Apple TV 4K review: A capable TV streamer -- if you're willing to spend up

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The Good The Apple TV 4K delivers the best streaming video available to compatible 4K, HDR and Dolby Vision TVs. It offers the most polished streaming experience today and excellent Siri voice options.

The Bad The Apple TV 4K is expensive. Cheaper streaming devices from Roku and others offer similar image quality and capabilities.

The Bottom Line If you can swing the price and want the best streamer available today, get the Apple TV 4K.

7.8 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Ecosystem 10
  • Features 10
  • Performance 9
  • Value 5

Update: Winter 2020

This review was first published in September 2017 when the Apple TV 4K was first released and has been updated substantially since then. After nearly three years on the market and numerous upgrades, the Apple TV 4K remains our top video streamer pick for Apple fans and is still a good option for those who don't mind paying extra for its advantages -- namely a premium user experience. 

Since launch Apple TV 4K has added an app for Amazon Prime video and added Dolby Atmos as part of the TVOS 12 update, making it a great streamer for Atmos fans as well. The Apple TV app was upgraded in May 2019 with a new Channels option and iTunes integration. Plus, a software update to TVOS 13 added support for multiple user accounts as well as Xbox and PlayStation game controllers, which will be particularly useful with the Apple Arcade game service. This year, TVOS 14 added picture-in-picture support, YouTube in 4K and the ability to listen with AirPods. 

In other words, Apple TV 4K just keeps getting better. Unfortunately for the company, however, its competition has as well. Roku's latest Ultra supports Dolby Vision and Atmos with it and a host of other 4K Roku players gaining support this month for AirPlay, allowing you to cast from an iPhone, iPad or Mac right to the Roku. 

The Apple TV 4K's biggest competition comes from Roku and Amazon, specifically the Roku Streaming Stick Plus (our current Editors' Choice) and Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K. At less than half the price, both are superior values to the Apple TV 4K for most people and the Roku is still our favorite streamer overall for the money. Apple still charges $179 for the base Apple TV 4K -- which, remember, came out in 2017 -- or $80 more than what Roku charges for its new Ultra and $129 more than Roku's Streaming Stick Plus. 

The original non-4K Apple TV HD remains on sale for $150, but my advice if you're still considering an Apple TV is to pay the extra $30 for the Apple TV 4K. If you own a 4K or HDR TV you'll get an immediate benefit and even if you don't, chances are good that your next TV will be 4K and HDR compatible

Even three years later the Apple TV 4K remains a solid choice thanks to its breadth of 4K, HDR and audio format support, sleek design and constant software upgrades. While it once was the best of the bunch, its much higher sticker price compared to improved rivals is why we've lowered its rating and can no longer recommend the Apple TV 4K as our Editors' Choice.

The original review follows below. 

Apple TV 4K

Money no object, Apple TV 4K is the best 4K streamer of the bunch.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Apple's 4K streaming box is the hands-down best product of its kind. But you should only buy one if you want a premium experience and are willing to pay for it.

It combines the best streaming quality available today -- including Dolby Vision HDR video, which no other streamer offers, and Dolby Atmos audio -- with the smoothest, most polished feel. It's as quick and capable as any streamer around. And if you just bought an expensive 4K HDR TV, the price of stepping up to an Apple TV might seem like a very worthwhile drop in the bucket.

The Roku Streaming Stick Plus, meanwhile, costs less than half as much and is almost as good. Both do basically the same things very well, and Roku has its own substantial advantages beyond price. Roku still has more 4K apps, including YouTube, whose numerous 4K and HDR videos aren't available on Apple TV 4K. Roku's platform is more content-neutral, and I love its price-centric search results.

So what do I mean by "experience?" Apple TV has a way nicer remote, sleeker controls, better-looking menus, more updated apps, superior voice search and control, and, with the integration of Movies Anywhere with iTunes, excellent access to movies and TV shows purchased from other services like Vudu and Amazon. On an everyday basis, using Apple TV just feels better.

In the end Roku's value proposition makes it a better choice for most people. If you're a person who just wants the best product regardless of price, however, that's the Apple TV 4K. 

Now playing: Watch this: Apple TV app 2019: Everything you need to know

Apple TV 4K basics

Before I get into the details and nitty-gritty, here's a look at the recent additions and top-level facts about Apple TV 4K.

  • The Apple TV 4K has all the major video streaming apps you could want, and is the only streamer with Apple's TV app, which provides a central place to browse video from a variety of services. 
  • In addition to Atmos audio, the current tvOS 12 operating system brings a few neat improvements, like zero-sign-on for TV apps for some cable subscribers, compatibility with third-party remotes and new screensavers. Here's all the details.
  • A software update allows you to adjust settings to disable conversion of videos, menus and games to HDR and a fixed frame rate. Check out the details, and my recommended settings, right here.
  • When this review originally published, Apple's iTunes was unique in charging the same price for 4K and HD movies. Now competing services like Vudu have followed suit, matching prices for the most part.
  • Apple TV can discover and pair with AirPods for private listening, adds AirPlay 2 support with multiroom audio and a setting to automatically engage Dark Room mode based on local time.
  • 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.
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. 

Read: Best Apple TV remote cases for less than $10

For many others, the Apple TV remote is the Apple TV's least-loved feature. Indeed, 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, ultra-minimalist 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!


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 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 and Dolby Atmos audio. 

The Apple TV 4K is still not compatible with the 4K or HDR videos from YouTube, however. "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. However, YouTube fans who insist on peak image quality should choose another device that does deliver it in 4K, like Roku's 4K players or the Chromecast Ultra.

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