Apple TV

The Teardown: Apple TV

The original Apple TV was a slimmed-down computer. Its successor is a cheaper, more content-focused device, according to iSuppli's analysis.

Apple TV is the consumer electronics giant's entry-level set-top box (STB) product, retailing in the UK for £101. It will display video in formats up to 720p HD, replay audio in all formats supported by the iPod range, and show still images in GIF, JPEG and TIFF formats.

The second generation of the device was released late last year and Apple announced shortly before Christmas that it had sold one million units worldwide. The original Apple TV went on sale in January 2007, so the product has had a slightly longer refresh cycle than most Apple products.

Apple TV is primarily designed for online content. In the UK, owners can rent content from the Apple Store or access YouTube. The US version includes a further streaming video option from Netflix, though no similar out-of-the-box agreement exists with equivalent British services. Content can also be streamed wirelessly from the box over 802.11g and 802.11n networks.

The iSuppli analysis suggests a total cost of $64.62 including manufacturing and components but excluding intellectual property and bespoke software costs, where those are not bundled with the hardware.

TV simplified

The second generation Apple TV has little in common with the original product. Where that was a slimmed-down Mac Mini, and therefore based on a slimmed-down computing design, the new version owes more to techniques used in Apple's mobile products. Consequently, functionality might initially appear much reduced, but this appears to reflect market demands.

'Marketers at Apple realised that what consumers really want from a non-traditional set-top like the Apple TV is for it to access and play movie and TV content easily and effortlessly – something that the traditional pay-per-view service from cable providers has not been able to fulfil,' says Wayne Lam, senior analyst for Hardware and Pricing at iSuppli. 'Stripping away at all the PC features of the original Apple TV, Apple arrived at a much slimmed down design based on the now work-horse Apple A4 apps processor.

'Aside from the built in 8GB of NAND memory and an internal power supply, the Apple TV is nothing more than a hockey puck with HDMI, micro-USB, Ethernet and power plug ports. Gone are the legacy PC components like a Northbridge/Southbridge chipset, hard disk drive or mini PCIe communication module; everything now fits on a circuit board no bigger than a playing card.'

The A4, based on the ARM Cortex A8 core with the 'Hummingbird' enhancements Apple shares with Samsung, first appeared on the iPad and can now also be found on the iPhone 4 and the fourth-generation iPod Touch. It incorporates both general and graphics processing, and, with the stripped down approach to this design, it has replaced chips from Intel (MPU) and Nvidia (GPU) that appeared in the original Apple TV.

Mobile Apple

In keeping with a mobile-inspired methodology, Apple is thought to have taken out the Cirrus Logic codec chip that appears on many of its products and incorporated codec work instead within a multi-functional microcontroller from Texas Instruments. However, where HDMI and Ethernet connectivity are handled by multi-function chips in other mobile Apple products, the company has settled on separate silicon for the Apple TV. The HDMI chip is provided by Analogix; and the Ethernet chip by SMSC. Overall component count is 799 with 783 on the main board.

The design also replaces the original hard disk storage, which offered up to 160GB, with just the 8GB of NAND flash, chiefly to accommodate a modified build of Apple's iOS operating system and cache streamed content.

Other features show Apple's focus on designing a 'mom and pop' device. For example, the Apple TV now has only an HDMI outlet where the original had both HDMI and component video outputs. This reflects the insistence from some content providers on only running their material over HDMI because it offers better copy protection, but also allows the device to be up and running off just one cable.

The switch to a mobile-led design and more focused functionality has allowed Apple to reduce Apple TV's retail price to a level comparable to similar Web-based STBs from companies such as Roku and Western Digital, and less than half that for the original.

Analyst group iSuppli provides detailed teardowns for many leading electronics devices. Find out more about its commercial reports at www.isuppli.com

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