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Apple TV 4K Review | Forced HDR Conversion Makes Roku a Better Choice

It’s finally here: The Apple TV 4K. Some would say Apple is late to the party — Roku, Amazon Fire TV and Chromecast have all supported 4K for at least a year – while others would suggest Apple took its time to make a more perfect device since 4K HDR content hasn’t been widely available until now. We feel the truth is somewhere in the middle. The Apple TV 4K is not perfect, but it does several key things better than its competition. Our Apple TV 4K review is designed to help you decide if this streaming set-top box is right for you.

Editor’s update: We have recently learned that tvOS 11.2, which is currently in beta, will address the forced HDR content delivery issues we discuss further along in this review. While this is encouraging news, we will wait until the new tvOS is made available to us for evaluation. At that time, we will update this review as necessary, potentially altering the score. 

 Out of the box

Apple wrote the rule-book for the out-of-box experience, and the Apple TV 4K packaging proves the company is still the master. From the heavy-gauge cardboard, to the tidy cable management, to the premium look and feel of the box and remote, everything about the Apple 4K TV screams “premium,” including the price: $180.

For that sum you get a streaming device that feels like loving care and attention was put into its design. Most streamers are made of plastic, sure, but Apple’s is visibly and tactilely superior. The remote feels great too – it sits in your hand just right, and makes you want to swipe that touch-pad up top.

Apple TV Review

Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Aside from the Apple TV 4K and its remote, you’ll also get a lightning cable to charge said remote and a quick-start guide comprising all of three sentences. That’s all you need, because set-up couldn’t get any simpler.

Setup

If you own a relatively recent iOS device (sorry iPad 2 owners, you are excluded here) then you are already set to experience the slickest setup process we’ve seen from a set-top box yet. After selecting language and country, simply hold your iPhone or iPad near the Apple TV 4K and a few clicks later your Wi-Fi information and Apple ID will have been copied over the little black box. Instantly, all of your iTunes purchases – music, TV shows, movies – will be available through your new Apple TV 4K. Bonus if you are a 3rd or 4th generation Apple TV owner who stores device settings in the cloud: Your TV OS layout will automatically be synced so your new streamer will look almost exactly like your old one – only better.

If you don’t own an iPhone or iPad, then you’ll soon learn that you won’t be getting the very best the Apple TV 4K has to offer. As is to be expected, the more invested you are in Apple’s universe, the more bonuses and amenities you’ll enjoy.

Still, once you’ve manually connected to your Wi-Fi router (or, better yet, connect an Ethernet cable for a better overall experience), you’ll find there are plenty of treats in store. Either way, your Apple TV 4K is going to be set up in no time at all.

If this is your first Apple TV, or if you don’t store your TV OS setting in the cloud, you’ll find Netflix, Hulu, and many of the other usual suspects are not pre-installed, so you’ll need to go fetch them. Amazon also recently added Amazon Video to the app store, but bear in mind its less graphically-rich than other apps, and lags behind the versions found on other streaming devices. Apple does make things a little easier for Pay TV subscribers by gathering provider information, then automatically downloading the streaming apps users can take advantage of with their paid TV subscription.

You’ll also need to log into all your apps, which is the most tedious process involved with setting up any streaming box or smart TV. Apple makes it easier by allowing iOS users to use the Apple TV Remote app to key in usernames and passwords, or by using Siri to speak the letters and numbers aloud and have them transcribed. Both methods are infinitely less hassle than hunting and pecking your way through a virtual keyboard, though that option is available, too.

User experience

Apple has always put an emphasis on user experience (known in the tech sphere as “UX,” because acronyms) which has resulted in catch phrases like “it just works” along with products which earn a reputation as being easy to use for everyone. The Apple TV 4K is rich in UX, and the conveniences and thoughtful features run deep. We can’t discuss them all here, but we’ll touch on those we feel are the most notable.

Siri

Most folks are familiar with Apple’s digital assistant already, and Siri has been available in the Apple TV for a couple of years now. But Siri in the Apple TV 4K is especially helpful.

With Siri, you can ask questions instead of typing out search queries or mashing control buttons. One of Siri’s most helpful applications is finding stuff you want to watch — more specifically, finding 4K and HDR content you can watch.

Siri’s search results are not as exclusive as they once were. Apple could have restricted search results to iTunes offerings, but the Apple TV 4K now shows if the TV show or movie you want to watch is available outside of iTunes. Search for Orange is the New Black, and you’ll have the option to buy or rent through iTunes, or watch it for free on Netflix (provided you have a Netflix subscription, of course.) We get similar returns from a search for The Handmaid’s Tale, which you can watch through iTunes, but is available free with a Hulu subscription.

What’s more, a narrow search for a specific movie title or a more targeted search for movies starring certain actors returns a long list of results from numerous streaming sources. We tried searching for “movies starring Charlize Theron” and there were certainly many we could only get through iTunes, but there were several available from other streaming services to which we are subscribed. We even searched for “4K movies on Netflix” and were delighted the Apple TV 4K showed us a long list of titles we could start watching in 4K. Unfortunately, information on movies in HDR on Netflix wasn’t available.

Other search tricks include asking to see movies in 4K HDR, then refining the search by saying, “show me only the science fiction movies.”

If you miss a piece of dialog, ask Siri, “what did they say?” and she’ll back the video up 15 seconds and turn on subtitles for that period. You can also ask Siri to skip ahead or forward for a specific amount of time instead of using a button-controlled reverse or fast-forward.

The layout

The Apple TV 4K’s layout is intuitive, particularly for previous Apple TV users — what’s new with the Apple TV 4K is how beautiful it looks. The 4K rendering of the Apple TV’s menu screens is bright and high in resolution –a treat for the eyes.

The Info

The Apple TV 4K makes it clear whether 4K with HDR is available for the content you’re watching, which is more than can be said for some of its competition. Additionally, ratings for TV shows and movies are plentiful, sourced from multiple outlets like Rotten Tomatoes. You can also learn more about the cast and crew of your favorite flicks and TV shows by clicking on actors’ profile pictures for a deeper dive. This is like Amazon’s X-Ray feature, but more beautifully implemented.

The speed

The Apple TV 4K is fast, thanks to the A10X Fusion processor under the hood. If your internet connection can keep up, load times are lightning quick, info screens appear instantly when clicked on, and even scrolling through long ribbons of titles is remarkably smooth and speedy.

The picture quality

In HDR modes, the picture quality on the Apple TV 4K is outstanding. 4K content in Dolby Vision and HDR 10 looks beautiful, especially from movies on iTunes. Most non-HDR content also looks very good. But there are some caveats we must discuss here, and they are going to get a little technical.

The primary issue is that the Apple TV, when connected to an HDR-capable television, is going to force that HDR TV into HDR mode all the time. As we learned from speaking with Chris Heinonen, a colleague who currently writes for The Wirecutter and Reference Home Theater, this can present some problems when playing SDR (standard dynamic range – AKA most of the stuff you watch right now) content.

A TV could end up clipping out detail in both bright and dark scenes.

Most streaming set-top boxes only send an HDR signal to a TV when they are playing HDR content. When this happens, the TV responds to the HDR trigger by engaging an HDR picture mode, then uses the metadata provided in the signal to display an HDR-optimized picture. If there is no HDR signal coming into a TV, it uses a different picture preset, one which the user can optimize for brightness and contrast that will look best when displaying SDR content. This is normal.

The Apple TV prevents this normal operation by constantly sending an HDR signal to a TV. It is reported Apple does this so there are no picture dropouts associated with a TV switching between SDR and HDR mode – ostensibly the company sees the dropouts as a poor user experience. The problem with Apple delivering SDR content to a TV in HDR mode is that the Apple TV 4K doesn’t know what the TV connected to it is capable of displaying; what’s more, only content mastered in HDR should be sent to a TV in HDR mode.

But what’s the real result for the viewer? On paper, it doesn’t look good. A TV could end up clipping out detail in both bright and dark scenes, depending on the signal the Apple TV 4K sends to the television. But in our testing, it wasn’t a massively detrimental effect in practice. What we show in our review video is a clearly dimmer picture with less shadow details, and overly darkened dark scenes. The bright areas also showed less detail when there were large swathes of bright objects, like big windows letting sunshine into an otherwise dark room.

Editor’s note: The side-by-side comparison seen in the video above was captured by a Panasonic Lumix GHB and Panasonic LUMIX Leica DG Vario-Elmarit 12-60mm 1:2.8-4.0 lens with a fixed exposure. It shows SDR content played through a Netflix app vs. SDR content played by the Apple TV 4K, presented as HDR content. No post-processing was used to dramatize the effect. The TV in use is a TCL 55P607 with picture settings for each input matched exactly. Results from TV to TV will vary.

The problem is, we were only able to test this effect on two televisions, and the science here says that the results will vary from television to television. And this is the core of the problem: The degree to which a viewer will be affected is impossible to calculate because there are too many variables.

Speaking with Apple, Digital Trends learned that the company is working hard to deliver the best experience possible to every Apple TV 4K owner, and we got the sense in our conversations that work is ongoing. We expect the TV OS 11.2 update mentioned above will change how the Apple TV 4K handles SDR content with HDR TVs, though, again, we’ll have to wait and find out.

Finally, we’re not fans of the fact that the Apple TV 4K converts 24 frame-per-second films to 60 frames per second before delivering it to the TV. We did notice some judder (shaky images during slow panning scenes) in films streamed through the Apple TV 4K which looked judder-free when played from Blu-ray discs.

Warranty

The Apple TV 4K warranty provided by Apple protects against product defects for one year from purchase. Apple also offers an extended AppleCare Protection Plan warranty.

Our Take

The Apple TV 4K is a zippy, slick device with Apple’s unique design stamp all over it. Those deeply embedded in the Apple universe will be tickled with the way the streaming set-top box integrates with other Apple Devices and with Siri integration that offers convenient search and voice controls.

Is there a better alternative?

For Apple power users, the Apple 4K TV is a perfect fit. For anyone else, the new Roku Ultra or Streaming Stick + will be a better fit, and a less expensive one with a gob of useful features not found in the Apple TV 4K.

How long will it last?

With the A10X Fusion processor inside, the Apple TV 4K will last for as long as Apple wants it to. Future firmware updates should keep the device relevant, and the build quality is rock-solid.

Should you buy it?

Do buy the Apple TV 4K if you are heavily invested in the Apple universe and/or have a large library of movies, TV shows, and music from the iTunes store. Don’t buy the Apple TV 4K if you’re just looking to get 4K HDR content through an easy-to-use device priced at or under $100.

Update: This review has been updated to include news of the release of Amazon Video on Apple TV 4K.


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