By Dan Moren
April 26, 2021 12:38 PM PT
The weird conflicted life of the Apple TV
Hard as it may be to believe, the Apple TV is older than the iPhone.
Way back in fall of 2006, Steve Jobs first showed off the iTV, as it was then dubbed, in advance of it shipping the following March—three months before the first iPhone had people lining up outside of stores. (Nobody lined up for the Apple TV.)
In 2021, what’s perhaps most interesting about the Apple TV is that it’s basically continued right on doing what it’s always done, regardless of what’s going on in the rest of the streaming world. The Apple TV HD, first introduced in 2015, is still in the line-up, with the same old A8 processor, and the same old $149 price point.1 And the fifth-generation Apple TV 4K is now the sixth-generation Apple TV 4K—making it the second-generation Apple TV 4K?—which gives you a pretty good idea of where the state of the art is these days.
Apple, clearly, seems to be quite comfortable with the Apple TV. At its Spring Loaded event last week, the company doubled down on exactly why it felt the Apple TV continues to be the right product for the market:
Apple TV is built on the same world-class Apple silicon we put into iPhone. And it runs tvOS, the most powerful TV operating system. Giving Apple TV all this power, power that smart TVs just don’t have, lets you magically transform your living room, so you can get in your morning workout with Apple Fitness+, show off your school project using AirPlay, battle it out on Apple Arcade, and even sneak in a late night movie with AirPods.
The Apple TV is, for my money, now the weirdest product in the the company’s lineup, having seized uncontested ownership of that title in the wake of the full-size HomePod’s demise. It’s an Apple product that many of my fellow Apple enthusiasts own, use, and like…but that few of them would actively recommend to somebody in the market for a set-top box—something I can’t really fathom saying of the iPad, iPhone, or Mac.
That frustration comes from two angles. First, the Apple TV’s high price tag. A $150 starting price (for, let’s remember, the Apple TV HD, not its 4K big sibling) is hardly outrageous for a tech product, but what brings the hitch to the giddy-up is just how much of a premium it commands over its competitors. And yes, Apple TV offers a premium experience, and way more power than those other devices, but it’s power that often goes unused, in the same way that the company keeps improving the hardware of the iPad Pro without a software experience that can really take advantage of it. We all agree that Apple products are premium, but in most cases we’d argue that the benefits are worth the extra cost—the Apple TV, by comparison, feels more like a true luxury.
Apple clearly knows what it’s up against it when it comes to the living room. Most of what people do with their streaming devices is—you guessed it—stream video. That’s a task that even a $25 Roku dongle can handle pretty well, and, as has been much remarked upon, the entry-level Apple TV goes for about six times that much.
To compare it to other markets in which Apple competes: yes, the company charges more for its tablets, laptops, and smartphones…but in relatively few of those places is its lowest-end product that much more expensive than competitors. The iPhone SE isn’t stacked up against $67 smartphones. The eighth-generation iPad doesn’t compete with $55 tablets.
Look, Apple’s never played in the bargain-bin market. Nobody really expects the company to make a dongle that competes with Roku, Amazon, and Google on price. The company’s ethos has always been about paying more to get a better experience.
But the question remains: is the living room a place where people want so much of a better experience that they’re willing to pay that extra cost?
Apple, for its part, probably wouldn’t describe the Apple TV as “competing” with those budget streaming devices, either—hence its touting of all those features that other streaming devices (and note, it’s careful to compare to smart TVs, not Roku or Amazon) just can’t match.
But when it comes to cost, fundamentally Apple continues to sell the Apple TV at the prices it does for one reason and one reason only: people buy them. Could it sell them for less? Sure, but why bother? If those sales drop below acceptable levels, expect Apple to drop the price then—but certainly not before.
When you’re in, you’re in
So why do so many of us use the Apple TV, even if we wouldn’t recommend it to our friends and family? Setting aside the price tag for the moment, I’d argue that one big reason is the set-top box’s place in Apple’s ecosystem. More than any other product the company makes, its value is proportional to how deep you are into Apple.
Just look at that list of features that Apple talked about. Own AirPods? They work great with the Apple TV. Rely on AirPlay? The Apple TV is the best implementation. Work out on Apple Fitness+? The Apple TV’s the only big screen that can handle it. Apple Arcade? Non-starter on every other set-top box. Link to your iCloud Photos? Exactly. Even the Apple Watch, by comparison, only requires an iPhone.
The Apple TV is kind of a force multiplier. If you’re someone who’s fully bought into the Apple TV ecosystem, the argument for getting a device that works seamlessly with the rest of your Apple lifestyle is a no-brainer. At that point, the premium price feels well-invested to have everything work together.2
But it’s certainly a harder sell if you use a mix of devices and services from Apple and other companies, or if all you want is simply to watch the latest show everybody’s talking about on Netflix. And I, like many others of my ilk, hesitate to recommend a $150 device to friends and family who can get a similar experience with a $25 Roku—if not with the free apps no doubt built directly into their smart TV.
[Dan Moren is the East Coast Bureau Chief of Six Colors. You can find him on Mastodon at @email@example.com or reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest novel, the supernatural detective story All Souls Lost, is out now.]