As we move forward on the normalization of 4K TVs, we knew the streaming boxes wouldn’t be too far behind. Like a miner waiting for a canary to explore the depths of a coal mine — it just a matter of time that Apple would come along with their updated entertainment box. Because, why be the first mainstream guinea pet when the market is in consumer limbo.
Yep, I’m going to come right out and say it: the Apple TV 4K is the best overall set-top streaming box right now. I get some flack around here for not conforming to the iOS camp, but it’s impossible to ignore the current features and performance Apple’s latest puck delivers. This is great, but I should point out none of its advantages equates to the Apple TV 4K being perfect, or far from it in certain areas.
Similar Looks + Better Remote
Before jumping into my own nerdiness, the new Apple TV is practically indistinguishable from the outside with only the smallest of alterations. You’ll still get a curved black box with identical measurements of 1.4 x 3.9 x 3.9-inches and weighing 15 ounces. The biggest visible difference to its predecessor is a discreet rise on the bottom, which houses extra ventilation and removal of the USB-C port on the back. Don’t worry: the port is primarily for developer Macs running Xcode, but this is now possible via Wi-Fi, meanwhile Ethernet, HDMI (2.0a), and power cable ports remain on back. Finally, the tiny I/O white status light sit in the front.
The rectangular remote exudes the same semi-futuristic form and responsive functionality we’ve grown to love (and hate), with a helpful raised white ring around the menu key. Truth be told, Apple’s touch remote has been controversial for its ultra-minimalism; some found it too easy to accidentally pick up upside-down, or lose it within couch cushions. The ring may seem like a minor inclusion but it definitely helps when navigating menus in the dark or completely by touch alone, short of actually including backlighting.
tvOS, A10X, and Codecs
Nobody can say the new Apple TV is underpowered thanks to Apple’s custom tvOS 11.0 and A10X Fusion processor under the hood — the same one found in the latest iPad Pro with 64-bit architecture and over 40% faster overall than generation model from 2015. Memory is bumped up to 3GB of LPDDR4 and Bluetooth 5.0 comes standard, and we finally have 7.1 surround sound through Dolby Digital Plus — though Dolby Atmos and DTS:X compatibility remain absent.
Video formats are plentiful and come in a smattering of H.264/HEVC, H.264 3.0 with AAC-LC, MPEG-4, .mp4, .m4v, .mov codecs. More importantly, 4K HDR video comes complete for both HDR10 and Dolby Vision, the latter two are pivotal because some TV/projectors have one or the other but seldom both formats. However, you won’t get 4K and/or HDR on YouTube, with the answer being “The new Apple TV does not support VP9 and therefore we can’t deliver 4K resolution on this device.” Considering the corporate politics between Apple and Google (Alphabet) I wouldn’t hold my breath for a fix anytime soon.
Setup and Siri
Again, I’ll reiterate that the Apple TV 4K is (technically) the best box around, and a perquisite for those entrenched in the iOS family. This is not insubstantial: iPhones, iPads, iPods… if this is you then setup will literally be the smoothest experience you can have. Simply hold your iOS device near the Apple TV 4K and all information from your Apple ID, WiFi information, and iTunes purchases will magically be copied over. Even 3rd and 4th gen ATV users who store their device settings in the cloud will sync over.
First-timers and non-iOS users have more work involved, but not much. Basically, the more invested you are in Apple’s universe, the more amenities you’ll enjoy without having to manually fetch stuff yourself. Regardless, the login process for each app can still be tedious unless you have Siri to mouth out whatever is said aloud. If not, you have to hunt and peck on the horizontal virtual keyboard. But once you’re fully established the speed of the UX is the fastest I’ve ever seen, easily superior in every fundamental way to the competition. Nothing comes close.
We’ve always had mixed feelings for Siri and its gimped effectiveness on the Apple TV, but it appears she finally got her act together for the better. Search results via Apple’s assistant now displays results if the show or movie you want to watch is available on Netflix or Hulu (provided you have paid subscriptions), as well as other compatible apps.
We really do appreciate having the option of finding content on multiple platforms, and even narrowing down parameters to specifics such as “4K TV Shows on Hulu”. Props to Apple for providing free 4K upgrades for those content previously purchased via iTunes, and for keeping prices reasonable.
HDR and Dolby Vision: The Ultimatum
The advent of 4K and HDR were touted as monumental advancements for home theater enthusiasts, but the execution in most cases was too subtle for average consumers to actually discern. Content in Dolby Vision and HDR10 looks amazing, with colors projected as beautifully rich in tone, while 4K resolution serves a secondary improvement in terms of sharpness. There are minute differences in quality between formats but the picture and depth can look amazing with the right display, but this is also where the Apple TV 4K experience starts taking things into its own hands.
Currently, the Apple TV 4K internally converts everything to the highest possible video settings your TV can output. This includes, but not limited to, system menus, screensavers, and games. Streaming boxes typically send the corresponding signal only when HDR content is playing and when the TV setting presets are enabled to receive it. But, the Apple TV just does it regardless in order to prevent dropouts or other interruptions for the best quality — says Apple, anyway.
Unfortunately, this has the effect of forcing HDR regardless of whether the Apple TV 4K knows what it’s capable of displaying; this can be confusing with the possibility of making image quality look worse for non-4K (SDR) displays. An immediate result are brightness and highlights appearing washed-out with shadow gradients turning into oversaturated patches of grays and blacks. The image as a whole when watching shows like Breaking Bad, Daredevil, and YouTube videos was noticeably dimmer compared to letting the TV do the job.
Another caveat is the automatic conversion of 24 frame-per-second film to 60 frames before sending it all to the display. There is noticeable judder depending on whatever app or service is being used, with iTunes itself offering being the biggest offender of the phenomenon.
A Premium For a Streaming Box
I’m far from being a true Apple Loyalist, but the Apple TV 4K makes an ambitious case for itself, at least before experiencing the “digital mastery” imposed upon you. It performs admirably and will be an excellent proposition to those heavily invested in iTunes and Apple ecosystem, even if it does start at a premium of $179.99 ($199 for the 64GB model).
In order to justify the price, however, Apple’s box needs to be significantly superior to the litter of cheap streaming sticks out there. In its current form it attempts to simplify the disparities of modern home theater formats, but in doing so — ironically enough — actually makes things less than optimal in areas like customizable picture options, latest surround audio technologies, and some app compatibility. The Apple TV 4K is more than capable of doing all these things in the future through the potential of patched firmware. the experience is pretty darn close to ideal for many, but not exactly the complete experience it wants to be.