How Does Apple TV Work? — An Overview

Does Apple TV Work?

I work in the Apple department of an electronics store, and being situated right next to the Television department, I hear a lot of questions about the Apple TV: Does it work? What exactly does it do? How does a Smart TV compare to the Apple TV? HOW does it work?

I hope this article will answer some of these common questions, and help you determine whether the Apple TV is right for you.


What IS Apple TV? — A Quick Overview…

Apple TV is a tiny computer that connects your HD Television to the Internet and your home network.

This allows you to stream movies, videos, and pictures from the Internet directly to your TV. You can also show content from your iPhone/iPad, or your computer on your television.

Apple TV in Hand
Apple TV is small enough to fit in your hand.

It essentially brings Smart TV capabilities to an otherwise “dumb” television.

Unlike previous generations, the Apple TV is designed to be unobtrusive. It's small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, so it doesn't take up coveted space in your entertainment center. And it's solid black, so as not to attract unnecessary attention to itself.

Now in it's 3rd generation, it is a huge success for Apple, gaining widespread popularity and critical acclaim for finally doing what it is designed to do.

What Does Apple TV Do?

Apple TV is designed to do 2 things very well:

  1. Stream various kinds of video content from the Internet to your TV.
  2. Use your TV screen to show anything on your iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, iMac, or Macbook.

1. Stream Internet Content

What kind of video content can Apple TV get from the Internet? It's a pretty wide variety:

  • Movies from Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, Disney, and HBO*
  • TV shows from iTunes, ABC, PBS, and Disney Channels
  • Videos from YouTube, Vimeo, VEVO, and Yahoo
  • Sports from ESPN, the NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball, and Red Bull TV
  • News from Sky News, Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal, and the Weather Channel
  • Pictures on
Apple TV Screen

So, you can get educational programming, children's entertainment, music, sports, news, and foreign programming from Japan and Korea.

You are limited, however, in the number of providers available. (Certainly not the “1,000+” channels that other boxes like Roku claim to provide.) Apple remains picky about who they associate themselves with, yet continues to add quality content sources regularly.

Many of these content sources (like Netflix and HBO Go) require a paid subscription of some sort, but many others are free.

Check the Apple TV content page for a the most updated list of available channels, content, and restrictions.

Anything you've already bought or downloaded with Apple's iTunes (like movies, TV shows, and music videos) will have to be streamed to your television using your computer or iOS device…

2. “Projecting” from Your Smaller Devices or Computers

Apple TV's other cool feature is its ability to show content you already have on your other Apple-made devices.

Using your Wi-Fi network (not Bluetooth), and an Apple technology called “AirPlay”, you can send anything you'e already downloaded to your iPhone, iPad, iPod, iMac or MacBook, or even Android device** to your TV screen.

Using the Screen Mirroring feature, anything you can see on your iPhone or iPad screen will be reflected on your much larger TV screen.

iPad Mirroring

In other words, anything you can see on your smaller handheld or computer screen can be seen at the same time on your TV.

For example…

You have some great pictures on your iPhone. Sharing those photos with your friends on that tiny screen doesn't really do them justice. With Apple TV, you can use the huge 55″ television in your living room to share those pictures with everyone in the room at the same time.

Or, you have a business presentation on your laptop, iPad, or iPhone, and want to present it to a conference room full of customers. With Apple TV, you can broadcast your presentation wirelessly to an HDTV on the wall. No projector or special wiring required.

And, the Dual Screen feature allows your smaller screen to act as a “controller” for the main content that appears on your TV.

An example of the "Dual Screen" feature from Apple's website.
An example of the “Dual Screen” feature from Apple's website.

You can use your TV to play games, show slide shows of your holiday pictures, display business presentations, or watch home movies you have on any Mac OS X or iOS device that supports AirPlay**.

**(And, YES: You CAN use use your non-Apple devices such as Android with Apple TV. However, you'll have to download and install an app that properly supports the AirPlay technology, and I've heard varying reports on the success rate.)

What Apple TV does NOT do…

I've already mentioned that you're limited to the “channels” or content providers that Apple chooses to do business with.

But there are a few other features that you might feel are “missing” if you're used to a Smart TV.

Macbook Apple TV Mirroring

For one, the Apple TV does NOT have a built in web browser. Viewing web pages on the Internet will require that you use one of your smaller devices with the Mirroring feature. For example, by browsing the web using Safari on your iPad, and Mirroring the screen on your TV. You'll be limited to what is visible on your iOS device, rather than the full screen of the television.

Apps such as AirWeb ($1.99 on iTunes) will let you take advantage of the full width of your TV, rather than the size and shape of your iPhone or iPad.

Speaking of Apps, there are none that you can buy for Apple TV. As with content channels, however, Apple continues to add capabilities and apps through downloadable updates to the Apple TV.

Email is another feature Smart TV users have access to through their built-in browsers. Again, you would have to overcome this missing feature by using an iPad or iPhone to check email, and the Screen Mirroring feature to see it on your TV.

How Does Apple TV Work?

Apple TV connects to the Internet using your current home network. You can either plug it directly into your modem or router with an Ethernet networking cable, or connect wirelessly if you've already set up a Wi-Fi network (such as with a wireless router or Apple Airport).

But first, you connect it to your television using an HDMI cable.

Ports on the back of the Apple TV
Ports on the back of the Apple TV

This is important. If your TV does not have an HDMI input, you will need to buy an adapter or cable to convert the digital signal for your older television*. You can easily find HDMI converters online.
*(Check the inputs on the back of your television to be sure you get the correct cables: composite, component, or VGA.)

You also have the option to connect the Apple TV to a soundbar or home theater system with an optical cable. This will send the superior digital audio signal or Surround Sound if it's available for your content.

How does Apple TV Work,
The Apple Remote

You then use the included Apple Remote to set up and control the Apple TV.

On it, you'll find the standard play and pause controls for watching videos, as well as a menu button and arrows for controlling other aspects of the Apple TV.

By scrolling through a series of menus and icons, you can select the programming you want to watch. You also use the menus configure your Apple TV to connect to your Wi-Fi network, set up your accounts with content providers such as Netflix, and connect to iTunes.

Some people have complained that all this menu-navigating can become tiresome and unwieldy. Fortunately, the set-up process is a one-time event, and you can simply use the menus to get to watching your videos.

One easier route is to install the Apple Remote App on to your iPhone, iPod, or iPad and use that device to navigate the menus and type in your various account credentials.

Examples of menus in Apple TV
Examples of menus in Apple TV

Apple TV vs. Smart TV

Smart TV Screen
An example of LG's Smart TV screen

Apple TV is often used in place of a Smart TV.

In case you're not familiar with it, a Smart TV is basically a television with Internet capabilities.

The same way a “Smart Phone” is a phone that lets you browse the internet, run apps, play games, and so forth, the Smart TV brings the same enhancements to televisions.

But you don't have to replace your regular old “dumb” TV with an expensive Smart TV to get those Internet capabilities. You can add those cool features with the purchase of a less expensive box, such as the Roku or Apple TV.

There are some differences between the Apple TV and Smart TV that you need to be aware of.

Price is another consideration. While the Apple TV is not the least expensive streaming box on the market (currently about $99), is considerably less expensive than buying a new Smart TV for anywhere from $300 to $3,000 or even more. Smart TVs also tend to be about $200-300 more than their “dumb” counterparts, just for the additional Internet capabilities.

Then, each television company has a different approach to making its TVs “smart”. Their own type of navigation, their own set of apps and capabilities. Do your research to be sure your Smart TV can access the content you want.

The controls for your Smart TVs will be different, too. You might have menus, like the Apple TV, or a “magic remote” which lets you move an arrow around the screen — kind of like a computer mouse — to select from a variety of options.

Who Apple TV is For

People with a lot of Apple devices are sure to love the Apple TV. It's seamless connectivity with other Apple made products makes it a no-brainer if you want to use your TV to share the stuff on your smaller screens.

If you're looking to stream videos from the Internet, and don't want to spend a lot of money on a Smart TV (or just want to use your current TV), Apple TV is a solid choice among the various options out there. It's not the cheapest, but it works well if you want to watch credible content sources such as Netflix, Hulu, HBO, etc.

And, if you're looking for Internet browsing capabilities on your TV, and you don't already have an Apple device, you may want to look to something OTHER than the Apple TV.

Where to Buy Apple TV

You can buy your Apple TV at an Apple Store, or any Authorized Apple Reseller. Some of the best deals, however, are online:

Does Apple TV Work?

So, the short answer to the question at the top of this page is, “Yes, the Apple TV does work.” As long as you have the right expectations of what it is supposed to do. Apple doesn't really falsely advertise its capabilities, but there can be some confusion over what it does if you're comparing it to other set-top boxes, or Smart TVs.

If you have any questions about the Apple TV, or your own experience with how well it works, please post it in the comments section below.

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