Step 1: Low BOM cost. Step 2: High sales price. Step 3: Profit! That's Apple's hardware business plan in a nutshell, and the Apple TV exemplifies it.
Apple’s TV (and TV accessory) hardware aspirations extend all the way back to 1993, but hear the words “Apple TV” and most of you think of the multi-generation product line that began with “iTV” in 2006. Essentially a mac Mini with TV-friendly video outputs, running a streamlined version of Mac OS on an Intel Pentium M CPU and NVIDIA GPU, the first-generation Apple TV began shipping early the following year. Yours truly still owns one, currently sitting in a box in storage; given its Mac-like hardware foundation, it unsurprisingly was fairly easy to hack (see “The First-Generation Apple TV: No-Cost, Relatively Straightforward Hacking Sets It Free”). And in fact that’s pretty much all it’s good for nowadays; it no longer is able to access the iTunes Store.
Since then, successive Apple TV generations have all been variations of a ~75% smaller “hockey puck” form factor. The second-generation model, announced in September 2010, supported video outputs of up to 720p over HDMI and ran a variant of iOS on an Arm-based Apple A4 SoC. Its successor, initially introduced in March 2012 and Apple A5-based, is the subject of this particular teardown (and is apparently also pretty easy to hack). It actually came in two different variants…but more on that in a bit. And why am I tearing it down? Glad you asked. Unlike its late-2015 fourth-generation successor, which leveraged the more tailored (and App Store-supportive) tvOS operating system, the applications included in the first three generations of Apple TVs are to a greater degree “hard-coded”. To wit, although Apple added third-generation hardware support for its Apple TV+ service in 2019, third-party apps like YouTube are no longer being maintained and no longer work. Due to legacy hardware limitations or as an example of obsolescence by design…who knows?
Let’s start the dissection with a few as-usual unboxing images. First, after removing the shrink wrap, here’s the box and a 0.75″ (19.1 mm) diameter U.S. penny alongside it for size comparison purposes:
A close-up of the label on the front is as good an excuse as any to delve further into my earlier “two different variants” comment:
The initial version of the third-generation Apple TV, introduced in March 2012 as model A1427, ran on a conventional A5 SoC (also found in, for example, the iPad 2, first-generation iPad mini and iPhone 4S) with one of the two CPU cores disabled, presumably as a means of maximizing usable A5 yield out of fabrication. Less than a year later, Apple “silently” released v2 third-generation Apple TV model A1469, with three key differences:
Based on the model number shown on the label in the above image, you’d think I’ve got a v2 third-generation unit on my hands. And the timing of when I acquired it bolsters that suspicion: I’d originally bought it as an official Apple refurb from Groupon in July 2015, for $53 and change ($58.99-10% promotional discount). But contending research suggests that its “FD199” product name suffix is indicative of a first-generation variant. When I look inside, will it match the v1 third-generation Apple TV that iFixit had torn down in March 2012, or will it be an evolution of the concept? Only one way to know for sure…
And there’s our dissection victim, 23 mm (0.91 in) high, 98 mm (3.9 in) both wide and deep, and
0.6 pounds (0.27 kg) in weight, by the way. Underneath is the infrared-based (although the Apple TV also supports Bluetooth peripheral connectivity) second-generation Apple Remote:
And underneath that are the AC power cord (no external “wall wart,” so subsequent DC conversion obviously takes place inside the Apple TV) and a few pieces of documentation:
Let’s take a closer look at the remote control (which I’m not going to tear down, sorry, as I plan to use it as a spare for an Apple TV generational successor I ironically just acquired):
Replacement of the CR2032 battery is straightforward, requiring only a coin to twist the compartment door 90°:
Now back to our victim:
The label on the bottom is obviously designed to force you to read it before you can get inside, but we’re not going to let it slow us down, are we? Removing the shrink wrap and protective plastic covering the unit reveals the shiny (i.e., fingerprint-prone) surface underneath:
And around the back are the various connectors (left-to-right: AC power input; HDMI audio/video above/micro USB below, the latter used only for factory service and support; an optical digital audio output, and a 10/100 Mbit Ethernet connector):
Time to get inside. Historically, I would have gone the brute-force route of jamming a flat head screwdriver into the gap between the base and outer case; this time I thought I’d be more civilized and try out a plastic spudger, but only ended up with a now-useless tip (and no access to the Apple TV’s insides). So it was time to bring out the big guns (a set of metal spudgers):
They bent but didn’t break, and eventually (assisted by plenty of colorful language) I gained access to the insides. And here’s our first glimpse at the guts of the system…keep in mind that we’re now looking at the Apple TV upside-down, toward the not-yet-visible top:
Right away, if you’ve read the iFixit teardown already, you’ll note one difference. In the initial iteration of the third-generation design, the first thing you would have seen would be a metal heat sink with a thermal pad on its underside. No heat sink here, though. Remember how I earlier mentioned that the third-generation redesign burned much less power (therefore generated much less heat)? I’m guessing the A1469 marking on the earlier-shown label was spot-on, and we’ve got a v2 third-gen unit on our hands.
Remove five Torx screws (which had Phillips heads in iFixit’s teardown; another disparity clue), only four of which you’ll see I’ve so far noticed when I snapped this shot, and disconnect the power cable:
And logic board liftoff is achieved:
Well…almost. There’s one remaining two-wire cable tethering the logic board to the case:
Note that there still is a heat sink in this design, at the very top of the case (makes sense, right? Heat rises, after all):
In order to deal with that two-wire cable (and whatever that shiny object it’s connected to is), we’re first going to have to remove the power supply (which is sturdily taped to the underside of the top of the Apple TV):
About that damage to the power supply label: when I first saw it, I mentally chastised Apple for the poor refurbishing job they’d obviously (I should know by now that every time I’m tempted to use that particular word, I’ll be proven wrong) done. A few minutes later, I realized that I’d very likely done the damage myself by jabbing sharp objects inside, struggling to get the case apart. Interestingly, the power supply is identical to the one in iFixit’s teardown, even though (if I’m right and this is the v2 redesign) the system power draw is much lower this time around:
Now we can see what’s keeping the logic board tethered. It’s the front panel LED assembly:
A bit of inducement from a thin flat head screwdriver was all it took to pop it off. Here’s the bottom side of the logic board in its unobscured glory:
And here’s the top side; go back to the earlier photo showing the heat sink above this side of the PCB, and you’ll be able to tell where the thermal pad impressions match up:
Yep, you guessed the next step: let’s get that topside Faraday cage off, again using the thin flat head screwdriver as a pry bar:
Here’s a closeup of the interesting bits:
Again, if you look back at that iFixit teardown, you’ll notice a completely different layout in this particular PCB iteration. From left to right across the middle there are:
Underneath the DRAM is the Apple-marked Wi-Fi-plus-Bluetooth controller, which AnandTech indicates is a highly integrated ceramic package from USI. And below that may be the unified dual-band Wi-Fi-plus Bluetooth antenna (although more likely the antenna is PCB-embedded, and the U-shaped visible metal region is just AC shielding). In-between the two “poles” of the “antenna” is the IR receiver; since the device’s front panel is translucent, you can point the remote control pretty much anywhere in the Apple TV’s vicinity and it’ll work.
There’s one more IC of note on this side, not shown in the photo (it’s underneath the foam pad that’s next to the maybe-antenna). It’s silver, with markings:
Google research alludes to Broadcom as its possible source, and I therefore initially guessed that it handled the system’s 10/100 Mbit wired Ethernet functions, but keep reading…
Now let’s get that Faraday cage off the other side of the PCB:
Zooming in closer, we see many of the same ICs found in iFixit’s teardown of the v1 third-generation Apple TV:
In one quadrant, there’s:
And in another quadrant, part of the AC-to-DC conversion circuitry that dominates this side of the board, there’s a Texas Instruments 54218 step-down converter, versus the 54418 found by iFixit in the v1 teardown (the primary difference seems to be the 2A vs 4A max output current specification, again indicative of a lower-power design this time around).
It’s always been a bit intriguing to me why Apple bothers selling its own TV streaming devices, particularly now that the company’s Apple TV+ service is so broadly also supported by less expensive third-party products. I get the desire to maintain a presence in the “premium” segment of the market, as it’s a corporate strategy common to Apple’s entire hardware product line. And now that you’ve seen how low the bill of materials cost is for this third-generation unit, its $99 original MSRP (which has now doubled to $199 for current-generation high-capacity variants) brings further clarity to the topic in terms of the profit margin per-unit. Apparently, the company sells enough Apple TVs to justify the product’s ongoing existence.
Questions? Other thoughts? I as-always look forward to your feedback in the comments!
This article was originally published on EDN.
Brian Dipert is Editor-in-Chief of the Embedded Vision Alliance, and a Senior Analyst at BDTI and Editor-in-Chief of InsideDSP, the company’s online newsletter.