV, and that the new set-top box will come with a "more capable and tactile remote control" as well as a "redesigned operating system bundled with an App Store". The New York Times also backed up claims of a new remote control, although stating that the new version would be chunkier than the current version because of an added touch panel.

And Buzzfeed claimed sources told it that the new Apple TV will get a "significant overhaul", and "one intended to under-gird Apple's vision of what the TV viewing experience should be, and to raise the table stakes in a set-top box market".

9to5Mac has claimed prototypes of the new Apple TV are about “twice as large” as the current Apple TV box, but the shipping product is expected to be slimmer than the current version for sale.

iOS remote

Speaking of the Apple TV's remote control, an Apple patent application (via AppleInsider) revealed the company is looking into ways of improving the Apple TV and iTunes desktop experience using iOS.

The patent application, titled "Browsing remote content using a native user interface," described a mobile app that be like a second screen for a connected media device.

The new iOS-based remote is apparently different from the current Remote app, which mimics a hardware remote, because the patent's description suggested iOS owners could use the iOS remote to search the web for information, such as the name of the movie they are watching, and then they can display that information on the big screen.

Faster processor

Bloomberg claimed last year that Apple's fourth-generation set-top box might feature a "faster processor". It is unclear if that means the next Apple TV will ship with the A8, Apple's latest 64-bit system-on-a-chip, which first appeared in the iPhone 6 in September 2014, but that is what Buzzfeed is predicting.

The site also claimed there will be an increase on the current 8GB internal storage to accommodate apps.

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

User interface

The upcoming Apple TV, according to a report by Bloomberg from last year, will feature an upgraded or revamped user interface. The new interface will supposedly make it easier users to "navigate between TV shows, movies, and other online content".

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.

Cable and 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 another report from Bloomberg. As of February 2014, Apple was negotiating with Time Warner Cable on a deal involving more video content. 9to5Mac echoed Bloomberg, claiming Apple has been developing a new strategy by trying to establish partnerships with TV/distribution companies.

In a 2014 US Federal Communication Commission filing from Time Warner and Comcast, which pleads for the companies' impending merger, there was 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's likely that Time Warner and Comcast has let slip some internal hardware plans at Apple..

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 simply 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.

The Wall Street Journal in February 2014 claimed that Apple was scaling back its TV ambitions. It was no longer seeking an a-la-carte cable service with advanced cloud functionality due to stalled negotiations with content providers. Apple was instead seeking an arrangement that would lead to content from existing cable companies and internet programmers being overlaid with an Apple TV-style interface.

More recently, according to industry executives who spoke to Re/code, Apple is in talks with television programmers about a web-based TV service that would potentially allow Apple to deliver customised television packages. They would be streamed over the Internet, providing access to a bundle of channels from participating content providers. The web-based TV service would also include Apple's own interface.

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

App store

9to5Mac once indicated that the next Apple TV could have its own fully-fledged App Store.

The tech blog 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.

Rumors of an App Store have continued ever since TechCrunch's MG Siegler hinted in February 2013 that an App Store might be Apple's next move as it aims to tackle living room. There’s not been much else said on the topic of an Apple TV App Store, though 9to5Mac further claimed a dedicated Game Store for Apple TV could be in the works…

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, allowing the set-top box to double as a living room gaming console. iLounge reported last year 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.

App Advice, which cited sources close to Apple, also said the next Apple TV will exclusively focus 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.

In February 2014, The Financial Times also confirmed the next-generation Apple TV would support gaming.

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.

9to5Mac reported last year that Apple was 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 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.

Although the next-generation Apple TV is expected to launch in June, 9to5Mac has said Apple’s upcoming Live TV cable-replacement service won't launch until after the hardware. Current prototype Apple TVs are still using cable subscription-dependent apps.

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

Wireless router

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.

Apple Watch

Apple wants to make the first-generation Apple Watch a "primary input device" for the next-generation Apple TV, according to 9to5Mac. We're assuming that means you'll be able to control the Apple TV with the Apple Watch.

Home automation

HomeKit support was quietly added to the Apple TV when iOS 8.1 and Apple TV 7.0.1 rolled out. Some reports have therefore claimed the next Apple TV will serve as a smart hub of sorts, similar to how Google is positioning the Nest smart thermostat to be a control center.

But that's not the full story: It appears like you'll use Siri through Apple TV to control your HomeKit-compatible devices when away from home, but Apple TV won't be required to control HomeKit in general. Apple told ArsTechnica that the current Apple TV will be able to act as an intermediary, letting you issue Siri voice commands to your home from a remote location.

In other words, Apple TV won't really be a smart hub that'll tie your HomeKit devices together but rather an entry point to your local network. The set-top box has been enabled to pass commands to HomeKit devices for you, but your HomeKit devices and Apple TV will need to be signed in to the same Apple ID for such functionality to work. Keep in mind HomeKit has yet to be activated or "launched" by Apple.

HomeKit technically debuted with iOS 8 last autumn, and some early HomeKit partners, such as third-party accessory makers and manufacturers, have been taking advantage of this wait time to unveil new products that support HomeKit or update existing products. Most of the new HomeKit-compatible products unveiled at CES 2015 aren't yet for sale, as Apple's smart home platform still hasn't launched.

We don't know which products will sell first, though most say "soon" and are hinting around springtime. 9to5Mac said the new Apple TV will debut in June alongside a fancier remote, deep Siri integration, and third-party application support.

When will Apple unveil the new Apple TV?

This is the big question, isn't it?

9to5Mac said Apple hoped to debut a new set-top box in March, but discussions between Apple and content providers were said to still be in the early stages, which was thought could keep the new Apple TV from showing up at Apple's Spring Forward event on 9 March and whether this was the reason or not, no new Apple TV launched at that event.

It might not even make a physical appearance until the autumn, when Apple allegedly plans to whip out a new and larger iPad Pro, but Buzzfeed did claim sources familiar with Apple's plans told it the new box and App Store would appear at WWDC in June so fingers crossed.

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