Apple TV 4K essential guide: How to watch 4K on the streaming box

Your guide to Apple's 4K streaming box

Apple TV 4K guide
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The Apple TV is one of the best-known streaming boxes out there, but for a long while the biggest criticism against it was its lack of 4K.

That ended with the Apple TV 4K, but this brings its own list of questions: What apps even support 4K? What's the deal with Dolby? Is there enough 4K content out there to justify the upgrade?

Read this:The best Apple TV tips and tricks

That's exactly what this guide is designed to help you with. We'll walk you through what makes the 4K different from the regular Apple TV, how to set up and test 4K and HDR and what you can even watch on this thing.

4K, Dolby, HDR10 and more

Apple TV 4K essential guide: How to watch 4K on the streaming box

The Apple TV 4K is Cupertino's premium streaming box. It sports an upgraded A10X processor that allows it to push out 4K movies and TV shows, as well as support for HDR10, Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos. (Psst, it can also act as a hub for your HomeKit smart home.)

It is one of the most powerful streaming boxes you can get, and it's powered by tvOS, Apple's TV box operating system. The Apple TV 4K actually supports four versions of 4K: 4K with standard range, 4K with HDR10 and 4K with Dolby Vision HDR.

The difference between HDR10 and Dolby Vision is actually significant: HDR10 is static, which means it applies the same tone to the entire TV show or movie. Dolby Vision can change the tone with every scene or shot, which makes it a more dynamic and, frankly, better technology.

HDR10+ fixes that static issue with HDR10, but it's pushed by Samsung and is only supported by Amazon Prime Video at this point. It's not supported on Apple TV 4K either. Regardless, while Dolby Vision is the ideal, these days most new 4K TVs support HDR10.

The other thing you should know about is refresh rates. By default, the Apple TV 4K will display your content with the highest available refresh rate. For example, if your TV supports 4K Dolby Vision at 30Hz, but also supports HDR10 at 60Hz, it'll choose HDR10 because it has a higher refresh rate.

This can be good if you want the highest refresh rate, but if you want your content to display in the form the creators intended, you'll have to tweak some settings, which we'll get into in a bit.

How to set up 4K and HDR

Apple TV 4K essential guide: How to watch 4K on the streaming box

For the most part, the Apple TV 4K will automatically show things in 4K when you've got a supported TV, supported content and supported app. But there are things you can do to improve the experience.

The first thing is to understand what your TV supports. Time to dust off that old TV manual and check what it can do (or do a quick Google). The second thing is to turn on the Apple TV's Match Dynamic Range feature, which will prioritise using the HDR mode and refresh rate that best matches the TV show or movie you're watching – rather than the highest standard your TV matches.

To do this, follow these steps.

1) On your Apple TV 4K, go to Settings.
2) Choose Video and Audio.
3) Choose Match Content.
4) Choose Match Dynamic Range and Match Frame Rate.

Match Dynamic Range will display Dolby Vision TV shows and movies with Dolby Vision support. Match Frame Rate will use the frame rate the movie or TV show was intended for. So, movies will typically show in 24 frames per second, rather than the more experimental 30 or 60 frames per second.

The other things to do all deal with hardware. You'll want to make sure that you've got a good HDMI cable, because not all HDMI cables support HDR or 4K. Apple recommends getting one with Dolby Vision certification, as that is what the company used to test Apple TV 4K. That said, some HDMI cable manufacturers like to spout a lot of nonsense when it comes to 4K – check out our full HDMI guide to cut through the jargon.

Similarly, update the software on your TV. Manufacturers are often tweaking the picture and colour modes to make sure things are optimal. Plus, you're getting rid of any potential support issues.

How to test 4K and HDR on Apple TV

Apple TV 4K essential guide: How to watch 4K on the streaming box

Apple is pretty good at making technology disappear into the background. It doesn't want you to worry about standards and such. That's great, but if you're a big A/V nerd you'll want to know whether you're actually watching Aquaman in 4K or 1080p.

The easy way to do this is to swipe down on your Apple TV remote, which will tell you whether you're streaming it in 4K. If you want to know whether you're running in HDR or not, you'll have to go back to that Match Content screen in Settings. When you select Match Dynamic Range, your TV picture should sputter a bit and change. If it does, you're good to go.

If you're still not convinced, you can pair your Apple TV to your Mac. To do that, go and download Apple's Xcode developer tool and make sure your Mac and Apple TV are on the same Wi-Fi network. Then, do the following:

1) In Xcode, choose Window and then Devices and Simulators.
2) On Apple TV 4K, go to Settings then Remotes and Devices then Remote App and Devices.
3) In the Xcode device manager, select Apple TV.
4) Enter the six digit pin that appears on your Apple TV on your Mac.
5) On your Apple TV, go to Settings.
6) In Settings, go to the new Developer menu.
7) Turn on Playback HUD.

Now when you play a movie, a new developer HUD will pop up and tell you all the technical information about what you're playing. You'll see the resolution, whether it's using HDR, which refresh rate it's using, the frame rate and more.

What apps and shows are in 4K?

Apple TV 4K essential guide: How to watch 4K on the streaming box

Most new movies, especially big blockbusters, are going to be in 4K. You can find these in a few places: Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Vudu and the Movies Anywhere app.

You may not have heard of Vudu but it's a pretty major one, because you'll be able to watch Disney, Marvel, Pixar and Star Wars movies in 4K on it. See, Disney won't let Apple host 4K Disney movies in the iTunes store – or most other people, for that matter. The reason Vudu gets a pass is because it's a significant part of Movies Anywhere, the digital movie locker Disney is pushing.

Netflix has 4K if you've got a $15.99 Ultra HD plan, and its 4K series and movie offering is getting better. The biggest source of 4K stuff is going to be the iTunes store though.

Even better, it's got easy labels to let you know whether it's 4K, Dolby Vision, Dolby Atmos or HDR10. Apple's iTunes is one of the few places where you can get 4K, Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos movies and TV shows. Plus, Apple will upgrade your old HD stuff to 4K Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos for free if it's available.

So if you bought the HD version of Creed a couple years ago, Apple will give you the 4K edition for no added cost. That means, if you own an Apple TV 4K, you've all of a sudden got 4K copies of whatever movies you have in your iTunes collection.

Finally, don't forget Siri. Apple's famous assistant can help you find 4K movies and TV shows. Try saying "Hey Siri, show me movies in 4K," "Hey Siri, show me TV shows in HDR," or"Hey Siri, show me movies in 4K and HDR."

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