A lot can happen in two years. Whole industries can shift, evolve, or even die. In the 24 months since 2015's Apple TV launch - which was all about games - we've seen an increasing transition to 4K resolution and high dynamic range (HDR) content.
For 2017 the Apple TV 4K jumps aboard that ultra high-definition (UHD) and high dynamic range (HDR) train, finally seeing Apple get back to delivering what the original Apple TV first promised: an easy and affordable way of watching movies and TV shows on your television.
With so many other ways to consume such content, however, does the Apple TV 4K have a hard sell for the mass market - or does its affordable approach to 4K content put a big enough oar in to disrupt the market for the better?
Apple TV 2017 review: Design familiarity
- Same design as 2015 model
- Remote included, with Siri voice control
- iPhone/iPad control
So many Apple reviews start the same: the design hasn't changed, but the insides have. That's the same with the Apple TV 4K, which takes on the same form factor and design as the 2015 box.
Visually speaking, the black box of Apple TV 4K isn't especially inspiring - but as with so much under-the-telly AV kit, it's happy to be hidden away, out of sight.
Even when not in view, the included small touch-sensitive remote is easy to use, if you don't want to use your phone or tablet to control the box.
That new remote does see a small cosmetic change compared to the older model - a white circle around the menu button. This circle is supposed to act as a focus for when in lower lighting conditions, but we've found ourselves wanting it around the Siri mic button instead.
Even in the short time we've had voice search on the competing Sky Q remote we've become used to the side button location, so Apple's decision to bury its equivalent in amongst all the buttons means it's not so easy on memory recall to locate.
Apple TV 4K review: Hardware overhaul
- Dolby Vision and HDR10 support at 60fps
- Faster A10 processor (as found in iPhone 7 / 7 Plus)
- 32/64GB storage options
Of course design is only one side of the story. "If it ain't broke then why fix it?" as the saying goes. Besides, Apple has made changes where they really matter - by completely gutting the inside of Apple TV.
Instead of an Apple A8 processor (as found in the iPhone 6) the Apple TV 4K uses the much more powerful A10 Fusion chip (as found in the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus). On paper that doubles the performance and packs in four times the graphical capabilities compared to the outgoing Apple TV.
That power is mostly used to deliver a set-top box that is capable of delivering 4K HDR/Dolby Vision quality movies, although it's fair to say games and apps load smoothly too.
Also new is support for 4K resolution at 60fps, but you'll need a compatible cable to cope with the signal, and, of course, a compatible 4K television. Although there are no movies available in 4K 60fps currently - it's largely Hollywood-style 24fps - the new iPhone X does allow you to record at 4K 60fps. Come November, the 4K Apple TV could be a good source to playback at the native frame rate.
The Apple TV 4K comes in two storage versions: 32GB and 64GB. The storage is used to store apps and not purchased content, so it really comes down to what you plan to use it for. If it's just about streaming movies and watching Netflix, the 32GB should be more than enough.
Connectivity is speedy too. There's 802.11ac Wi-Fi with MIMO for simultaneous dual band (2.4GHz and 5GHz) connectivity. For those who prefer a tethered option, there's Gigabit Ethernet - which is an upgrade over the previous 10/100Mbps Ethernet for wired Internet. The box does lose the USB Type-C socket on the back, though.
The connectivity speeds means you'll have no issues streaming 4K footage through the box, assuming your internet provider is up to task. For 4K downloads you will need a fast broadband connection, and with such large files we would also recommend an unlimited or high monthly data quota.
On the sound front, there's AC3 (Dolby Digital 5.1) and Enhanced AC3 (Dolby Digital Plus 7.1) support. There's no Dolby Atmos... yet.
Apple TV 2017 review: 4K Dolby Vision and HDR10
- High Dynamic Range (HDR) fully supported: HDR10 and Dolby Vision capable
- Plenty of 4K HDR movies available in iTunes store
- Netflix app available, Amazon Prime Video coming soon
Apple was heavily criticised for ignoring 4K when the 2015 Apple TV launched. Until now the reliance on only HD content in the iTunes store allowed its competitors to make early gains.
Content availability has been slowly on the up overall, with far more choice from the big studios - whether via Blu-ray, digital downloads, or services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Sky Q, and Google Play.
With the new Apple TV 4K, the company finally puts itself right in among the mix, with both 4K and 4K Dolby Vision movies on iTunes, while adding Netflix and Amazon Prime Video support to fill the TV show gaps. That puts it on par with most other services out there, ticking most of the studio boxes - except for Disney content.
Apple TV 4K review: 4K movie prices
- Fraction of the cost of UHD Blu-ray
- Free 4K upgrade from HD iTunes version
- iTunes content playable on other Apple devices
VHS to DVD, DVD to Blu-ray, then digital downloads, and now 4K. Movie fans have had to shell out a lot over the last 20 years to keep their collection up to date, and that's before you factor in those remasters and director's cuts (please don't mention Star Wars).
In a move that seemingly turns that model on its head - just as it did with the original iTunes music store and the music industry - Apple has performed a stroke of genius: offer 4K upgrades for free. If you already own the HD version of the movie in iTunes, if and when the 4K version is available it will automatically be upgraded, free of charge.
But even if you aren't upgrading the pricing is very appealing.
Rather than charge what the rest of the industry has been charging - upwards of £20 for a 4K a movie - Apple isn't charging any extra for the new 4K version above and beyond the HD costs that we are already used to paying. That's right: you buy the movie and you'll get it in the best quality that's available at that time.
For example: Kingsman is £3.99, Star Trek: Beyond is £7.99, even the latest blockbusters are well priced, such as Alien: Covenant at £9.99. By contrast the 4K Blu-rays of those movies are £20, £19, and £25 respectively. That's a huge difference. And, ok, high-end AV heads will want the higher bitrate available from UHD Blu-ray, but for many others the HD to 4K detail jump from a download will be hugely impressive on that shiny new 4K telly.
That pricing approach isn't just about wooing new customers, but making your content accessible on all parts of the Apple ecosystem. Buy in 4K on your Apple TV and you'll still be able to watch it on your iPhone, iPad, or Mac in the relevant quality. Such is the ease of Apple's approach.
Apple TV 4K 2017 review: Watching movies
Apple's iTunes offering on the HD front is as complete as other services. When it comes to 4K it's still early days, but the content looks to be growing fast - and it's already broader and more affordable than the US-only Google Play selection. During our testing period - and ahead of the official launch - more and more 4K and HDR/Dolby Vision movies have become available on Apple TV 4K too.
There's a dedicated 4K movie area to highlight what's on offer, or you can simply ask Siri to display 4K movies. However, you can't break out 4K HDR or Dolby Vision - Siri keeps thinking we're saying "4K Dalby Vision" for some reason.
Anyway, with quality so good we've watched lots. Star Trek: Beyond, Mad Max: Fury Road, Alien: Covenant, The Lego Batman Movie, Kingsman: The Secret Service, and Ghost in the Shell have all graced our eyes in ultra high-res glory via our Samsung KS8000 4K TV.
Streaming playback quality is excellent, with the HDR quality on movies like Star Trek: Beyond really making the content almost pop-out of the screen - especially those scenes on the Starship Enterprise. With Lego Batman the colours are extra intense, while the level of detail in Mad Max is another glorious example of the increase in resolution - especially during the night sequence in the swamp. We can't wait to see movies like Wonder Woman and Valerian City of a Thousand Planets in 4K in the future.
Apple TV review: Watching Netflix
- Netflix 4K app supported
- Amazon Prime Video 4K app forthcoming
- Apple TV app launching in UK soon
Netflix offers by far the most 4K HDR TV shows, with all of its Netflix Original content. Whether it's shows like House of Cards, Narcos, Breaking Bad, or Ozark - there's plenty of top quality shows.
However, with so many of today's best 4K TVs coming with smart capabilities - and therefore access to Netflix and Amazon Prime Video - the need to have a smart set-top box such as Apple TV isn't as great as it once was. Whether it's Samsung or LG, top-of-the-range TVs don't have trouble letting you access the latest content on these two services and more, so Apple has to offer a much more compelling reason here.
And the justification? Apple TV 4K will allow you to search all content via one single entry point: Siri.
Ask for 4K drama and it will search all available subscription services, while a soon-to-be-launched Apple TV app (already available in the US) will offer you suggestions based on what you've watched - in a similar way to how Netflix does already, but across multiple subscription services.
It's very straightforward and effective. Our experience using the app in the US has already shown how well it can do the job, so it'll be great when this functionality lands in the UK.
Apple TV 4K review: Apps, games, and live sports
- Other apps and Games
- Live Sports only available in the US
- 4K HDR screensavers
It's not just about watching 4K movies, though. The Apple TV 4K box, like its 2015 predecessor, offers the Apple TVOS app store, which is full of dedicated Apple TV apps and games.
The experience hasn't really moved on much over the last two years. Games are for casual gamers who want a bigger screen experience, while the apps are likewise an extension of what's available on iPhone or iPad. In the two years we've had the 2015 Apple TV model with apps we've not really used it as an app-enabled device.
In the US, Apple has introduced a new Sports tab to the Apple TV app. It promises to offer a wide variety of sports, leagues, live games, and replays, plus live information, what's coming up, and when your favourite teams are playing. Sadly, this service isn't available in the UK, so we've not been able to test it during this review.
And it would be amiss not to mention that Apple has updated all the slow moving screensavers to be in 4K. And it shows, especially the aerial views of the airport and Dubai.
Had Apple just released a box that was capable of playing 4K HDR content it would get filed under "just another way to access 4K content in a world where there are plenty of alternatives".
The Apple TV 4K aligns itself with the current standards, but where it really shows off is with its single purchase model. Buy an HD movie and it'll morph into the 4K one when it becomes available - without incurring additional costs. In other words: you'll always have the best available quality, depending on what's available and what device you're watching on. This opens up a world of possibilities for those keen to expand their 4K library on the cheap.
This move has huge ramifications for the industry which, until now, has been intent on making movie fans pay dearly for wanting better-looking movies and TV shows in their living room. Whether this forces other providers to do the same remains to be seen - but it could be the start of a shift, for which Apple should be applauded.
When you start to look at the new Apple TV like that - and despite many other hardware and software streaming services offering the same content and quality, plus the box's current lack of Amazon Prime Video - it's hard not to want to upgrade, despite the initial overhead price of the box.
The new Apple TV 4K is the movie fan's champion set-top box and the place to buy 4K movies without breaking the bank, with the knowledge that if you own other Apple devices that you'll be able to easily watch them on the go too.
Alternatives to consider
Nvidia Shield TV (2017)
Now available at the same price as the Apple TV 4K, without the games controller, the Android-based Nvidia Shield TV is a decent alternative. It also offers 4K HDR video compatibility, albeit without iTunes and the cheapest 4K movies on the planet. It does cut a fine rug with gaming though, so if that's important to you then Nvidia has the ideal solution here.
Read the full article: Nvidia Shield TV review