A lot can happen in a couple of years. Whole industries can shift, evolve, or even die.

Since the last Apple TV launch - which was all about games - we've seen an increasing transition to 4K and high dynamic range (HDR) content. 

The Apple TV 4K jumps aboard that ultra high-definition (UHD) and high dynamic range (HDR) train, 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?

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Design familiarity

  • Same design as last 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 previous Apple TV. "If it ain't broke then why fix it?" as the saying goes. 

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 remote is easy to use, features all the relevant buttons and a touch sensitive panel on the top for gesture controlling your way through the Apple TV menu system. There's a small cosmetic change compared to the older model - a white circle around the menu button and this circle is supposed to act as a focus for when in lower lighting conditions. It doesn't really make any difference. 

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4K hardware

  • 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, and here Apple hasn't held back in giving the Apple TV enough power to get things done. The Apple TV 4K uses the powerful A10 Fusion chip (as found in the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus) and for those interested, that doubles the performance and packs in four times the graphical capabilities compared to the outgoing Apple TV this model replaces. 

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 iPhone X and iPhone XS does allow you to record at 4K 60fps. The 4K Apple TV enables you to play it back 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 socket on the back, though. 

The connectivity speed 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. TV OS12 launched in September bought Dolby Atmos support and that makes this a pretty decent offering for those playing at the top of the home cinema food chain. 

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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 just launched

At launch 4K content was fairly thin on the ground, but that's not the case now. With the 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 4K HDR Netflix and 4K HDR 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 (which is more than likely set to change once Disney+ launches). 

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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.

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: American Made is £4.99, Star Trek: Beyond is £7.99, even the latest blockbusters are well priced, such as Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald at £13.99. 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 Ultra HD 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.

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Watching movies

Apple's iTunes offering on the HD and 4K front is as complete as other services with the service adding the big available titles as they become available. 

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. 

Watching Netflix

  • Netflix 4K app supported
  • Amazon Prime Video 4K app forthcoming
  • Apple TV app is here

Netflix offers by far the most 4K HDR TV shows, with all of its Netflix Original content. Whether it's shows like Stranger Things, The Crown, The Umbrella Academy, or Altered Carbon - there's plenty of top quality shows.

Sadly the Apple TV Netflix app doesn't support interactive shows like Bandersnatch, a strange omission. 

Hey Siri

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. Apple hopes it can stave off this urge to ignore the Apple TV box by allowing you to search all content via one single entry point: Siri.

Ask for 4K drama and it will search all available subscription services, bar Netflix, while the Apple TV app offers you suggestions based on what you've watched - in a similar way to how Netflix does already, but across multiple subscription services. It brings all the TV shows and movies from across all your apps and services into one place. It can also access your collection of rentals and purchases from iTunes. Even better, when you install a new app on your Apple TV or iOS device, the TV app will sign you into that app with your cable single sign-on. 

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 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.

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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.  

And it would be amiss not to mention that Apple has updated all the slow-moving screensavers to be in 4K. They are pretty, there are more of them. You'll be happy when you see them. 

Verdict

The Apple TV 4K box offers plenty, especially if you are after an affordable Dolby Vision / Dolby Atmos experience. The company's approach to 4K is very much welcomed and one that certainly makes a difference if you've already got a large HD library within iTunes. 

We also suspect that the company's TV services approach will favour those that have the Apple TV, and although TVOS 12 didn't see a huge amount of changes and upgrades in June 2018, we suspect that will be very different in June 2019. 

It's not without it's faults though, many because the leading streaming service, Netflix, clearly doesn't want to give it full support above and beyond other devices. Netflix doesn't allow interactive play, which while in their infancy, will grow in numbers, and the company has already said it won't be part of Siri search or Apple's TV plans. 

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.

This review was first published in September 2017.