Apple TV has, we think it’s fair to say, had a bit of a tough time in the past.
It was a product that at times felt a little slow to adapt in a very fast-moving market that has seen two brand-new technologies appear in quick succession: 4K and HDR.
While TVs had started adopting Full-HD, Apple’s first TV supported only 720p. When it finally added Full-HD, it was clear that 4K resolution TVs were going to be the norm very soon.
Rather than dive head first into this new technology Apple did what it has so often done before, it waited.
While this might make perfect business sense, it was frustrating to reach a point where you could watch Netflix in 4K but not any of the films you’d bought or wanted to buy from iTunes.
The new Apple TV 4K is here to rectify this and while it has taken Apple a while, the results speak for themselves.
In design it looks identical to the last model. It is a sleek, minimalist black box that’s both wonderfully subtle. It’ll look just fine anywhere you put it and that’s important, because more often than not it’s going to be in your field-of-view every time you sit down.
Inside there’s some new-and-improved hardware. There’s the A10X Fusion processor that originally debuted on the iPad Pro. This gives the Apple TV an absolute bucketload of power for gaming.
Finally there are two storage sizes: 32GB and 64GB. These will be used for downloading games and apps. The rest of the content you’ll be experiencing will come via streaming.
The remote has been given a subtle update too with a little white ring around the Menu button making it easier to orientate yourself in the dark. It’s also cheaper now to replace, which is always good news.
The glass directional trackpad is still there and it still remains a bit of a faff to use if we’re honest. The remote charges via Lightning cable so that’s handy and the battery life is absurdly good so it’s very rare that you’ll actually have to charge it.
Where the Apple TV 4K really starts to shine is actually when you turn it on for the first time and experience Apple’s operating system, tvOS.
If you have an iPhone setup is astonishingly simple. You simply tap your iPhone onto the Apple TV and it transfers everything it needs including your iCloud login details, it will even send over the WiFi password.
It’s such a small thing and yet it’s hard to emphasise just how big of a difference it makes.
The main menu is beautifully rendered in 4K and a breeze to get around. As before the stunning slow-motion screensavers are back and yes they’ve all now been shot in 4K.
You can download apps such as Now TV, BBC iPlayer, Netflix from the App Store or if you’re tied into Apple’s ecosystem then there’s easy access to your photos, Apple Music and TVs and Movies.
It is this last point that deserves the biggest mention here. Apple now offers 4K and HDR movies on iTunes. This is a big deal not only because of Apple’s sheer size and reach but because unlike physical copies or other digital stores Apple will not be charging you a premium for 4K/HDR films. Instead they cost exactly the same as everything else.
If that wasn’t enough, Apple will also upgrade any of the films you previously own to a 4K version for free if it has it in its library. There’s no downside here.
While 4K has been adopted by TVs and by companies like Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant video, it has up until now been difficult to compile a digital collection of 4K films that can all reside in one place and that can exist across multiple services. Apple TV feels like the first product that actually makes this a convenient reality.
So how does 4K HDR content look on the Apple TV? Well unsurprisingly, it looks fantastic.
If you’re someone who’s big on their AV specifics then you’ll be pleased to know that Apple TV supports both HDR10 and Dolby Vision, the two main competing HDR technologies.
Apple’s streaming technology has always been superb and as long as you’ve got a pretty decent internet connection there’s very little wait between pressing play and the content appearing up on screen.
We say “decent internet” because we did find that when our speeds dropped below 20mbps the loading screens did take longer, and on some occasions we even had playback stop momentarily. If you can maintain a steady connection of around 15-20mbps+ however you should be absolutely fine.
There are some other more specific AV hiccups at this point. Apple TV doesn’t support Dolby Atmos. For those of you who haven’t invested a small fortune on a surround sound system this is a new audio technology that allows films to be played with an almost complete 3D surround sound. For the majority of users this won’t be a big deal, but if you’ve spent eye-watering sums on a home cinema setup it’s something to consider.
It also, and this is a biggie, doesn’t support YouTube in 4K HDR. That’s unfortunate because at the moment, the largest library of 4K HDR content on the internet is on....YouTube.
There’s no word on when or even if Apple will ever support YouTube at this resolution and it’s actually something that’s plagued Safari on both Macs and the iPhone. It’s annoying not least because all of its competitors support it, but also because it just doesn’t seem to make any sense.
One feature that does have a welcome home on Apple TV however is Siri. It’s incredibly accurate at voice searches and can even really drill down into some very specific questions if you want to something super niche. You can ask for genres, sub-genres, films with 4K, films with only HDR, or even films from a certain year.
Finally there’s the content ecosystem itself. If you search for something Apple TV will try and accumulate all that content across the different services you use, whether that’s Netflix, iTunes or BBC. It’ll then let you play it straight from the Apple’s own menus, without then having to go back out and open specific apps.
Apple TV does support gaming, and there are a whole range of simple, often very beautiful-looking games that can be great time-wasters. If you’re keen on gaming it’s not going to replace your games console, but for everyone else there’s plenty here to enjoy.
As before however, it’s not all perfect. For starters there’s no dedicated Spotify app, and while it supports Spotify through Airplay it would be nice for there to be a dedicated app that lets you search and play direct from the TV.
Secondly, at £179 this is definitely a premium product. Chromecast Ultra costs just £69 and while it’s arguably more limited in what it can do it is a full £100 cheaper. Then there’s the NVIDIA Shield TV, which for £179 supports both 4K and Dolby Atmos. Of course neither of these can offer iTunes, Apple Music or any of Apple’s ecosystem apps.
It’s that last point then that really makes you realise who the Apple TV is for and why it’s so good at what it does. If you’re already heavily tied into Apple’s family of products and services then Apple TV is a joy to behold. Yes it’s bound by its exclusivity to Apple’s own products, but rather than feeling closed off, it offers people who like that ecosystem the perfect accompaniment for their home.
Who should buy the Apple TV 4K?
If everything in your digital life is firmly placed in Apple’s iCloud then Apple TV is a no brainer. 4K HDR content is finally reasonably priced and it looks absolutely stunning. There’s just about every app you could need available and the operating system is easy, intuitive and extremely powerful.
Who shouldn’t buy the Apple TV 4K?
It’s an Apple-centric product which means that it only really comes into its own if you’re quite heavily invested in its products and services e.g. Apple Music, iCloud, iTunes etc. If you’re an Android user, or not heavily invested in Apple we would absolutely recommend Google’s Chromecast or NVIDIA’s Shield TV if you really want the absolute latest audiovisual technologies like Dolby Atmos.
Apple TV 4K is available now in 32GB and 64B sizes priced £179/199 respectively.