During its September event, Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) announced a long overdue update to its set-top box offering known as the Apple TV. The device featured substantial upgrades in hardware specification as well as a brand-new (and far more robust) operating system dubbed tvOS.
It would seem, though, that after a long period of sheer neglect of the product category (the time between the launches of the third-generation Apple TV and the latest one was more than three years), Apple is planning to significantly accelerate its pace of innovation, here.
Per DigiTimes, Apple's next-generation Apple TV will "come into trial production in December," with volume production kicking off in the first quarter of 2016.
New CPU to "dramatically improve" performance
DigiTimes says the fifth-generation Apple TV will "adopt a new CPU" in a bid to significantly boost performance over the recently launched fourth-generation Apple TV.
Recall that Apple delivered a significant boost in performance in moving from the single-core A5 chip inside the third-generation Apple TV to the A8 chip inside the fourth-generation model.
This increased performance was required in order to support the more sophisticated tvOS as well as robust third-party applications (particularly advanced 3D games).
According to DigiTimes, Apple's ambitions with Apple TV are to enable the devices to be more than just set-top boxes, hence the dramatic increase in chip performance.
Could this be the A9X? A custom SoC?
Interestingly, DigiTimes says the new Apple TV will -- for the first time -- include "a heat-dissipation solution for the set-top box to handle the device's new CPU," citing sources in the Taiwan supply chain.
I could see Apple transitioning from the A8 chip inside of the fourth-generation Apple TV to the A9X chip found inside of the recently launched iPad Pro for the fifth-generation Apple TV. This would deliver a big jump in both CPU and graphics performance over the A8 and could potentially enable a whole new class of gaming applications on the device.
That said, I can't help but wonder if this is a chip that's even larger and more powerful than the A9X given that the new Apple TV will reportedly need a specialized "heat dissipation solution."
Indeed, if Apple has ambitions of making the new Apple TV into, say, a full-blown game console alternative, a processor with more CPU and graphics capability would be required.
The A9X features two Apple-designed "Twister" CPU cores running at 2.26GHz and a 12-core PowerVR Series 7XT graphics processor. Perhaps a customized Apple TV-exclusive system-on-chip might feature three CPU cores and a 16-core PowerVR Series 7XT graphics block?
There are a number of problems with that idea, though. First of all, putting together a custom system-on-chip for the Apple TV wouldn't be cheap from a research and development perspective. For very high revenue devices such as the iPhone and iPad, doing custom chips makes sense, but are the revenues really going to be there from a fifth-generation Apple TV to justify custom chip development?
Additionally, such a chip would be even more expensive to make than the A9X is (I estimate it costs Apple around $37). Unless a future Apple TV set top box sells for more than the current models do ($149 and $199 for the 32 and 64 gigabyte models, respectively), the bill of materials might have trouble supporting something like the A9X, let alone an even larger, more expensive-to-make chip.
We'll see soon enough
Apple is reportedly hosting a March event next year, so if DigiTimes' information is accurate, I would expect to see the new Apple TV launched during this event. It shouldn't be too long before we know what kind of hardware the next-gen Apple TV packs, what kinds of uses Apple aims to enable with this new hardware, and what it'll ultimately be priced at.