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

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Screenshot by David Katzmaier/CNET

4K and HDR (and Dolby Vision) on iTunes

As I mentioned above iTunes no longer has a price advantage over Vudu and others for 4K movies, but it's still an excellent place to buy them. Well, most of them anyway.

One reason is the upgrade guarantee. 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. The same goes for Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos Audio. As far as I know such a policy is unprecedented -- Vudu, Amazon and Google haven't matched it yet, for example. 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.

The big issue: iTunes lacks the 4K HDR versions of Disney movies like "Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2" and "Cars 3" that other services have in 4K and HDR. So don't expect those or other 4K Disney titles -- including Star Wars, Pixar and other Marvel movies -- to hit iTunes anytime soon.

If you still can't find anything to watch, just wait a few minutes for the Aerial screensaver to appear. The gorgeous flyovers are remastered for 4K and look spectacular. 

Apple TV 4K
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Apple redid its splendid Aerial screen savers in 4K.

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Want more 4K TV shows and movies? Ask Siri

4K streams have been available since 2014 but they've been notoriously difficult to find. Netflix does a good job of surfacing them in a row called "Ultra HD 4K" on many devices and TVs, but if you want to just see available titles across a bunch of services, it's not easy. The best solution, until Siri came along, was Roku's "4K spotlight" channel (which ironically excludes Netflix).

On the Apple TV 4K you can just press the remote's mic button and say, "Show me TV shows in 4K," or, "Show me movies in 4K." You can get more specific like, "Show me comic book movies in 4K," or, "Show me TV dramas in 4K." Each of these searches returned relevant results from Netflix and iTunes, the two 4K services currently active on my box. Meanwhile "...movies in HDR," worked but, "...TV shows in HDR," didn't and neither did, " Dolby Vision," or, "Show me TV dramas in 4K starring Bob Odenkirk." Sorry, Bob.

There's a section of iTunes devoted to 4K video, but I'd also love to see Apple include 4K and HDR lines in its excellent "TV" app, which is designed to surface stuff you can watch now without paying, as part of your normal subscriptions. By the way, Amazon is now integrated integrated into the TV app too, unlike Netflix.

Apple TV 4K vs. Apple TV 1080p: A better picture, but often subtle

In my book HDR is the biggest advance in home video image quality since HDTV itself, but it's not nearly the same magnitude of leap. Don't expect to be as impressed with your first look at HDR as you were when you first saw HD -- provided you're old enough to remember that revelation.

Seen side-by-side, HDR usually surpasses non-HDR in a way that some viewers will notice immediately, and others will scratch their heads looking for. I've been doing this image quality evaluation thing awhile myself, and it's often tough for me to tell HDR from non-HDR at a glance.

It helps to have a nice TV. I set up the 2017 Apple TV 4K right next to the 2015 Apple TV and watched the two best TVs I've ever tested: the 65-inch LG OLED65E7P and Sony XBR-65A1E, both of which use OLED display technology. I swapped between the two watching the same material, one delivered in 4K HDR by the new box and the other in 1080p high-def (without HDR) by the old one.

There are two major HDR formats -- HDR10 and Dolby Vision. LG TVs support both. Samsung only supports HDR10. The Sony set I used only supports HDR10 now, and will add Dolby Vision later this year via a firmware update. But the good news is that Apple TV 4K supports both, so it's effectively universally compatible. 

Apple TV 4K
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The Apple TV 4K can dish out just about any kind of video format.

Screenshot by David Katzmaier/CNET

First up: "Wonder Woman." The most immediate difference was in color. The 4K Dolby Vision HDR version showed more vibrant, realistic greens in the Amazonian grass and trees, deeper blues in the skies and more vibrant gold in the firelight of Diana's room. But even more impressive was the impact and pop of the Dolby Vision image, which made the standard one look kinda drab in comparison. Highlights were brighter, especially under the outdoor sun, and additional details abounded, for example in the clouds and the paintings of powerful women in Diana's storybook.

On this title at least, Dolby Vision looked better than HDR10. Colors appear more saturated and vibrant in Dolby Vision, while in HDR10 they looked closer to the standard version. Highlights and pop were similar however, and the HDR10 version still surpassed its standard HD counterpart.

Next up: "Baby Driver." In the Blues Explosion-powered opening scene, the red of the getaway car was deeper and more realistic in Dolby Vision, the sky and the white of Baby's headphones brighter. When I switched from Dolby Vision to HDR10, the colors again looked closer and the impressive pop of the image was reduced. In many scenes, like the meeting of the gang in the warehouse (at 9:12), it was tough to see any advantage of HDR.

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Netflix and iTunes are the only services on the new Apple TV that currently support 4K and HDR.

Screenshot by David Katzmaier/CNET

My final stop comparing the two boxes was with Netflix's "Daredevil." It's a very dark show, which generally makes differences more elusive. During an early nighttime fight in Season 1, Episode 1, the HDR10 version looked better but not overwhelmingly so: brighter headlights and city lights from a parked car popped more against darker shadows, and later during the intro, the red of the melting buildings again looked more realistic, less pinkish than the non-HDR version. I also noticed more detailed highlights, for example the wire grid in a window behind Matt Murdock (at 9:11) that was obscured in the non-HDR version.

In sum, with 4K and HDR sources the improvement in image depends on your TV and the video itself, but in most cases it's there, if not always obvious. For owners of nice TVs who want to watch the best streaming format available, Dolby Vision is the best choice from what I've seen, followed by HDR10 and finally "just" 4K. 

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Plenty of other 4K streaming options are available today. 

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Is it worth the extra money over Roku?

Not for most people.

The main hold-up over Apple TV 4K is the price. If you really want to save money, most 4K TVs have perfectly good on-board apps. And if you want to use an external streamer instead, the Roku is much cheaper.

But let's say you're OK spending $179, £179 or AU$249 to get a high-performance streamer. If you're an "Apple person" with a nice TV and a yen for improved image quality, the Apple TV 4K is definitely worth getting -- and if you already own the non-4K one and you have cash to spare, it's a good excuse to kick that box to a secondary room. The same goes for movie buffs who regularly rent or buy new releases in 4K, thanks to iTunes' price advantage and promise to upgrade to the 4K versions.

For everyone else it's a tougher sell. Apple TV 4K still provides a more polished experience than the current Roku or Amazon 4K devices or the Nvidia Shield, but that polish comes dear.

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