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Apple TV's path to becoming a real game console

19 Jun 2020 | Rasmus Larsen |

Apple TV is not PlayStation or Xbox but with game controllers, Apple Arcade, and efforts to right past mistakes, it is taking steady steps towards becoming a 'real' game console. Here is how it happened and what it takes to reach the next level.

The path behind us

Some say that change comes from the bottom up. Often it is a process that takes many years but only comes into focus with time. If you examine the evolution of energy-efficient ARM processor architecture, and the systems built on top of it, you will find that ARM has taken the path from ultra low-end performance to where it is today. ARM (Advanced RISC Machine) is a different computer processor architecture than Intel's x86, which is the foundation under the PC ecosystem. And with the launch of Xbox One and PlayStation 4, x86 also became the foundation under popular game consoles. Together with the evolution of ARM, computer games have exploded in popularity to reach billions of people. Many of these "gamers" have never owned a traditional PC or game console. Now they carry a game console, or whatever you want to call it, in their pocket at all times. We are of course referring to iOS and Android mobile devices that are, almost exclusively, powered by the ARM architecture. The distinction between ARM and x86 is important for several reasons, mainly because a game developed for one cannot simply be transferred to run on the other. It will take time and effort. Throughout history, we have witnessed game consoles routinely switching to a new processor architecture. That is why PS3 games do not work natively on PS4. The two systems run on different processor architectures. It is also why games for iPhone/iPad works across generations - all are powered by ARM. And it is for the same reasons that (the majority of) PS4 games will work on PS5, and Xbox One games on Xbox Series X - all four are powered by x86. It would be easy to dismiss these games - and the development - as "just mobile games". Especially if you have been fortunate enough to own a PC or game console for the past decade or two. But it would be to close eyes to reality. ARM technology is now so mature and powerful that an ongoing discussion in the industry is to have it power new (for ARM) and more demanding categories of devices; PCs, game consoles, servers etc. It creates opportunity for platforms like iOS and Android to expand into new market segments. It benefits the Apple TV box. It could benefit Android TVs and Smart TVs, if manufacturers did not insist on using underpowered SoCs. It could also benefit Roku and FireTV, if they did not engage in a race to the bottom with HDMI sticks rather than boxes.
Graphical performance of game consoles:

Apple TV HD
0,1 Tflops
PlayStation 3
0,23 Tflops
Xbox 360
0,24 Tflops
Nvidia Shield 2019
~0,5 Tflops
Apple TV 4K
~0,5 Tflops
Xbox One
1.3 Tflops
Xbox One S
1.4 Tflops
Apple A12X (2018)
~1.4 Tflops
1.8 Tflops
PS4 Pro
4.2 Tflops
Xbox One X
6 Tflops
A manufacturer like Apple could build its own 'PlayStation'. Hardware components found in modern game consoles are predominantly off-the-shelf items - especially in the PS4 and Xbox One generation. It could create a box based on x86, with graphical performance to match PCs and popular consoles. However, it would be unlikely to succeed. Sony and Microsoft's consoles are more than the sum of the parts, and they both hold strong positions due to their ecosystems and support from game developers (and in-house game studios). Apple has the x86-based Mac but not much support from game developers - and it is rumored to soon transition Mac to ARM. With ARM, a manufacturer like Apple can create its own version of a game console founded on the ecosystem that already powers iOS and Android; with tons of existing solutions and strong developer support as well as some technological advantages. Measured as graphical performance per Watt, Apple's latest A-series SoCs are more powerful than PlayStation or Xbox. Power consumption is lower by multiple factors, which in turn reduces heat generation. They are produced on the world's most advanced manufacturing nodes, a so-called 7 nanometer (7nm) process. Apple likes to say that the GPU in its A12X SoC in iPad Pro from 2018 is as powerful as the GPU in Xbox One S (in absolute terms). There are differing opinions on the matter but it is worth noting that A12X is a low-energy SoC running in a battery-powered device with a very compact cabinet and without active cooling. The hardware in Xbox One S consumes 70-80W while gaming. The first revision of PlayStation 4 Pro consumed 155W while gaming. It is also extremely noisy and runs very hot. There are of course other factors to take into consideration than just graphical performance measured in Tflops. As Sony and Microsoft have unveiled their next-gen consoles, PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, there is a lot of discussion around lightning-fast NVMe SSD storage. There has been an NVMe SSD in Apple TV 4K with A10X since 2017. In the graph above you see graphical performance for some of the most popular consoles, measured in Teraflops (10^12 floating point operations per second). It can be useful to plot them as a function of time, which can be seen below.
In the graph just above, power consumption (or efficiency) is not taken into account. If you do that, the graph will look very different. A graph with approximated figures for graphical performance per Watt can be seen below. The figures are not exact as they represent the full system's power consumption, and not just the GPU's. Nevertheless, they should give you a good indication of the performance possible with an ARM SoC like A10X in Apple TV 4K og Tegra X1+ in Nvidia Shield 2019, as compared to an x86 system like PlayStation 4 or Xbox One. Note: Power consumption figures for PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X have yet to be confirmed so we cannot produce an estimate at this time.
The ARM architecture also powers another well-known company's latest game console. Nintendo Switch is powered by an ARM SoC, specifically a scaled-down version of Nvidia's Tegra X1, which is also found in the Nvidia Shield box. Like Nvidia, Apple develops its own ARM SoCs. Later this year, PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X will reach the market and move the goalpost, but the graphs should help illustrative how ARM has made inroads in higher-end segments in relatively short time.

Arcade in Apple TV

Apple TV gained Arcade

Success takes effort and contrary to the erratic course of Android TVs, Apple has put in good effort to get Apple TV and tvOS flying. However, the company has also made some serious mistakes relating to games on Apple TV. It would seem that some assumptions have carried over from gaming on iPhone/iPad, without regard to TV being an entirely different beast. At the launch of the first Apple TV with tvOS in 2015, Apple required from game developers that their games should support the bundled Siri remote - an onerous rule. Although there were a decent selection of games on launch day, it never took off. Game developers abandoned tvOS and everything fizzled out.

Apple Arcade

In September 2019, the company launched its subscription game service Apple Arcade, which was the culmination of efforts in different areas to right past mistakes. Together with Arcade came tvOS 13 that supported the PlayStation DualShock controller and the Xbox One controller, in addition to other bluetooth controllers. An earlier tvOS update dropped the requirement for tvOS games to support the Siri remote. Developers can now release games that require a game controller. Also read: Apple TV: Best games on Apple Arcade & App Store There were a handful of great games on Apple TV before Arcade. Games like Inside, Machinarium, Rayman, and The Silent Age. However, an ecosystem is only as strong as its weakest link. Without gamers, new games do not get released. A negative spiral. The launch of Arcade is not just a collection of games accessible via a monthly subscription plan. It represents a dedicated effort to ensure that games reach beyond iPhone and iPad, and make their way to Apple TV and Mac as well. In Arcade's game library you will even find games that were tailor-made for the big screen - and some more fit for the mobile screen. Some of the games are also available on more established gaming platfroms like Steam and consoles like PS4 and Xbox One.

Our experience with Arcade on Apple TV

Since launch of Apple Arcade, we have spent a lot of time playing almost every game available, with special attention to games fit for the biggest screen. Arcade offers many hours of entertainment and a new game or expansion pack is released weekly on Fridays. You can find our favorite Arcade games for Apple TV here. Not all of the games highlighted during the unveiling of Arcade have been released. One example is The Pathless, which came into focus yet again as it was promoted as a launch title for PlayStation 5. Another example is Beyond a Steel Sky, the successor to Beneath a Steel Sky. To summarize. The good:
  • Many hours of entertainment.
  • A new game or expansion pack every Friday.
  • Apple TV never sleeps and you can start playing in seconds. Game downloads take very little time as only the most important components to play the first levels of the game are downloaded initially.
  • Support for popular game controllers. Most Arcade games also support controllers. In multi-player games you mix Sony DualShock 4 with Xbox One controllers. A few games have 4-person multi-player modes for offline play.
  • Game stability matches that of popular consoles.
  • No ads or in-app purchases.
  • Low monthly subscription price. The bad:
  • Clear limitations in graphical power and other areas (including storage capacity).
  • Arcade's game library lacks more ambitious titles.
  • No support for HDR and Dolby Atmos in tvOS games.
  • A few games have evidently been repurposed in haste from games with in-app purchases to all-inclusive titles for Arcade.

    Apple Arcade Apple TV

    The road ahead

    Some Arcade games belong on the TV, some belong on the mobile screen. Many of them are enjoyable on all screens. All of them work across tvOS, iOS, iPadOS, and macOS. However, we would prefer if Apple made it a requirement for developers to support game controllers. Apple TV is now powerful enough to run many games from previous consoles generation as well as some new games, but there are still so many titles missing. It is up to developers to bring games to the platform but for that to happen Apple must ensure that there are enough gamers on the platform - enough users with a game controller. There is a good selection of games available on Arcade but not games with controversial themes. We fear that Apple, in its pursuit to make it a family-friendly platform, may reject some games. We hope that such titles can be made available from the app store as individual purchases rather than through Arcade. Apple TV is taking steady steps towards becoming a real game console. It took four years to build the foundation. There is a clear path forward now. We have focused on graphical performance, support for game controllers, multi-player, Apple Arcade, and a few other aspects that together represent an important milestone.

    Apple Arcade

    It is also important to zoom out and see things from a perspective. Valve's SteamLink is available for Apple TV, which enables you to play PC games on Apple TV via home network streaming. Will Sony's PS4 remote app be available for Apple TV, too? What about PlayStation Now and Microsoft's upcoming 'xCloud' game streaming service? Google Stadia and GeForce Now? We doubt that Sony and Microsoft would have been willing to give Apple support for the two most popular game controllers just to help Apple - a competitor - launch Arcade. There must be more to it than meets the eye. Building a game console on a foundation of ARM and the iOS ecosystem will take time but it already offers some advantages for users. Apple TV never sleeps so you can wake it and start playing in a matter of seconds. It takes very little time to download and install games. You can also quickly jump into the last game you played on PS4 but try to put a power meter on it. On the other hand there are technical limitations that must be overcome. Apple TV does not support HDR for games, even though it supports HDR for movies and TV shows. Wireless audio output to AirPlay speakers does not work for games either - probably related to latency. And there is no support for Dolby Atmos in games. It is also clear that Apple must level up its hardware before it can realize its vision. Not just in terms of CPU and GPU power but also other links of the chain. Our Apple TV 4K 64GB is constantly full even though it automatically deletes segments of games that we completed or not yet reached. You should definitely not sell your PlayStation 4 or Xbox One to use Apple TV as your main console, and you should definitely not pick Apple TV in favor of more popular game consoles. But Apple TV is a great supplement in the living room. In its current form it can be seen more as an alternative to Nintendo Switch, although Switch offers a better selection of games. Apple TV is powerful enough to run modern games and Apple's SoC development program is turbo-charged by engines like iPhone and iPad - and soon Mac. We are witnessing one of the largest companies in the world trying to turn Apple TV into a platform for media entertainment and gaming. The company already has a GPU that it claims to be as powerful as Xbox One S. A12X was introduced in 2018 so where do we land after it launches an upgraded Apple TV box? And 5 years from now?
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