Apple TV 4K 2017 HDR Edition Review: One Beautiful But Flawed Set-top Box
Update, January 23, 2018:
In our original review of the Apple TV 4K, made shorlty after its release, we complained strongly about this set-top boxes forced upscaling of all content and on-screen visuals to HDR and its related forcing of of all content to a 60Hz refresh rate, regardless of any lower frame rates in the original content source. We can now happily say that Apple has fixed this issue with a software update.
Apple TV 4K is one very advanced, very sleek little set-top streaming media box with lots of power and 4K HDR content options under the hood. Support for Dolby Vision HDR and iTunes 4K inclusion make this an ideal choice for 4K TV owners whose televisions have the same HDR standard, or for serious fans of Apple’s ecosystem. However, for other users, of HDR10 4K TVs and non-4K TVs, Apple TV 4K’s high price makes it a weak choice in comparison to much cheaper rival streaming devices with nearly identical content options and fundamental features.
- Fantastic processing speed and performance
- Full, broad HDR support with Dolby Vision
- Excellent iTunes, Siri and tvOS user experience
- Lots of Siri-searchable third-party media apps
- Free access to 4K versions of your existing iTunes HD movies
- Too expensive to offer value for some types of users
- No YouTube 4K support
- No support for Dolby Atmos sound
After a solid couple of years in which just about everyone with an interest in streaming media boxes for the newest TVs was waiting for Apple to finally release a really cutting-edge 4K-capable Apple TV version, the company finally went and did it. Apple apparently wanted to be really sure that the market for ultra HD TVs, content and associated standards like HDR was really stable before taking its own plunge into a market already comfortably settled with earlier rivals. Now we can safely say that Apple’s uncharacteristic conservatism has paid off nicely. While the most recent previous Apple TV set-top box was out of date practically right after its release, the new late-2017 4K HDR version is absolutely a cutting edge piece of technology. It could in some ways that we’ll cover shortly even be considered the most advanced set-top box in existence at the time of this writing in October of 2017.
In basic terms then, the Apple TV 4K set-top box offers just about everything any 4K HDR TV owner with a love of the best in content for their cutting-edge TV could want and it does all of this with some distinctly unique features of its own. Let’s take a closer look and see if the technology adds up to make Apple TV 4K’s price tags for the 32GB and 64GB versions worthwhile.
There is no shortage of great stuff about the new Apple TV 4K. Like we said, it’s probably the most advanced set-top box on the market right now in some highly specific ways and while rival models have plenty of similar features of their own for even better prices, none of these take away from the great and diverse overall quality of this model. Apple device fans will love it and want to have it in their home almost without a doubt and even consumers who’ve previously never cared much about Apple one way or another will likely be highly tempted to splurge on the new 4K model’s robust home entertainment package. This applies especially to owners of 4K HDR TVs with Dolby Vision high dynamic range built into them, for reasons we’ll get to momentarily. On the whole, Apple TV 4K has plenty to love about it for any 4K TV owner and the following are some of the key reasons for this.
First and foremost, the Apple TV 4K box, much like its predecessor, feels solid and high quality right out of the box. Yes, it’s made of plastic like just about any other 4K set-top box on the market today but its plastic feels more solid, more durable and the compact black cube-like design of the device, with polished black sides and a matte top where the Apple TV logo is, all look nicely elegant sitting near any premium 4K TV (or any other TV for that matter). The remote is essentially the same as it was in earlier versions of Apple TV except for a small ridge around the edges of the menu button and overall it’s very easy to use and intuitively designed for maximum control of the tvOS smart platform in the Apple TV 4K box. The connectivity ports on the Apple TV 4K are all also easy to deal with and very friendly for hooking this little beast of a set-top box up to any 4K UHD TV quickly and with minimal fuss.
New media, OS, hardware and Siri Features
With its new Apple TV streamer, Apple is not only trying to show consumers that it can provide them with a cutting-edge Apple TV experience, it’s also, maybe more importantly, trying to create a highly integrated overall streaming media platform that incorporates the best of all possible content sources.
In trying to achieve the first of these things, the company has heavily revamped iTunes services to allow for a large and growing selection of 4K ultra HD and HDR content that will only expand with time as new movies are remastered into 4K or new 4K HDR releases added to studio content rosters. Best of all, users who had already amassed a large library of HD-only movie content through their older versions of iTunes will get free upgrades to the 4K versions of their selections as they emerge. For new 4K content releases that you might buy as they come out, Apple also has a bonus waiting with the new 4K iTunes in the new Apple TV box: all such movies are (at least for now) being priced at just under $20. Apple was one of the first companies to offer this kind of price reduction across the board for even major content selections, basically it seems, by using its enormous consumer clout to simply force studios into accepting such a deal. Oddly, thanks to this tactic, other streaming media providers like Google and Amazon seem to be following suite with their own price reductions, benefiting not only Apple iTunes users but also fans of other major 4K entertainment sources.
In trying to create a more integrated general home entertainment platform, Apple has also done a lot to make the Apple TV 4K key to this. The new device offers up a combination of app store, a single sign-in authentication system for cable content sources, an improved and high-powered voice driven Siri search mechanism and a general central apps platform that is supposed to rival whatever the 4K TV that you connect Apple TV 4K to also offers.
Yes, the previous 2015 Apple TV HD version tried to do many of the same things (sans 4K content options) but the new set-top box pulls all of the above off much more smoothly, more cohesively and with much more power under the hood to keep everything running. With this we’re of course referring to the hardware improvements of the 4K model. These include the new much more powerful A10X Fusion chip CPU, which is the same as that found in Apple’s 2017 iPad Pro devices. This new CPU effectively powers the devices new tvOS 11 smart platform with its refined home-screen sync features, the new Apple TV’s AirPod support features and the massive new graphics boost given to the platform thanks to the integration of 4K resolution and high dynamic range support for both HDR10 and Dolby Vision. All of these were lacking in the previous Apple TV.
Siri’s improvements are also highly noteworthy here. The version of the voice interaction technology found in the Apple TV 4K is especially helpful for tracking down 4K and HDR content from all app sources in the Apple TV, not just iTunes. This particular new feature is a nice change from the previous iTunes resitricted versions of Siri that we’d seen. Thus, now users who look for say, “4K action movies” with Siri in the Apple TV 4K will get options for content of this type from iTunes, Netflix and any other included apps it might be found in. The same applies for specific content titles, actor names and other possible media searches. All of them will give back results from numerous media sources inside the Apple TV 4K ecosystem, not just from iTunes. Searches can even be refined to show all possible 4K selections for highly specific genres of content. Siri also comes with voice controlled rewind and fast forward by which you can ask to move a movie in either direction by a stated number of seconds or minutes and there’s even a neat little dialogue clarifying feature for the voice assistant. With this thing you can ask the voice search assistant “Siri, What did they say” and have it rewind a piece of movie dialogue by several seconds so you can activate subtitles or hear the words again.
Exquisite picture quality with, HDR support & Dolby Vision
HDR and 4K resolution are pretty much the two biggest general improvements that have been given to the Apple TV 4K. These are what truly modernized this line of set-top boxes and it’s about damn time that this happened. Thus, as you can maybe imagine, Apple really invested heavily in making both picture quality specs perform extremely well for the most part. In the case of the 4K resolution, it’s about as good as you’ll get it from any set-top box and both the tvOS interface and all native 4K content render through the little device beautifully. 4K movies and other programming of the non-HDR type look beautifully sharp and because the Apple TV 4K obviously allows for full [email protected] content playback, motion handling of fast-paced content from within the smart platform is generally quite good though there are a few quirks that we’ll cover in more detail below under our section on things we don’t like.
Aside from 4K UHD resolution support, the real winner in the Apple TV 4K is however its truly stunning level of high dynamic range support. Quite simply, in either the HDR10 mode or with Dolby Vision for content mastered in either, the quality of the image provided by the Apple TV 4K box is simply delightful. Dolby Vision content looks particularly outstanding though owners of the box who want to enjoy it would first need a 4K HDR TV which supports the format. For now only some 4K televisions do so, though among them exist some truly excellent models with remarkably affordable prices. iTunes 4K movies in particular all come with HDR formatting and for many of these selections, the format is Dolby Vision. Watching those through the Apple TV 4K on a Dolby 4K TV creates a visual spectacle that makes this box definitely look like it might have been justified in costing more than nearly any other rival model on sale right now.
Aside from 4K UHD content and HDR movies, the Apple TV offers a much broader selection of HD video sources that all smoothly and cleanly pass through it to your TV of choice. While much of the quality inherent in any non-4K content source depends a lot on the source itself and on a secondary level on how well the 4K TV you happen to own upscales and renders SDR HD video sources of all types, Apple TV 4K at least doesn’t get in the way of this in any way and non-4K, non-HDR video sources from its own apps ecosystem are both plentiful and of high quality for the most part.
There are on the other hand some quirks to the HDR and 4K content delivery mechanisms of the Apple TV 4K but these are something that we’ll be covering below under our “Bad” section.
To be honest, Apple TV 4K is one excellent all-around set-top box and we’d easily consider it to be one of the most advanced options available among today’s competitors. In simple terms, it’s a fantastic device by any measure, for any buyer and for a certain type of user in particular (Dolby Vision 4K TV owners) it will provide especially excellent benefits through its Dolby HDR support. That said, a couple of major details about the new set-top streamer are definitely worth mentioning.
Apple TV 4K is expensive
First and foremost, the Apple TV is more of a “premium” set-top box not only by virtue of its price but also its brand and construction. Among all rival mass-market TV streaming devices being sold right now it definitely commands the highest price and we’re not quite sure if that price is justified based on what you get.
The new devices biggest bonus features are without a doubt its access to the growing selection of iTunes 4K content and its support for Dolby Vision but in the case of the first, there are plenty of alternative content sources available through other streaming/downloadable media apps on other set-top boxes and in the case of the Dolby support, it’s only worth considering if the TV you connect Apple TV 4K to also supports Dolby Vision. HDR10 TVs won’t display such high dynamic range mastering at all.
Cheaper high quality alternatives available
In other words, owners of HDR10 televisions would really be better off price-wise in going for something like a Roku Streaming Stick+, Amazon’s Fire 4K HDR TV dongle or Google’s Chromecast Ultra. All of these devices cost far less than the Apple TV 4K and offer virtually all the same content or in the case of Roku TV, much more content. The one thing they lack is iTunes, yes, but is this worth the extra $100 you’d pay for the Apple device?
Technical Issues with 4K and HDR conversion
Apple TV 4K’s biggest technical issues exist with how it converts different content types automatically without any ability to stop this conversion from taking place. This applies to HDR/SDR content sources, 4K resolution upscaling and also to 24p movie sources. In all three cases, the result is annoying even though it’s not as terrible as some reviewers have played it out to be.
Starting with HDR/SDR conversions, the set-top box basically forces any HDR-capable TV its connected to into constant HDR mode regardless of whether the content you’re playing back through the streamer is HDR or SDR formatted. Unlike the majority of set-top boxes, which only trigger HDR mode in a 4K HDR TV if they’re actually sending it HDR content, the Apple TV 4K box sends all picture signals to HDR TVs as if they were sources of high dynamic range video, even if they’re just ordinary SDR content.
Apparently, the box does this for the sake of avoiding picture quality problems and image drops during transitions between HDR and SDR video feeds from itself to the TV. While the above problem doesn’t cause any quality problems when you’re actually trying to play HDR video sources from Apple TV on your HDR TV, In reality though, for the majority of content that isn’t HDR such constant sending of all content in HDR mode to a TV regardless of what the TV is set to play or what the content actually is can cause visual distortions and detail failures between dark and bright scenes in video. The actual effect in practice doesn’t create that much of a problem in most cases (at least based on what we ourselves saw during examination of SDR video played back on an HDR TV) but it does create a few related issues that many users can find problematic in some situations.
For one thing, since HDR mode usually sets a TV’s brightness to its maximum possible settings, the whole range of content that you view on your TV will look as bright as it possibly can. This will also include onscreen menus and other stuff that doesn’t need to be set anywhere near HDR mode. In darkened rooms, this can be downright hard on the eyes and we’re not even going into possible issues of TV display power consumption as a result of the Apple TV’s forcing of HDR mode on a TV at all times.
Secondly, The constant upscaling of all content played from the set-top box into 4K HDR mode and sending it packaged with that label to your TV means that the TV itself will think that it getting pure 4K HDR video sources at all times. As a result, your own 4K TVs internal processing technology, which is designed to refine and improve the majority of content sources that aren’t natively 4K HDR formatted, won’t do its proper upscaling job. Once again, this can cause visual problems with many types of video.
The only ways to avoid the above problems are to either completely manually deactivate HDR modes of all types in the Apple TV 4K’s settings menus and then reactivate them only for specific content or, just as tediously, constantly tweak your connected 4K TV’s settings so that what the set-top box is forcing it into (maximum brightness for starters) can be deactivated or reduced. Neither of these are what we’d call ideal solutions.
Forced refresh rate reprocessing
Finally, related to the above forced upscaling issues, there is the concurrent automatic forced processing of all content sources into 60Hz speeds (60 frames per second). Thus if you’re playing back a native 24p movie from Netflix through Apple TV 4K, it will automatically interpolate it to a 6Hz refresh rate and force your TV to do the same even if the TV has smooth motion handling for 24p content playback built into it. This forced refresh reprocessing also screws with the Apple TV’s HDR capabilities in some situations: for example if you want to play a Dolby Vision movie on a 4K TV which only supports Dolby Vision HDR at 30Hz (as to LG’s older 2016 4K OLED HDR TVs), then Apple TV will simply switch the HDR formatting for said movie over to HDR10, which isn’t as good as Dolby Vision. All of this is done for the sake of forcing forward those 60Hz.
Again, Apple justifies the above by saying that they want to create smooth gaming experiences and fast-paced action video flow but the lack of subtle control of things like these in an easy way is frankly annoying and a major oversight.
Minor additional defects
Lastly we’d like to mention a couple other details that potential buyers of the Apple TV 4K should keep in mind. First of all, this set-top box doesn’t support Dolby Atmos sound passthrough, in case that’s something you’ve got your home entertainment system rigged up for. This is possibly a minor issue for most potential buyers since Dolby Atmos adoption is in any case still relatively low across the world of cutting-edge entertainment content but it does come with all Dolby Vision mastered 4K HDR content, which makes the Apple decision to not include Dolby Atmos sound at the time of this writing a bit strange indeed.
Secondly, Apple TV doesn’t support 4K content from its YouTube app because the set-top box wasn’t built with VP9 integration. VP9 being the 4K video compression almost uniquely used by YouTube for its ultra HD videos. On a final note, some key content apps like Amazon Primer are still absent in the new Apple TV 4K box, but this is something we’re expecting to change sooner or later as Apple allows more third party content providers onboard.
- Processor: Type A10X Fusion Qty 6-core with 64-bit Architecture
- Smart Platform: tvOS 11
- Connectivity: 1 x HDMI 2.0a port, LAN, Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11ac Wi‑Fi with simultaneous 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, Bluetooth 5.0
- Included accessories: Lightning to USB cable, Siri Remote
- Audio Formats: AAC, AC-3, protected AAC, AIFF, Apple Lossless, EAC3, FLAC, HE-AAC v1, MP3, MP3 VBR, WAV
- Video Formats: H.264, HEVC, M4V, MOV, MP4, MPEG-4
- Photo Formats: GIF, HEIF, JPEG, TIFF
- Sound Output Mode: 7.1 channel surround
- Built-in Decoders: Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby Vision
- Supported video resolutions: Video Standard H.264/HEVC SDR Main 10 profile, MPEG-4 Simple Profile
- HDR Capable: HDR10 and Dolby Vision Supported
- Frame Rate: 30fps, 60fps
- Resolution: 3840 x 2160, 640 x 480
- Additional Features: Apple AirPlay support, HDR10 color, iCloud support
- Internet Streaming Services: Apple Music, CBS, iTunes, iTunes Movies, iTunes TV Shows, ESPN, FXNOW, HBO NOW, Hulu, NBC Today, Netflix, Showtime Anytime, SyFy
- Capacity: 32 GB, 64GB
- Dimensions & weight
- Width 3.9 in
- Depth 3.9 in
- Height 1.4 in
- Weight 14.99 oz
Unpacking & Setup
Apple has always been the master of elegantly lovely product packaging and easy set-up. The Apple TV 4K is no exception to this tendency. The streamer’s box alone looks delightfully premium with its stiff, heavy cardboard and elegant presentation, and the packaged Apple TV inside is neatly set up for nearly immediate use. Opening this elegant little box gets you the Apple TV box itself, the also elegant Siri remote control to one side, a lightning-to-USB cable for charging the remote, a power cable, the standard one year warranty and Apple’s Quick Start Guide. You really won’t need much more than the Quick Start Guide either because Apple TV 4K truly is as user-friendly as a media device gets when it comes to setting it up.
Once the Apple TV 4K and Siri remote have been powered up, existing Apple device users with a relatively recent version of iOS in their machines can simply set country and language settings in the Apple TV 4K, and with a couple more clicks have their account information, Apple ID, etc from their other Apple device sent over to the streaming box via WiFi. Just like that, all of a user’s iTunes products and preferences are logged with Apple TV 4K. Owners of recent previous Apple TV devices who stored their device settings in the cloud can also automatically sync their older tvOS settings with their new 4K HDR version of the set-top box for a seamless OS layout shift that has all the new features of the 2017 set-top box included into it.
For buyers who are entering the Apple universe for the first time ever with Apple TV 4K, things are a bit less slick unfortunately. Basic setup is just as easy but without a previous profile of user activity, you’ll be starting from a blank slate when it comes to content and user preferences. Setting up the Apple account and configuring the box for your area is still dirt simple though. One additional benefit of Siri right here is its ability to transcribe what you say into text. Thus when you start logging into any existing user accounts with either Apple or other content apps on tvOS, you can do so by stating your credentials instead of having to tediously type them in via virtual keyboard.
As we’d stated above, Apple TV 4K is loaded with connectivity options, making sure that it picks up the very best possible quality from whatever home internet connection you have. Its LAN port and dual WiFi options (see specs above) guarantee a level of bandwidth performance that’s as good as your internet connection manages to be and the streaming boxes HDMI 2.0a port connects to any modern 4K TV for full passthrough of all 4K ultra HD and HDR content at 60Hz (whether you want it or not, as we explained above).
Since we’re talking about Apple here, you can probably guess that the user experience of the Apple TV 4K and its sleek new tvOS smart platform is going to be excellent. Apple certainly didn’t disappoint in this regard. They’ve got UX (as they call user experience) down to an art form and the combination of tvOS 11 user interface settings, Siri’s new search-friendly settings which we covered above under “Good” and other aspects of Apple TV 4K’s technology make searching for and watching all your favorite content on this particular set-top box extremely simple to do.
Of course, the Apple TV isn’t without its usability problems, such as the forced HDR 4K conversion and forced upscaling to 60Hz of all content transmitted from the box to your TV which we mentioned above but these are specific details in a more general device layout that’s excellent for a wide range of home entertainment playback and search. Furthermore, we suspect that Apple its will have the above problems with Apple TV 4K ironed out sooner or later in near future updates to either tvOS or its Fusion A10X chipset in the set-top box. One further thing we can definitely say in Apple TV 4K’s favor is that it’s damn fast. As long as your internet connection can keep up, this set-top box will deliver everything its capable of giving at rapid-fire speed without any stutter or delay that we were in any way able to detect. Furthermore, due to the promise of firmware updates, we don’t doubt that Apple TV 4K or its processing chip will stay fully relevant for at least a few more years.
In our final opinion we’re of two minds about the Apple TV 4K set-top box. On the one hand, it is one downright excellent performer with some fantastic cutting-edge content delivery specs and entertainment options. We’d even go as far as to say that it’s possibly the slickest, and marginally most advanced set-top box you can get right now. However, fundamentally, the only important things it really offers to make it special are its support for Dolby Vision high dynamic range and the unique presence of iTunes 4K with its growing list of affordable UHD HDR titles. If you don’t have a Dolby Vision 4K TV or don’t really feel like iTunes is important for you, then Apple TV 4K might just be a bit more of a cost than you really need.
Roku’s range of much cheaper 4K HDR set-top boxes, Amazon’s Fire TV HDR 4K dongle or Google’s Chromecast Ultra all offer much better value with their far lower prices and similar features. Amazon Fire and Roku even support Dolby Atmos sound, which Apple TV 4K oddly doesn’t.
Apple is currently selling the Apple TV 4K HDR set-top box through its own website and several other online retailer sites for a price of $179.99 for the 32GB version and $199 for the 64GB version.