Apple products are designed so that the newest one is almost always the best one.
It doesn’t always work out that way, of course, but the Apple TV 4K not one of those exceptions. With support for 4K and HDR, a speedy new processor, and refreshed tvOS update, it’s no stretch at all to say it’s the best Apple TV the company has ever made.
It builds on everything that was great about the 2015 Apple TV while making significant improvements where they count. Even so, at a $179 starting price, it’s difficult to justify the cost when there’s so much competition.
The hardware is largely the same as the 2015 model, with a few exceptions: the box no longer has that random USB-C port on the back (no matter, because you couldn’t use it anyway). The Siri Remote looks almost exactly the same, too. The menu button now has a raised white ring around it, which Apple says makes it easier to find without looking down (I didn’t notice much of a difference but anything that makes the slippery remote more grippy is definitely good).
The biggest difference, of course, is that the new model supports 4K resolution video and HDR content, which still isn’t something everyone needs in 2017. But even if you don’t have a 4K TV, there’s a good chance you’ll get one before Apple updates its set-top box again so there’s no reason not to future-proof yourself now.
There are other under-the-hood improvements as well: the whole thing is powered by Apple’s new A10X Fusion chip, which delivers the performance boost necessary to handle 4K content. It also supports Gigabit Ethernet (even better for 4K streaming!) and better Wi-Fi so it can take advantage of a dedicated network for streaming, if you have one.
Seeing a theme here? Apple really wants to make 4K streaming as smooth and as fast as possible, which, again, is a very good thing.
The 4K problem
The biggest problem with 4K right now isn’t that it requires more bandwidth to stream, but that there’s still not that much content available to begin with — even less so with HDR. This is slowly changing, though.
Most of Netflix’s original series are available in 4K (assuming you’re willing to cough up more money for a premium subscription), and Hulu and other services are starting to have a decent amount of 4K titles available, too. Apple says its own library of 4K movies and shows is growing steadily — which it is, but since you have to buy those à la carte, costs can add up pretty quick.
Apple has committed to keeping 4k prices the same as HD
One bit of good news, though: Apple has committed to keeping 4K prices the same as HD. And if a movie or show you previously bought in HD later becomes available in 4K, you’ll automatically be able to watch the 4K version for free.
That could have a big payoff for people who have already invested a lot of money into buying content directly from Apple.
However, there’s simply no getting around the fact that 4K content still makes up only a very small fraction of what’s available. In the long term, Apple says it’s doing its part to try and address this by working with studios and other content creators to encourage faster 4K adoption. (This, by the way, will benefit everyone — not just those who want to buy into Apple’s ecosystem.)
In the nearer term, Apple’s Siri Remote at least makes it much, much, easier to find the 4k content that’s already available. Ask Siri for 4K or HDR titles and you can see all the options, across all the services, in one place.
tvOS: small, but significant tweaks
There aren’t many dramatic new changes with tvOS 11, though there are some solid additions. If you have multiple Apple TVs, you can sync your home screens, including your apps, across devices with a new “Home Screen Sync” feature.
The interface now supports an automatic “dark mode,” which changes the Apple TV UI to a darker theme for nighttime viewing. (You can also ask Siri to switch to dark mode is you still prefer to switch manually).
You can also now access Apple TV controls right from your iPhone’s Control Center, thank to a new Apple TV Remote shortcut in iOS 11. It’s not better than the Siri Remote by any stretch, but it comes in handy if you temporarily misplace it.
Apple also finally added support for single sign-on via your cable provider, meaning you don’t need to enter your cable credentials each time you log into an app. There are still a few major providers, like Verizon and Comcast, that don’t yet support single sign-on, but the overall list is quite long.
There’s also much more to look forward to. A future update will bring a dedicated Sports section to tvOS to make it easier to watch live sports, with the option for score notifications.
Additionally, Apple says its new A10X chip will enable game developers to bring much more immersive, console-style, games to the Apple TV. We saw a taste of this onstage at Apple’s launch event, when ThatGameCompany demoed a new game called Sky.
It’s too soon to know how good these titles will actually be, but it’s nice to see that Apple is making some effort to up its gaming abilities.
But is it worth it?
As great as it is to finally have access to 4K and HDR content via an Apple TV, the biggest issue right now is that the price is, for now, very difficult to justify when you have 4K-ready competition from Roku, Amazon, and Google at a fraction of the cost.
Not that there aren’t benefits to buying into Apple’s premium. If you’ve already invested a lot of money into iTunes content, then it may be worth it to pay the extra cost upfront (especially if all those free 4K conversions come through).
And Apple’s Siri-powered universal search is still difficult to beat, especially considering how easy it is to find 4k and HDR content.
But whether that balances out the $179 price (or $199, if you want the 64GB version), is another matter. With so much competition coming in at significantly under the $100 mark, the “Apple tax” is harder to justify here. For all but the most dedicated Apple loyalists, the new Apple TV is likely to inspire buyer’s remorse.
Apple TV 4K
4K and HDR support comes with a big performance boost • Universal search with Siri still rocks • Automatic 4K upgrades could be a big money saver
It’s more expensive than all its competition by a mile
The Bottom Line
The Apple TV 4K is the best Apple TV yet, but it’s too expensive.