Until recently, I had never owned an Apple TV. Frankly, I never saw the need to. Up until about two months ago, I never subscribed to streaming movies on Netflix, preferring to get my movies the old-fashioned way: on disc. As a DISH satellite user, the vast majority of my TV viewing comes beamed out of the sky. And, with an Xbox 1, Samsung UHD-BD player, and Sony 4K TV, I had a plethora of options available when I felt like streaming something.
But, last week I decided to take the plunge and get a new Apple 4K TV, if nothing else to familiarize myself with the product so I could speak more intelligently about it with customers. After living with it for a few days, here are my takeaways.
Like all recent Apple products, the Apple TV feels well designed right from the get go. The package is small, but perfectly designed to house all of the included parts with a scarcity of wasted space. Also, while not used in any manner by the Apple 4K TV, you get a bonus lightning cable.
It’s probably no surprise that the Apple UI team developed a good looking and simple-to-use interface. The included remote is simplicity itself, with only six buttons and a touch surface for navigating up/down/left/right. A microphone button activates Siri for searching or entering information verbally. Another cool touch is that when you are prompted to enter information—like a password—a linked iPhone will automatically prompt you if you would like to use its keyboard to enter data. There are also cool features like asking Siri, “What did he just say?” which will automatically rewind what you’re watching 15 seconds AND turn on subtitles for that clip. That’s just cool.
Mad App Skillz
Far beyond streaming TVs, movies, and music, the Apple TV has a huge ecosystem of apps including some automation with HomeKit, health and fitness, audio books, food, lifestyle, and even gaming thanks to the A10X Fusion chip.
I’m a sucker for a good-looking GUI, and the Apple 4K TV really delivers, especially when browsing films within iTunes. When looking at a movie, you are shown a ton of additional information like critic and user reviews, Rotten Tomatoes, Common Sense Media ratings, and the ability to search other films in which the cast members have appeared. When you start a movie, you are presented with a screen much like you’ve inserted a disc, with options to jump to the movie, see features, extras, or jump to certain scenes. In Baby Driver, for example, you can jump straight to each of the songs.
I can’t speak for other automation providers, but linking the Apple 4K TV to a Control4 system is a breeze and has so far worked without a hitch. Also, you have options like automatically turning a room on when the AppleTV starts playing, say if you were to just start AirPlay-ing something to it without having to go in and turn on the room manually. Very cool.
TV Provider Linking
If you subscribe to TV content from one of many supported providers, you can link your Apple TV to your account and then have access to tons of TV shows. This includes brand new content, as well as being able to go back and view many past seasons or shows, perfect for getting caught up on something you missed or just want to watch again.
For sports nuts who subscribe to ESPN (or who have it in an included cable/satellite package), the Apple 4K TV ESPN app allows for a feature called “multicast” where you can watch up to four live games at once. This is very much like the “Sports Bar” mode on DISH Hopper 3, however it is limited to sporting events broadcast on ESPN. The app is lightning fast switching audio between the selected channel, and the video quality is totally fluid. For keeping up with all of your baseball, basketball, football games, and more, ESPN is a killer app.
The Apple 4K TV is one of the few sources out there right now that handles Dolby Vision HDR. Besides movies purchased from iTunes, you can stream Dolby Vision content from Netflix and Amazon. AND, as of about four days ago, Apple TV just added support for UHD HDR content—including Dolby Vision—from Vudu, making that content available in pristine quality.
It’s Consumer Grade
Any questions I had about long-term reliability were answered shortly after I connected the device and then had to reboot it after it stopped displaying any movies in my collection. Granted, I haven’t had to reboot it again since, but something tells me that 100% up-time isn’t in the Apple TV’s future.
The lack of support for Dolby Atmos is definitely one of the biggest bummers for me. This means that a growing number of titles on Netflix and Vudu are limited to lower performing sound. This is even more of a bummer when you realize that all of Apple’s competitors—Firestick, ChromeCast, and Roku—support Dolby Atmos. According to online chatter, however, Apple does plan to offer Atmos support…at some point.
Audio handling is a bit odd, or rather the Apple TV wants to decode everything internally. Selecting “Best Available” in the audio setup option outputs everything as PCM surround. For some receivers, getting a PCM input won’t allow you to do post processing like Dolby Surround or DTS Neural. Also, there is no secondary audio output—like an analog only HDMI or a Toslink optical—meaning integration will be trickier for owners of a non-HDMI 2.0a receiver.
While it’s incredibly easy to link the media library of a computer running iTunes to your Apple TV, it’s not so easy to do this with a NAS drive. With a majority of people storing their music, videos, and photos on networked drives, being able to point the Apple TV toward this content seems like it would be an obvious feature. Heck, most NAS drives have some kind of DLNA server built-in, but Apple doesn’t play with DLNA. I did find one app—Xtreme Media Works—that recognized my Western Digital NAS drive, but it certainly isn’t as elegant as the rest of the Apple TV experience.
Due to the codec Google uses—VP9—Apple 4K TV won’t playback YouTube videos in 4K HDR. As YouTube has a growing amount of content in 4K it seems a surprising omission, especially since this is a feature supported by the competing streamers. How big of a deal it is will depend on how much YouTube viewing you like to do.
4K HDR Upgrades
When Apple announced that they would be adding 4K HDR content to the iTunes store, the company also said it would automatically upgrade any HD titles in someone’s iTunes library to 4K HDR if that version were available. Of the 198 movies in my iTunes library, there are 87 movies Apple currently offers in 4K HDR. Of those 87, it only upgraded 23 movies to 4K. For the other movies, there is no way to upgrade or play them back in 4K.
Is the Apple 4K TV right for you or your clients? Compared to other streamers, it’s definitely priced at a premium. Considering that Amazon Fire TV 4K sells for under $50, Google ChromeCast Ultra for under $70, and the Roku Ultra at under $100, the 32 GB Apple 4K TV at $179 is definitely at the top of the heap. For users entrenched in Apple’s ecosystem, it is an easy justification, but for those simply looking for a way to stream 4K UHD content, maybe not so much.