Welcome to the 4K party, Apple. It's about time.
That was general sentiment back in September when Apple finally launched a 4K version of its Apple TV streaming media player, given that competitors like Amazon, Roku, Google, and NVIDIA were already on their second- or third-generation UHD players by then. I suppose the good thing about waiting is that Apple was able to include full HDR support--with both HDR10 and Dolby Vision--in its first 4K-capable box, while Amazon and Roku had to work their way up to HDR support (and still don't offer Dolby Vision in their latest boxes).
In conjunction with the Apple TV release, Apple announced the addition of 4K/HDR movies to the iTunes Store and made some waves in the software market by making the purchase price the same for UHD movies as it is for HD movies--usually, $19.99 or less. That bucked the trend by Amazon, Google, and VUDU of charging a premium for the UHD version, and those other guys are now shifting their pricing structure accordingly.
The other big news was that Apple finally decided to make nice with Amazon and VUDU and add apps for those services to the Apple TV store, although both apps have some limitations that I'll get to in a minute.
Beyond 4K/HDR support, other major features of the new Apple TV include a stronger gaming emphasis than some rivals, voice search/control through Siri, use of the Apple TV or Remote iOS app to control the player, and compatibility with Apple's HomeKit to control smart home devices. The player is built on the A10X Fusion processor with a 64-bit architecture.
It's available in two versions: the 32GB version for $179.99 or the 64GB version for $199.99. I picked up the 32GB version at my local Walmart for this review.
The 4K player looks identical to the previous 4th-gen version (reviewed here): It's a 3.9-inch square with a 1.4-inch height and a black finish (matte on the top and bottom, glossy on the sides). The remote control also has the same simple design as its predecessor: in the center you'll find six buttons for TV/home, menu, voice search, play/pause, and volume up/down, and the top third is a glass-touch surface that allows you to navigate via slide-touch or click for enter. Apple made one simple but very helpful change to the remote, adding a white circle around the menu button. That may seem like nothing, but it tells me that other people had the same problem I did with the previous version of the remote. Because the remote is so symmetrical in its design, it was hard to tell at a casual glance if you were holding the remote upside down. I was always picking up the old remote and pointing the wrong end at the box (and feeling quite stupid for doing so)--it doesn't matter from a communication standpoint because the remote communicates via Bluetooth and doesn't require line of sight, but it obviously matters in terms of pressing the right button for the desired task. The little white circle on the new remote provides the needed visual cue to keep that from happening.
The Apple TV box also has an IR receiver on the front panel, so you can control it via a universal IR remote. You can also control the new Apple TV with Apple's basic Remote app or the newer Apple TV remote app on your iOS device. I loaded the latter onto my iPad. Both options provide a basic user interface that mimics the button functions on the remote, and both allow for the use of a virtual keyboard for faster text input; the Apple TV app adds the ability to use the iOS device's built-in microphone for Siri voice control.
On the Apple TV's back panel, you'll find a single HDMI 2.0a output, a Gigabit Ethernet port for a wired network connection (built-in 802.11ac dual-band Wi-F with MIMO is also available), and a power port. The box lacks the optical digital audio output found on some competing players, so HDMI is your only audio output option (at least from a cable standpoint). There's also no USB port to connect a USB drive. The box's internal storage is specifically for apps/games, not personal media files.
I used the Apple TV 4K with three different displays: first with my older, non-HDR-capable Samsung UN65HU8550 4K TV, then the HDR10-capable Sony VPL-VW285ES projector, and finally the VIZIO P65-E1 4K monitor that supports both HDR10 and Dolby Vision. I connected the player directly to the displays for most of my testing, but I also added in an Onkyo TX-RZ900 AV receiver at the end to test video pass-through and multichannel audio playback. The Apple TV remote controlled both TVs' volume right out of the box.
The setup process is pretty straightforward: pair the remote, choose your country, choose whether or not to enable Siri, and then choose if you want to finish the setup process manually or use your iOS mobile device to speed things up. Since I'm an iPhone user, I chose the latter. With this method, you mate the player with your iPhone/iPad via a password (the iOS device must be on the same network with Bluetooth turned on), and your iOS device will transfer your Wi-Fi settings and your iTunes account info to the Apple TV. All you have to do is confirm your iTunes password, and the player is all set up to access your existing iTunes content and order new stuff. It's pretty slick. Obviously, if you don't have an iOS device and/or iTunes account, the setup process will require more steps.
Since I reviewed the previous player, Apple has introduced its "TV" app, which is designed to unite your "TV Everywhere" content into one interface. "TV Everywhere" is the phrase used to describe all the individual channel apps that you can access if you subscribe to a TV service--apps like ESPN, TNT, TBS, PBS, Disney, etc. Usually you have to enter your service provider's user name and password into each app individually. With Apple's TV app, you enter this info just one time to sign in to all those apps, and all that content is integrated into one interface. We'll talk more about it in the Performance section; here in setup, all you do is choose your service provider and enter your user name and password. I'm a Sling TV subscriber and was happy to see Sling TV on the list, along with other Internet TV services like PlayStation Vue and Hulu. Of course, the standards like DirecTV, Dish Network, and Comcast/Xfinity are represented, too.
During setup, you can also choose to enable the Aerial screensaver, which includes gorgeous 4K aerial video (slow pans) of different places around the world. You can designate how often you want Apple to add new videos, as they will use up the box's memory. I found them to be kind of mesmerizing to watch.
Once setup is complete, you're taken to the Home page, which by default has just 10 apps on it: TV, App Store, iTunes Movies, iTunes TV Shows, Music, Photos, Podcasts, Search, Computers, and Settings. To add more, you can go to the App Store to browse apps and games; or, if you know what you're looking for, just say the app name to Siri, and you'll be taken to the page to load said app. It was quick and seamless to get all my favorite apps loaded up and ready to go.
Let's talk AV setup for a second. On the video side, a few odd choices make setup a bit more confusing than it needs to be. Instead of providing a basic "Resolution" menu option, the menu setting is called "Format" and includes options like 4K Dolby Vision 60Hz, 4K HDR 60Hz, 4K SDR 60Hz, 1080p Dolby Vision 60Hz, 1080p HDR 60Hz, and so on. There's a whopping 37 options in all. On the plus side, the box will automatically detect the capabilities of your newly connected display and adjust accordingly. When I connected it to my non-HDR Samsung UHD TV, it correctly set the format for 4K SDR 60Hz. When I switched to the Dolby Vision-capable Vizio TV, it detected the switch and asked me if I wanted to enable Dolby Vision. Logically, one would assume the answer to this question is yes. But here's the thing is, if you say yes here, then the player is forced into a permanent Dolby Vision mode and converts all signals to Dolby Vision output. You'll be looking at the menus in Dolby Vision, watching Sling TV or Hulu in DV, etc. Some people may want that, but I sure don't. The same thing will happen if you select any HDR mode in the Format menu.
If you only want the player to output HDR when it's playing HDR content, then you should say no to the Dolby Vision question and select an SDR format like 4K SDR 60Hz. Then you must go to different menu setting called "Match Content" and tell the player to match the dynamic range and/or frame rate for the content being shown. That way the menus and SD/HD content are shown at 4K SDR and the box will switch to HDR10 or Dolby Vision as needed. Ultimately, it works fine, but it seems unnecessarily confusing when you consider that UHD Blu-ray players can usually accomplish the same thing with an Auto mode.
On the audio side, the surround output options are Best Quality Available, Dolby Digital 5.1, or Stereo. The Apple TV 4K has Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Digital Plus decoding, but not DTS. If you choose Best Quality Available, the player will decode Dolby Digital 5.1 and DD+ soundtracks from services like iTunes and Netflix and pass multichannel PCM in 5.1 or 7.1 channels to a compatible AV receiver. If you select Dolby Digital 5.1 or stereo, then everything is converted to that format.
If you don't own an HDMI-equipped audio device, then you're only other option is to use either Bluetooth 5.0 or AirPlay to wirelessly transmit the audio signal to compatible receivers, soundbars, and headphones. This actually came in handy for me when I mated the player with my Sony projector, which was sitting on my test bench and not connected to any audio system; so I just wirelessly streamed audio to a nearby AirPlay speaker. Likewise, at night when the kiddo is asleep, I often use a little Polk Boom Bit Bluetooth speaker or Audio-Technica Bluetooth headphones to quietly watch TV, and the Apple TV connected to both devices easily and without issue.
Of the major streaming platforms--including Roku, Amazon Fire, and Android TV--I like the Apple TV OS the best. For me, it combines the simplicity of the Roku design with the more inviting, colorful look of the Fire TV. The Home screen has a very simple layout: apps are arranged in rows across the screen. The Top Five apps are locked in place: TV, App Store, iTunes Movies, iTunes TV Shows, and Music. Above them are big, colorful thumbnails of content options within whichever of those apps is highlighted at the moment. New apps are added sequentially down the screen, and you can reorder them the same way you do on an iOS device: highlight the app, press enter and hold until the app begins to shake, then move it to wherever you want it.
There's a nice design consistency between the App Store, the iTunes Store, and the general menu that makes it easy and intuitive to browse and navigate. The App Store has a vast library of video, music, gaming, news, and other apps. On the video side, most of the majors are now represented. As I mentioned at the start, Apple has finally partnered with Amazon and VUDU; however, let me stress that, in both apps, you can't actually purchase newer releases. The Amazon app is Prime Video only, and VUDU offers a "Movies on Us" section where you can access free VUDU content. To access pay-per-use purchases and rentals through these apps, you must purchase the content though another method (like a Web browser), then it will show up in your library through the Apple TV app.
Other major video apps in the App Store include Netflix, YouTube/YouTube TV, Hulu, Sling TV, PlayStation Vue, DirecTV Now, HBO Now/Go, Starz, Showtime, Disney NOW, and many more. Google Play Movies & TV and FandangoNOW are still not available.
On the music side, I guess it's no surprise that competitor Spotify is missing, but happily TIDAL is available, as are Pandora, SiriusXM, Vevo, and iHeartRadio. Within the Music app, you can access your iTunes music content and/or the Apple Music subscription service. Of course, if you aren't an Apple Music subscriber, a lot of the menu options within the Music app will be irrelevant to you. Non-subscribers can access Beats 1 radio but no advanced genre or artist radio stations. You can browse and buy music content through this app, naturally. The Computer app also lets you stream content (audio and video) from any shared iTunes library on your home network, and the App Store includes other popular streaming apps like Plex and VLC, plus some DLNA apps.
The store also includes a lot of gaming options ranging from basic, free family-friendly games that work with the supplied remote to more advanced games that must be purchased and can be used with an optional third-party controller.
The Apple TV OS proved to be fast and stable. It never crashed or froze up on me, and apps launched very quickly. Most apps stay open during a particular viewing session so that you can return to them instantly. I didn't have any playback issues when streaming content through Netflix or Prime Video, but Sling TV seemed a bit more temperamental through this device than through the Xbox One X or Amazon Fire TV boxes.
The remote always communicated reliably with the box, and the touchpad slider allows for much faster menu navigation than a button-only remote. The Menu button can serve dual roles: press it once to use it as back button to move through levels, or press-and-hold to go back to the home screen. The "TV/home" button is configured out of the box to take you to the TV app, but you can change that in the Settings menu to make it a dedicated Home button.
Speaking of the TV app, I'm not sure that name was the best choice--because it's really much more than just an app for viewing TV Everywhere content. It basically aggregates all your content (TV and movies) into one interface. You can see recently purchased iTunes content, recently watched Netflix or Prime shows, and browse tons of TV shows and movies that are available though all the different apps you've loaded. It's really a great resource that unifies the browsing experiences so that you don't have to move from app to app to app to find something to watch.
Siri voice search usually worked well. Search for a TV show or movie, and Apple will give you cross-platform results--including Netflix, Prime, Hulu, HBO, and more. Much like Amazon's Alexa, you can also use Siri to check weather, sports scores, game times, and (if you have HomeKit smart home products) control your whole-house products. HomeKit doesn't have as much product support as Alexa and Google Home at this stage, though.
Now let's get to the big addition: 4K and HDR video. The new player supports the 4K HDR version of Netflix, with the ability to stream either HDR10 or Dolby Vision as available. When I streamed content directly to the DV-capable Vizio TV, the player correctly sent Stranger Things Season Two and the new original series Godless in Dolby Vision mode, and both looked great through the VIZIO--clean, great detail, rich color. When I streamed the same content to the HDR10-only Sony projector, the content played in basic HDR10 mode. The same thing happened when I passed video through my Onkyo receiver--the receiver can pass HDR10 but not Dolby Vision, so the content was converted accordingly.
Unfortunately, the Apple TV does not support HDR through Prime Video or VUDU. [Editor's note, 4/6/18: A reader informed us that he was able to stream HDR through Prime Video, so we went back and checked this feature again--and the Prime Video app does now support HDR playback.] The VUDU app isn't even the 4K version; it's HD only. (The YouTube app also did not pass a full 4K resolution, using Florian Friedrich's dynamic multi-burst test pattern.) So yeah, it's nice that Apple now includes those apps, but they aren't running full strength, so to speak. Apple doesn't really try to hide the fact that they want you to spend your money in their store--and hey, Amazon's Fire TV and Google's Android TV do much the same thing, which is exactly why some people prefer a platform-agnostic player like Roku.
Since I had no choice but to use iTunes service for pay-per-use 4K/HDR content, that's what I did. The iTunes Movie Store has a dedicated category called "Available in 4K HDR on Apple TV 4K," which strangely offers only a limited list of 4K titles--22 in all, with no option to see more. But the iTunes Store actually has a lot more 4K movies than that. Apple does put a colorful little icon on the thumbnail for any movie that's available in 4K HDR, and the Info page for each movie clearly states if it's HD or 4K with HDR and/or Dolby Vision. You can also ask Siri to show you 4K HDR movies and get a much more expansive list of titles--a few of them, though, were movies streaming through an app like HBO Now and weren't actually 4K, so Apple clearly needs to tweak that search parameter.
Some of the newest 4K titles are available for purchase only, but there's also a good amount of 4K rentals for $5.99 or less. I purchased Blade Runner: The Final Cut and watched it through the VIZIO TV. Blade Runner is an interesting choice, in that it's a much older film that's often very dark and complexly lit. The HDR video comes from a 4K scan of the original camera negative, with HDR effects added. The Ultra HD Blu-ray disc is only offered in HDR10, but iTunes offers it in Dolby Vision. I did direct A/B comparisons between the iTunes version and the UHD disc, using various scenes throughout the film. It gave me a chance to compare disc versus streaming and HDR10 versus DV. Not surprisingly, the UHD disc version was much more detailed, evident even on a 65-inch panel. Everything from fine background details to facial close-ups looked sharper. In both versions, some scenes are very clean, while others (particularly the darker scenes--which, really, is most of them in this movie) have a good amount of low-level noise. In this area, the Dolby Vision iTunes version consistently looked less noisy than the HDR10 disc version, maybe because Dolby Vision handles each scene more precisely than HDR10 does.
I also picked a newer 4K movie to rent: Kingsman: The Golden Circle. In this case, the iTunes version is HDR10, and I didn't have the UHD disc handy for a direct comparison. But viewing the iTunes version on its own, the picture looked very clean and quite sharp, with rich color and highlights. I was beyond satisfied with the picture quality I saw here.
The Apple TV 4K player does not support the passage of Dolby Atmos or DTS:X. Also, you can't pass Dolby Digital Plus in bitstream form to your AV receiver for decoding; you have to use the decoding in the player.
The lack of an optical digital audio output limits compatibility with older AV receivers and entry-level soundbars and powered speakers that likely don't have HDMI connections. A lot of those entry-level products do have Bluetooth support, so you can use that audio output option instead.
Apple's onscreen keyboard is still the worst in the business--with all the letters arranged in one line across the screen with no wrap-around ability. Thankfully, Apple's speech-to-text function using the remote's microphone works pretty well, so you can bypass the keyboard.
The absence of dedicated up/down/left/right buttons on the remote can make it difficult to rewind and fast-forward content in certain apps that aren't as well-designed to make use of the Apple remote's slider/button combo functionality.
Finally, there were a few instances where Siri just flat out dropped the ball. One time I said "Open Settings" and got the response, "I don't see an app called Settings." I immediately repeated "Open settings," and Siri took me to the Settings section. Once I said "Open YouTube app," and Siri informed me that the YouTube app hadn't been installed and took me to the App Store to get it--even though it had already been installed. Thankfully these types of hiccups were rare.
Comparison & Competition
The newest version of Amazon's Fire TV box, introduced late last year, supports 4K and HDR10 (but not Dolby Vision), as well as Dolby Atmos audio pass-through. The Amazon box sells for the significantly lower asking price of $69.99.
Likewise, the most recent version of Roku's flagship 4K box, the Roku Ultra, adds HDR10 support but not Dolby Vision. It allows for Dolby Atmos and DTS 5.1 pass-through via HDMI and sells for $99.99.
The NVIDIA SHIELD TV player is probably the most direct competitor, in that it also has a stronger gaming emphasis with the ability to use a more advanced gaming controller. The SHIELD TV is an Android TV player that supports both Dolby Atmos and DTS:X pass-through, as well as HDR10 video (but not Dolby Vision). It works with Google Home products and is priced at $179.99 or $199.99 if you add a gaming controller.
The Chromecast Ultra 4K media bridge ($69) is currently the only other streaming media device that supports Dolby Vision, but it's not a dedicated player. It's a bridge that requires the use of a mobile device or computer to initiate playback. You can read my review here.
With the Apple TV 4K, Apple finally offers a fully featured 4K streaming media player to compete with the likes of Roku and Amazon Fire TV--and even ups the ante by adding Dolby Vision support. The problem is, Apple also ups the price significantly over those competing players, which begs the question: Should anyone spend the extra money to get an Apple TV? Well, if you own a Dolby Vision-capable TV and want to enjoy movies from iTunes and Netflix in the Dolby Vision format, then this is really your only option in the dedicated player market. Yes, there's the Chromecast Ultra, but that device does not deliver the seamless, unified experience you get here. Also, if you live in an Apple-centric household and want easy, no-brainer media streaming between all your AirPlay-friendly devices, then the Apple TV might earn its premium price tag. The box performs very well, and Apple's 4K HDR content looks really good. How much is that worth to you?
• Visit the Apple website for more product information.
• Check out our Streaming Media Player/App Reviews category page to read similar reviews.
• Apple Makes Waves in the 4K Market at HomeTheaterReview.com.