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Apple TV 4K review:

Premium-grade 4K HDR streaming for a high price

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The Good The Apple TV 4K delivers the best streaming video available to compatible 4K, HDR and Dolby Vision TVs. 4K HDR titles on iTunes cost less than competitors. It offers the most polished streaming experience today, the best remote on the market and excellent Siri voice options. It's just $30, £30 or AU$40 more than the non-4K box.

The Bad The Apple TV 4K is expensive. Cheaper streaming devices from Roku and others offer similar image quality and capabilities, and more 4K apps (including YouTube). Upconversion of non-4K/HDR video is confusing and doesn't improve image quality.

The Bottom Line Apple's 4K HDR streamer combines peak picture with a high-end feel nothing else can match, but it costs too much for most people.

CNET Editors' Rating

8.5 Overall
  • Design 10.0
  • Ecosystem 9.0
  • Features 10.0
  • Performance 9.0
  • Value 7.0

Like the super-fancy iPhone X, you absolutely don't need the Apple TV 4K. But you might want one anyway.

If you just paid big for a sweet new TV, it makes sense to feed it the best video you can. With streaming that means 4K resolution, preferably with high dynamic range (HDR) or Dolby Vision, which both deliver better color and more pop.

Sure, that new TV has built-in apps that can stream Netflix, Amazon, Vudu and all the rest in 4K and HDR, but for the best streaming experience -- with the most apps, easiest search and constant updates -- you'll want to connect a separate box.

The Apple TV 4K is the new luxury box. It combines the best streaming video quality available today with the smoothest, most polished feel. It's as quick and capable as any streamer around. And since the price is just $30, £30 or AU$40 more than the non-4K version, it's a better value even if you don't already own a 4K HDR TV.

Apple TV prices

Model US UK Australia
4K 32GB $179 £179 AU$249
4K 64GB $199 £199 AU$279
1080p 32GB $149 £149 AU$209

If you have the non-4K Apple TV already, it's probably not worth getting the new one. 4K and HDR video is still scarce, and isn't stunningly better than standard HD quality. The Apple TV 4K also costs more than twice as much as the Roku Premiere+, which does basically the same things very well, and has nearly all the same apps except iTunes and Apple Music. It also has more 4K apps right now, including YouTube, whose numerous 4K videos aren't available on Apple TV 4K.

Unlike the Roku, Apple TV 4K doesn't allow on-screen purchases from iTunes competitors such as Amazon (coming later this year) or Vudu. And the fact that the box upconverts all video to 4K/HDR -- everything from on-screen menus to low-res YouTube clips -- is confusing and doesn't improve image quality of content that wasn't 4K to begin with. None of those issues are deal-breakers, but any one of them could be reason enough to skip the Apple TV 4K.

I expect more 4K streamers to be announced soon, almost certainly including new Alexa-centric 4K Fire TV devices or new Rokus. They could also change your calculus. So unless you're an Apple die-hard with extra cash, it's worth waiting a bit. Stay tuned.

Update, Sept. 26: Added statement from YouTube on 4K video below.

But first... what's new with the Apple TV?

Before I get into the details of the new 4K version, here's what Apple has added to both it and the earlier 2015 version, which remains on sale.

  • There's an updated operating system, TVOS 11, that's available now on the 2015 model and shipping with all 2017 Apple TV 4Ks.
  • It lets the Apple TV discover and pair with AirPods for private listening, adds AirPlay 2 support with multiroom audio (coming soon), and a setting to automatically engage Dark Room mode based on local time.
  • Now you can sync the home pages of multiple Apple TVs in your household, automatically mirroring their arrangements and folders. Downloading an app on one adds it to another.
  • In addition to the forthcoming Amazon app, Apple's TV app will add a section devoted to live sports. If your favorite team is playing, you can simply ask Siri to watch it and the box will automatically switch and stream (if available). A similar section will be added for news.
  • The HomePod speaker, due later this year, can play audio from Apple TV wirelessly, but Apple isn't detailing any other capabilities. I asked about using HomePod's far-field mics for remote-free Siri voice control, similar to the Echo Dot controlling Fire TV, but Apple had no comment.
Apple TV 4K

Sarah Tew/CNET

Upside-down remote? Put a ring on it

I have always loved the touchpad-equipped Apple TV remote. Whipping around menus and videos with one thumb feels slick and futuristic. I dig the tidy size and button count as well as the quality feel of its materials from metal to glass to the matte touchpad itself. 

For many others, the Apple TV remote is the Apple TV's least-loved feature. Ineed, unless I attach the lanyard or a remote case, I occasionally pick it up wrongside-up and start swiping the bottom glass, not the top pad. A clever, ultraminimalist design touch solves that issue admirably on the Apple TV 4K remote: There's a raised, white ring around the menu key. Now it's obvious at a glance which end is up. Apple is also adding this white ring to the original Apple TV remote. Bravo!

05-apple-tv-4k-2017

Left: Apple TV 4K. Right: Apple TV (with the old remote).

Sarah Tew/CNET

Back in black

The box itself looks exactly like its predecessor. The only visible difference between the two is the absence of a USB-C port on the back of the new one. Apple told me it was only used for service, and it's not needed anymore.

Under the hood there's an Apple's A10X Fusion processor -- the same used in the iPad Pro -- for faster processing and graphics than the A8 chip in the 2015 model. However, both boxes felt equally quick to me. Perhaps future games will take advantage of the new processor.

The Apple TV 4K is available in 32GB and 64GB configurations. Unless you download lots of big games, 32GB is plenty, since the box streams pretty much everything else (video, photos and so on) and the storage is used primarily for apps.

Updated connections include Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11ac Wi‑Fi with simultaneous 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands and Bluetooth 5.0. The video out is now HDMI 2.0a to support 4K HDR video. The Apple TV 4K can do Dolby Digital surround sound, but it's not compatible with Dolby Atmos audio. 

It's also not compatible with the 4K or HDR videos from YouTube. "YouTube relies on the VP9 codec for distribution and playback of 4K and HDR videos," a YouTube representative told me. "The new Apple TV does not support VP9 and therefore we can't deliver 4K resolution on this device." In other words, don't expect 4K and/or HDR YouTube videos on the Apple TV anytime soon. 

That's not a huge loss, since YouTube's normal 1080p videos look very good. YouTube fans who insist on peak image quality should probably choose another device that does deliver it in 4K, like Roku's 4K players or the Chromecast Ultra.

Apple TV 4K

Vudu (and coming soon, Amazon) are new additions that compete directly with Apple's iTunes.

Screenshot by David Katzmaier/CNET

Not just for Apple fans anymore

Apple's devices offer more perks to people who use iPhones, iPads and Mac computers. But as Apple TV's app lineup has expanded, its appeal has grown to non-Apple (or at least non-iTunes) people too.

The impending addition of Amazon, the second most-popular streaming provider after Netflix and a direct competitor to iTunes, erases my No. 1 complaint about Apple TV. Like just about every other streamer on the market, Apple TV will finally be able to access Amazon's vast library of to-rent and to-purchase content and free Prime shows and movies, including Amazon originals. And the Apple TV 4K will get the 4K and HDR (and Dolby Vision) titles too.

Apple TV added Wal-Mart-owned Vudu, another major iTunes competitor, last month, but that app doesn't serve 4K or HDR/Dolby Vision on the Apple TV 4K (yet).

One advantage Roku still has over Apple TV is the ability to actually rent or purchase TV shows and movies directly on the device from multiple services, and even compare prices. With Apple TV, those purchases can only be made through iTunes. If you want to watch an Amazon or Vudu title via Apple TV, you'll have to buy it somewhere else first, like Amazon's website.

Once you make that purchase, however, Apple TV's Amazon and Vudu apps have full access to the title. But don't write off iTunes just yet. The service has a pair of aces up its sleeve that could sway even non-Apple people to use iTunes instead of its competitors for movie purchases and rentals.

22-apple-tv-4k-2017

Not cheap to rent or buy, but cheaper than the 4K competition.

Screenshot by David Katzmaier/CNET

4K is actually cheaper on iTunes (for now)

Ace No. 1: If you own a particular iTunes title already in HD, and it becomes available in 4K (with or without HDR) on iTunes, Apple will upgrade the version you already bought for free, automatically. As far as I know such a policy is unprecedented. From LaserDisc to VHS to DVD to Blu-ray to streaming, if you wanted a higher-quality version of the video, you had to buy it again, full price.

Ace No. 2: All HD and 4K titles on iTunes cost the same. On other services, 4K is typically more expensive. Take a new release like "Wonder Woman." On iTunes it costs $20 to buy and $6 to rent, regardless of whether you get the HD or 4K/Dolby Vision version. On Vudu and Google Play, the HD version costs the same but the 4K/HDR version costs $30 to buy and $10 to rent. It's a similar story with new-to-video movies "Kong: Skull Island," "Ghost in the Shell" and "Transformers: The Last Knight."

I'm not sure how long that big price difference can last, and Vudu, Google and FandangoNow had no comment when I asked if they're planning to lower their 4K prices to compete. On Tuesday Vudu matched iTunes' $20 price for the 4K version of "Baby Driver," however. Begun, the 4K movie price wars have.

One caveat: iTunes currently lacks the 4K versions of some movies, like "Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2" and "Fate of the Furious," which other services have in 4K and HDR. I asked Apple whether either title would be available on its service in 4K soon (triggering the free upgrade to 4K). 

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