Apple TV 4K Review: The Best TV Streamer Keeps Getting Better
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Update: Summer 2019
This review was first published in September 2017, when the Apple TV 4K was first released, and has been updated substantially since then. After nearly two years on the market and numerous upgrades, the Apple TV 4K remains our top video streamer pick for Apple fans and those who don't mind paying extra for its advantages -- namely Dolby Vision HDR and a premium user experience.
Since launch Apple TV 4K has added an app for Amazon Prime video and added Dolby Atmos as part of the TVOS 12 update, making it the Best IPTV Box 2020 streamer for Atmos fans as well. The Apple TV app was upgraded in May 2019 with a a new Channels option and iTunes integration. And a software update to TVOS 13, coming in the fall 2019, will add support for multiple user accounts as well as Xbox and PlayStation game controllers, which will be particularly useful once the Apple Arcade game service launches later this year as well.
In other words, Apple TV 4K just keeps getting better. The original non-4K Apple TV HD remains on sale for $150, but my advice is pay the extra $30 for the Apple TV 4K. If you own a 4K or HDR TV 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 Apple TV 4K's biggest competition comes from Roku and Amazon, specifically the Roku Streaming Stick Plus and Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K. At less than half the price, both are superior values to the Apple TV 4K for most people, and the Roku is still our favorite streamer overall for the money.
Price no object, however, the Apple TV 4K is the best. And it's not really that expensive, especially when you consider the cost of the high-end TV and audio equipment that makes it look and sound its best. With its breadth of 4K, HDR and audio format support, sleek design and constant upgrades, the Apple TV 4K earns our Editors' Choice award.
Money no object, Apple TV 4K is the best 4K streamer of the bunch.
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.
The Roku Streaming Stick Plus, meanwhile, 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. 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 way 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.
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Apple TV 4K basics
Before I get into the details and nitty-gritty, here's a look at the recent additions and top-level facts about Apple TV 4K.
The Apple TV 4K has all the major video streaming apps you could want, and is the only streamer with Apple's TV app, which provides a central place to browse video from a variety of services.
In addition to Atmos audio, the current tvOS 12 operating system 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.
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.
Read: Best Apple TV remote cases for less than $10
For many others, the Apple TV remote is the Apple TV's least-loved feature. Indeed, 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, ultra-minimalist 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!
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 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 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. However, YouTube fans who insist on peak image quality should choose another device that does deliver it in 4K, like Roku's 4K players or the Chromecast Ultra.
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