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Too Embarrassed to Ask: What Is Apple TV, Anyway?

Hint: It's not a TV.


Too Embarrassed to Ask is a new Re/code feature in which our reviewers answer any and all of your burning tech questions — including the ones you might be too embarrassed to ask your tech-savvy friends. Today, managing editor Lauren Goode answers a question tweeted by Re/code reader @Wmui1.

What is Apple TV and do I need an iPhone to use it?

You’re a brave soul, @Wmui1. Right now, a bunch of Apple fanboys are camping out in front of an Apple Store somewhere, already waiting for the Apple Watch, reading this post on their iDevices and snickering at your question.

Ignore them, I say! Your question isn’t silly. Even the tech media is seemingly confused by Apple TV sometimes — does “Apple TV” refer to the hardware that exists today, the cable-killing video service that Apple is trying to create or a theoretical Apple-branded television set?

Short answer: Apple TV is not a TV.

Apple TV is a $69, palm-sized black plastic box that connects to your television set via an HDMI cable. Then it connects to your home wireless network and brings the magic of Internet video to your TV. It comes with a simple three-button remote.

It was initially described as a “hobby” for Apple. Which, in retrospect, is sort of like Apple saying, “Hey man, I’m just shooting hoops in the backyard,” when actually it’s gunning for a spot in the NBA. Since the product’s launch in 2007, Apple has sold 25 million of these little boxes.

Let me back up a bit first. There are “dumb” TVs, and there are “smart” TVs. Smart TVs can connect to the Internet and run Web apps somewhere within the interface of the television set — click around with the remote, and you can find things like Netflix, YouTube and Facebook. “Dumb” TVs don’t.

Apple TV

A box like Apple TV — also known as a set-top box — bridges the gap. You connect Apple TV to your TV via HDMI, switch inputs to Apple TV and voila, you are accessing Web video apps on your nice big TV screen.

The funny thing is, even some people with smart TVs still use Apple TV. This might be because they’ve canceled their cable subscription and use Apple TV to access video content on their TV, or because the Apple TV interface is just so much easier to navigate. (I am in the latter camp.)

You asked whether you need an iPhone to use Apple TV. You do not — but you do need an iTunes account, which you’ll use to sign up, log in and buy stuff like TV shows and movies off of Apple TV.

So what exactly can you watch on it? Apple TV has more than 50 “channels,” streaming stuff from Netflix, YouTube, HBO Go, Hulu Plus,, ESPN, Disney, ABC News, CNBC and more. There’s a full list here. That doesn’t mean you get all of the same content you would get from cable channels; you simply get access to the stuff that the content provider has decided to make available over the Web.

Some hardcore Apple users — like the ones who might be camping out in front of Apple Stores right now just because — also love Apple TV for its AirPlay capabilities. This means you can display whatever you’re doing on your MacBook, or on your iPhone, on the screen of your TV; provided that all of your devices are connected to the same Wi-Fi network.

But here’s the more important thing: Apple has been in talks with TV programmers to put together a package of “channels” that normally would only be accessible through a traditional cable subscription. Case in point: HBO’s upcoming streaming service, HBO Now, will be available only on Apple devices (like Apple TV) when it launches next month. See where this is going now? Apple’s little-hobby-that-could may end up disrupting the cable bigs.

Now, @Wmui1, before you run out and buy an Apple TV box, I’d advise you to consider a few things. First, a new Apple TV box is reportedly going to be unveiled this summer, according to this guy over at BuzzFeed.

Also, there are many other ways to get your streaming Web video on the TV. If you happen to be a gamer and have a console like the Microsoft Xbox or the Sony PlayStation, you already have access to streaming video apps like Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Instant Video, ESPN and more.

In terms of other set-top boxes, Apple’s biggest competitor in this space is the $90 Roku 3. Roku also offers a streaming “stick” that costs just $50 and basically does the same thing. Roku’s claim to fame is that it offers more than 2,000 Web video channels, which is pretty remarkable. (However, I have yet to meet a Roku owner who actually takes advantage of all of these. If you know someone, please introduce me.)

Then there’s Google’s $35 Chromecast stick, which “casts” or throws the content you’re watching on your iPhone, Android phone or Chrome Web browser onto your TV screen; and Amazon’s Fire TV stick, which costs $39. It streams a lot of the same popular apps that the others do, but also works with a $30 Amazon remote that lets you search for videos using voice control.

So there are plenty of options. But if Apple does turn “Apple TV” into an over-the-top service for streaming video that would normally only be accessed through cable, that’s a huge differentiator for this little box.

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