Apple TV 4K review: Stunning, but strictly for Apple fans

Sleek and expensive, the Apple TV 4K will still delight the Apple faithful

Apple TV 4K

“The Apple TV 4K is a boon to Apple power users (but anyone else is better off with a Roku Ultra).”
  • Extremely intuitive interface
  • Siri search/control is vastly improved
  • Powerful graphics and processing
  • Beautiful 4K HDR picture
  • Slightly dim SDR content in some cases
  • No longer the only way to do AirPlay
  • Expensive compared to competition
MSRP $179.00

Apple debuted the Apple TV 4K in 2017, and despite ongoing software updates that keep it a streaming force to be reckoned with, the hardware has remained the same, and so has its price.

For the first year or so following its launch, Apple could justify the $179 starting price for the 32GB model (the 64GB model costs $199), after all, it was one of the few streaming devices on the market that supported 4K, Dolby Vision, and Dolby Atmos. It could even be considered as one of the best streaming devices available.

But it’s now 2020 and Apple’s competitors have not been standing still. Roku updated its flagship $100 Ultra, Amazon launched and continues to update its $120 Fire TV Cube, Nvidia up its game on the $150 Shield TV, and Google officially entered the remote-based media streamer category with the incredibly affordable $50 Chromecast with Google TV.

Apple’s little black box still does a few things better than these other products, but that list is dwindling, making it increasingly difficult to make an argument that you should spend so much. Let’s take an updated look at the Apple TV 4K and see if it’s still the king of the streaming device hill.

 Out of the box

Apple wrote the rule book for the out-of-box experience, and the Apple TV 4K packaging proves the company is still the master in this regard. From the heavy-gauge cardboard, to the tidy cable management, to the premium look and feel of the box and remote, everything about the Apple 4K TV screams “premium,” which, considering the $180 price tag, you should expect.

For that sum, you get a streaming device that feels like loving care and attention was put into its design. Most streamers are made of plastic, sure, but Apple’s is visibly superior. The remote feels great too – it sits in your hand just right, and makes you want to swipe that touchpad up top.

Apple TV Review
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Aside from the Apple TV 4K, its power cable, and its remote, you’ll also get a lightning cable to charge said remote and a quick-start guide comprising all of three sentences. That’s all you need because setup couldn’t get any simpler.

Setup

If you own a relatively recent iOS device (sorry iPad 2 owners, you are excluded here), then you are already set to experience the slickest setup process we’ve seen from a set-top box yet. After selecting language and country, simply hold your iPhone or iPad near the Apple TV 4K, and a few clicks later your Wi-Fi information and Apple ID will have been copied over. Instantly, all of your iTunes purchases – music, TV shows, movies – will be available through your new Apple TV 4K.

Bonus if you are a third- or fourth-generation Apple TV owner who stores device settings in iCloud: Your tvOS layout will automatically be synced so your new streamer will look almost exactly like your old one – only better.

If you don’t own an iPhone or iPad, you’ll soon learn that you won’t be getting the very best the Apple TV 4K has to offer. As is to be expected, the more invested you are in Apple’s universe, the more bonuses and amenities you’ll enjoy.

Still, once you’ve manually connected to your Wi-Fi router (or, better yet, connect an Ethernet cable for a better overall experience), you’ll find there are plenty of treats in store. Either way, your Apple TV 4K is going to be set up in no time at all.

If this is your first Apple TV, or if you don’t store your tvOS setting in the cloud, you’ll find Netflix, Hulu, and many of the other usual suspects are not pre-installed, so you’ll need to go fetch them. Apple does make things a little easier for Pay TV subscribers by gathering provider information, then automatically downloading the streaming apps users can take advantage of with their paid TV subscription.

You’ll also need to log into all your apps, which is the most tedious process involved with setting up any streaming box or smart TV. Apple makes it easier by automatically offering text entry via iOS on iPhone or iPad to key in usernames and passwords,  or by using Siri to speak the letters and numbers aloud and have them transcribed. Both methods are infinitely less hassle than hunting and pecking your way through a virtual keyboard, though that option is available, too.

User experience

Apple has always put an emphasis on user experience (known in the tech sphere as “UX,” because acronyms), which has resulted in catchphrases like “it just works,” along with products that earn a reputation as being easy for everyone to use. The Apple TV 4K is rich in UX, and the conveniences and thoughtful features run deep. There’s also a wealth of apps for Apple’s set-top device. We can’t discuss them all here, but we’ll touch on those we feel are the most notable.

Siri

Most folks are familiar with Apple’s digital assistant already, but Siri in the Apple TV 4K is especially helpful.

Remote tips and key features provided to Digital Trends by Apple:

  • Ask Siri “What should I watch tonight?” and a menu of suggested films and shows will appear on the lower third of the screen, with all recommendations handpicked daily by editors to showcase what’s buzzworthy.
  • Double-tap the Home button on the remote and you’ll see the apps you’ve used most recently, allowing you to seamlessly switch between apps without having to go all the way back to the Home screen.
  • Move your most-used apps to the top row of the Home screen for faster access. For example, add Netflix to your mix, and when the icon is selected, shortcuts to Netflix titles appear above. Just click a title to start watching.
  • Easily organize apps on the Apple TV with folders.
  • If you highlight a title in Up Next, press and hold, and you’ll get quick shortcuts like marking an episode as watched.
  • You can add any iTunes movie to your Up Next queue using Siri just by saying “Add this to Up Next” on the movie page.
  • Press the Play button on any title in Watch Now to start playing instantly.
  • Ask Siri to “Play TVShowX” from your Up Next list to continue binge watching.

One of Siri’s most helpful applications is finding stuff you want to watch — more specifically, finding 4K and HDR content you can watch.

Siri’s search results are not as exclusive as they once were. Apple could have restricted search results to iTunes offerings, but the Apple TV 4K now shows if the TV show or movie you want to watch is available outside of iTunes. Search for Orange is the New Black, and you’ll have the option to buy or rent through iTunes, or watch it for free on Netflix (provided you have a Netflix subscription, of course.) You’ll get similar returns from a search for The Handmaid’s Tale, which you can watch through iTunes, but is available free with a Hulu subscription.

What’s more, a narrow search for a specific movie title or a more targeted search for movies starring certain actors returns a long list of results from numerous streaming sources. We tried searching for “movies starring Charlize Theron,” and there were certainly many we could only get through iTunes, but there were several available from other streaming services to which we are subscribed. We even searched for “4K movies on Netflix” and were delighted when the Apple TV 4K showed us a long list of titles we could start watching in 4K.

Other search tricks include asking to see movies in 4K HDR from multiple sources, then refining the search by saying, “show me only the science fiction movies.”

If you miss a piece of dialogue, ask Siri, “what did they say?” and she’ll back the video up 15 seconds and turn on subtitles for that period. You can also ask Siri to skip ahead or forward for a specific amount of time instead of using the reverse or fast-forward buttons.

Layout: TV app or icon grid

The Apple TV 4K’s layout is intuitive, particularly for previous Apple TV users, with a big and bold grid of colorful icons for each app. But since tvOS 13, Apple TV users have another option, which is to use the Apple TV app as their chosen home screen experience.

The TV app acts as a one-stop-shop for all of your streaming needs, with an interface that mimics what you’d see on Netflix, or Amazon Prime Video. The difference is that the TV app pulls in content from all of the most popular services, not just one, and makes recommendations based on your watching patterns and your subscriptions.

Supported services include Apple TV+, Disney+, Hulu, HBO Max, Peacock, and Pluto TV. With some services, like Netflix, the TV app will show you recommended shows, but to actually watch them, you’ll be pushed to the Netflix app, instead of watching within the TV app.

It can track which movies or episodes you’ve watched, and this lets it provide “keep watching” and “watch next” lists.

If you’re a Spectrum or AT&T cable customer, you can watch your subscribed channels within the TV app instead of needing to switch inputs on your TV.

With dedicated sections for sports and kids, plus the ability to access all of the same content while on-the-go using the Apple TV app for iPhone, iPad, or the Mac, it’s a very robust experience.

Gaming, fitness, and more

Apple Fitness Plus
Apple

You’ve got to hand it to Apple: Even though the Apple TV 4K is rapidly approaching its fourth birthday, it keeps getting new features.

In 2019, Apple added Apple Arcade, a subscription service aimed at casual gamers. To help with the experience, it expanded support for gaming controllers from the very restrictive list of made-for-iOS devices, to include both the Sony PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Xbox, controllers. Unfortunately, developers and gamers alike haven’t exactly made Apple Arcade a runaway success.

More recently, Apple announced its Fitness+ subscription service, a virtual set of workouts guided by professionally hosted videos (via the Apple TV, naturally) and tied to the sensors built into the Apple Watch. We can’t say yet how good Fitness+ is (it launches later this year) but here’s how it compares to Peloton on paper.

The latest version of the Apple TV software, tvOS 14, brings with it some cool extras like picture-in-picture, the ability to monitor HomeKit-compatible security cameras from your TV, and support for audio-sharing when you pair two Apple or Beats wireless headphones to the Apple TV 4K.

The info

The Apple TV 4K makes it clear whether 4K with HDR is available for the content you’re watching, which is more than can be said for some of its competition. Ratings for TV shows and movies are also plentiful, sourced from multiple outlets like Rotten Tomatoes. You can also learn more about the cast and crew of your favorite flicks and TV shows by clicking on actors’ profile picture. This is like Amazon’s X-Ray feature, but more beautifully implemented.

The speed

The Apple TV 4K is fast, thanks to the A10X Fusion processor under the hood. If your internet connection can keep up, load times are lightning-quick, info screens appear instantly when clicked on, and even scrolling through long ribbons of titles is remarkably smooth and speedy.

The picture quality

In HDR modes, the picture quality on the Apple TV 4K is outstanding. the 4K content in Dolby Vision and HDR10 looks beautiful, especially from movies on iTunes. Most SDR (Standard Dynamic Range) content also looks very good.

Pro tip: Apple TV 4K used to convert 24 frame-per-second films to 60 frames per second before delivering it to the TV, and there was no way to disable it. Now, there’s an option to “match content” for both audio and video in the settings, which we recommend you use.

Dolby Atmos

A major addition to Apple TV 4K that came in 2018 with tvOS 12 was support for Dolby Atmos, the leading home surround sound format. Though not fully compatible with all apps (Plex, for instance, can handle Dolby Atmos but only if the source is Dolby Digital Plus, not Dolby TrueHD), this was a big win for home theater owners with Dolby Atmos sound systems. Here’s how to know if you’re actually getting Dolby Atmos on your Apple TV 4K.

If you subscribe to Tidal’s HiFi tier, you can use the Tidal app to listen to Dolby Atmos Music tracks if you have a compatible home theater system or soundbar.

Dwindling benefits

There was a time when owning an Apple TV was the only way to use AirPlay to do screen mirroring or content casting from an iOS device to your TV. It was also the only way to access iTunes movies and TV shows. But times have changed, and these once-exclusive features are starting to show up embedded into the latest generation of smart TVs and third-party streaming devices.

The iTunes Movies and TV app, and Apple Music app are now available on 2018 and newer Samsung smart TVs.

AirPlay 2 has been added to the newest smart TVs from Samsung, LG, Vizio, and Sony. It’s also coming to 4K-capable Roku in the coming months. Along with AirPlay 2, most of these devices will also be getting Apple’s smart home platform, HomeKit, which will let them be controlled by Siri.

The Apple TV app, arguably the nerve center for the Apple TV 4K’s overall user experience is also showing up on these same devices as well as Amazon’s Fire TV platform. The TV app isn’t the entirety of the Apple TV experience, but it’s a significant chunk.

When you consider just how much capability is packed into less expensive streaming devices like the Chromecast with Google TV, Fire TV Stick 4K, or Roku Ultra, the question really becomes, how much value do you put on the Apple TV 4K’s exclusive features like Apple Arcade or Apple Fitness+.

Warranty

The Apple TV 4K warranty provided by Apple protects against product defects for one year from purchase. Apple also offers an extended AppleCare Protection Plan warranty.

Our Take

The Apple TV 4K is a zippy, slick device with Apple’s unique design stamp all over it. Those deeply embedded in the Apple universe will be tickled with the way the streaming set-top box integrates with other Apple devices, as well as with Siri integration that offers convenient search and voice controls.

Is there a better alternative?

For Apple power users, the Apple 4K TV is a perfect fit. But for anyone else, devices like Roku’s Streaming Stick+, Roku Ultra,  Amazon’s Fire TV Stick 4K, or Chromecast with Google TV offer a lot more value for the money, with gobs of their own useful features not found in the Apple TV 4K. For more information about these alternatives, here’s a rundown of the Chromecast with Google TV, Roku Streaming Stick, and Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K.

How long will it last?

With the A10X Fusion processor inside, the Apple TV 4K still has plenty of untapped potential. And even if Apple announces new hardware this year, you can bet the company will continue to support the current generation for many years to come.

Should you buy it?

Do buy the Apple TV 4K if you are heavily invested in the Apple universe and/or have a large library of movies, TV shows, and music from the iTunes store — and you have no intention of buying a new smart TV any time soon. Don’t buy the Apple TV 4K if you’re just looking to get 4K HDR content through an easy-to-use device priced well under $100.

To help you save some money, here are the best Apple TV deals we’ve found today.

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