Apple TV 4K

Score

Pros

  • Slick and powerful
  • Siri voice controls are great
  • Growing app store
  • Clever remote
  • Seamless setup, if you own an iPhone

Cons

  • Remote not great for gaming
  • Automatic upscaling not always a benefit
  • Some key apps missing
  • Need to be an iPhone user to get the most out of it

Key Features

  • Review Price: £179
  • 64-bit A10X Fusion chip
  • 32GB or 64GB storage
  • Size: H35mm x W98mm x D98mm 425g
  • HDR10 and Dolby Vision compatible
  • High speed HDMI needed for 4K/HDR (sold separately)
  • Bluetooth remote with touchpad, IR, gyroscope and accelerometer
  • Connectivity: HDMI 2.0a, Gigabit Ethernet, Bluetooth 5.0, IR receiver
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What is the Apple TV 4K?

The Apple TV 4K is the latest of Apple’s streaming boxes. The units are rarely updated, but we’ve now had two in as many years because of the advent of 4K and HDR TVs.

4K TVs have become the standard. It’s possible to get decent ultra-high-definition sets for well under £1000 pounds now, and many also support HDR (high dynamic range). Both these technologies make a huge difference to the viewing experience. 4K makes everything sharper than it was in the HD era, but it’s HDR that’s the truly exciting step forward.

In essence, HDR provides more vibrant colours, extra brightness and greater contrast, making the viewing experience gorgeously cinematic. Of course, this is simplifying things somewhat, so if you want greater detail then read our explainer articles linked below.

Related: What is 4K? | What is HDR?

What you should take note of is that the Apple TV 4K supports the entry-level HDR10 standard, as well as the more impressive Dolby Vision, which should make the box future-proof for the next few years at least.

The Apple TV 4K is everything you’d expect from an Apple sequel. It’s faster, smoother and smarter than previous versions, has a rich ecosystem of apps, and is easy to use.

However, if you’ve recently bought a high-end smart TV from a top manufacturer then you may well question whether the 4K Apple TV is worth it. After all, newer models have their own slick interfaces and apps. In this instance the Apple TV is a harder sell, but it still has plenty going for it – even if you have one of the best 4K HDR TVs.

Here’s a video of the 4K Apple TV launch:

Apple TV 4K – Design and specs

The Apple TV is a neat little black box. It’s the same size as the previous model and even looks almost identical, bar a small circular vent at the bottom.

A vent often means a fan, and indeed the Apple TV 4K comes with a unit to keep it cool when it’s pushed. Don’t worry, though: no matter what I put the 4K Apple TV through, it remained whisper-quiet. I didn’t hear the faintest whirr or whistle. It does mean that you should consider its placement, though, away from carpets or dusty areas to ensure the vents remain clean and clear.

The need for a fan comes down to the Apple TV 4K’s impressive performance. It’s powered by the company’s A10X Fusion chip, the same one found in the fantastic 10.5-inch iPad Pro and latest 12.9-inch model. These are computing powerhouses in a compact form – as is the Apple TV 4K. It needs that grunt to upscale all content, which it does with aplomb. It also runs apps and games smoothly, and is highly responsive, whether it’s opening apps or playing games.

Elsewhere, this robust box sports an HDMI out and Ethernet in. Of course, you don’t need to connect it to the internet via a cable; the 4K Apple TV supports dual-band Wi-Fi, which I found coped well, even when streaming 4K HDR content.

Whether this works for you will depend on the distance the Apple TV 4K sits from the router, the setup of your network, and even the design of your house. I did find the Apple TV to be more reliable than a Chromecast 2 at a distance of 15m from the router.

Apple’s little black box comes in 32GB and 64GB storage configurations. Since it’s likely that you’ll be streaming most content, I don’t see much point in paying the extra £20/$20 for the larger option. Unless you intend to download dozens of games at a time, that is.

Related: iPhone X

Apple TV 4K – Siri remote

Apple has invested a lot of thought in the Apple TV 4K’s remote. This proved an excellent accompaniment to the first model and is just as good now. The only slight change from the original is the white band around the Menu button, which makes it more visible and easier to tell the buttons apart via touch alone.

Overall, there isn’t much to it. It’s slim and light, has six buttons as well as a clickable touchpad. It also has an accelerometer and gyroscope to control it via twisting and swinging, but these will mainly be used for gaming – it has similar functionality to a Nintendo Wiimote. It charges via a Lightning cable and lasts for around six months on a single charge.

It’s a doddle to navigate the menus using the remote, and Siri is more useful here than she’s ever been on the iPhone. Press the dedicated Siri button and you can ask her a bevy of questions from “what’s the weather like tomorrow” to the more contextual “who is that actress” when watching a movie. An overlay slides up so you can continue to watch while satisfying your curiosity.Apple TV

Siri is also the simplest way to find what you want to watch across streaming apps, or jump back to watching something you hadn’t finished. Most annoying is the fact that search doesn’t work across all apps, so while you can find content on Netflix and iTunes easily, iPlayer or Now TV content doesn’t show up.

The use of Siri here is clever, but not unique to Apple. Many smart TVs, the Amazon Fire TV with Alexa Remote, Nvidia Shield TV and Roku offer similar voice command functions these days. However, the 4K Apple TV has one of the slickest implementation, not least because using it doesn’t take you out of the moment.

The remote can also turn on your TV and adjust its volume via an IR blaster, if your TV is compatible.

Related: iPhone 8

Apple TV 4K – Setup

Setting up the 4K Apple TV couldn’t be easier – if you’re an iPhone user, that is. Simply enable Bluetooth and place your iPhone near the little black box and off you go. Wi-Fi settings and Apple ID are automatically synced, so you can start firing up apps within a couple of minutes. You can then also use your iPhone as a second remote or keyboard for typing.

Everyone else will have to fiddle with the remote to input usernames and passwords using an annoying on-screen keyboard. You can also spell them out phonetically using the Siri remote, but I’m not a big fan of spelling my passwords out loud, even if it’s in the privacy of my own home.

In the final stage of setup you’ll be asked whether or not you want to turn on HDR, assuming you have an HDR-compatible TV. The Apple TV 4K knows what version of HDR your TV can use and automatically sets the right one. Turn it on and everything – from the menus to the apps and videos – swaggers with extra colour and contrast. 4K is always on, meaning content that isn’t in ultra-high-definition is automatically upscaled. This isn’t always for the best, however.

Apple TV 4K – Picture quality

The automatic 4K and HDR upscaling is a mixed blessing. On the one side upscaled HD/non-HDR content looks sharper and has more detail in low light. For example The Amazing Spider-Man 2 via an HD stream on Netflix looks great, even during the most over-the-top action scenes with Spidey flinging himself around. Better still, the 4K Apple TV managed to imbue extra contrast into the dark scenes of the final set-piece, at least when compared to watching it through the LG TV Netflix app.

So it’s all good then? Well, not quite. Lower-quality content suffers from distracting oversharpening around moving bodies, as well as blocky artefacts and ghosting. Watch the poorly shot first season of The Office (UK) and you’ll find the Apple TV 4K makes it look worse by doing its best to make it look better.

If you live in the UK and enjoy using the iPlayer app you’ll also find it lagging behind the iPad and smart TV versions. Not only does live TV and standard-definition programming come with an odd stiltedness, it also doesn’t automatically play the next episode in a series. We are used to slick streaming apps, but the iPlayer app that works so well on the iPad and iPhone needs some serious updating on the 4K Apple TV.

There is a way around some of these issues. Dig into the Apple TV 4K’s settings and there are options to change resolution and refresh rates and toggle HDR on and off. With a little trial and error you can find the right setting for the right source and solve these problems, but then you have to switch to 4K HDR again for a better source. I’d prefer the Apple TV 4K to automatically switch settings depending on the quality of the source, just like many smart TVs do.

This will only affect you if you watch low-resolution content – if you don’t you won’t be too bothered. And when 4K HDR content is available then you’re in for a treat – it looks sumptuous via the Apple TV.

The big advantage of the Apple TV, if you use iTunes to collect movies, is that you pay the same price for a 4K HDR movie as you would for its HD counterpart. If you already own a movie in your iTunes account then this automatically gets upgraded to 4K HDR, if or when it’s available. As someone who’s old enough to have bought my favourite movies on VHS, DVD and then Blu-ray, this is an absolute godsend, and one of the best reasons to start building an iTunes library.

Apple TV 4K – tvOS, apps and gaming

When I reviewed the 2015 Apple TV I was underwhelmed by the tvOS App Store. tvOS, the system the two latest Apple TVs use, had only just come to fruition and there wasn’t much to choose from.

A lot has changed in two years and now there are now thousands of apps, from games to cooking apps and interactive storybooks to fitness pals. Many of these are compelling, but there are some glaring omissions. The Amazon Prime Video app is the most high-profile of these, although Apple has confirmed we‘ll be getting it before the end of 2017. There’s no news on Spotify joining the gamut of Apple TV apps, however.

If you do want to use these apps on your telly then you can via the Apple TV 4K by mirroring your iPhone or iPad.

Another thing we’ve been waiting for in the UK is the TV app. Currently only available in the US, the TV app creates a single view of all the stuff you love and watch from a number of sources and notifies you when the next episode of your favourite series is available. It also provides a seamless view across your iPhone, iPad and 4K Apple TV so you can pick up where you left off.

We’ve seen these features before, but never a product that brings content from many apps and stores together in one place. It’s the binge-watching holy grail and the crusade to bring it to the UK’s shores is nearly at an end. Apple has confirmed that the UK will get the TV app before the end of the year.

So the 4K Apple TV is a star when it comes to viewing, but it’s also a capable gaming machine, thanks to the considerable graphical power the A10X chip packs. Unfortunately the Siri remote is a casual gaming controller at best.

Many of the games on the 4K Apple TV are ports of iOS games and that means lots of platformers and endless runners. These need precision controls, without which some frustration and yelling at the TV is inevitable. For titles that require less finesse, like adventure games, the remote works well. Lumino City, for example, looks marvelous and plays well with the remote thanks to its point-and-click gameplay.

Lumino City

Games look gorgeous on any 4K HDR TV that can make the most of the Apple TV 4K. Real Racing 3 is a great example that looks stunning on the big screen. It was also the one game where I experienced occasional slowdown during intense races sequences.

If you want to enjoy games more on the 4K Apple TV then invest in a Bluetooth controller. The Apple TV 4K is compatible with most of them, and playing with one makes a huge difference to action games like Galaxy of Fire: Manticore Rising and platformers.

One thing lacking from the first versions of tvOS was parental control. Happily there’s now a Restrictions setting that lets you manage this on a content or app level, so you won’t have to worry about little eyes seeing what they shouldn’t.

While the 4K Apple TV is about entertainment, it is also the hub for Apple’s take on the smart home, called HomeKit.

This means you can use the 4K Apple TV to control any HomeKit-compatible products. You can ask it to turn down your smart lights when you’re about to watch a movie or turn on your security camera at night. The range of compatible products isn’t huge, but it is growing.

Why buy the Apple TV 4K?

If you’ve got a 4K HDR TV and aren’t impressed with its smarts then the Apple TV 4K is an obvious upgrade for under £200. It’s slick, easy to use and will soon come with all the apps that a fully fledged entertainment system needs.

The Siri remote is great for navigating, and the voice commands with cross-app content search are intuitive. If you care about gaming on your Apple TV 4K then get a proper third-party controller.

Perhaps the best thing about Apple’s latest TV box is iTunes, and that’s not a phrase I thought I’d ever utter. Free upgrades to 4K HDR feel like the future, and have made me consider building an iTunes movie library for the first time.

If you’re not an iPhone user then you’d be better off opting for a different streaming box or stick. The Nvidia Shield is great if you’re also a gamer, however it’s worth waiting until the new 4K version is on its way. Amazon is also updating its Fire TV at the end of October, and the £70 price will be appealing if you’re on a budget.

Verdict

The slickest TV streaming box around got the 4K HDR upgrade it needed. If your smart TV is a bit thick and you’re an Apple user then the Apple TV 4K is an essential addition to your entertainment arsenal.

Score