Although it’s become something of a joke in the past generation or so, it’s true that for decades (even well into my childhood) we Alabamians used “Coke” as a generic term for any brand of soda. Go into a restaurant and ask for a Coke, and the server would almost certainly ask: “What kind? We gots Sprite, Dr. Pepper, R.C., and regular Co-cola.” In a way, in its short thirteen years on the market, Apple TV has achieved much the same status, joining other such proprietary eponyms as Aspirin, Xerox, and Kleenex before it as the generic term for video streamers.
Funny enough, though, we haven’t really paid much attention to Apple TV since the Adrienne reviewed one a couple years back. That’s largely due to the fact that most of us at Home Theater Review (those of us who are regular streamers, that is) have a strong preference for Roku Ultra and never really saw the need to pay extra for Apple TV, even when the latter made the way-too-late jump to 4K in late 2017.
In terms of form factor, not a lot has changed since the fourth-generation Apple TV. It’s still one of the sexiest streaming boxes on the market, with its compact square design and lack of clutter aside from its power connection, Ethernet port, and HDMI output. Since the fourth-generation player, the USB-C port has been removed (a point that will become important later in the review), vents have been added to the base of the unit, and the remote has been updated slightly to make the all-important Menu button stand out a little more.
A much bigger change, of course, is that the Apple TV 4K has had its OS updated quite frequently since its release two-and-a-half years ago. While it launched with support for UHD video with HDR10 and Dolby Vision high dynamic range, as of late 2018 the player also supports Dolby Atmos audio for applicable apps. The player also comes in two varieties: a model with 32GB of internal storage for $179 and a 64GB model for $199. We opted to buy the 32GB version for the purposes of this updated review, since that’s more than enough to store all the apps I’ll ever use. And while Apple does allow you to download HD or SD movies purchased via iTunes, it won’t let you download the 4K versions. 4K is streaming only. As such, the advantages of having double the internal storage space are honestly lost on me. (If you know something I don’t, let us know in the comments below.)
I’ll admit, in addition to not covering Apple TV in a while, I personally haven’t touched one of any generation since my dad ditched his third-gen unit for a Roku several years back. As such, this is my first experience with tvOS, the operating system that replaced Apple TV Software starting with the fourth-generation players.
I have to say, tvOS is a huge improvement, and eliminates most of the issues that both Pop and I had with his old Apple TV. It’s easier to use, more intuitive, more customizable, and integrates much better with iPhone and iPad. In fact, most of the setup of the unit can be done via iPhone, which makes getting the player out of the box and up and running such a slick and (mostly) idiot-proof experience. If you have streaming video apps on your iPhone already, this also makes the process of logging into the apps on Apple TV so much easier. You can even give the Apple TV access to the login information for your TV provider, should you still have one, and automatically download any apps that are supported by such.
In terms of physical connectivity, hooking up the Apple TV 4K couldn’t be any easier, since–as mentioned above–the only ports aside from power are for network and HDMI. Unfortunately the unit doesn’t come with an HDMI cable, but that was less of a concern for me as any freebie would have likely been six feet only (as the included power cord is), and I need a ten-foot HDMI cable to reach from my source-component gear rack to my amp-and-preamp gear rack.
As many of you are aware, I use Control4 to operate my home theater (as well as the rest of my home), so it was nice to see that the Apple TV 4K supports an IP driver for advanced control systems. Getting it configured is a lot more difficult than with most AV devices, though. Instead of allowing Control4 to add the Apple TV as a device, Apple instead seems to insist that Control4 be added to the Home ecosystem, which requires a bit of hoop-jumping. When you drag the driver for Apple TV (Gen 4 and 4K), it also automatically loads an Apple Bridge driver into the system. You then have to go into the Apple TV, turn on AirPlay, assign it to a room, then load up the Control4 iOS app and enable Apple integration. This adds your automation controller to the Apple Home app, after which point you can then go back into the Control4 Composer Pro software and set up the hardware, make connections, etc.
In my case, it took for-flipping-ever for the two to communicate the first time around, which is a common occurrence judging by conversations I had with a couple of integrator friends. But once it’s all set up, it works well.
Or, at least, it would have if I hadn’t run into a problem with the Apple TV 4K shortly thereafter. My unit shipped with tVOS 12.4, and quickly let me know that I needed to update to the latest version. (It wouldn’t even let me install Hulu until I did so). But every attempt at a firmware update failed. Online help articles suggested connecting my Apple TV to my computer and using iTunes to force an update, but since the Apple TV 4K ditched USB connectivity altogether, that wasn’t an option.
After hours of fussing with it and finally contacting Apple support, I ended up having to factory reset the Apple TV 4K and forcing an update during the reset process. This finally brought me up to tVOS 13.3, but it leaves me wondering if I’m going to have the same problem next time an update rolls out.
And, of course, since I had to factory reset the Apple TV 4K and start over from scratch, that meant having to completely redo the process of integrating the unit with my Control4 system. Which was a problem at first because the Home app already thought the integration was done and wouldn’t let me do it again.
Needless to say, if you’re just planning on using the sexy-but-finicky remote that comes with the Apple TV 4K, much of the above won’t be relevant for you. But the problems with software updates might. There seems to have arisen a cottage industry online surrounding Apple TV software update nightmares. Your mileage may vary, but caveat emptor.
One of the most peculiar quirks of the Apple TV 4K, at least as of tvOS 13.3, is the way it prioritizes video standards. As you’re setting up the unit, it will ask to check if your TV supports Dolby Vision HDR. If it does, the Apple TV 4K sets your output as 4K Dolby Vision. There are sub-settings under this setting that allow you to Match Dynamic Range and Match Frame Rate of streamed content. But the former doesn’t work the way common sense would suggest. Even if you tell the box to match the dynamic range of the content it’s displaying, it will force everything to be output as Dolby Vision if you have your video format set to Dolby Vision. Even YouTube videos.
The way around this is to set your video output to 4K SDR and then enable Match Dynamic Range. In other words, the player will allow HDR10 and Dolby Vision to override your SDR default output, but it will not allow SDR to override HDR10 or Dolby Vision default output. The problem with going this route is that one of the Apple TV 4K’s most compelling features–it’s Aerial screensaver–is only displayed in SDR unless you set the default output to Dolby Vision. And that’s a pity, because these moving images look absolutely jaw-dropping in Dolby Vision. Why on earth you can’t just set the video output to Auto the way you can with Roku is a complete mystery to me.
In terms of video performance, I subjected the Apple TV 4K to the same “leopard spot” HEVC decoding stress test detailed in my recent article, Home Cinema’s Streaming Future Is Now. While it performed perhaps a little better than the Netflix app built into my smart TV, its handling of the toughest-to-decode sequences in David Attenborough’s documentary series Our Planet were nowhere near as clean and artifact-free as I’m used to seeing via my Roku Ultra. For the most part, with most streaming video material, the Apple TV’s HEVC decoding is acceptable, especially if you’re just watching a 65-inch TV from eight or nine feet away. If you’re rocking a viewing angle closer to what I’m experiencing in my media room, though–roughly 45.5 degrees–you’ll occasionally see some artifacts that you wouldn’t with a Roku Ultra. The Apple TV 4K also lacks Roku’s VP9 decoding capabilities, which means no 4K HDR from YouTube.
(Click on the image above for a closer inspection. This smaller preview introduces some moiré that isn’t reflective of real-world performance)
That said, in terms of speed and responsiveness, the Apple TV 4K holds its own with Roku Ultra. I put both through my standard battery of load-time tests, and found that Apple TV 4K launched Netflix to the user-select screen in an average of 4.3 seconds (compared with 3.05 on my 2018-model Roku Ultra), took 5.22 seconds on average to start a Netflix stream (compared with 3.2 seconds for the Roku), and reached a full 16mpbs bandwidth within 15.18 seconds of starting a show or movie on average (whereas my Roku typically hits full bandwidth within 4.05 seconds, connected to the same Cisco network switch via the same brand and length of Cat6 cable).
This list could get frighteningly long frighteningly fast if we explored every possible video streaming box against which the Apple TV 4K competes, so I’ll keep it limited to the most obvious competition.
Firstly, it needs to be stated that you might not actually need a media streamer at all if you’re happy with the apps built into your TV. Putting my own personal bias right up front, I hate smart TVs. Their app support typically sunsets long before the display gives up the ghost (I recently received notification that Netflix would no longer be supported by the TV in one of my bedrooms), the selection of apps generally isn’t as good as you would get from a dedicated streamer, and their HEVC decoding isn’t always up to par with the best standalone boxes. That said, resident TV expert Andrew Robinson thinks I’m an absolutely looney bird in this respect. He loves smart TVs, and if your streaming habits are limited to the most common apps–Netflix, Hulu, Vudu, Amazon, etc.–you might find his argument more compelling than mine.
If you do want a standalone media streamer, though, the Roku Ultra is still our top pick. It sells for right around $80 most days–roughly $100 less than the cheapest Apple TV 4K–and it offers better decoding of HEVC, as well as support for VP9, so you can watch 4K/HDR content from YouTube. Roku’s UI isn’t as pretty as Apple TV’s, although it is more customizable. Its voice search capabilities aren’t nearly as refined, but its integration with advanced control systems is much more fully featured. It doesn’t support Dolby Vision, but depending on your TV that may not make as much difference as you think.
At the end of the day, though, for HomeTheaterReview.com readers, it really comes down to the superior HEVC decoding. Roku earns its spot in my reference media room based on video performance. Apple TV 4K doesn’t.
Amazon’s Fire TV in its various forms is also a contender. Like the Apple TV 4K, and unlike Roku, the Fire TV is both a universal streaming device and a portal to one company’s content, and as such it prioritizes what you’re fed in a way that some people will love (if you’re all-in on one particular ecosystem) and others might find oppressive (if you’re not). Bottom line, though: I don’t think either device is really right for the serious home theater enthusiasts.
I’ve only just begun to dig into the NVIDIA Shield TV Pro, and my evaluation isn’t nearly complete enough to give a thorough analysis. But based on what I’ve seen from scratching the surface, this one should be considered by serious home theater enthusiasts, especially those who rip and archive their media and use Plex extensively. The Shield TV Pro relies on the Android TV OS, which our Andrew Robinson is a huge fan of. It’s a bit of a bummer, though, that it doesn’t support HDR from YouTube, the way Roku does. Stayed tuned for a more in-depth review of this one, coming soon.
Looping back to the point I was making in the introduction, it’s a little weird to me that Apple TV has dominated the conversation about media streaming for so long, when it will soon be the single least-used video streaming platform. But that’s the power of marketing, I guess.
That’s a little harsh, actually. The Apple TV 4K is a great little media streamer in many respects; I just don’t think it’s right for any but the most dedicated Apple diehards in our audience. Its integration with the iOS ecosystem is simply stellar, and it’s a much better device than the third-generation Apple TV my dad nearly defenestrated a few years ago. But as he said when he dropped by recently to check out the new model in my own system, “I just don’t get why someone would pay $100 more for a box that ain’t as good as Roku.”
I couldn’t agree more. Roku Ultra not only caters to casual viewers like my dad much better than does Apple TV 4K; it also better appeals to serious home theater enthusiasts like myself. And it’s a lot cheaper to boot. Now that the Apple TV+ app is available on pretty much every streaming ecosystem, I’m not quite sure how Apple justifies the existence of this box anymore.