Apple enters the 4K streaming market late but brings a host of features… if you’re an Apple fan.
Having kicked its heels for years, Apple believes 4K’s time has finally come – and its latest streamer is fully equipped for this brave new world. It has iTunes and Netflix built in, while the Siri-controlled remote now searches across many services including all of the free-to-air channels, which also includes ABC’s iView plus 9Now.
The box looks almost identical to its predecessor, but the Thunderbolt port on the rear has disappeared: now there’s only the figure-of-eight mains port, a single HDMI 2.0a output (enabling the extra colours that HDR10 and Dolby Vision bring) and Gigabit Ethernet. You can also connect via 802.11ac wireless.
If you’re already inside the Apple ecosystem, setting up the Apple TV 4K is a dream: from taking it out of the box to browsing content took me less than five minutes. The minimalistic UI is easy on the eye, but Apple pushes iTunes purchases hard across the software. The homescreen shows recommended content on a carousel along the top, while below this are the most popular Apple apps.
But here’s the Apple TV 4K’s killer feature: when you buy a show from iTunes in HD using Apple TV, or have HD content previously purchased via iTunes, Apple will automatically upgrade that show to the highest format for your TV at no extra cost.
The range of content is huge, too, with iTunes’ 4K Film Room providing a quick and easy way to browse new releases. With iTunes now offering movies and TV in 4K HDR, and Apple ending its long-standing tiff with Amazon, you’ve got all the major sources of 4K movies covered.
My biggest complaint is that, in Apple’s desire to strip everything back, you have to click on every entry to see the price and source. Netflix shows are labelled clearly, but for the others it’s not clear which can be rented, which are available through a subscription to an app, or how much they cost. The situation is similar with Stan titles.
On the positive side, the Apple TV 4K’s slick performance and interface means it’s now my preferred way of loading third-party apps. Plus, there’s support for Apple Music natively and Spotify or Tidal via AirPlay.
Voice commands work brilliantly with the Siri Remote, too. You can even search by actor, genre, film title, decade and format: uttering “Robert De Niro drama films from the 1980s in 4K” highlighted just how many older titles have been remastered.
When playing content, the Siri Remote doubles up as a controller. You can use the touchpad to skip forward and back, or use your voice: for example, you can ask Siri to “skip forward ten seconds”, “play at twice the speed” or “start again”.
This controller functionality goes a step further with games. Swiping on the touchpad controls onscreen characters, clicking the pad makes them jump, or you can turn it on its side and drive The Flash around a Batman race course. Apple TV 4K is a long way from replacing my PS4 but it’s an added bonus to play games on a large screen.
I no longer use the PS4 when watching Netflix; I simply press the Menu button on the Siri remote. The Apple TV even takes care of switching sources. I’ve also discovered some great series and films I hadn’t watched before, while it’s inspired me to seek out more 4K content on other platforms.
Overall, then, the Apple TV 4K is a great product. But it’s undermined by Apple’s fierce push towards selling content via iTunes. It’s too easy to spend extra for a film, say, because it’s unclear that it’s available elsewhere for free or more cheaply.
Talking of price, the $249 Apple is asking for the TV 4K is hefty. If you aren’t already inside the Apple ecosystem then the Chromecast Ultra offers basic 4K streaming features for a much more reasonable $79. Still, for Apple fans, the upcoming launch of Amazon Prime Video and Apple’s pledge to boost all your HD purchases to 4K means the price suddenly doesn’t seem quite so steep.