Apple TV 4K Review
Before we get into anything else, please note that this is the second part of my review of the new Apple TV 4K. The first part, focusing on the new box’s strengths, is found here – and in the interests of fairness and balance, I suggest that you read that article first if you haven’t already done so. Not least because Apple really has delivered some big – if in some cases long overdue – steps forward with its latest Apple TV box.
That said, it hasn’t exactly proved a stretch to find as many problems with the Apple TV 4K as there are strengths – and some of these issues really are substantial, particularly if you’re the sort of AV fan most likely to be excited by the Apple TV 4K’s new high-end picture quality features.
With a starting price of $179 (£179) for a 32GB version that rises to $199 (£199) if you fancy 64GB of storage, the Apple TV 4K is seriously expensive by video streamer standards.
Amazon’s 4K-capable Fire TV costs just $89.99 by comparison; Roku’s 4K-capable Ultra 4K streamer costs $129; Google’s Chromecast Ultra costs just $69 (£69); and even the NvidiaShield now only costs $179 – and that’s pretty much a gaming PC as well as a 4K HDR video streamer.
None of this is surprising, of course; Apple isn’t exactly renowned for knowingly under-pricing its products.
It is important to add on this occasion, though, that as discussed in the ‘positive’ companion piece to this article, Apple TV 4K arguably justifies its up-front cost more than any previous Apple TV generation thanks to its ground-breakingly affordable iTunes 4K movie pricing.
2) You don’t have a 4K TV
Just buying a 4K-capable source does not magically make an HD TV play 4K. This will be obvious to some readers, but I know from experience that it’s quite common for consumers to not understand that 4K sources only work properly with screens that have a matching native 4K resolution. The same goes for high dynamic range.
If you don’t have a 4K TV yet but expect to get one soon, then obviously the Apple TV 4K is worth considering. If, however, you’re perfectly satisfied with your HD TV and expect to stay that way for some time yet, the Apple TV 4K doesn’t offer enough compelling new features beyond its 4K/HDR support to justify its extra cost over and above the still-available and cheaper 4th-gen, HD-only Apple TV.
3) Outputting every source in the same video format is a bit nuts
Uniquely, the Apple TV 4K outputs all of its sources – games, video streams, your photo and video collection… everything – in exactly the same video format. This format is auto-determined by the Apple TV 4K box during initial set up by ‘reading’ the capabilities of your TV via the HDMI connection.
In the vast majority of cases this initial set up will be set to 4K Dolby Vision 60Hz, 4K HDR10 50/60Hz, or 4K HDR10 30Hz, depending on whether your TV supports Dolby Vision and what 4K HDR frame rate your TV’s HDMI input – and cable! – can support.
As noted in the positive-minded companion article to this one, there are actually some understandable user-experience reasons for Apple adopting such a ‘one video output format suits all’ policy. Unfortunately, though, Apple’s approach also creates major picture playback issues that will drive AV enthusiasts nuts and sometimes frustrate even the most casual users.
For instance, if you play a 24-frames a second high definition, standard dynamic range source through the Apple TV 4K box but the output is set to 4K HDR 60Hz, then Apple will use processing to convert the source image to 4K HDR 60Hz for output. The color range will be expanded, the image’s brightness range will be stretched, detail will be added according to Apple’s image calculations, and the frame rate will be adjusted – presumably by frame interpolation.
It will come as no surprise to AV enthusiasts to learn that the results of this level of processing interference routinely look horrible. Colors look unnatural, light levels look forced, and elevating the brightness levels of what can be quite compressed images when you’re talking about streamed HD sources can make noise issues such as fizzing edges and blocking become easier to see.
Such ugly picture results are hardly the sort of thing you’d expect to see from a device that Apple claims to be a revolution in picture quality.
To be fair, some conversion circumstances work OK. For instance, Dolby Vision source content still looks clean if you only have an HDR10 TV; just not quite as rich in color and peak light detail.
This may be because the Apple TV is simply extracting a genuine HDR10 ‘core’ from the Dolby Vision feed rather than using its own internal processing to somehow deliver a Dolby Vision to HDR10 conversion. I’ve asked Apple to clarify what’s happening in this circumstance and will update this article if they answer.
A little video noise, however, seems to be added to the image in a situation where the Apple TV 4K has to convert a 4K film delivered in the industry HDR10 HDR standard (such as Alien: Covenant on iTunes) to Dolby Vision to feed in to a Dolby Vision-capable TV.
Actually, I’m struggling to understand how such a conversion is even possible. Is the Apple TV inventing on the fly the sort of dynamic metadata that defines Dolby Vision and adding it to the HDR10 feed? And can such an ‘invented’ Dolby Vision signal really meet the standards Dolby usually expects to be associated with a Dolby Vision experience? It’s baffling, honestly.
Apple’s conversion processes also seem to deliver rather variable results with different apps – and even with different content from the same app in Netflix’s case.
Interestingly the most generally successful conversion results are seen with Apple’s own iTunes platform, suggesting that Apple has been able to work more closely with its own content delivery system than it has with third party platforms when developing its 4K, frame rate and HDR conversion calculations.
Even where Apple’s conversion systems work reasonably well, though, the bottom line for many AV enthusiasts will be that all too often, when you’re watching something through the Apple TV 4K, you’re simply not seeing the content looking as it was designed to look.
Thankfully Apple does provide an extensive set of alternative video output settings you can choose manually. These include pretty much every combination of frame rate, HDR and standard dynamic range format you could think of.
As a result, the Apple TV 4K does at least provide the facility to output different sources in their pure, native formats (assuming, that is, that anything is ever sent directly to the Apple TV 4K’s HDMI output without first being run through Apple’s video processing system…). However, does anyone, especially more mainstream users, really want to go through the hassle of constantly changing the Apple TV 4K’s video output to suit different sources?
It is worth remembering, of course, that if a 4K TV is fed a less-than-4K content source, it will have to upscale it to its screen resolution – no 4K TV will play an HD source in a completely pure form. If you have a high-end 4K TV, though, you may well prefer to trust the quality of that TV’s upscaling processing to that of the Apple TV 4K. Plus, of course, unlike the Apple TV 4K, 4K TVs don’t generally also automatically apply HDR conversions or frame-rate upgrades.
In the end, it seems almost perverse of Apple not to provide at least the option for the Apple TV 4K to automatically adapt its video output to that of the source it’s playing, so that your TV always receives a native source image.
Not everyone would use such an option, preferring to stick with a slicker operating experience – and that’s fine. But the option should still be there.
So obvious is this, in fact, that I find it almost impossible to believe Apple won’t add an automatic switching option via a future firmware update. Unless, as suggested earlier, the box is designed so that all video always has to run through the deepest recesses of Apple’s video processing engine…
4) It could up your fuel bill and damage your TV
This point is connected to the previous one about the Apple TV 4K choosing to always output HDR if it detects that your TV is HDR-capable (unless you manually change it).
The thing is, showing HDR properly requires your TV to run much more brightly than it does with the standard dynamic range content that still takes up the vast majority of our viewing time. And if your TV is having to run more brightly, it is having to burn more power. This will increase your electricity bill.
Also, though, if you have an OLED TV, running it in a perpetual state of high HDR brightness increases the possibility of your set experiencing image retention, where residual ghostly traces of very bright image elements such as channel logos or game health bars can be left behind for a while – even permanently in extreme cases.
I don’t want to overstate this point, as LG has done great work in ensuring that OLED TVs are nowadays vastly less prone to suffering with image retention (also known as screen burn in its most extreme form) than they used to be.I’ve seen enough evidence at technology shows, though, to know that it’s not a problem that’s completely gone away, and the way Apple TV 4K works doesn’t help the situation.
5) There’s no YouTube 4K HDR support, and no Amazon Video app
While Apple hasn’t done a bad job generally of making a decent amount of 4K HDR content available from the Apple TV 4K’s launch, there are a few problem areas. Perhaps the worst of which is the lack of support for HDR or 4K playback from the world’s biggest video content platform, YouTube.
As reported in more detail in this separate story, this is because YouTube uses the so-called VP9 compression format for its 4K HDR streams – a format the Apple TV 4K doesn’t support. Apple’s box sticks with the alternative HEVC streaming compression format.
Of course, if your Apple TV 4K has set itself to output 4K HDR, then it will automatically convert HD, SDR YouTube content to 4K HDR. You will not, though, be watching true native 4K HDR content – and not even the best conversion systems are any substitute for a real 4K HDR source.
It should be said, in fairness, that there are a few other devices out that don’t support VP9 either; the Xbox One S, for instance. But the vast majority of smart TVs support both key streaming compression formats now, so surely a device as video-centric as the Apple TV 4K ought to have it?
I asked Apple for a statement on the YouTube situation, but was simply told that it had no statement to make!
It’s also frustrating that at the time of writing there’s still no sign of the Amazon Video app on the Apple TV platform. Unlike the YouTube HDR/4K situation, though, Apple has already formally announced that the Amazon Video app is coming. It just seems to be taking a lot longer getting here than we might have hoped.
An industry contact I know claims to have seen a buggy beta version of the app in action, though, so hopefully it really isn’t far away now.
6) You never really know what you’re watching
This point is another one connected to point three. Because the Apple TV 4K insists on converting everything to a single video format for output unless you keep manually changing the video setting, you never feel confident that you’re getting the best picture quality experience.
For instance, if you’re streaming from Netflix, there’s no way of knowing for sure if your broadband might be playing up and is limiting you to only receiving HD not 4K from Netflix’s servers. Hit the ‘info’ button on your TV and it just tells you you’re getting whatever output is selected on the Apple TV 4K, not what format your Apple TV 4K source app is actually delivering. And the Apple TV 4K provides no way of finding out what format a source is arriving in before Apple’s processing kicks in to convert it to the box’s chosen output.
Even the best upscaled/upconverted pictures are no match for a real 4K/HDR content, so not having any way of knowing if you’re actually receiving native 4K HDR sources when you should be really matters.
The YouTube situation described in point six is another example of why not knowing what you’re watching is an issue. I have little doubt that many Apple TV 4K users who haven’t read this article will imagine that if they play a video on YouTube that’s labelled as being made in 4K and HDR, and it appears on their TV in 4K HDR, then they’re seeing a true source to screen 4K HDR picture. But no.
Since there’s no VP9 streaming support, the Apple TV 4K actually receives the YouTube video as SDR HD. Any 4K HDR that appears on a TV when playing YouTube through the Apple TV 4K is being conjured up by Apple’s processors, so it’s not the real deal at all. There’s no way for a typical user to know this, though, unless they know about the VP9 situation – except, of course, that the YouTube pictures the Apple TV 4K is delivering won’t be looking as good as they should.
Apple may think that these sort of issues will only bother AV enthusiasts who fully understand such things as frame rates, and the differences between high dynamic range and standard dynamic range sources. I really don’t think, though, that you need to have an expert eye to see, for instance, that standard dynamic range pictures often look pretty weird if they’re converted to HDR on the fly by the Apple TV 4K.
So by depriving people of the tools to understand why some sources don’t look as good as others, you’re depriving them of the information they need to try and make things look better.
I even think a message should come up the first time you start watching a standard dynamic range source telling you that what you’re seeing on your TV isn’t true HDR, but is being turned into HDR by the Apple TV 4K. And that if you don’t like the results, you can watch the native signal format by selecting it from the Apple TV 4K’s set up menus.
7) There’s no Dolby Atmos support
Us greedy AV fans don’t just expect stunning 4K HDR pictures from today’s AV sources. We also expect the best sound – which these days means Dolby Atmos or DTS:X. Unfortunately, the Apple TV 4K doesn’t support either.
With their so-called ‘object-based’ approach to sound design, Atmos and DTS:X delivers beautiful multi-channel sound precision and, in Atmos’ case, overhead effects that transform your sense of immersion in what you’re watching (assuming you have an audio system capable of decoding and playing back Atmos correctly).
On the content side, Atmos has been available on Vudu movie streams since 2015, and Netflix recently introduced its first Atmos title (Okja). On the hardware side, the NvidiaShield has supported Atmos since 2016, the Xbox One S has supported it since June, and even many of LG’s 2017 TV’s carry built-in Atmos decoding. Plus there are countless AV receivers and, more recently, soundbars capable of playing back Atmos and DTS:X soundtracks.
Apple has issued a statement suggesting that Atmos support is on its road map for Apple TV, raising hopes that it may get added by a firmware update at some point (as it was on the Xbox One S and NVidia Shield). Apple’s wording on this seems to me too vague, though, to be absolutely certain Atmos will come to this generation of Apple TV.
8) Disney isn’t onboard with Apple’s 4K pricing
As covered in the 13 Reasons You Should Buy An Apple TV 4K article, the single best feature of the new Apple TV is the cheap pricing of the 4K HDR movies on iTunes. In the US you can buy 4K HDR films for as little as $9.99 (dropping to a remarkable £3.99 in the UK), versus typical pricing of $30 or so on rival platforms.
While many of the big film studios have signed up to Apple’s grand ‘4K content for HD prices’ scheme, though, there’s one seriously major hold out: Disney. This means that there’s actually no Disney content at all – including its animated and Marvel Universe movies – available in 4K HDR, at any price. It’s all HD/SDR only.
9) You don’t have to already dig Apple – but it helps
The Apple TV 4K experience is heavily skewed towards people who are already invested in other Apple hardware and content. Especially in its ‘out of the box’ state.
You get a feel for this even during first installation, as the box provides the opportunity to use other Apple devices you may have to automatically set up your Apple ID and home wi-fi details on your new Apple TV 4K.
The Apple-centricism is also right there at the heart of the home screen, as the header row of content link icons are all dedicated to Apple services: Movies from iTunes, TV Shows from iTunes, the Apple app store, Apple’s Photos software, and, of course, Apple iTunes music. All fine and dandy if you want to use Apple for all your content needs, all a bit annoying if you don’t.
You can, of course, add to and rearrange the icons on the home screen to suit non-Apple content preferences. However, my feeling is that trying to completely avoid the Apple ecosystem actually leaves the Apple TV 4K feeling awkwardly neutered.
It’s also frustrating – if, I guess, inevitable – that only Apple’s apps are guaranteed to make full use of the Apple TV’s interface structure. For instance, while all Apple’s own apps bring up links to their content at the top of the screen if you highlight their app icon in the row below, many other third party apps do not. Instead they just leave you with the whole top section of the screen filled by a large, space-wasting reproduction of the app icon’s logo!
10) You can’t download 4K films
For some reason – possibly piracy related? – Apple doesn’t let you download 4K titles you own from iTunes. Downloading is restricted to an HD-only deal.
I guess you could argue that Apple wouldn’t be keen to clog up the available memory space of its new Apple TV 4Ks with the huge file sizes associated with high quality 4K movies (especially as another limitation of the Apple TV 4K, actually, is that it doesn’t support expandable memory).
I guess you could further argue that there aren’t currently many portable devices around capable of playing downloaded films in 4K HDR ‘on the go’ – though this situation is changing as we speak.
Of course, however, not being able to download 4K films from iTunes means that you’re out of 4K luck if your home doesn’t get fast broadband. I’d say you’ll need at least 15Mbps for a decent 4K streaming experience, otherwise you’ll be essentially stuck with HD. Albeit HD likely secretly upscaled to 4K by the Apple TV 4K’s processors if the box is set to deliver a 4K HDR output!
Not permitting downloads of 4K content you’ve bought is also problematic for people who don’t have limitless fast broadband.
I myself am in this situation; my rural home can only receive fast broadband via 4G, and currently I can only get 4G with a capped monthly usage limit that costs a fortune to top up if I run out. And since nothing cranks through your data faster than 4K HDR movie streams, the prospect of having to repeatedly stream films I own on Apple TV 4K rather than just downloading them once doesn’t exactly fill me with joy.
11) The remote control can drive you nuts
While there are some admirable things about the remote control you get with the Apple TV4K, as mentioned in the positive companion article to this one, it can also be as annoying as hell.
It’s horribly fiddly if you’re trying to make small moves with the track pad, for instance – such as trying to select letters on an onscreen keyboard, or moving icons around on the home screen. Being able to use Siri can reduce your reliance on the remote for some circumstances, but it’s far from a total solution.
If you’re having to move a cursor across a large expanse of the screen, meanwhile, you’ll soon get fed up with the small amount of distance the remote’s tiny track pad lets you move in a single swipe.
I personally find the remote too small and thin to feel comfortable in my oversized hands too, and I swear the thing spends half of its life lost between sofa cushions.
Finally, while it includes some clever technological touches designed with a nod to gaming, in the end these touches largely feel like delusions of grandeur that ultimately limit what developers can do with their Apple TV game control systems rather than some cutting edge (literal) streaming box game changer.
12) It doesn’t ship with an HDMI cable
This might sound like a trivial point at first, but bear with me. First, given how expensive the Apple TV 4K is versus almost all of its rivals, not providing everything in the box that you’ll need to get the Apple TV 4K working feels a bit cheap. Second, given how much onus Apple puts elsewhere on making the Apple TV 4K easy for anyone to set up, not providing the key cable you’ll need to connect it to your TV feels incongruous.
My main reason for raising this point, though, is that not all HDMI cables are equal. Some HDMI cables just aren’t up to the job of passing along all the huge amounts of data associated with the sort of 4K, HDR content delivered by the latest Apple TV box.
For absolute certainty of connection you’ll need a cable that’s ‘Premium Certified’ – meaning it’s definitely capable of handling 18Gbps data flows. Use anything less and you may experience reduced picture performance as the picture feed has to compromise somewhere – frame rates, support for the advanced Dolby Vision high dynamic range system, etc – to squeeze itself down the low-bandwidth HDMI cable.
Before you think I’m exaggerating this point, Apple itself acknowledges the potential for cable-related limitations in the Apple TV 4K’s own menus. There’s actually a Check Cable option right up at the top of the Video and Audio section of the set up menus, and if you select this it says ‘We’ll check your HDMI cable to make sure it’s compatible’.
Apple would not have had to include this set up check – one which will probably sound pretty incomprehensible to your average consumer, who will have no idea about issues of HDMI bandwidths – if it had only included a suitably capable HDMI cable in the box with the Apple TV 4K.
To be fair, not all other 4K-capable source devices ship with an HDMI either (though some do). But those devices generally aren’t as focused on delivering a simple, fuss-free user experience as the Apple TV 4K is.
13) It’s not clear how much app developers really care about its capabilities.
When the previous Apple TV launched, it already boasted a decent number of fully developed games created especially for to take advantage of its new app-based tvOS platform. However, there’s not a single game available now that’s optimized to take advantage of the Apple TV 4K’s much more powerful A10X processing engine.
There’s no game with true HDR graphics, for instance, and no game with a native 4K resolution – not even a game offering a bit more graphical or gameplay sophistication.
It’s suggested that you may get slightly smoother performance with some titles due to the Apple TV 4K’s extra power, but I’m not really convinced I’m seeing much evidence of that so far.
At the time of writing, Apple itself can only point to two upcoming games that will exploit the Apple TV 4K’s enhanced abilities: Sky from ThatGameCompany (this was demoed at the Apple TV 4K launch event), and INSIDE by PlayDead. This hardly represents a stampede to take advantage of the Apple TV 4K’s extra capabilities, and makes you wonder if Apple’s decision to upscale/upgrade everything for output anyway has made app developers feel less compelled to offer more native features.
As a side point given that we’re predominantly talking about games here, I can’t help but wonder if having to run every single game through Apple’s video processing to convert it to 4K HDR output (unless you manually change the box’s video output to match the video capabilities of the game) adversely affects input lag – the amount of time it takes for a game’s images to be rendered.
I should stress that I don’t have proof that the processing does introduce more input lag, but experience suggests that it’s certainly a possibility.
The Apple TV 4K is by far the most exciting Apple TV yet. It finally sees Apple’s main video device enter the 4K HDR age. It’s capable of some really strong picture quality when its source and output stars align. Its interface remains, for the most part, slick and attractive. And its approach to 4K video pricing is revolutionary.
Unfortunately, though, a combination of well-intentioned but ultimately crazy video management decisions and frustrating content limitations currently leave it at least a couple of substantial firmware upgrades from achieving anything like its true potential.