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.
Click over to Page Two for Performance, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...