Apple is finally making the jump to ultra high-definition (UHD, or 4K) video with its latest media streamer. This Apple TV 4K is the company’s first streaming box to support content at 4K (3,840 by 2,160) resolution with high dynamic range (HDR). It will be available starting September 22 for $179 with 32GB of memory, or $199 with 64GB of memory.
4K and iTunes
4K support means Apple joins Amazon, Google, and Roku in streaming UHD content. It also means that on-demand 4K content will be available via iTunes, which brings it up to speed alongside other on-demand streaming platforms like Vudu. Previously purchased high-definition movies and shows on iTunes will automatically be upgraded to 4K versions (when available) over the Apple TV 4K, which is a nice incentive for previous Apple TV owners to upgrade.
High Dynamic Range Video
For HDR, the Apple TV 4K supports both HDR10 and Dolby Vision. HDR10 is a common, standardized format that uses a specified range of values for each pixel’s brightness and color. Dolby Vision is an HDR format that uses individual TV profiles to determine the best brightness and color values for each pixel based on the capacity of that TV’s LCD panel. Neither format is strictly better than the other, but different TVs support different HDR formats (and some of the best TVs can handle both), so it’s nice to see support for each.
The Brains of an iPad Pro
The Apple TV 4K uses Apple’s A10X processor, the same system on a chip used by the iPad Pro. According to Apple, this makes the box twice as fast in terms of sheer processing power and four times as fast for graphical processing as the previous model. Of course, this extra power is necessary for 4K, since the resolution contains four times the number of pixels as 1080p.
Looks Very Familiar
Design-wise, the Apple TV 4K appears to be physically identical to the previous, 1080p Apple TV, which will remain available for $149. That means it’s a nondescript, curved black box measuring approximately 3.9 inches on each side and 1.4 inches tall. The remote, similarly, seems to be the same thin, touchpad-equipped wand that syncs wirelessly with the Apple TV, supports Siri and voice search with a built-in microphone, and charges through a Lightning connector.
tvOS and Siri
The Apple TV 4K software also appears to be largely the same as the version of tvOS used on the previous model. It’s a couch-friendly menu system with large tiles for navigation and a heavy emphasis on iTunes content. Apple added app support with the last version of the Apple TV, so you can access services like Hulu, Netflix, and Sling TV. We’ve found the app list on tvOS to be a bit light compared with the Amazon Fire TV, Android TV, and Roku platforms, but enough big names are available to be useful. You can stream music through Apple Music, the non-Apple music app selection seems to remain limited.
An updated interface expands sports and news content. Live sports games will be listed in a separate Sports tab, with updated scores alongside preview icons. Live news reports will also be available through the system. These additions will likely be pushed to the previous Apple TV with a tvOS update in the future.
Apple’s Siri voice assistant support appears to remain the same. You can speak into the microphone on the remote and ask Siri questions. Siri can control Apple HomeKit-enabled smart home devices with voice commands, and you can use Siri to search for movies, music, and TV shows available on the Apple TV. The Apple TV 4K also supports screen mirroring and AirPlay, so you can use it to send any audio or video from your iPhone, iPad, or iMac to your TV.
A Pricey 4K Upgrade
The Apple TV’s jump to 4K has been a long time coming, but the company seems intent on making it the only jump it needs for a while. Support for both HDR10 and Dolby Vision content, and the sheer power of the A10X SoC, ensure that the Apple TV 4K can stand alongside (and perhaps above) the various 4K-capable media streamers that have been establishing themselves in the market over the last year.
Its only significant hurdle to clear is its own price. At $180, the Apple TV 4K is about twice as expensive as the Google Chromecast Ultra and Roku Ultra. Its price is most comparable with the Nvidia Shield TV, which itself is as much a gaming accessory as it is a media streamer. We’ll see if Apple’s polish and the performance of the A10X chip can justify the Apple TV 4K’s price when we get it into the lab for testing.