I would not want to be a dedicated Apple TV user and an obsessive TV consumer. In the years since its release, the little black box by Apple has often lagged behind competitors, seemingly forgotten by Apple in favour of phones, computers, and even watches. And the Apple TV's status as the "other" on Apple's list of sales feels evident when you notice how late to the 4K party it is. Fortunately for Apple fans, the Apple TV 4K is so polished it almost feels like it was worth the wait.
All images: Alex Cranz/Gizmodo
But just to be clear, unless you are already deeply attached to the Apple ecosystem, and in particular the iTunes store, the Apple TV 4K is not worth the wait. It's very good at what it does -- namely play back content in 4K with an expanded colour gamut and HDR (it supports both HDR-10 and Dolbyvision -- the two competing HDR formats). The Apple TV, at $249, is only a little cheaper than the $US199 (around $250) Nvidia Shield, which also does 4K and HDR and gaming. Only that device, because it runs Android TV, can also play Nintendo ROMs and stream Amazon Prime.
So why on earth would one ever recommend the Apple TV? Because this thing does what Apple usually does best -- it takes a finicky concept and boils it down into something a roommate, parent, or even that old college buddy with two kids, a full time job, and zero free time could use. tvOS has to be the most polished TV operating system I've used, and even when I'm faced with its limitations (no Amazon Prime until later this year) I don't find myself too bothered. Everything is so pretty and so easy to use that it's hard to be annoyed.
Typing in passwords is easy because I can just hold down the Siri button and spell them out, and while swiping on the remote's little touchpad to navigate menus feels weird at first, after a couple of hours of use you won't even notice (I certainly didn't).
The remote is simple, and super easy to get familiar with, but the touch pad can take getting used to.
Apple TV also has the absolute easiest method yet for finding good 4K HDR movies to watch on your very expensive set-top box. I'm not talking about whatever Netflix airs on a whim -- but movies that have just left the theatre, like Wonder Woman or Kong: Skull Island. Sony was the first to offer first-run 4K HDR movies with its expensive Ultra HD Media Player. You could watch the latest Spider-Man or other Sony films as soon as they left theatres, but the box and movies were pricey and the navigation menus were ugly.
There are exactly three ports on this simple box: Power, HDMI, and ethernet.
Both Roku and Android have offered solutions since, but those solutions have been... bad. The apps (usually Vudu, Amazon, or a combination of both) are unattractive, and thanks to poor labelling, you're never actually sure if the movie you're spending $15-30 on is actually in 4K and HDR. With the Apple TV, those movies are clearly labelled, and Apple promises that as movies already in its library are made available in 4K and HDR, the price for those flicks will remain the same, regardless of whether you bought it as an HD film initially or not. This makes upgrading your film library cheaper and easier than any other solution out there.
Finding 4K HDR content is super easy, and the content is actually good?
But there's is one big wildly irritating caveat. 4K HDR content tends to be big -- too big for the 32GB to 64GB of storage available on an Apple TV. Not to mention the fact that, at the moment, you can only stream 4K content from Apple. (Apple recommends a minimum download speed of 25 Mbps download speed for streaming 4K.) So you have to stream these big gorgeous films, and if your internet is crummy, or you don't have a wired ethernet cable straight from the box to your router, you will be in for a world of frustration. After dropping $24.99 to watch Baby Driver on the Apple TV (Apple often makes films available for purchase while they're still in theatres), I found myself less than impressed. The Apple TV was running off my wi-fi, but sitting in a less than ideal location, so the film stuttered and stopped and frequently downgraded the stream to 720p or worse.
Once I plugged in an ethernet cord (I wasn't about to reconfigure the whole room for a better wi-fi signal next to the TV) I could see the stubble on the baby-faced lead of the film. Wonder Woman looked great too, and Sense8, Stranger Things, and Daredevil season 2, three Netflix shows shot in 4K and HDR, all looked as good an vibrant as they do on the Nvidia Shield.
Since I sorted the internet issue the 4K Apple TV has had few issues. It's a solid device. If you're already invested in the iTunes store, don't want to mess with the potential fussiness of Android on the Nvidia Shield, or you're desperate to have very nice looking first run movies without dropping cash on a Blu-ray player, then the Apple TV 4K should be at the top of your list. It can't do as much as the Nvidia Shield, and it isn't as cheap as the Roku Ultra, but this little $249 box usually just works, and it looks great while it does it.
- It plays back content at 4K with HDR when applicable. Finally.
- The menus and navigation are all intutive and handily the most attractive available.
- First run movies, and even films still in theatre, can be had for $24.99 a pop, and they will automatically upgrade to 4K HDR when available, with no additional cost.
- Definitely plan to string along an ethernet cable if you want to enjoy 4K content.