Apple TV 4K review

One box to stream it all

Apple TV 4K
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Believe it or not, the Apple TV has been kicking around for over a decade. What began life in 2007 has gradually evolved into today’s Apple TV 4K, but the streaming box has spent most of its years in the shadows of more successful iProducts. Some people even refer to the Apple TV as Cupertino’s “hobby project”. The cheek of it!

But millions of shipped boxes later, Apple TV feels more important than ever. Apple has charted big plans in the TV space, starting with the new Apple TV app and, later in 2019, the new Apple TV+ service, which will host a slew of the company's original programming and movies.

Read this: The best streaming boxes and and sticks

Apple TV is shifting gears, but how does it compare to the lineup of other streaming boxes on the market today? Here’s our in-depth review of Apple’s latest and greatest TV box.

Apple TV 4K review

Apple TV 4K: Setup and interface

Before we go any further, a little on setup. Like all Apple products, the TV is quick to get up and running. That is, once you've admired the obsessively premium packaging in which the box is ensconced, a reminder that this is no cheap Roku box you’re unwrapping. Still, at the end of the day, it's a small black box that you'll plonk down by your TV and rarely have reason to touch again. A shiny black box. But a black box.

And sure, the Apple TV is certainly a premium device – it's part of the reason you’re paying at least $179 to own it, $199 if you want to double the storage to 64GB. It’s more expensive than other options, a lot more in some cases, but Apple has built a business on premium products. You’ll find bags of features in cheaper devices from Roku and Amazon, but none of them are Apple’s, and none slip as well into the Apple ecosystem. If you’re already an iPhone user, the Apple TV is already a good fit.

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In fact, you’ll have the option to whip out your iPhone during setup in order to transfer login information and Wi-Fi details to the Apple TV. If you’re a cable subscriber, you’ll also be able to connect your Apple TV to your cable provider and download apps for your favourite channels.

Apple TV 4K review

This is where the Apple TV starts showing its value as a one-stop shop for all viewing – but it's the interface itself that's one of the Apple TV's greatest strengths. Jumping over from the Amazon Fire TV Stick, it made me appreciate just how much cleaner it is than Amazon’s Fire OS, which has become too cluttered and heavy on self-promotion. By contrast, tvOS is cleaner, less intimidating and far easier to navigate.

The home screen is mostly just a list of apps to scroll through, including the App Store so you can download more of them. A few others are pre-loaded, including the Podcasts, Music and Photos apps. If you're an iOS device user, this means you can sign into your iCloud and sync all your pictures and songs with the Apple TV.

Finding apps is a cinch, and the ability to drop them into folders gives the Apple TV a level of customisation you won't find on most streaming devices. The processor inside the Apple TV is nice and zippy too, meaning apps are lightning-quick to load and there are few wait times.

The search feature, which scans across all the available apps and services, is particularly great on Apple TV and works nicely with the voice remote feature (more on that shortly). And as for which apps are available to use, the Apple TV is a well-fed platform. The only major omission for me at the moment is Fandango Now – so I still have to load that one from my Samsung TV's interface. But otherwise, all the usual suspects are here: Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video and plenty more.

That said, there's a growing tension between this gathering of third-party services and Apple's desire to push you towards its own Apple TV, which just got a major overhaul.

Apple TV 4K review

Apple TV 4K: The Apple TV app and Channels

At the top of the app pile is Apple's own, called, confusingly, Apple TV. The app showcases a bunch of content from apps, including those that come via TV providers, and it'll re-route you to those apps should you pick something to watch.

However, with the redesigned app comes something called Apple TV Channels, which lets you subscribe to TV services through the Apple TV app. How is this different to what you already do? Let me explain. Normally, if you wanted to watch HBO content you'd either subscribe through cable or go direct to an app, right? And you could simply load the HBO Go app from the Apple TV main interface as you normally would. None of that has changed. But now you can subscribe to these services directly through Apple TV Channels instead.

And why would you do that? Three reasons. One, it means all your subscriptions live in one handy app. Two, because it's actually being streamed from Apple's servers, which theoretically means the quality doesn't suffer when everyone's watching the big finale of your favourite show. And three, because it allow you to download stuff offline on your iPhone or iPad – even if you wouldn't normally be able to through the provider's app.

Apple TV 4K review

The downside? If you already subscribe to, say, HBO and use the HBO Go app, you can't just start taking advantage of these benefits. You'll have to subscribe through the Apple TV Channels to get them. Yup, it's annoying, but there are benefits to be reaped.

While I do think Channels works well for at least point one and three (the second will have to prove itself in time) having the same name for both the physical box and the app confuses matters, particularly when you throw Channels in.

Later this year, the company will also roll out something called Apple TV+ which will live in the Apple TV app (still following?) and provide access to Apple's original shows and movies. Oh yeah, Apple's making a load more shows and movies. Didn't you hear?

This will have an ongoing price of its own, of course, and it's another reason Apple is this year making the Apple TV app available on third-party smart TVs, starting with Samsung's, where it will look and behave much like it does on Apple's box.

Apple TV 4K review

Apple TV 4K: Dolby and 4K content

With the Apple TV 4K you're getting support for HDR10, Dolby Vision HDR (High Dynamic Range), Dolby Digital Surround sound and, as of an update last year, Dolby Atmos audio. The last of those really cements the Apple TV 4K as an AV powerhouse, though of course you'll need the right TV and speakers to make use of these features.

And if you buy content through iTunes, all the better, as Apple currently has the largest library of Dolby-supported movies out there. Support isn't as even across third-party apps, however, so be warned.

As for picture, watching content in Dolby Vision and HDR10 looks truly fantastic on the Apple TV – again, if you have the TV to support it. Even in SDR (Standard Dynamic Range) the picture is great (and no longer buggy, which it was for some time).

Apple TV 4K
Apple TV 4K

With alternatives like the Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K now on the market, it does become a little harder to justify paying more for Apple's box. Amazon's stick also offers both Dolby Vision and Atmos, and for significantly less money. As we say, Apple's advantage over Amazon and others is its iTunes library, but this advantage is eroding now that Apple is sharing some of these features with third parties.

Samsung smart TVs just got the Apple TV app, including iTunes content, and others will get it too. Even AirPlay 2 and HomeKit are rolling out to smart TV sets from other companies. This is the reality of Apple's shift to services: to bring Apple TV+ and iTunes to more eyeballs, it must devalue its own hardware. The Apple TV 4K is a fantastic streaming box in 2019, but it's starting to feel less essential.

Apple TV 4K review

Apple TV 4K: AirPlay 2, HomeKit and more

The Apple TV supports AirPlay 2, and for a while it was the only way to cast content from an iDevice to your TV. As we mentioned however, other TVs are getting AirPlay 2 this year. It means an easy way to share video, music and photos from an iOS device to the TV. It also means you can connect the Apple TV to multiple AirPlay 2-supporting speakers, or even a combination of TV and speaker.

Right now I have the Apple TV connected to a Sonos Beam soundbar though HDMI and to a nearby HomePod through AirPlay 2. The problem with this setup is that I know that when I put the Apple TV to sleep it's going to forget the HomePod it's connected to and make me re-add it. It'd be nice if Apple found a way to keep the connection live at all times.

Apple TV 4K review

You'll even find HomeKit support on the Apple TV. In fact, you can turn your Apple TV into a HomeKit hub, which, if you're a HomeKit user at all, equips you with powers such as automating actions based on your locations.

Guide: The best hubs for your smart home

We should also point out that the Apple TV doubles as a games console, though certainly not one that will dethrone your PlayStation 4. Think more iPhone games on a TV scale. Still, it's amassed a decent library over time. Just a shame the remote is such a bad controller. Speaking of which…

Apple TV 4K review

Apple TV 4K: The remote

Oh god, the remote. You'd think a decade would be long enough to get a TV remote right, but here we are. The remote is a pain simply because it demands you use its square touchpad to navigate, with (thankfully) a few physical buttons beneath for volume, playing/pausing and jumping to the home screen. The touchpad is too sensitive, and has been the cause of almost all my frustrations with the Apple TV, particularly when entering text.

Good thing you have the option of the remote's microphone, right? Nine times out of ten I use this instead of typing the names of movies in letter by letter – and nine times out of ten it works just fine. The benefit of having the mic built into the remote is the proximity, increasing the chances of it hearing you correctly, and I get a much better hit rate than I do with the HomePod that sits several feet away from me.

Apple TV 4K
The Apple TV 4K is an AV junkie's streaming dream, with 4K HDR and Dolby Atmos support buoyed by a decent iTunes library of supporting content. The interface is a joy to use and added features like AirPlay 2 and HomeKit really round this out, but make it less essential to those not in Apple's ecosystem. Also, the remote still sucks.
  • Simple, intuitive interface
  • Dolby Vision and Atmos
  • AirPlay 2 and HomeKit support
  • Expensive compared to other boxes
  • Annoying remote
  • Siri is still Siri

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