Delightful and frustrating in equal measure.
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Apple has finally joined the 4K club. Two years after most of its competitors in the streaming media box market delivered 4K-capable hardware, Apple has caught up with the new Apple TV 4K (See it on Apple.com). It’s similar to the 4th-generation Apple TV with it’s touchpad-equipped Siri remote, but with a far more powerful processor.
If you’re deep into the Apple ecosystem—lots of music, movies, and TV shows purchased on iTunes, an iPhone, maybe even a pair of AirPods—then this is the streaming media box for you. If not, you’ll still find plenty to like, but a handful of notable frustrations and limitations make other 4K streaming boxes a better choice. With a starting price of $179, this is also one of the most expensive streaming media boxes you can buy, and that price premium isn’t worth it unless you’re all-in with Apple.
Design and Features
The Apple TV 4K is beyond simple. It’s a black square with rounded corners that has exactly three ports on the back: power, HDMI, and Ethernet. That gigabit Ethernet port is optional, of course, as it also supports 802.11ac Wi-Fi. Notably, the power supply in built in, so the included power cable has no big wall wart, just a simple two-prong plug. If you’re struggling to get everything to fit on a power strip, that’s a nice touch.
The remote is nearly identical to the Siri remote introduced two years ago in the 4th-generation Apple TV. To say the remote design is controversial is an understatement. The design is minimalist and symmetrical enough to make it very easy to accidentally hold upside-down. There’s a smooth square clickpad up top, menu and TV buttons, volume up and down, Play/pause, and a Siri voice button. It’s thin, light, and attractive, and the battery lasts for a few months between charges (you charge it with a Lightning cable, which is included).
The problem is, the remote is very hard to use without looking at it. Its various controls don’t have different sizes and textures to make it easy to thumb around, and the shape doesn’t really fit well in the hand. With its new 4K model, Apple put a raised white ring around the Menu button, which helps a little, but the remote design still leaves a lot to be desired.
The new Apple TV 4K rocks Apple’s A10X Fusion system-on-chip, the same one found in the iPad Pro, with 3GB of RAM and a generous 32GB of storage in the entry-level model (the 64GB model is $199). There’s no way to expand that memory, though, so if you think you’re going to load up with a ton of games, you might want to spring for the pricier model. If you mostly just care about streaming video and audio apps, the cheaper version offers plenty of space.
The box supports resolutions up to 4K with and both HDR10 and Dolby Vision HDR formats. It also supports Dolby Digital surround sound up to 7.1, but not the latest Dolby Atmos standard. That’s an odd omission, given that most of its competitors in the high-end streaming space support it. Apple says support for Atmos will come in a future update, but hasn’t given a timeframe.
Apple TV supports most of the major streaming services and features a very straightforward interface that puts every app and game you download on a five-wide grid on the home screen. It’s a simple interface if you want to dive directly into apps, but Apple has put most of its recent efforts behind an app it simply calls “TV.”
The TV app brings together content from the other apps and services on your Apple TV, so you can take a content-first approach to watching. It works like this: When you browse for a show or movie, you can add it to your “Up Next” list. The TV app has a Watch Now section topped by all the shows and movies in your Up Next list. Clicking on a show there dives right into the appropriate app to watch the next unwatched episode. When you’re all caught up, the show goes away until a new episode is available. The Watch Next list is followed by a host of suggestions for movies and TV you might like from supported apps.
Apple wants the TV App to be your hub for watching. It would be a great one if it was supported by all the major streaming services.
It’s a slick interface for consolidating all the stuff you want to watch from a bunch of apps and services into one place. Or it can be, if you do most of your streaming from Hulu, iTunes, or network apps like AMC or HBO Now. But some of the biggest names in streaming media don’t support the TV app. Netflix, YouTube, Sling TV, PlayStation Vue, and DirecTV Now don’t integrate with it at all. So, while you can absolutely download and use those apps on the Apple TV 4K, you can’t see their content in the TV app, or jump into episodes from the Watch Now list.
There are some other gotchas, too. The biggest one is the poor YouTube experience. The YouTube app has a sort of out-of-date interface on the Apple TV, and worse, doesn’t stream video in 4K or HDR. YouTube is probably the single biggest repository of 4K content on the internet and you’re limited to viewing it all at 1080p. There’s been no word yet from either Apple or Google about adding 4K YouTube support in the future. Given the popularity of YouTube and the wealth of fantastic 4K content on it, it’s really sort of hard to recommend the Apple TV 4K until they get this sorted out. It’s sort of a dealbreaker.
Hulu’s app also does not support 4K on Apple TV just yet. It’s hard to knock Apple for that one, since Hulu’s 4K playback is currently only available on the PS4 Pro and Xbox One S. Hulu says support for 4K streaming on other devices is coming this year.
The YouTube interface on Apple TV is kind of crappy, and there’s no 4K support at all.
Amazon Prime Video is another place to watch great 4K shows like The Man in the High Castle, but the service is not yet available at all on Apple TV. Apple says it’s coming this fall, but no exact release date has been given. If playing back local content is important to you, the Apple TV is not your best choice. It’s got no USB ports and doesn’t support a wide variety of codecs. Sure, you can load the Plex app and run a Plex server somewhere on your network to manage stream your local content to the Apple TV, but that’s sort of a pain.
It’s sort of a dealbreaker.
So if you’re looking to stream from a lot of sources in the best possible quality, you have a lot of reasons to steer clear of the Apple TV 4K; at least until the YouTube, Hulu, and Amazon situations are rectified.
On the other hand, those who have a lot invested in Apple’s ecosystem have just as many reasons to pick the Apple TV 4K over any other box. It’s the only place you can stream your iTunes purchases (video or music), and the only box with Apple Music support (Apple Music is available on Android but not Android TV). And Apple has made acquiring 4K content from iTunes enticing: Their 4K movies and TV shows cost the same to buy or rent as HD versions, and if you own the HD content you get an upgrade to the 4K version for free (if available). Given the crazy prices of 4K movie purchases and rentals on other platforms, this is a good deal.
You can also, of course, browse through all your iCloud photos with the Photos app, and they really pop in 4K on your big living room TV. Apple TV also supports AirPlay so you can mirror your iPhone or Mac desktop to your TV with ease, or beam video or music from those devices with just a few taps.
Setup and Performance
If you own an iPhone, setup of the Apple TV 4K is gloriously simple. You have the option to simply hold your iPhone close by and type in a short code, after which it will automatically copy your Wi-Fi credentials and Apple account info straight over. Typing in email addresses and passwords on remotes is a pain, and this makes getting started a whole lot faster and easier.
You’ll inevitably have to enter passwords to sign into other apps and services, but the Siri remote makes that a breeze. You can simply press-and-hold the Siri button and spell out your passwords. It works quite well, and is a lot faster than typing. Your iPhone becomes an effective tool here, too. Any time a text entry box pops up on your Apple TV, you’ll get a notification on your iPhone. Tap it, and you can use your iPhone’s keyboard to type.
Using Siri to manipulate the Apple TV is delightful in plenty of other ways, too. Apple has done a good job customizing its voice assistant for the TV. If you say “Show me ‘80s horror movies” you very quickly get an appropriate list of results. “Movies starring Channing Tatum” and “Find the most recent episode of Rick and Morty” produce just what you think they would.
Siri is a great way to find content on Apple TV.
Contextual searches work, too. If you say “show me nature documentaries” and don’t like the list, you can follow up with “only the good ones” or “only the ones in 4K” to filter it down further. You can control video playback with commands like “back up 5 minutes” or “turn on English subtitles,” and ask for information like “who directed this?” or “when did this come out?” Siri opens apps with commands like “Open Netflix,” and can give you some of the same information she does on your iPhone, like weather and sports queries. You can also control HomeKit-enabled devices, so “dim the living room lights” will get you ready for movie time.
Siri can do more than just search video and music content, like give you the weather, but it’s not nearly as robust as it is on your iPhone.
But when you’re not using Siri, controlling the Apple TV is kind of a mess. The remote is a form-over-function nightmare. It’s not the hockey-puck mouse but it’s definitely one of Apple’s biggest missteps. The shape of the remote and its buttons make it really difficult to feel your way to the correct button. The clickpad is a needless innovation that makes the whole interface worse. There’s nothing in the layout of the Apple TV interface you couldn’t control with simple up-down-left-right buttons, but by swiping around on a tiny touchpad you’ll end up constantly overshooting or undershooting your targets, then making small adjustments to land where you want to.
Remote issues aside, the performance is excellent. Everything animates quickly and smoothly, every screen pops quickly into place, and every app opens in a snap. 3D games are smooth and attractive, and there are quite a few of them on the App Store: both those that use the remote as a motion controller and those that work with controllers.
Video quality is usually excellent, but there are caveats. The Apple TV 4K will negotiate a 4K HDR connection with your TV or receiver and hold onto it, upscaling everything it plays. That’s not unusual—most streaming boxes will upscale content before passing it on rather than switching down to, say, 720p output or whatever. But other streaming boxes switch between SDR and HDR output depending on the content displayed, while the Apple TV 4K keeps locked in HDR mode at all times.
Apple is trying to save you the indignity of maybe seeing a small flicker as your TV switches between HDR and SDR modes, which is a noble cause, but sometimes the solution is worse than the problem. Most of the time, the Apple TV 4K does a fine job of converting SDR content into the HDR color space and brightness range, and everything looks just fine. On occasion, it creates weird artifacts like crushed blacks and flat contrast. The frequency and severity of this problem seems to vary depending on the precise model of TV you’ve got and its settings. Apple should at least provide an option in the settings to lock the box into HDR mode or let it switch back and forth.
Content from iTunes looks excellent, however, and starts playing instantly. The extremely busy and colorful action scenes of The Lego Batman Movie are practically made to suffer compression artifacts, but they look quite clean streaming from Apple’s service. It’s among the best 4K streaming quality I’ve seen. And aside from the odd occasional issue with some SDR content not looking quite right, the vast majority of video played from other apps and services looks as good and plays as well as it does on other premium streaming boxes. Whether it’s the slick nighttime shots in Daredevil or the steam rising from a bowl of ramen in Samurai Gourmet, that 4K HDR Netflix content shines.
The Apple TV 4k is available with 32GB of storage for $179 or 64GB of storage for $199. Both are only available online via Apple’s website: