The Apple TV has placed Apple in an unfamiliar position: that of the underdog. Despite a price tag that seems to suggest the top of the line, and an operating system that really should stand out from the tvOS crowd, Apple has been left into the dust of Roku and Google, one of the key differentiators being one of the buzzwords of the last few years: 4K.
Upon release in November 2015, Apple’s 4th generation Apple TV was immediately criticised for not having access to Ultra HD content. In fairness to Apple, 4K wasn’t nearly as prevalent as it is now, and the competing standards within 4K have only just started to settle down. Now, Apple has fully suited and booted for High Dynamic Range, and, in a pleasant, future-proofing sign, Dolby’s version of HDR, Dolby Vision. Despite somehow keeping the same price as the previous generation, Apple TV 4K is here to kick ass and chew bubble gum.
You would be hard pressed to tell the difference between the two boxes, in all honesty. There’s a slightly raised bottom to help with airflow, due to the more powerful processor running the box itself, but Apple TV’s puck shape remains. At the back, the USB-C connection of the past box has been removed, however this was only ever used for diagnostic work. The Ethernet port has been upgraded to a Gigabit connection to help handle 4K streams (Apple has said you’ll need a consistent connection of 15mbps for 4K streams to work.)
OK, here’s the bitter pill. Two years ago, the Apple TV launched at £129 for the 32GB model. A certain vote which occurred last year was a factor in this actually going up to £149 last year. The old model remains at this price, with the 4K version starting at £179 for the 32GB version and £199 for the 64GB. Unless you are planning on really investing in the App Store, 32GB should be fine. 4K content streams to the device, so the extra space shouldn’t really help all that much and you’ll save yourself £20. Apple has said it considers this to be a video content-first device, a far cry from two years ago when they said “The Future of TV Is Apps”, so there is a real question as to what the App Store will do and whether you need the space.
This does not compare favourably with 4K boxes from Roku or Amazon, which can be bought for around half the price – in fairness, the Apple Tax does apply here but as you’ll see later, Apple have tried to negate this.
As with the last generation, this is all very easy. Once you sync the remote, you can just bring your iOS device close to the Apple TV and it’ll copy settings from there. You can use your voice to enter passwords, something which wasn’t enabled on launch of the old device.
After this, you’ll need to set up the video mode you want to watch content in. The Apple TV detected I was using a 4K TV with HDR easily enough, although it selected a slightly lesser colour band than the TV could handle. On-screen menus easily guide you through this process, but you may want to just check the settings before proceeding. Upon doing this, you may also want to adjust your TV settings – the sharpness setting combined with the HDR made some on-screen text bleed into other words on my set, but a quick adjustment fixed this.
The offering has improved from the launch of the previous generation, with all major channels in the UK having apps, along with a variety of VOD providers, such as Shudder and Curzon Home Cinema. The biggest absentee, Amazon Video, is also coming to the Apple TV, but is not available yet.
Apple’s “TV” app is also coming soon to the UK. This aggregates content into one single App and works as a way of essentially having a Freeview box’s Electronic Programme Guide, but with a nicer interface.
One of the biggest things trailed is that all 4K iTunes content will cost the same as HD and all previous HD titles will be upgraded to 4K for free once available. Considering the relatively high buy-in price, this is a great deal for those with large iTunes libraries. For those who don’t, the fact you can get Wonder Woman right now in 4K for £13.99, with the disc version not out for two weeks (and currently £24.99 on Amazon), is the kind of area where savings could add up quickly. Yes, there are benefits to physical copies but is it worth £11 to you?
One thing that obviously hasn’t been trailed, though, is iTunes rental pricing, which has increased from several years ago. New release rentals on iTunes, whether there’s a 4K version or not, currently fall into its premium band of £5.49. That price for a 4K rental is not bad, but would you pay £5.49 to watch the Amy Schumer/Goldie Hawn jam Snatched in HD? Probably not.
On balance, if you buy iTunes Movies, you’re onto a winner here, if not, buyer beware.
For those who haven’t paid overly close attention to the hotly contested video format wars of the last year or so, a quick word on HDR and Dolby Vision. 4K in itself is something that does not offer nearly as much of a leap in image quality as the transition from standard def to high def, or even VHS to DVD (to those old enough to remember that bright, gleaming time 20 years back). There is a difference, but only if you go looking for it. The real change is with HDR and its various offshoots. HDR is a process by which colours appear more vivid and there are more contrasts – more shades of grey, if you will. Dolby Vision is a standard which somewhat unsurprisingly is made by Dolby, where this HDR grading can be changed within individual scenes, resulting in an image that is more finely tuned and essentially can get closer in the home theatrical experience to the director’s vision than ever. All of this, of course, costs money, and not all TV manufactures have embraced Dolby Vision in particular, with LG the most prominent at time of writing.
Apple’s commitment to Dolby Vision is clear, however: their 4K content on the iTunes Store shows a massive weighting towards Dolby Vision with what appears to be all of Warner Bros and Paramount’s content displaying in that standard. You’ll still get a HDR effect without a Dolby Vision-enabled TV watching these titles – there just won’t be that extra layer of refinement. As a tangent, it’s also rather bizarre that Apple have gone for Dolby Vision before Dolby Atmos, the new standard in sound formats that other streaming boxes can handle. Even Netflix apps on some TV’s can play in Atmos. Apple has confirmed a software update enabling this will come, but, for now, it’s a crucial missing piece for AV enthusiasts.
The general user experience has not changed all that much, however. Siri still doesn’t talk to you, the Apple Remote is still as touchy as it ever was (the only amendment is a raised, coloured ring around the Menu button, so its easier to tell which way up your remote is in the dark). The real value is in the picture quality and the future-proofing nature of the thing. If you use your Apple TV for video content, as most do, this should be the last one you need in a while. Any kind of advancement in 4K HDR is a long time coming and once Dolby Atmos comes onboard, you should be sorted for sound (DTS have their own version, DTS:X, which hasn’t been mentioned at all, but this generally seems to be the red-headed stepchild of the new AV formats).
On testing, the worth of the 4K content seems to be down to the individual transfer, although note this has not been tested on a set with Dolby Vision.
Mad Max: Fury Road looks stunning, flames appear rich and vivid, black levels are solid and, while at times there’s an hint of compression artefacting, it is an appreciable boost over the HD copy of the film. The Man From UNCLE is a different story: the HDR doesn’t appear to have made much of a difference and while it is sharper, it doesn’t exactly scream “night and day” difference. A lot of talk about physical 4K has centred around essentially how much effort is put into the transfer and whether its from a true 4K source or essentially upscaled from 2K and this would seem to apply here too. Essentially, depending on the title, your mileage may vary.
Wonder Woman is a great example of what 4K streaming is capable of. You can see the film grain in the image, which is something very rare for streaming content. (To be clear, this isn’t digital noise, it is increased detail in the image. The fact 4K streaming can do this is very impressive and is a sign that whatever encoding Apple is doing really works for content treated correctly in the first place.)
It’s also worth pointing out that some reviews have pointed to issues with watching content which has been processed to work within a HDR setting. Unlike other 4K HDR systems, Apple TV doesn’t switch between HDR and non-HDR modes depending on content: it essentially just forces everything to work in HDR if you have it enabled. Some have complained of issues with this, although this isn’t something we’ve encountered so far. NOW TV, YouTube and non-4K iTunes Movies appear to work OK – any bugs are certainly not something replicated on this unit.
Buying the new Apple TV will depend on your commitment to the Apple ecosystem and whether you want “the latest and greatest” tech. Once Dolby Atmos is enabled, this will be as future-proofed as you can get for the foreseeable. It would be hard to see how Apple would release an improved version with regards to purely video content, until new image technologies rear their heads. If you’re ready to embrace the best non-physical media video content at the moment, Apple TV 4K appears to be the one.