Report: upcoming Apple TV refresh to serve as full-on cable box replacement

Apple TV Air Remote (Martin Hajek 000)

Two months ago, the reliable blogger Mark Gurman was first out of the gate with a report painting a pretty rosy picture of an upcoming Apple TV hardware refresh, said to include full-blown downloadable games via an Apple TV App Store of sorts.

He also learned from sources that the box could sport a built-in TV tuner to effectively control your existing cable boxes and TV stations, helping put the real TV into Apple’s $99 set-top box.

A new report yesterday by former WSJ writer Jessia Lessin’s new outlet, The Information, provides additional tidbits regarding the gaming and cable box functionality…

The article behind a paywall reads:

The new box under development would blend live TV listings with apps and web video, with a big focus on gaming, these people said.  Apple’s also banking on drawing customers with a new interface.

The new box replaces the traditional channel guide with on demand menus, and Apple has been seeking deals to allow people to watch virtually all their content on-demand. The device under development is likely to integrate with iPhones and iPads and Siri, Apple’s voice-activated assistant.

Integration with cable boxes – the Holly grail of the living room – is precisely the reason I instantly fell in love with Microsoft’sXbox One.

The One lets you route, navigate and watch live television from your cable or satellite set-top box, right on the console itself.

The new Apple TV, the story goes, would “serve as a full replacement for a cable box”, offering cable content as well as iTunes and other web video.

As a reminder, a Sunday night report by The Wall Street Journal asserted that teams at Apple and Comcast have been talking for more than a year about a partnership that would enable Apple TV users to subscribe to bulk channels from Comcast, on the device itself and using their existing Apple ID credentials.

In return, Comcast would treat Apple’s video streams as a “managed service,” routing video through a special portion of its cable pipe that’s separate from the more congested portion reserved for public Internet access.

Apple TV Air Remote (Martin Hajek 004)

The Information article also sheds more light on the gaming functionality.

The device is said to have “a big focus on gaming,” as Apple hopes to attract iOS developers to make their games work with the new box so that players can enjoy them on their TV screen, “using iPhones and iPads as controllers”.

The article is half-right, methinks, as some games can already be played that way through the current-generation Apple TV, with a little help from AirPlay, Apple’s wireless media streaming technology. And let’s not forget that virtually any iOS game can be streamed to the Apple TV by enabling AirPlay Mirroring on the iPhone or iPad.

Neither solution is however satisfactory.

real racing airplay

For starters, only a handful of games implement AirPlay natively, where action gets beamed wirelessly to the big screen and virtual controls, maps, in-game menus and other assets get rendered on your iOS device doubling as both a controller and a second-screen device.

The vast majority of titles simply pipe action through the Apple TV, using AirPlay Mirroring. Either way, gameplay gets severely crippled because AirPlay introduces a slight but noticeable lag that spoils the fun in fast-paced action and rainy games.

Plus, games beamed to the Apple TV via AirPlay actually run on your iOS device itself and that can be very taxing on the battery. Last but not least, your iPhone lacks the physical buttons to control the gameplay and could get damaged as you squeeze the “controller” in your hands in the heat of the gameplay.

What the Apple TV needs is support for dedicated iOS 7 controllers, maybe even an Apple-branded controller reminiscent of this cool concept by the prolific 3D artist Martin Hajek.

Apple TV Air Remote (Martin Hajek 001)

As the concept envisions, the directional pad along with the four action buttons would augment the Menu, Select and Play/Pause buttons of the existing Apple Remote.

Apple TV Air Remote (Martin Hajek 002)

It should be no larger than Nintendo’s Wii controller.

Apple TV Air Remote (Martin Hajek 003)

The Information somewhat confusingly suggests that Apple’s also been working to release an updated version of the $99 box, “which supports a growing number of video apps, including apps from Disney and HBO”.

This would indicate two Apple TV editions: one the existing box with updated internals and the other a beefier variant that can play games and integrate with your cable and satellite boxes.

Which brings me to the following thought:

What if the next Apple TV is basically an HDMI dongle..

Apple TV Air concept (image 001)

…a fraction of the size of the existing box…

Apple TV Air concept (image 002)

…that plugs into an HDMI port on the back of your telly, Chromecast style?

Apple TV Air concept (image 003)

Now, that would be something!

This HDMI-style Apple TV concept was commissioned by the German magazine You may remember the outlet for a recently published pair of nice concepts depicting Apple’s rumored 12.9-inch iPad Pro and a future Apple TV with an iPod touch style remote.

This is all, of course, pure speculation.

We’ve seen little evidence – aside from some code strings in iOS – that would suggest Apple is indeed interested in adding any of the aforementioned features to its hockey puck device.

As always, your guess is as good as ours so do jump straight for the comments below and join the healthy discussion on the state of Apple’s “hobby business”.

How should Apple be bettering its box, do you think?