Update: Fall 2018
This review was first published September 21, 2017, when the Apple TV 4K was first released, and updated substantially on December 7, when the app for Amazon Prime video was added. It remains our top video streamer pick for Apple fans and those who don’t mind paying extra for its advantages — namely Dolby Vision and a premium user experience.
The original non-4K Apple TV remains on sale, but my advice is pay the extra $30 for the Apple TV 4K. If you own a 4K or HDR TV now you’ll get an immediate benefit, and even if you don’t, chances are good that your next TV will be 4K and HDR compatible. The same goes for Dolby Atmos audio, which the Apple TV 4K now supports.
The Apple TV 4K’s biggest competition comes from Roku, specifically the Roku Streaming Stick Plus. At less than half the price it remains a superior value to the Apple TV 4K for most people, as detailed below.
The original review of the Apple TV 4K — mostly unchanged aside from the mention of the updated Vudu app and Atmos — follows.
Apple’s 4K streaming box is the hands-down best product of its kind. But you should only buy one if you want a premium experience and are willing to pay for it.
It combines the best streaming quality available today — including Dolby Vision HDR video, which no other streamer offers, and Dolby Atmos audio — with the smoothest, most polished feel. It’s as quick and capable as any streamer around. And if you just bought an expensive 4K HDR TV, the price of stepping up to an Apple TV might seem like a very worthwhile drop in the bucket.
My favorite streamer is the Roku Streaming Stick Plus, because it costs less than half as much and is almost as good. Both do basically the same things very well, and Roku has its own substantial advantages beyond price. Although Apple TV 4K’s Vudu app was upgraded in May 2018 to support 4K and HDR, Roku still has more 4K apps, including YouTube, whose numerous 4K and HDR videos aren’t available on Apple TV 4K. Roku’s platform is more content-neutral, and I love its price-centric search results.
So what do I mean by “experience?” Apple TV has a waaay nicer remote, sleeker controls, better-looking menus, more updated apps, superior voice search and control, and, with the integration of Movies Anywhere with iTunes, excellent access to movies and TV shows purchased from other services like Vudu and Amazon. On an everyday basis, using Apple TV just feels better.
In the end Roku’s value proposition makes it a better choice for most people. If you’re a person who just wants the best product regardless of price, however, that’s the Apple TV 4K.
Apple TV 4K: What’s new?
Before I get into the details and nitty-gritty, here a look at the recent additions and top-level facts about Apple TV 4K.
- In addition to Atmos audio, the latest TVOS12 update brings a few neat improvements, like zero-sign-on for TV apps for some cable subscribers, compatibility with third-party remotes and new screensavers. Here’s all the details.
- A software update allows you to adjust settings to disable conversion of videos, menus and games to HDR and a fixed frame rate. Check out the details, and my recommended settings, right here.
- When this review originally published, Apple’s iTunes was unique in charging the same price for 4K and HD movies. Now competing services like Vudu have followed suit, matching prices for the most part.
- Apple TV can discover and pair with AirPods for private listening, adds AirPlay 2 support with multiroom audio and a setting to automatically engage Dark Room mode based on local time.
- You can sync the home pages of multiple Apple TVs in your household, automatically mirroring their arrangements and folders. Downloading an app on one adds it to another.
- Oh yeah, Apple also makes a non-4K Apple TV, but it only costs $30, £30 or AU$40 less than the 4K version. Most people should just get the 4K model instead.
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The Amazon app on Apple TV
Welcome to the Amazon jungle, Apple
After Netflix, Amazon is the second-most popular paid streaming service, so it’s about time it appeared on Apple TV. It’s the most-up-to-date version of the app, with a layout that looks like a less-sleek version of Netflix itself: lots of labeled rows and thumbnail images. Top-level navigation provides quick access to major sections like “Originals” and “Movies,” and the layout is familiar and intuitive.
Voice search is available too. You can use the Search tab within the app and dictate terms into the Apple TV remote, or you can use Siri global search. Hitting the remote’s mic button returned relevent results when I said “Show me popular shows on Amazon” and “Show me movies on Amazon,” for example.
There were also some weird results. “Show me TV shows in HDR,” for example, only returned results from Amazon, while “Show me TV shows in 4K” only returned Netflix shows (even though both services offer 4K and HDR shows). Either way I appreciate the ability to specify 4K HDR shows, because Amazon’s interface doesn’t let you search for 4K specifically — results always seem to return the non-4K version.
Right now the Amazon app supports 4K and standard HDR, but not Dolby Vision. That’s not a huge deal since only a handful of Amazon titles are in that format, including “Jack Ryan,” Season 2 of “Bosch” and a few older movies including “Fury” and “Elysium.” Amazon did not provide a timeline for when Dolby Vision support would be available.
Just like with the Vudu app, Amazon’s on app on Apple TV will not let you purchase TV shows and movies directly. Those purchases can only be made through iTunes. If you want to buy or rent an Amazon title via Apple TV, you’ll have to buy it somewhere else first, like Amazon’s website. On Roku and other platforms you can buy stuff directly from within the Amazon app, just not on Apple TV.
Once you make that purchase, however, Apple TV’s Amazon and Vudu apps have full access to the title.
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Upside-down remote? Put a ring on it
I have always loved the touchpad-equipped Apple TV remote. Whipping around menus and videos with one thumb feels slick and futuristic. I dig the tidy size and button count as well as the quality feel of its materials from metal to glass to the matte touchpad itself.
For many others, the Apple TV remote is the Apple TV’s least-loved feature. Ineed, unless I attach the lanyard or a remote case, I occasionally pick it up wrongside-up and start swiping the bottom glass, not the top pad. A clever, ultraminimalist design touch solves that issue admirably on the Apple TV 4K remote: There’s a raised, white ring around the menu key. Now it’s obvious at a glance which end is up. Apple is also adding this white ring to the original Apple TV remote. Bravo!
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Left: Apple TV 4K. Right: Apple TV (with the old remote).
Back in black
The box itself looks exactly like its predecessor. The only visible difference between the two is the absence of a USB-C port on the back of the new one. Apple told me it was only used for service, and it’s not needed anymore.
Under the hood there’s an Apple’s A10X Fusion processor — the same used in the iPad Pro — for faster processing and graphics than the A8 chip in the 2015 model. However, both boxes felt equally quick to me. Perhaps future games will take advantage of the new processor.
The Apple TV 4K is available in 32GB and 64GB configurations. Unless you download lots of big games, 32GB is plenty, since the box streams pretty much everything else (video, photos and so on) and the storage is used primarily for apps.
Updated connections include Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11ac Wi‑Fi with simultaneous 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands and Bluetooth 5.0. The video out is now HDMI 2.0a to support 4K HDR video. The Apple TV 4K can do Dolby Digital surround sound and, as of the update to TVOS 12 in September 2018, Dolby Atmos audio.
The Apple TV 4K is still not compatible with the 4K or HDR videos from YouTube, however. “YouTube relies on the VP9 codec for distribution and playback of 4K and HDR videos,” a YouTube representative told me. “The new Apple TV does not support VP9 and therefore we can’t deliver 4K resolution on this device.” In other words, don’t expect 4K and/or HDR YouTube videos on the Apple TV anytime soon.
That’s not a huge loss, since YouTube’s normal 1080p videos look very good. YouTube fans who insist on peak image quality should probably choose another device that does deliver it in 4K, like Roku’s 4K players or the Chromecast Ultra.