Apple TV 4K may be entering the market late but it brings with it a host of features and will upgrade your HD content to 4K for free
- Good support for 4K HDR content
- Siri voice search is brilliant
- No need to re-purchase existing iTunes HD content in 4K
- Quite pricey
- Streaming service support is patchy
The market for 4K streamers feels saturated. With Google, Roku, Amazon and Nvidia all pitching their products across a range of consumers, the arrival of the Apple TV 4K to the party feels late. When has that ever put off Apple, though? It clearly believes 4K’s time has finally come, and its latest streamer is fully equipped for this brave new world.
Apple TV (2017) review: What you need to know
Apple TV 4K was launched alongside the iPhone 8 and iPhone X at Apple’s September 2017 event. Powered by the same A10X Fusion chip found in the iPhone 7 and iPad Pro, it has iTunes and Netflix built in and the Siri voice-controlled remote searches across 60 services including BBC iPlayer, NOW TV Netflix and Amazon Video.
Advancements from the fourth-generation Apple TV include better Bluetooth, HDMI and more storage, plus, later this year, the Apple TV app will launch in the UK that will let people stream content and sport on their connected iPhone.
Apple TV 4K review: Price and competition
The Apple TV 4K starts at £179 for the 32GB model and £199 for the 64GB version and goes on sale on 22 September, but it won’t have things all its own way in the 4K streamer market. Quite apart from the fact that most 4K TVs have their own smart streaming facilities these days (and pretty good ones at that), there are plenty of choices for consumers in the add-on market as well.
Google’s Chromecast Ultra sits at the bottom end of this scale, with a cheap-looking dongle design to boot. On sale for around £69, it’s a basic streamer that comes with a selection of apps but is very much targeted as an accompanying device. It has no remote control and can only be streamed to via a smartphone, tablet or laptop.
The closest rival to the Apple TV 4K is the Nvidia Shield TV, with its focus on gaming. This comes in at a pricier £189 for the 16GB model, which seems expensive in comparison, but does a game controller in the box as well as a regular remote control.
Apple TV 4K doesn’t offer a significant deal more than its rivals, and its price point puts it at the higher end of the group but, as with many Apple products, it plays into the hands of its fans.
It certainly offers enough to put it on par with these competitors, and when you throw in the Apple extras (namely Apple Music and Home Sharing) and its closed system, it makes Apple TV 4K feel exclusive, but slightly frustrating at the same time.
Apple TV 4K review: Design
You’d be forgiven for not being able to tell the difference between the Apple TV 4K and its predecessor. Little has changed, aesthetically speaking.
The Apple TV 4K box still measures a compact 98 x 98 x 35mm and is almost identical in look, feel and weight compared to the 4th generation model. The main difference is the lack of a USB Type-C port on the rear with now only three ports on the back of the Apple TV: the figure of eight mains port, a single HDMI 2.0a output and Gigabit Ethernet. Of course, the TV 4K also has 802.11ac Wi-Fi, which most will use to connect to their home network.
Similarly, little separates the latest Siri remote from its predecessor. It’s slim and simply designed, with a touch surface at the top that makes light work of scrolling and swiping through menus, while a small selection of carefully chosen button makes accessing all the TV’s key functions a breeze.
The software has had some minor design tweaks to icons, in line with how those icons have changed in iOS 11 and third-party app design changes have been carried over as well. The recommended content panels are now larger, to make them stand out more, and menus align slightly differently, with more focus given to popular content or shows, while films Apple is promoting are displayed beyond the carousel across the top of the screen.
Streamers like the Apple TV 4K are effectively just black boxes and will sit comfortably alongside a PS4, Sky box and black TV in your AV rack, but the slightly chunkier Apple TV makes it feel more high-end than most. It’s certainly more tasteful than the gaudy Nvidia Shield TV and, design-wise, Roku’s offerings look like toys in comparison.
Across the board, the Apple TV 4K has stayed true to it original design cues and, while many may want something more tangible to justify shelling out relatively vast sums of cash for the product, it results in a familiar product that will appeal to new users as much as existing owners. A fine line to walk. Plus, it’s what’s inside that counts for more.
Apple TV 4K review: Hardware
The Apple TV 4K is available in 32GB and 64GB models (for a premium, of course); HDMI is up from 1.4 to 2.0a on the Apple TV 4K, enabling the extra colours that HDR10 and Dolby Vision bring; Bluetooth is now 5.0, up from 4.0, giving Apple TV 4K more than three times the range when pairing a phone, controller or keyboard.
The fifth-generation 4K model runs on the “more powerful and efficient” A10X Fusion chip, which Apple says is twice as fast as the A8 in the fourth-generation Apple TV. It doesn’t have the latest A11 Bionic chip, which is odd because driving the 3,840 x 2,160 4K TV screen is tougher than driving the 1080p display of an iPhone 8 Plus.
Still, there’s clearly enough power here to drive the interface and display 4K movies. I rarely saw lag when using the previous fourth-generation Apple TV and this Apple TV is no different.
Apple TV 4K review: Setup and ease of use
If you’re already inside the Apple ecosystem, setting up the Apple TV 4K is a dream. Even typing in long email addresses and passwords for your Apple ID is easy as you can dictate them to Siri via the remote. From getting it out of the box to browsing content took me less than five minutes.
During setup, the Apple TV 4K box will check the highest possible format your TV is capable of. If you choose to enable HDR, which we recommend you do, Apple TV 4K will check you have a compatible set. If you don’t, it will present you with the highest-quality format your TV can handle; no fiddling around with complicated settings required, although you can set things up manually if you want, and can toggle HDR on and off if you need to. That’s important as some sets don’t deal with all HDR content equally well.
Apple TV 4K review: Software
Content is incredibly easy to find on the Apple 4K TV due to the minimalistic UI and effective voice commands, but, as you’d imagine, Apple pushes its own iTunes purchases quite hard across the software. The homescreen shows recommended content on a carousel along the top. Below this carousel are the most popular Apple apps – including Movies, TV, Photos, Music, Podcasts, the Apple App Store and Computers – before rows of third-party apps appear.
Netflix is automatically added on the homepage, but to use it you’ll need to install the app from the App Store. And this goes for all other apps including YouTube, Channel 4 News, NASA TV, Disney and more. A slight faff, especially if you have some of these apps already installed on the connected phone, but this is the case when signing in with an Apple ID on any iOS device so it’s an established, yet minor, grumble.
Diving into each of these apps tailors what is shown in the carousel to help you get more specific recommendations, and the apps have their own navigation menus that drill down further. All is straightforward and labelled intuitively. For example, linking a phone will automatically pull in all your previously purchased content via your iTunes account; to access it, simply open the TV or movies app and scroll along to the Purchased tab.
In each of the main libraries, Apple gives Netflix a surprising level of prominence, which ties in with Netflix’s own push into 4K but, equally, it promotes HBO and ITV, and seeing this breadth of content is refreshing.
To access Photos or link your Mac, you’ll first need to give approval via the main device (the phone or the computer) in Photo Library and Home Sharing; a fiddly extra step, but it is again one that causes a minimal amount of inconvenience. Having your Apple devices all in sync makes it incredibly easy to find the content you’re looking for without any extra downloading so is a worthwhile inconvenience.
Apple TV 4K review: Content
So far, so good, but here’s the Apple TV 4K’s killer feature: when you buy a show from iTunes in HD using Apple TV, or have HD content you’ve previously purchased, Apple will automatically upgrade that show to the highest format for your TV at no extra cost.
This not only means that when you first buy the Apple TV 4K, your entire catalogue is upgraded in one go, it also means that as studios and distributors remaster more films and shows onto higher formats, these individual pieces of content will get upgraded as they go, and importantly there’s no time limit on this. Apple says it will do this as long as you own your Apple TV 4K.
This may sound like a minor feature but is a major selling point of the Apple TV 4K; it takes away any confusion about what is and isn’t available in 4K and the extra cost, and holds true for other emerging standards.
In previous decades, each time a new format was released the older format was practically redundant; Betamax versus VHS, VHS versus DVD, DVD versus Blu-ray and now regular Blu-ray against HDR 4K Blu-rays and streaming.
Of course, iTunes isn’t the cheapest option in the first place, but it’s nice that Apple’s giving back for once. And with Apple TV 4K providing Dolby Vision support, the box is fully equipped for the future of HDR.
And the range of content is huge. I rarely struggled to find something to watch and it often took very little browsing or searching. Crucially, because Apple TV allows you to browse and search across different services without having to visit each in turn, finding out what’s on where is a piece of cake, while iTunes’ “4K Film Room” providing a quick and easy way to browse higher resolution content.
I was also reminded about some classics I’d forgotten about (Groundhog Day, anyone?) and the menus helped us discover new content without feeling forced or contrived in the way Apple Music, or Spotify, pulls together Discover lists, for example.
Apple TV is a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to supported content. The core services are all in place, with apps for Netflix, Amazon Video, BBC iPlayer and all the other major UK streaming TV channels. It isn’t the best choice for sports fans with the Sky Now TV app only providing access to Sports via day passes and no BT Sport app or AirPlay streaming support at all. Music streaming support is pretty solid, though, with support for Apple Music natively and Spotify or Tidal via AirPlay.
In terms of 4K content, however, Apple TV 4K has the edge on its rivals. With iTunes now offering movies and TV in 4K HDR and Apple ending its long-standing tiff with Amazon, you’ve got all the major sources of 4K movies covered, aside from Sky Sports.
And that’s an important development, because by pulling in all available 4K content, regardless of which app you’re in, Apple TV 4K is able to showcase just how much is out there (Groundhog Day in 4K anyone?). It makes it less about the format or the provider, and more about the content, it puts the viewer front and centre and is a move that will ultimately take 4K from its current niche out into the mainstream.
Our biggest complaint is that in the desire to strip everything back; to create a minimal and simple user experience, it falls flat when you have to click on every single entry to see the price and source. Netflix shows are labelled clearly, and as a result are free with a subscription, but when rows of 4K movies are presented it’s not clear which can be rented, which are available through a subscription to an app, or, crucially, how much they cost.
Having ITV content on the Apple TV 4K is a great addition as the ITV app on Sky can be fiddly to use, yet in the case of new show Liar, I knew the show was still available via ITV Player for free yet Apple TV 4K only showed the option to buy it. I had to exit Apple TV to go back to Sky and download it onto our Sky box and this messed with my viewing experience. We then needed a reason to go back to Apple TV 4K so and ended up staying on Sky.
Apple TV 4K review: Siri remote
The Siri remote plays a vital role in using Apple TV 4K and finding this content, as you’d expect, but the touchpad takes a lot of getting used to. If you’ve used a Sky Q remote, the concept of swiping to move through content will be familiar, yet the speed and responsiveness of the swipes across the two remotes vary and this ends up jarring a little. I often sped past a row of shows, or jumped menus accidentally and frustratingly.
On the positive side, voice commands with the Siri remote work fantastically well, which is surprising given how hit and miss Siri can be on the iPhone, so the scrolling issues become less relevant. You can ask Siri to open apps, play songs by Drake on the Music app, or search for specific content, and the latter is where the Siri remote comes into its own.
You can search for 4K content, and it will pull up everything. You can ask for 4K content on Netflix, and it will limit the results. You can even search by actor, genre, film title, decade and format and Apple TV 4K successfully recognised, and delivered results, for the command: “Robert De Niro drama films from the 1980s in 4K.” This, again, highlighted just how many older titles have been remastered.
When playing content, the Siri remote doubles up as a controller. You can use the touchpad to skip forward and back and play or pause or use voice: you can ask Siri to “skip forward ten seconds”, “play at twice the speed” or start again, for example.
This controller functionality goes a step further with games. Swiping on the touchpad controls onscreen characters, clicking the pad makes them jump or you can turn it on its side and drive The Flash around a Batman race course. Apple TV 4K is a long way from replacing our PS4 but it’s an added bonus to be play games on a large screen; something I’d never have previously given much thought.
In fact, given that the TV is rigged up to a surround sound and Samsung Soundbar at home, I prefer now to play Music through the Apple TV 4K rather than via the Amazon Echo in the next room when I’m not using the television. This habit change is a small but significant one, and one that surprised me.
What the Siri remote is missing, when compared to the Amazon Fire TV for example, is all of Alexa’s capabilities. Amazon Fire TV brings very similar functionalities but adds shopping facilities and a huge range of Skills that allow you to control everything from your Nest heating system to your lights. Plus it’s yet another remote to lose down the side of the sofa.
Apple TV 4K: Verdict
I genuinely feel Apple TV 4K could be a turning point in demystifying 4K for the everyday consumer. Apple TV 4K will never replace my Sky Q box simply because it doesn’t have access to the same range of content, but with the release of the 4K model Apple TV it has become a more viable complementary product.
Using BBC iPlayer is far easier on Apple TV, and I no longer use the PS4 when watching Netflix; I simply press the Menu button on the Siri remote. The Apple TV even takes care of switching sources.
More explicitly, bringing Apple Music to my TV has changed my listening habits and I’ve discovered some great series and films I hadn’t watched before, or thought to watch because they weren’t so visible, namely The Handmaid’s Tale and Get Out. It’s also inspired me to seek out more 4K content on other platforms and makes the technology feel less like a fad and more like a staple.
These points are somewhat undermined by Apple’s fierce push towards selling content via iTunes. Although it might be possible to get a film or series cheaper elsewhere it’s all too easy to end up forking out the cash because it’s easier to do so, something I feel Apple preys on a touch. This is heightened by Apple’s reluctance to be upfront with costs and options from the menu screen, which makes the experience a little bumpy.
Later this year, the Apple TV app is due to come to the UK which will open up its capabilities further; putting more controls on the phone and making the whole experience seamless (or at least that’s the promise). Plus, with Apple’s pledge to boost all your HD purchases to 4K, the Apple TV 4K’s price suddenly doesn’t seem quite so steep.