Apple TV 4K

If you’re new to the world of streaming boxes – as many people are – and have bought a slightly-too-fancy-but-go-on-it’s-a-treat 4K HDR TV recently, the new Apple TV 4K is an excellent thing to place under your new set.

Because that’s arguably the only reason you’d buy this ultra-connected TV box, with the previous Apple TV from 2015 offering a lot of the same functionality but shorn of the powerful 4K and HDR images the new streaming box is capable of shoving out through its HDMI port.

It can handle all 4K content, with HDR10 and Dolby Vision supported, so the main new standards are covered – and (depending on the TV you’ve connected it to) the pictures look sublime, with everything from the interface to the flyover screensavers upgraded to pack in more pixels and look sharper.

But it’s a competitive market when it comes to streaming content to your large-screen television – so does the Apple TV 4K have enough to wrestle its way to pride of place beneath your set?

Apple TV 4K price and release date

  • 32GB Apple TV 4K priced at £179 / $179 / AU$249
  • 64GB option costs £199 / $199 / AU$279
  • Release date of September 22

In terms of price, this isn’t the cheapest streaming box on the market, but that’s largely to be expected with Apple products, mostly due to the polish and extras on offer.

The new box comes in two storage options: 32GB and 64GB, and it’s hard to see why you’d go for the latter unless you’re a little paranoid about filling it with too many apps. 

That said, Apple has recently raised the size limit for apps permitted on the box to 4GB, so if you’re thinking of having this as a micro-console then you might want to scale up to be on the safe side.

There’s not a lot of difference between the price of the new Apple TV 4K and the previous model from a couple of years ago, with Apple clearly keen to encourage consumers to go for the newer model.

The 32GB Apple TV 4K comes in at £179 / $179 / AU$249, and the 64GB option at £199 / $199 / AU$279. Compare that to the 2015 model, which is now £149 / $149 / AU$209, and it makes choosing between them a tough decision.

The Apple TV 4K release date is September 22, with pre-orders currently open if you want to get your hands on the new streaming box.

New 4K interface

  • Sleek interface looks great in 4K
  • Occasional lag while switching apps
  • Screen mirroring is great

The ‘new’ interface on the Apple TV 4K is basically a cleaned up version of the one that adorned the previous box – it’s been upgraded to pack in more pixels and look sleeker on a UHD TV.

It’s been designed with ease of use in mind, mirroring across devices from iPad to iPhone (using the new TV app, which is coming to parts of the world other than the US by the end of the year) for a consistent experience.

The other upgrade here is that coverage of live sports (in the US) has been enhanced to deliver tailored content : you can now see live scores and be notified of exciting moments in games that the Apple TV thinks you might like, making it easier to not miss a beat of the key stuff.

We couldn’t test this in the UK as the functionality isn’t available here (Apple is yet to confirm its release plans outside of the US), but if your box can properly work out the things you like to watch it could really cause some arguments when you’re in the middle of an enthralling film, and have to turn casually to your partner and say “Honey, can I just…?”

The overall performance of the Apple TV 4K was a touch slow at times, with a spinning loading wheel appearing when transitioning between apps or calling up different shows. However, when we started to stream the interface was snappy, suggesting that the issue was not with our fiber optic internet connection. 

This lag can be irritating when you’re navigating around the TV and moving from game to TV show, or trying to browse new titles, but it was a minor occurrence overall. 

If you’re a household with a plethora of Apple devices, then having the new Apple TV 4K as centralised hub makes a lot of sense. 

Not only can it control your Homekit devices, which are starting to make their way into the home quietly in the form of speakers, smart plugs or Philips Hue bulbs, but the ease with which an iPhone or iPad syncs with the Apple TV is impressive.

Screen mirroring is instant, and makes it really easy to share content on the big screen. It’s not quite as useful as Chromecast if you want to use something like Google Photos – which is superior to the onboard Apple Photos app in terms of the sheer amount of stuff you can save – but it can show pretty much anything else instantly.

The only thing that’s locked is content from some streaming services – in the UK, Sky Go couldn’t be mirrored onto the screen, so it’s not a catch-all solution to getting content onto the big screen.

4K performance

  • 4K HDR images look stunning
  • HDR images could occasionally look too dark
  • Dolby Vision will let you get the most out of premium televisions
  • Lack of Dolby Atmos is a shame in a premium device

It’s hard to review the Apple TV 4K and not keep accidentally reviewing the TV instead, because the look of the Ultra HD footage is so clear and crisp. 4K HDR is just the tops if you’ve got the right TV to watch it on – we went for the Philips 901F OLED TV, and everything looked just sumptuous.

We tested the Apple TV 4K on an older Full HD LCD set to start with, and the picture quality there was already decent – the images were bright and clear, and the colors looked well-reproduced.

However, boosting up to the 4K HDR version, things took a turn for the brighter. Watching Ghost in the Shell in 4K HDR was showroom quality – the fluid motion of the action, the difference between the brightest and the darkest elements of the scene and the sheer quality of the colors on display were mind-blowing.

If you’re new to the 4K game – which we suspect many might be if they’re buying the Apple TV 4K as an upgrade – then it’s the perfect partner, with the ability to instantly detect what kind of display is on offer and calibrating the output accordingly.

However, films or TV shows tended to look a little dark – both Ghost in the Shell and The Defenders on Netflix were hard to see even with the brightness turned up (which is possibly due to the OLED technology on offer from the Philips 901F).

It wasn’t that you couldn’t see the action, more that the contrast ratio was so strong that your brain had a little trouble processing the information.

When we compared that to a non-HDR movie (in this case Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) we found that everything looked brighter and, well, easier to see. Faces in shadow weren’t as obfuscated, and the overall effect was just clearer.

That said, it also made everything look a little washed out in comparison, so it depends how you like your content. Perhaps brighter HDR films, where shadows are less prevalent, will impress more – we’ll update this review when tested the Apple TV 4K on an LCD TV with 4K HDR capabilities.

Having Dolby Vision supported alongside HDR10 is a nice move from Apple, especially as some will probably buy this box to improve the look of content on their current ‘standard’ TV, with a view to upgrading in the future.

It’s a shame that Dolby Atmos isn’t supported – there are hints that this could be enabled with a codec update in the future, although obviously Apple wouldn’t comment directly to us about that.

Talking of other content, Guardians of the Galaxy looked really high-quality, even though it was only in Full HD. The upscaling and color reproduction were excellent, and while this was clearly helped by the superior quality of the panel we were using, the overall effect was premium, and felt like it would be money well spent.

It’s great that Netflix is there from the start as a 4K HDR offering (dark scenes in some shows aside) and being able to search through the service from the home screen, with Siri able to dive straight into Netflix directly, was a really neat touch.

Siri isn’t able to find the 4K HDR movies and shows, just those in 4K, but even that capability was impressive. 

It’s a massive shame that Amazon Prime Video isn’t available at launch – if you’re paying for access to 4K content you want to be able to access it in any way possible and it could convince some to move to the Fire TV box instead, which is cheaper and can also handle 4K streaming services.

Apple has opened a 4K HDR ‘room’ within its iTunes movies app to make it easier to discover the content – and the best part of things is that any titles you’ve previously purchased in Full HD will be automatically upgraded to 4K HDR when they’re made available.

Exactly when they’ll be available is another key issue, however. At the time of writing, in the UK the 4K HDR range is sparse, with far more on offer in the US. This will obviously change over time as movie studios start bringing their 4K content to the market, and to streaming boxes such as the Apple TV 4K.

We anticipate that by Christmas this year there will be far more content available – here’s hoping that it’s made clear in your library in some way, as the Full HD titles that you’ve bought will likely be upgraded quietly in the background, and you don’t want to have to constantly go back in and check.

Design and Siri remote

  • Box is sleek and compact
  • Remote is small and accurate
  • Siri can occasionally frustrate

The design of the Apple TV is identical to the previous model, coming in at 35 x 98 x 98mm (H x W x D) to fit snugly beneath most TVs without any worry.

It’s a little weighty – although that doesn’t matter too much given that you’re going to wedge it beneath a monster television anyway. Unless your stand is already creaking under the weight of a formidable AV setup we think it’s unlikely that the Apple TV 4K will be the streaming straw that breaks the AV camel’s back.

The matte black top and shiny sides are only broken by a single LED that blinks with input, and signifies the unit is out of sleep mode; it’s understated, and only the height really makes it noticeable – otherwise, it’s a very discreet box.

The remote feels like a good balance between lightweight and well-made – although it can be tossed around easily it’s comfortable to hold, with the tactile, brushed feel and rounded edges make it something you want to play with in your palm without thinking.

Well, don’t – there’s a touch-sensitive pad at the top that will register your slightest quiver, and which clicks to register an input. It’s accurate, and seems improved over the previous iteration, where we noted some slight inaccuracy when playing a game.

We did have one moment where the input was confused when playing SkyForce Reloaded, a title that needs careful caressing of the touch pad, but that was the only instance of inaccuracy.

The other feature of the Siri remote is the voice access it offers – for the most part, it’s brilliant. Want to watch something on Netflix? You can just ask Siri to start playing it.

Downloading apps, restarting a film or just flipping to the settings are a simple tap of the Siri button away, and it’s much easier than navigating through using your fingers.

However, Siri isn’t always accurate – for instance, asking her to ‘search for 4K HDR films’ came out with ‘search for 4K HD are films’ so often.

It’s the same with using voice to input passwords… it’s good, but not always accurate and passwords are often hidden with asterisks or dots, so it’s hard to tell what you did wrong. Sometimes it worked, but more often than not we just entered them using the touchpad to ensure accuracy.

Similar functionality is offered on the Amazon Fire TV with its Alexa remote, and we found that Alexa offered a consistently more accurate experience than Siri when searching for content.

  • Siri remote works well to control games
  • Fitness functionality through Bluetooth pairing works well
  • Extra power of Apple TV 4K isn’t obvious right now

The Apple TV 4K is designed to be more than a TV-streaming box, as a device that can function as a music player and a basic console too.

At its launch event Apple made a big deal about the new games that are coming to the new TV box, with the A10 Fusion chip from last year’s iPad offering better graphical performance – the power on offer here should really give developers some grunt to work with.

However, the game Sky,which did look beautiful in the demos) isn’t available yet, with it likely coming by the end of the year. So right now we’ve just got the titles that came with previous models, and while they’re fun the Apple TV 4K isn’t going to replace a PS4 any time soon.

The motion control of the Siri Remote means the Apple TV has an instant advantage over other streaming sticks and boxes – while fairly rudimentary, the ability to play tennis games or the fun Beat Sports with actual swings of the hand is great.

These games do often cost though, and seem a little pricey for what’s on offer – although you do get access on your iPhone or iPad too.

Some games are titles that developers have taken from the iPad or iPhone and turned into something that works well on the big screen.

We played Dark Echo, a game that’s designed to be used with a pair of Bluetooth headphones, and it was terrifying – combined with the OLED screen of the Philips 901F, it literally had our hairs standing on end.

The simplicity of using the touch remote to pace around the invisible land of terrors (trust us, you need to play this game if you get an Apple TV, or you just want to freak yourself out late at night on an iPhone) really works on this title.

If Apple could find a way to start filling the Apple TV App Store a little quicker, it would give the box the kind of asset that helped propel the iPhone to the sharp end of the smartphone race.

The Nvidia Shield TV has many dedicated games, and while Apple doesn't have its own proprietary controller, it advocates for a few Made for iPhone units like the Nimbus SteelSeries, and many games show up as needing a dedicated controller to work correctly.

Where the Apple TV 4K is already excelling is in the fitness space. Through its intelligent use of Bluetooth it’s easy to pair sensors, and via those you can get some smart on-screen help with working out.

We used the Wahoo 7 Minute fitness app, which uses the Tickr X heart rate monitor. This chest strap can not only show your heart rate during a workout, it can count your reps using the inbuilt accelerometer, and store your progress to let you know how you’re getting on in future workouts.

It’s a little rudimentary, and we’d like to see more apps and sensors taking advantage of the sensor connectivity – and they are coming, with indoor cycling powerhouse Zwift trialling a tvOS app right now.

The Apple TV 4K can also function as a HomeKit hub, so a quick word to your Siri Remote will shut curtains, turn off lights or start whichever system you’ve got connected smartly – and that alone is a good reason to have the box.

But, once again, the issue here is that all this can also be found on the previous Apple TV box, which is still on sale. The functionality is excellent and entertaining, but it can be had for cheaper if you’re not bothered about the 4K performance.

If you don’t have a 4K HDR TV it’s hard to recommend the Apple TV 4K, because it really only adds a bit more grunt and higher-res output capabilities.

Beyond that, it’s almost identical to the previous model, and the price is a lot higher than the competition – so it probably makes sense to go for 2015’s Apple TV if you have no aspiration to improve your set up.

We liked

However, if you’ve got any inclination to upgrade to a 4K HDR TV in the future – and especially if you’re entrenched in the Apple ecosystem – then the Apple TV 4K is a pretty obvious choice.

Yes, it’s pricey, but it’s slick, works well with an iPad or iPhone (or even a pair of AirPods), and the range of content is good enough right now. We’d like to see more powerful games on offer, and an easier way to access 4K HDR content from a variety of provides (and get Amazon in there), but on the whole we enjoyed using the new box.

The Siri Remote is a real boon, offering helpful voice navigation and motion controls for basic games that children will enjoy, and the facility to connect  sensors makes this a next-generation fitness machine as well.

We disliked

To reiterate: if you’ve not got a 4K TV, then you might as well just go for the older model of Apple TV, as the speed increases and higher capacity aren’t really offering enough.

The speed of the interface is better, but still not perfect, and the App Store definitely needs more titles – we’d have expected a wider range by now, although it does seem that the trickle is becoming a steadier stream if the cross-platform offerings are anything to go by.

Final verdict

If you’re already in the Apple-sphere and want a streaming box, the Apple TV 4K makes the most sense. It’s costly, yes, and there are cheaper options on the market if you just want to get high-quality images beamed into your eyeballs.

But if you also want the wider app ecosystem, and the ability to connect sensors and use it as a workout trainer, play games with kids or control your smart home, then the Apple TV 4K is an easy choice.

Even if you just want to make sure you’re future-proofed, the cost of the 4K version of the box isn’t that much more than the older model, and you’ll know you’ve got more grunt if you want to start using it as a micro-console.

It’s not perfect, but the Apple TV 4K is now clearly far more than a hobby – it’s a real competitor, and a nice choice for the Apple fan with a fancy TV.

Competition

While 4K HDR support was a relative rarity a couple of years ago, nowadays it’s much more common, and there are a number of boxes that come with a similar selection of streaming apps at a variety of price points. Their exact functionality can differ however, so we’ve outlined the options below. 

Google Chromecast Ultra

Google’s Chromecast products are designed to be as slimline as possible, and are controlled with your phone rather than a dedicated remote. 

The Chromecast Ultra is a very cheap alternative to the Apple TV 4K. It offers HDR support (including Dolby Vision), and Ultra HD content. 

One disadvantage is that while it supports a wide range of apps, Amazon Prime Video is absent, but if you don't consume a lot of Amazon’s content then it’s an excellent choice. 

Another negative is that because it’s completely controlled through your phone via Wi-Fi, rather than through a dedicated remote, it can be a little sluggish to respond depending on the speed of your internet. 

Read the full review: Chromecast Ultra

Roku Ultra (US only)

The Roku Ultra is Roku’s top of the line streaming device, and supports both 4K and HDR, although it lacks support for Dolby Vision. It is, however, much cheaper than the Apple TV 4K at $129. 

What it lacks in Dolby Vision support it makes up for in its interface. This is a nippy device that’s well supported with streaming apps to boot (a fact helped by the fact that Roku doesn’t have a streaming service of its own – it’s content-agnostic). 

If you want to save even more money, then Roku’s Premiere+, which also includes 4K HDR, is an even more affordable model at $99. 

Read the full review: Roku Ultra

Read the full review: Roku Premiere+ 

Amazon Fire TV

At just $90 / £79 the Amazon Fire TV represents the budget end of the streaming box market. It’s got much of the same functionality of the Apple TV 4K thanks to its included Alexa remote, but it lacks HDR playback of any kind, meaning that while you get the detail of 4K, images don’t pop as much.

It’s one to go for if you’re a fan of voice control and its snappy interface, but otherwise there are boxes out there with more functionality at a similar price. 

Read the full review: Amazon Fire TV

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Gareth Beavis

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