Apple TV 4K First Impressions

Posted on September 23, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in iOS, Music + Videos with 44 Comments

Apple TV 4K First Impressions

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.

Apple TV 4K (left) has heat vents on the bottom. Old Apple TV (right) does not.

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.

The old Apple TV remote (left) and the new one (right)

And … that’s about it. But this device being essentially identical to the old box is both good and bad.

OK, there is one other difference: The Apple TV 4K (top) lacks the diagnostic USB-C port that its predecessor had

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.

Narcos on Netflix

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.

(Some) initial setup can be done via your iPhone if you have one

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


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Comments (44)

44 responses to “Apple TV 4K First Impressions”

  1. scottib62

    Not the only way into the Apple ecosystem. Haven't fully persued this (not having much in Apple content). But Apple sourced podcasts are available on Roku. Video and audio. Movies & TV not so sure.

  2. rheuser

    The question in my mind is which provides better picture quality a 4K Apple TV or a 4K Roku or a 4K Xbox One S or a TV or a 4K Xbox One X App at 4K?

  3. Michael Rivers

    Sorry Paul, a resolution bump and a literal bump on one remote button are nowhere near as exciting as the new phones. (And the phones aren't very exciting.)

  4. Tony Barrett

    Well, Apple as late to the party as normal with a box that is only just matching other devices that have been out there for ages. They're not doing anything clever, but those who are locked into the Apple ecosystem, and and have money to burn, will, I'm sure, pay whatever Apple ask. If you've got a v3 box though, in reality streamed 4k isn't *that* much different to good full HD - certainly nothing you'd notice greatly from 'normal' viewing distance.

    Interestingly, you could buy almost 3 4k FireTV boxes for the price of the new AppleTV, and those have been out for nearly 2 years.

    • puggsly

      In reply to ghostrider:

      What's funny is that in those 2 years Amazon has only a hand full of movie titles and Apple started off with hundreds if not thousands and upgraded over 40 of my purchase for free! The few movies you could buy on Amazon were priced at $25-$30 and Apple pulled off $20.

      Oh ya! and those boxes wouldn't support HDR, HDR 10 and definitely not Dolby Vision.

      Sounds like Apple entered the game just when it is getting fun!

    • Martin Sjöholm

      In reply to ghostrider:

      I am not sure I completely agree to the "... isn't *that* much different ..." comment. I experience a significant increase in quality when going from FHD Netflix on Apple TV to the Samsung 4K enabled Netflix app on the TV. Which is why I use the TV app natively most of the time. That, and because the Apple TV Netflix app looks like rubbish. However, this is Apple TV 2. Not sure if that invalidates my point.

  5. Jack Smith

    No YouTube 4K seems like it makes it a pretty easy decision to wait or get the Nvidia Shield that does YouTube 4k.

  6. jjaegers

    We bought a 4K TCL Roku TV for our basement and I have to say having the Roku built into the TV itself is fantastic... the Input switching is all done from the main Roku interface which makes it GREAT for the less technical people (my kids and wife)... they can easily switch between inputs on the home screen instead of cycling through inputs on a remote which, I know, shouldn't be that hard, but for some reason it is. I am not the biggest fan of some of the Roku apps but the 4K stuff works good enough and paying $399 for a 55" 4K TV (no HDR) and the getting the Roku 4K stuff built in is just great. I have tossed around the idea of buying an Apple TV but like an idiot I have a bunch of content on the Microsoft store so I couldn't watch any of it on that.... So Roku (does Google Play Movies & TV) and XBOX One handles my MS stuff.

  7. Awhispersecho

    It's funny, iTunes is the reason I wouldn't consider getting this. I remember the days when I had a couple Apple devices and was trapped into only being able to use iTunes. Luckily I got out before I had too much there to lose. My life has been much better since.

    The lack of support for Youtube 4k and more specifically, their asinine, pure "Apple" of an excuse for it, is the 2nd reason not to consider it. It's that attitude, that Apple personality that starts at the very top of the company and makes me sick that keeps me from ever considering an Apple product regardless of how good it might be. Having said that, I think there is a better product being offered by someone else in every category that Apple is in. For Streaming boxes that happens to currently be the Nvidia Shield TV, an Xbox One S and soon X, and probably even the new Fire TV box when it comes out.

  8. Skolvikings

    $179! I'm so glad I purchase movies from Amazon Video. I can watch them on practically any device I want.

  9. slerched

    Couple things for me.

    I've read that the Apple TV only outputs to one display format at a time. If you want HDR, you choose 1080p or 4K with HDR. You then choose 30/60 and... that's what you get. Sorry but I'm a purist. I want my 24p films to be 24p. This is where it gets stupid. You CAN display the native format but have to change it in the menus. Which means now EVERYTHING displays at 24p. Until you manually go in and switch it... AGAIN. Dumb. This is really, really dumb. There should be a way for the ATV to set appropriately for the content you use, like a good AVR can do.

    The other terrible thing is, quite simply, iTunes. I don't use, I don't want to use, and I'll never buy content from them. I love that they will upgrade your content for free in some cases - that's fantastically awesome. But I don't like being locked into only being able to use a single set of devices. Example. If I ever wanted to switch to Android, I'm pretty much screwed. If I buy a Roku, I'm screwed. Fire TV? Screwed. Guessing you might be able to download the content and use something like DLNA to stream from another device to your FireTV, Android TV, whatever TV, but really?

    I will pass on the Apple TV. Good for people who love being locked into that eco system, bad for anyone who wants actual choice.

  10. MikeGalos

    So Apple partially played catch-up on a device with no real market penetration, introduced nothing their competition doesn't already have, kept their universally criticized remote and failed to support either Dolby Vision or YouTube. How on earth is this "[T]he most exciting product to come out of last week’s press conference"?

    Hmmm, on second thought, perhaps Paul is just diplomatically saying that a minor update to a mediocre failed device is the closest thing to a success that Apple accomplished across multiple product categories in their biggest annual product launch.

    • SvenJ

      In reply to MikeGalos: "How on earth is this "[T]he most exciting product to come out of last week’s press conference"?"

    • nbplopes

      In reply to MikeGalos:

      I think you are quite right in your conclusion about what Paul is saying. But calling 21% of market share no real market penetration as you call it seams to be your own conclusion. For instance the iPhone has 15% market share or so in 2016.

      • MikeGalos

        In reply to nbplopes:

        It depends on how you define the market. Apple themselves say this is a hobby and not a major product and if you measure this as percent of set top boxes or as percent of tools to access online content or if you measure as devices attached to what percent of televisions you get very different numbers. I'd be curious what your 21% is actually measuring.

        As an additional example of the difficulty is our main TV where the TV and the DVR and the Game Console can ALL access most of the same online content. Which one do you count? Or do you count all? Or do you measure percent of time used for online content?

    • Gregory Steeno

      In reply to MikeGalos:

      Holy Sh*t. Is "Live to bitch about Apple" your motto? Is that the only reason you come out of the basement?

      I understand being critical. And no company is infallible. But Christ, your schtick is old.

  11. Aras

    I dumped my Apple TV 2nd gen for the PS3 which provided 1080p. Since I added the Xbox One S this year, I have been using it exclusively for all my entertainment needs. I don't yet have a 4k TV but the picture quality from the Xbox is still amazing. I'm sure it will be even better in 4K HDR. No need to go back to Apple TV.

  12. Lauren Glenn

    I got mine for free when I signed up for DirecTV Now when it first came out. Otherwise, I never would've bought it. For me, it's still the best way to experience PlayStation Vue without a PS4. Picture quality is excellent on it and it's good to control, despite the horrid remote.

    If I had a 4K TV, I would get this but since I don't....

    Still, for PS Vue, I'd probably still buy the 4K version if I didn't have this current one just to future proof it for when I do buy a new TV. All I use the thing for is playing podcasts, PS Vue, and watching some apps (like Comedy Central since I don't have cable). Aside from that, I've never played a game on it and don't plan on it either.

    I think the only bad side to the AppleTV 4K is that it doesn't do the 4K codec that YouTube is using (at least not yet), so you can't watch 4K videos in YouTube.

  13. Sprtfan

    Would the only thing that this really has over an xbox one s access to the Apple ecosystem? I recently could have picked up a new 500GB Xbox one s for $184 and its not hard to find them at $200 most days. That puts it at pretty much the same cost as the Apple TV but can play games as well.

    • Dan

      In reply to Sprtfan:

      Not the only thing. ATV also benefits from size, ease of use, power savings, and its silent. Not that the Xbox doesn’t have its pro’s as well. They are two entirely different choices.

      • Sprtfan

        In reply to Dan:

        I'll give you size difference and was mostly comparing the two since the price was about the same. Maybe a better question would be what does the ATV give you that a Roku doesn't? I'm really having a hard time seeing the appeal of the ATV and assume I must be missing something based on how much Paul loves it.

        • Skolvikings

          In reply to Sprtfan:

          I've owned Roku devices for years, including the Roku 4K. Unfortunately, the Roku has really gone downhill and fast, both in terms of UI as well as hardware reliability. At this point, the only viable options for me are Apple TV and Fire TV. Fortunately, a Fire TV device is nearly half the price of Apple TV and it's quite capable. (The full version, not the stick.)

    • Michael Rivers

      In reply to Sprtfan:

      I own and use both, and I would say yes, access to Apple content is really the only main difference . If you have a Kinect for the Xbox, it's very nice to be able to use voice commands without picking up a remote.

  14. glenn8878

    Expensive box, but not an one stop console. It won't do 4K YouTube. Live sports could mean Sling TV, but there's Roku and Chromecast that can provide this cheaper. Chromecast offers its own live broadcasts yet it's a work in progress too and I'm not willing to buy into Google just for this. Roku is just more flexible and cheaper so I can put one on each room.

  15. Angusmatheson

    I hooked up a Bluetooth keyboard to our Apple TV. It has been great. Can’t play many games with it, but it is so much harder to lose, you can’t accidentally use it upside down, and makes typing in search options so much easier than then one letter at a time with the remote. You also need the remote for Siri (or the Apple remote iPhone app). Which seems to me silly. Why not always on like Xbox with kinect. Or do we need to buy homepods to get always on Siri? My experience with Echo has been meh - but it does seem that everyone feels that speaking to your speaker is the future. It seems to me as many devices listening, and then choosing the best would be ideal. So why not put a microphone in the TV too?

  16. Ugur

    The box is dead to me since a) i saw they have not replaced the crappy remote and b) i read the Verge review where they talked about how the thing does not play 1080 p stuff in 1080 p mode and instead tries to force convert it to 4k hdr and by it's crappy conversion makes the 1080p content look much worse. Since most content out there is still 1080p..

    Add on top that thanks to political reasoning Apple does not support youtube's video format they use for 4k video playback, so that the youtube app on the apple tv does not play in 4k, well, i wonder for which user group this is a good choice.

    I guess for people who mostly only get their content from iTunes.

    I should add that i have the non 4k apple tv and while the interface looks nice at first glance (like the nicest interface on these boxes), the discoverability of content on iTunes is horrible on it, they don't show 90% of the content with no way to find it other than direct search for it by name.

    Which is horrible to enter with that sucky remote.

    And yes, i know there is the remote app for iOS devices, but i use an Android phone as daily driver so i don't have that remote app on it and also if i'm going to use a remote app on my phone i can just as well use chromecast and throw anything at the tv using that.

    Sorry Apple, but this only seems nice at very superficial look, once one looks closer, it can fall apart very quickly.

    • mikiem

      In reply to Ugur:

      "i read the Verge review ... the thing does not play 1080 p stuff in 1080 p mode and instead tries to force convert it to 4k hdr and by it's crappy conversion makes the 1080p content look much worse."

      That's a shame... As you wrote, most content is 1080p. I've found that if the TV has good upscaling, the [shrinking] price difference for a 4k TV is well worth it, because a 1080p picture looks so much better.

    • PincasX

      In reply to Ugur:

      So based on your other comment I went and read the review on The Verge and you left out a critical bit. The poor quality 1080p upscaling was limited to one source, HBO Go, they said other sources of 1080p looked just fine. Kind of a key bit of information to omit.

      • Todd Northrop

        In reply to PincasX:

        No, you're wrong. They did not say it's only worse on HBO Go. They said it's worse on everything because the Apple TV does not allow the receiver or TV to do the up-conversion -- it has already done it itself. So all the advanced processing that comes in today's advanced receivers and TVs is wasted. The last thing I would want to do the up-conversion is the streaming device, especially in a high-end setup.

        The review said the reason that Apple chose to do the up-conversion is to avoid mode switching on the Apple TV, which would cause a very brief blanking of the picture. It would be "un-Apple-like" to do that. Which is preposterous, because you're sacrificing the quality of everything just to avoid a second of blank screen before it starts playing.

        • Mark Togan

          In reply to Speednet:

          I'm glad its not just me that noticed this 1080p upscaling from the ATV4K being so poor. Seems my tv blows it away considerably. Guess the only solution is to run the ATV4K in 1080p mode and switch to 4k when needed. Considering that most of the content is 1080p it wont make a difference. And in a high end setup I would rely on 4k itunes movies anyway considering the bit rate on UHD blurays will be much better.

        • PincasX

          In reply to Speednet:

          Actually I am not wrong. I'm going to go ahead and quote from the article:

          "And it makes some 1080p content look less than great"

          They used the word some and you are saying they used the word everything. These words do not mean the same thing.

      • Ugur

        In reply to PincasX: No, i didn't leave out a critical bit, the Verge fellas elaborated further on it on their Vergecast podcast and so what happens is basically that when running 1080 p content (as i said before) the Apple tv does not switch to 1080 p mode (as it should) since, well, Apple, and they replied to the Verge that switching modes would be "inelegant" (which is like a typical excuse they'd state when they don't have a proper solution in place yet for something) and so then the content is converted on the fly to play in the 4k+hdr mode and looks much worse for most content.
        It is not only for HBO Go content but basically for pretty much any 1080 p content which one can get from anywhere outside of itunes.
        The itunes exception is because for iTunes Apple tries to reencode the videos themselves where they can so some of that then is available in fitting format there for that 1080p content tried to be played in 4k hdr by their box version.

        Just listen to the Vergecast podcast for more details, but yeah, most 1080p content will look sucky on it until Apple changes their mind and lets it play in 1080p mode and switches the mode for it as it should.

        It's also not just the Verge fellas saying that, there are meanwhile several more reviews by other sites criticising the exact same points.

    • Kishore Shyam

      In reply to Ugur:

      I have a doubt can we download the 4k HDR content from iTunes or is it only available for streaming? obviously 64 gb won't be enough for more than 3 movies.. so can we only stream and not download it? two problems arises one is the issue with licensing and other is storage... i hope Apple comes out with some solution onto this.!

      • Ugur

        In reply to Kishore_Shyam:

        That's maybe something Paul could test since i will not buy it until Apple gets youtube 4k videos going and also fixes it so 1080p movies are played in 1080p mode.

  17. mikiem

    "... 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. "

    Interesting... Maybe it's forcing a high bit rate stream? Maybe it's adding some processing? I could see there being deficiencies in the TV's apps, but not all of your boxes too.

    "... 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."

    That I think depends on what you want to watch... The conventional wisdom I keep reading is that at 1st most watch everything they can find UHD with Netflix, then go back to watching what they want to watch, at 1080p.

    "... 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."

    For sports/games that are broadcast, the streams are often higher quality than what whatever network puts out for its regular programming. If you live in a less built up or congested area, OTA reception might be great [digital broadcast is line-of-sight, so the more buildings there are, the more chances that they'll block the signal you want]. If not, the most basic tier of cable service should cover it inexpensively. 

  18. envinan

    4K videos on Apple TV are pretty awesome. You can watch all latest 4K movies and TV shows for free on your Android and iOS devices using Faculty App. You just need to download Faculty apk to watch HD movies.