The good: HDR support dramatically improves the viewing experience, easy setup and other useful features for iPhone owners, can search for 4K content with Siri
The bad: Much more expensive than other 4K set-top boxes
Who should buy: Apple fans willing to pay a premium for convenience
When Apple unveiled its revised Apple TV in 2015, it was missing something vital: support for 4K streaming. Two years later, the company is finally remedying that shortcoming with its new Apple TV 4K, which starts at $179 and begins shipping on September 22.
Support for ultra-high-definition 4K and HDR (high dynamic range) isn't for everyone. There's still a massive amount of content that isn't optimized for it, and you must own a TV that supports one or both of the technologies to experience its benefits. But 4K and HDR are crucial additions in the wake of rivals like Roku and Google adopting the technology, and content creators are shoveling out more TV shows and movies that support the features daily.
Yes, 4K is a huge pixel leap over 1080p, but the bigger change here is arguably HDR, which fundamentally changes how colors and contrast ratios work. I noticed this most when watching a scene in Netflix's Marvel superhero mashup The Defenders, in particular a scene that has Alexandra (played by Sigourney Weaver) sitting in a sun-filled room enjoying a private performance by the New York Philharmonic. She's wearing an off-white blouse with beads arranged in an argyle pattern. Viewing the show in HDR, I was able to tell that her outfit was champagne-colored, whereas it looked blandly white in the non-HDR stream. The difference may seem trivial, but illustrates the way HDR can tease out subtle hues ostensibly truer to a scene.
4K added extra detail to the scene as well, providing subtler distinction and detail around the beads on Weaver's shirt. 4K is like having the focus tightened on a shot that's also suddenly filled with more visual information. But it's still HDR's color enhancements that surprise the most. In another part of the episode, Jessica Jones (played by Krysten Ritter) speaks with lawyer Jeri Hogarth (played by Carrie-Anne Moss) inside a dimly lit New York building. The setting had a bluish tint in standard view, while the HDR version had a more vibrant and realistic tone.
I had a similar experience when viewing pictures I'd snapped with my iPhone through the Apple TV 4K's Photos app. In outdoor photos, I noticed that the blue sky looked slightly washed out when viewed in standard color. But in HDR, the general tone was warmer, and there was much more contrast between the clouds and the sky. Lighting also plays a bigger quality role when looking at photos in HDR. For example, when viewing pictures that were taken in my apartment, I noticed they had a slight yellowish tint due to the incandescent lighting in my home.
The Apple TV 4K also sports the company's A10X Fusion processor, the same chip powering the iPad Pro released earlier this year. The new processor drives the set-top's 4K and HDR playback, but I didn't notice a dramatic upshift in speed or performance when playing games or launching apps. That may change as developers adapt, but at this point the only visible enhancements are the higher fidelity streaming content.
For all that it improves, the Apple TV 4K is late to the game. Roku, Amazon, and Google all offer gadgets that can stream in 4K and HDR at much cheaper prices. Apple's new set-top has a few advantages worth noting: Apple's box supports both of the leading HDR standards, HDR10 and Dolby Vision, letting you bank on the one you prefer. The Roku Ultra, by comparison, only supports HDR10, and Amazon's 4K Fire TV doesn't support HDR at all. Apple's interface also has a section called Watch Now that pulls together content from the various apps and services you subscribe to, making it easy to see content from Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and others in one place.
This probably comes as a shock to no one, but the Apple TV 4K makes the most sense if the rest of your gadget-verse involves Apple products. The Apple TV 4K plays nicer with the iPhone, for instance: you can view photos from your phone on your TV and set up the streaming box just by holding your smartphone near it. If you don't want to ask Siri or use the remote to select letters when searching for a movie or TV show, you can also use Apple's TV app to type on the iPhone's keyboard. And if you happen to forget that this is an option, your iPhone will kindly remind you with a notification while you're searching.
Since the TV app works on iPhones and iPads too, the Apple TV 4K knows to pick up where you left off when streaming on your other devices. Those who have smart home appliances that run on Apple's HomeKit platform can also control them from outside the home through their Apple TV. These features, plus Siri functionality and the user interface are the same whether you have the standard or 4K Apple TV. But Amazon is playing a similar same game by offering some benefits designed to entice Echo device owners. You can pair your Fire TV with an Echo so that you can launch an app, start a show, or find a movie just by asking Alexa, with no remote required.
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Appealing as all this may sounds to Apple fanatics, if you just want an accessory that lets you watch Hulu in 4K or Netflix with HDR, you can Google's Chromecast Ultra for $69 (it's also compatible with both HDR10 and Dolby Vision). The Chromecast tradeoff: you'll have to be comfortable using your smartphone as a remote. But that may be worth the more than $100 in sticker savings. And it's worth noting that many 4K TVs have apps like Netflix, Hulu and YouTube built-in (many run their own flavor of Android, for instance). If you just want streaming basics, in other words, be sure to check what your TV can already do — you may not require a standalone streaming box at all.
Apple's been leaning on its burgeoning App Store to sell its set-tops thus far, after CEO Tim Cook proclaimed in 2015 that "the future of TV is apps." I'd say that future is still very much a work in progress. You can certainly find useful apps and games optimized for the Apple TV, say Zova's fitness app, or Yummly's recipe finder. But the app experience doesn't distinguish itself in a way that screams "This works best on a TV," when I'm as or more likely to use those apps on my tablet or smartphone.
Yes, the $179 Apple TV 4K finally delivers gorgeous high fidelity video, but as usual, you're paying a premium for convenience and ease-of-use. Contrast with something like the Roku Ultra, which you can find for $79.99, or the Amazon Fire TV, which is usually $89.99 when it's in stock. The way the Apple TV 4K integrates with the other Apple-powered devices in your home is its most distinctive argument, but one that depends increasingly on a fanbase with deep pockets.
4 out of 5