Apple TV 4K Review
4K, HDR and Dolby Vision, is Apple's new TV a game changer?
What is the Apple TV 4K?The Apple TV 4K is the latest generation of the company's handy little media player and, as the name might suggest, it now supports 4K. Apple have been surprisingly slow to the 4K party but, now that they've finally arrived, the world's most valuable company has done so in style. So the Apple TV doesn't just support 4K but also High Dynamic Range (HDR10) and Dolby Vision, making it the only media box to currently support the latter. The Apple TV also uses the same A10X Fusion chip found in the iPad Pro, making it one of the most powerful media boxes available – along with Nvidia's Shield.
In fact the arrival of Apple's new box was enough to spook Nvidia into launching a remote-only version of the Shield at the same £179 asking price as the 32GB Apple TV 4K. At the time of writing (September 2017) the 64GB Apple TV 4K can also be picked up for £199 but stocks of both versions are currently very limited. It wasn't just the Apple TV 4K's hardware that impressed, the company also made waves with their 4K pricing on iTunes and free upgrades of films you've already bought on iTunes to 4K and HDR as and when new transfers become available. That news had Amazon immediately adjusting their pricing policy, which suggests the launch of the Apple TV 4K has already been game changing to a degree.
That shouldn't really come as a surprise, the arrival of the original Apple TV helped pave the way for the app-based approach to watching TV that has now become the norm for many consumers. Since then the market has been flooded with cheap Chinese media boxes that use Android as an operating system, as well as more mass-market products from Nvidia, Amazon, Roku and Google. So does the Apple 4K TV set a new standard for media boxes and has Apple once again changed the game when it comes to streaming and watching content from a separate device? Let's find out...
Note: Apple released a major firmware update after this review was published that have addressed a number of the issues we raised.
DesignIn terms of its design the new Apple TV 4K looks identical to the previous generation and it remains a superb example of elegant minimalism. This simple black box with its curved and glossy sides and matte top is identified purely by the Apple logo and the letters 'tv'. It might be simple but there's no question it has influenced countless other media boxes and as you'd expect from Apple, it's beautifully made with a high level of build quality. In terms of its dimensions, the Apple TV 4K measures 98 x 35 x 98mm (WxHxD) and weighs in at 425g.
It remains a beautiful example of elegant minimalism and lovely build quality
Connections & ControlApple's ongoing war with any kind of physical connection continues with the Apple TV 4K, which boasts the bare minimum. So you get a two-pin connector for the included power cord, an HDMI output and an Ethernet port and that's it, not even a USB port. At least the physical connections are highly-spec'd with the HDMI 2.0a output supporting 4K/60p, HDCP 2.2 and High Dynamic Range (HDR10 and Dolby Vision). The Ethernet connector is a Gigabit port and the built-in WiFi supports 802.11ac with MIMO and simultaneous dual band (2.4GHz and 5GHz). There's also Bluetooth 5.0 wireless technology built in and an IR receiver but no HDMI cable included, which is a shame at the price point. The absence of the latter was especially annoying when the Apple TV 4K informed us that the cable we had previously been using for our old Apple TV wasn't high speed enough, necessitating a cheeky bit of rewiring.The Apple TV 4K comes with the latest Siri Remote included which uses both Bluetooth 5.0 wireless technology and an IR transmitter. The remote has a built-in microphone for interacting with Siri and an accelerometer and three-axis gyro for using with games. You recharge the built-in battery using a provided lighting connector and, according to Apple, one full charge should last months based on typical daily usage. You can check the remote's battery level in the Remotes and Devices sub-menu.
The remote is certainly stylish with a glossy and matte black two tone finish that matches the unit itself and it looks almost identical to the previous version but now has a white ring around the Menu button, which makes it easier to identify that button in a darkened room. The remote measures 124 x 38 x 6.3mm and weighs 45g, so some might find it a bit small and it's certainly easy to misplace – in fact finding a black remote on a black sofa in a blacked out cinema room is very tricky, even with the white ring.
Otherwise its the same layout, with a touchpad at the top which you swipe your finger across to go left, right, up or down and press to enter. There are also buttons for TV, microphone, play/pause and up/down. Overall we found the remote to be reasonably effective at navigating the operating system, playing games and interacting with Siri. However despite using Bluetooth, if there are too many obstructions to the Apple TV 4K itself the response can be quite laggy, and fine movements using the touchpad can be a real pain.
Of course you can always use your iPhone or iPad as a controller instead and we were pleased to discover that the auto device detection on the Samsung Q7 worked flawlessly, allowing us to control the Apple TV 4K with the Samsung One Remote.
The Siri Remote looks nice but can be a bit fiddly to use and easy to misplace
Features & SpecsThe Apple TV 4K certainly looks well specified on paper and as already mentioned it uses the A10X Fusion chip with 64-bit architecture. In terms of video formats it supports H.264/HEVC SDR (Standard Dynamic Range) video up to 2160/60p and for High Dynamic Range it supports HEVC Dolby Vision and HDR10 up to 2160/60p. In terms of H.264 it uses Baseline Profile level 3.0 or lower with AAC-LC audio up to 160 Kbps per channel, 48kHz, stereo audio in .m4v, .mp4 and .mov file formats and for MPEG-4 video it supports up to 2.5 Mbps, 640x480 pixels, 30 fps, Simple Profile with AAC-LC audio up to 160 Kbps, 48kHz, stereo audio in .m4v, .mp4 and .mov file formats. On the audio side the Apple TV 4K supports HE-AAC (V1), AAC (up to 320 Kbps), protected AAC (from iTunes Store), MP3 (up to 320 Kbps), MP3 VBR, Apple Lossless, FLAC, AIFF and WAV; along with AC‑3 (Dolby Digital 5.1) and E‑AC‑3 (Dolby Digital Plus 7.1 surround sound). finally in terms of photo formats it supports HEIF, JPEG, GIF and TIFF.
The Apple TV 4K uses the tvOS operating system which delivers a slick and effective user interface, along with Siri voice assistant which was good but not as intuitive as Alexa and particularly Google Assistant. Naturally the Apple TV 4K has a huge selection of apps and is thankfully a lot less US-centric than it used to be, although enhanced sports coverage still isn't supported in the UK yet. However there is flawless integration with other Apple devices and screen mirroring works very well with most apps. In terms of video streaming apps that are important for the UK there's Netflix, Amazon, NOW TV, YouTube, BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub and My 5. Apple has also launched the Apple TV app, allowing you to consolidate all your channels and content in a single place and even pay for additional content.
MORE: What is Dolby Atmos?
Despite the impressive features there a few omissions such as 4K and HDR on YouTube and Dolby Atmos support
Setup & OperationThe Apple TV 4K is very easy to setup which is both a blessing and a curse. On the plus side, adding the Apple TV 4K to your wireless home network couldn't be easier and if you own an iPhone or iPad you can do it via that device in a matter of seconds. If not there is a manual network setup that will take slightly longer but is also very intuitive to follow. However Apple have, unfortunately, also applied this approach to the video setup and here the results are less successful.
MORE: What is Dolby Vision?The Apple TV 4K will detect your display and then set the output to what it thinks is the best resolution and format. So for example if your TV supports 4K, Dolby Vision and 60Hz then the device will output 4K Dolby Vision 60Hz but conversely if your TV supports 4K, HDR10 and 60HZ then the Apple TV will output 4K HDR 60Hz. So far so good and if your display doesn't support HDR at all or is only Full HD then the Apple TV will adjust its output accordingly.
We tested the Apple TV with a Samsung Q7, an LG B7 and a JVC projector and overall the automatic setup worked correctly but there are some issues relating to the Apple TV's efforts to always deliver the highest possible format. So for example owners of 2016 LG OLEDs will find the output automatically set to 4K HDR 60Hz and if they want Dolby Vision support they will have to manually select 4K Dolby Vision 30/25/24Hz. The automatic selection of 60Hz will also cause problems with certain apps in the UK and, although Netflix looked great, NOW TV and the BBC iPlayer exhibited noticeable judder and dropped frames unless 50Hz was manually selected. The Apple TV does have a large selection for different formats from 4K Dolby Vision 60Hz down to 4K SDR 24Hz, so thankfully there's room to manually change the format to suit your needs.
Apple have now added Match Content Frame Rate which offers automatic refresh rate selection, so assuming the relevant app supports this feature the Apple TV 4K will output the correct frame rate depending on the content. So for example if something is in 24p on Netflix then the Apple TV 4K will automatically output the content at the correct 24p. Conversely if you're watching 25p content on the BBC iPlayer it will output at 50p which is very helpful. At the moment the Now TV app doesn't appear to support this feature but hopefully it will be updated soon.
However the Apple TV 4K currently has a massive flaw that Apple need to address immediately. Once the format has been selected, either automatically or manually, the Apple TV then applies it to all content – which means that if you have it set to 4K Dolby Vision 60Hz then everything, regardless of how it was actually graded and mastered, is output in that format. Now we've already mentioned the frame rate, which is more of an issue here in the UK, and in terms of the resolution we have absolutely no problem with the Apple TV upscaling lower resolution content to 4K, which will have to be done at some point and it does this very well. However content graded for standard dynamic range was never intended for and nor should it ever be converted to high dynamic range, whether that's HDR10 or Dolby Vision.
The results of this up conversion of SDR to HDR are simply terrible with over-saturated colours and overblown highlights that destroy the original intention of the content creators. What the Apple TV should be doing is establishing the capabilities of the display and then outputting the best experience subject to the content itself. So HDR10 content should be output as HDR10, Dolby Vision content should be output as Dolby Vision and SDR content should remain as SDR. At the moment to achieve this, you have to manually change the format to match the content each time, which is a real pain. Whilst many consumers (and, we notice, even some reviewers) will be completely unaware of this problem, AV enthusiasts will simply find it unacceptable and Apple needs to address this with a firmware update soon.
Thankfully Apple have now addressed this issue as well and added Match Content Range to the Video and Audio sub-menu, which means that the dynamic range of content is now matched to how it was originally created. So if content is actually in Dolby Vision and your display can accept Dolby Vision, then the Apple TV 4K will output Dolby Vision. However if it was created in HDR10 then it will be output in HDR10 and if the content is in standard dynamic range, then it is output in SDR. We were pleased to see how quickly Apple responded to this issue and the speed with which they addressed it.
This major issue aside, the rest of the setup and operation of the Apple TV 4K was very good. The cable check feature is useful for making sure your HDMI cable can deliver the best possible experience and, depending on the format selected, there's also the option to change the chroma sub-sampling, along with a feature to help calibrate your display. In the Settings menu you'll find a sub-menu relating to General setup including downloading screensavers, although the Aerial one that comes pre-loaded is excellent. There are also sub-menus for your Apple accounts, AirPlay, Remotes and Devices, Apps, Network setup and System information.
We were pleased with how quickly Apple addressed the SDR/HDR output issues on the Apple TV 4K
PerformanceThe Apple TV actually performed extremely well once setup correctly. Of course the main reason for buying an Apple TV is to access iTunes because any decent 4K HDR TV will already have all the video streaming apps (and more) and will probably do them better in many cases. Thankfully the interface with iTunes is excellent and renting or buying films is very easy with an impressive selection, many of which are now available in 4K, HDR and, depending on the studio, Dolby Vision. Of the major studios, only Disney aren't currently offering their movies in 4K and HDR but hopefully they will soon but all the others seem to be represented. At present Universal, Sony and Lionsgate don't seem to be offering their movies in 4K in the UK but since they do in the States, it should only be a matter of time.
Apple's pricing for 4K HDR/Dolby Vision movies is very competitive and their decision to upgrade films that you have already bought to 4K and HDR is nothing short of a masterstroke. There is a handy '4K HDR Room' that makes finding 4K content easier, although you can always ask Siri but she can be a bit hit-and-miss. However you can't download 4K movies, a decision that either relates to copy protection or the sheer size of the files, which is a shame for those with slower internet connections who might want to download overnight. If you do have a slower internet connection you could try starting a stream and then pausing, thus allowing it to buffer sufficiently whilst you do something else.
The Apple TV 4K was pleasingly fast and responsive in operation and this applied to navigating the home page or menus, downloading apps and selecting different apps. The Netflix app works extremely well, although when we first set the Apple TV up, Netflix wasn't showing HDR as an option. We've read that some people have found turning Quick Start on has fixed this but it didn't work for us, however simply restarting the Apple TV resulted in the HDR and Dolby Vision options appearing in the Netflix app. We watched numerous content on Netflix including Narcos, The Defenders and Star Trek Discovery and they all looked fantastic on the Samsung Q7 and LG B7 TVs. It was interesting that in the case of Star Trek Discovery, which is only in HD, there was the option to watch it in HDR10 or Dolby Vision, which is a first for us. We also had no problems with the output being correctly set to match the native frame rate of the content.
The Apple TV was equally as fast and slick when it came to NOW TV, BBC iPlayer, Amazon and YouTube, although as we've already mentioned you'll need to switch to 50Hz to avoid motion issues with Now TV. We were hoping to be able to play the 4K HLG demo on iPlayer, not only to find out if the Apple TV could output HLG but also to see how our various displays responded. Sadly it didn't appear to be an option and nor was logging in or checking the video quality in settings, whilst there's no 4K or HDR on YouTube for the reasons that we've already discussed. In terms of the audio performance, the Apple TV handled Dolby Digital 5.1 very well but since it can also support Dolby Digital Plus 7.1, it would be nice to see Dolby Atmos support added to iTunes and Netflix. In terms of other features, you can access your iTunes music library and Apple Music as well, along with various podcasts – we actually pulled up last week's AVForums podcast – and of course you can look at photos as well.
Correctly set up, the performance was excellent, with great pictures and sound
- Powerful processor
- Auto refresh rate and SDR/HDR
- Dolby Vision support
- Excellent and responsive interface
- Extensive selection of apps
- Cheaper movies on iTunes
- Existing iTunes library upgraded for free
- Attractive design and great build quality
- Remote can be annoying
Apple TV 4K Review
Should I buy one?If you already have a 4K HDR TV with all the main video streaming and catch-up services, then you probably don't really need an Apple TV 4K unless you want access to iTunes. However if you use a projector or it's something that interests you and you're already invested in the iOS eco-system then the Apple TV 4K is definitely worth investigating. In fact if you already have a large iTunes library or you simply want access to cheaper 4K HDR/Dolby Vision films then it's worth picking up for that alone. The Apple TV 4K won't kill off Ultra HD Blu-ray but it certainly provides a viable alternative and includes plenty of other features as well.
It's beautifully designed and very well made, with a slick and responsive operating system and an effective remote. We did find the touchpad on the remote annoying on occasion and Siri isn't as impressive as some of the competition but the A10X Fusion processor delivers plenty of horsepower under the hood. There's a huge number of apps available, including Netflix, Amazon, Now, iPlayer and the Apple TV app, setup is incredibly easy and there is a reasonable amount of flexibility, allowing you to get the best out of your Apple TV.
In terms of performance the Apple TV 4K impressed, with excellent image and sound quality, as well as HDR10 and Dolby Vision support. The latter really sets the Apple TV apart from the competition at the moment and its inclusion will also be a huge boost for Dolby's format, raising its awareness with consumers. Although currently missing, Dolby Atmos is on its way, which is good news, but Apple are unlikely to address the lack of VP9 support which means no 4K and HDR on YouTube. However we're pleased to see that Apple has added Match Content for Frame Rate and Range, which means the Apple TV 4K will automatically output the frame rate and dynamic range in which the content was created.
Apple has already done all the hard work, so it should be relatively straightforward to address this particular issue but until Apple do, you have to manually select the appropriate format in order to watch SDR content correctly. Despite this, the Apple TV 4K remains a great device that has an enormous amount of potential and provides access to loads of 4K HDR movies at very reasonable prices, so for that reason it's deserving of recommendation. However with a few changes, improvements and additions the Apple TV 4K could be a genuine game changer.
What are my alternatives?Assuming you're not interested in access to iTunes then there are literally hundreds of cheap media boxes (mostly from China) that generally use Android as an operating system. Although they provide access to a vast amount of content most of these do require a degree of knowledge to set up. Since the Apple TV 4K is designed to be simple to install, the more direct competition comes from the likes of Amazon, Roku, Google and Nvidia. The Amazon Fire TV Stick certainly does most things well and at £40 it's also great value and they have also just announced the new Fire TV box with 4K HDR support, whilst the same is true of Google's Chromecast, the Ultra version of which will add HDR10 and Dolby Vision support. However in terms of standalone boxes, the obvious competitors to the Apple TV 4K are the Roku 3 and the Nvidia Shield. The former bears more than a passing resemblance but provides great features and flexibility, whilst the latter is probably the closest device at the moment. The Shield might not support Dolby Vision but, along with being a games console, it does just about everything else and for £189 comes with a full games controller as well.
Networking, Internet, Streaming quality9
Set up, Menus, Remote9
Value for Money8
Our Review Ethos
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