Forget the new iPhones: The Apple TV 4K was the most exciting product to come out of last week’s press conference. The only question is whether it lives up to the hype.
And that I intend to find out: Since moving to Pennsylvania, we’ve been using the previous-generation Apple TV more than we had in the past. Part of the reason is that I’m testing streaming TV services like PlayStation Vue, which works on Apple TV. But part of it is the rumors—now realized—that Apple would finally, belatedly, ship a 4K version of its set-top box. I’ve been looking forward to this. For two years.
So let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way. In most obvious respects, Apple TV 4K is no different than its 1080p-based predecessor, the two-year-old 4th generation Apple TV. And I mean that literally: The device itself, the ports, the remote, and usage all remain basically the same as before.
OK, there are some minor physical differences. The box itself now has circular air circulation vents on the bottom to help it from getting too hot.
And the remote has a subtle and raised new white ring around the Menu button; this isn’t just so that Apple’s fans can quickly tell it apart from the old one: You can feel the raised ridge on the button in the dark and figure out where you are on the curiously symmetrical remote.
And … that’s about it. But this device being essentially identical to the old box is both good and bad.
On the bad side, we get that remote, which is still terrible, and prone to misclicks and mis-swipes, and is, in general, the worst thing about Apple TV. But on the good side—and, really, this is what puts this thing over the top—is compatibility with the voluminous Apple content libraries (we own hundreds of movies in iTunes), the broad (but not perfect) support for third-party services, and the clean and efficient UI. Apple TV is obvious for Apple fans, of course. But it’s a good choice regardless, too.
Why that is so is sometimes hard to explain. But we’ve owned a 4K/UHD set with HDR capabilities since last year, and we’ve found that watching, say, Netflix or other 4K/HDR-enabled content sources to look better on (the 1080p) Apple TV than on the TV’s built-in apps, or via other set-top boxes that are 4K/HDR-capable. It’s one of those things that you have to sort of see to understand, but it plays into why I was so excited by the possibilities of an Apple TV that did offer this functionality.
And Apple TV 4K does. Thanks to a faster CPU and other new internal components, it natively supports 4K/UHD resolutions and can stream 4K/UHD content from first- and third-party apps. Of course, as a streaming box, it will pay to have a Gigabit Ethernet connection to a high-speed broadband Internet provider. I have the latter but not the former, so I’m curious to see how this goes over Wi-Fi. It may not be reliably possible, but in early testing, the picture quality has been fantastic.
The Apple TV 4K also supports high dynamic range (HDR) video in both 1080p and 4K/UHD, and now that the iTunes Store is converting the content I’ve purchased to both 4K/UHD and HDR where possible, I can test that without having to pay extra for new (or higher resolution) content. That alone is very exciting, but content apps like Netflix are also being updated to support both 4K/UHD and HDR too, so pretty soon we’re going to be swimming in this stuff.
A few other things could put Apple TV 4K over the top.
In addition to standard HDR—really, HDR10—the Apple TV 4K is also currently the only set-top box that supports Dolby Vision, a proprietary version of HDR that only works on some televisions, but is generally considered superior. (I don’t have equipment that supports it, however.)
There’s also a coming live sports feature that may or may not be excellent. Based on the press conference from last week, it seemed like Apple TV would provide live sports capabilities that might meet the needs of cord-cutters. But since then, it seems that this is just app-based and works for sports like the TV app does already for other “TV” content. That is, it just aggregates what you can get already in apps, many of which require a—wait for it—cable TV subscription. Or worse, a standalone subscription. I’ll look at it.
In use, the Apple TV 4K looks and works just like its predecessor, so it really does come down to the content, and those without 4K/UHD sets should take a pass. I’ve spent just a few hours with it so far, um, researching this content to see whether 4K/UHD/HDR lives up to its advance billing on the Apple box, and whether doing this over Wi-Fi is even feasible. So far so good.
Apple TV 4K starts at $179 for a 32 GB version that will satisfy almost anyone’s needs, but you can get a 64 GB version for $199 if you think you may install a bunch of apps. In my experience, the lower-end version is fine. And while $179 may seem steep in a world of 4K/HDR streamers that cost half that—Chromecast Ultra, various Rokus, and so on—this is the only way to gain access to the Apple ecosystem. That alone will make this a no-brainer for many