The latest Apple TV 4K is Apple’s most powerful and full-featured entertainment box yet. And it’s finally available for a lower, if not quite cheap, $129 starting price. Now in its third generation, the new Apple TV is powered by the same chip as last year’s iPhone 13 — true overkill for a streaming player, one could argue — and has adopted support for the HDR10 Plus format that’s common on Samsung TVs, which have long lacked Dolby Vision. The Siri Remote has also transitioned to a USB-C port, a trend that’s inevitably coming for the iPhone.
The hardware itself is slightly smaller and noticeably lighter than the second-gen 4K from last year. That’s because Apple has removed the cooling fan (yes, there was a fan in there before) in favor of a passive thermal design. But on the whole, it looks like the same old Apple TV with a matte top and glossy, dust-magnet sides. This is a box that sits on a shelf and connects to your TV via a (sold separately) multi-foot HDMI cable. There’s just an Apple logo on top — no more “tv” branding. Upon announcing the new device, which goes on sale November 4th, Apple finally discontinued the ancient Apple TV HD.
So 4K HDR video now comes standard. But there’s still a meaningful divide between the two Apple TV 4K configurations that Apple is selling. For one, the base 64GB model lacks an ethernet jack. You’ll have to spend an additional $20 to gain gigabit ethernet, double the storage, and Thread networking support. The latter is an important future-proofing measure for smart home enthusiasts. Both models can act as hubs for Apple’s HomeKit ecosystem, but only the $149 128GB SKU is fully prepared for Thread and Matter-enabled Thread accessories. If you opt for the cheaper unit, you’ll want to have a separate Thread border router — such as Apple’s own HomePod Mini — to avoid missing out on the universal smart home whenever we actually get there.
Now pushed along by Apple’s A15 Bionic chip, the Apple TV 4K is more snappy and responsive than ever before. Honestly, the last-gen hardware was already very quick, and the only area where I’ve noticed the extra speed this time is when pulling up the multitasking view / app switcher. It’s perfectly fluid every time without any hint of stutter. Apple says that apps are faster to load, but again, you’d be hard-pressed to feel that difference if you’re upgrading from the prior 4K. It’s all those people coming from the Apple TV HD that will really appreciate this bump in speed. Nothing in tvOS ever feels choppy or comes anywhere close. It’s a straightforward user experience that’s free from the homescreen ads and sponsored content you’re so often served by Amazon and Roku. The A15 Bionic comes with a silly amount of horsepower for an entertainment gadget. I think its main purpose is to open up more headroom and raise the graphics potential for future games on the platform for those who actually play them. tvOS now supports a ton of third-party controllers, even if Apple Arcade has never taken off.
Part of why tvOS is so pleasant to use is that it’s fairly unambitious when you take a step back. The Apple TV has never managed to reinvent the way we watch and enjoy TV shows and movies. The future of TV might be apps — but only if you’re talking about the exact same streaming must-haves that are available on competing platforms like Roku, Fire TV, and Google TV. Apple’s attempt to find a place on the TV screen for popular mobile apps like Airbnb never panned out: a number of early tvOS apps are buried in cobwebs and haven’t seen updates in years. Many have ceased working altogether.
The tvOS homescreen is still a grid of apps just like always. The Apple TV app is where you go for personalized recommendations and your Up Next watchlist. It’s where you rent or buy content and stream Apple TV Plus originals. You can subscribe to some streaming services here (hardly a unique concept anymore) and watch shows from those channels without bouncing between apps.
But the real heavy hitters (namely HBO) don’t integrate with Apple TV channels and still make you use their own apps if you want their content. They do at least appear in the Up Next row and throughout recommendations, as do shows from Hulu, Disney Plus, and many other services. Live sports scores and a dedicated kids section round out the Apple TV app’s features. I don’t end up using what’s intended to be a major hub all that often, perhaps because it’s so siloed off from the homescreen.
And there are still areas where Apple is badly trailing Amazon, Google, and Roku — particularly when it comes to live TV. Fire TV and Google TV wisely integrate streaming TV services like Hulu with Live TV, Sling TV, and YouTube TV right into the OS, granting quick access to individual channels and even providing a traditional cable-like guide when you want to peruse what’s on.
Live TV on the Apple TV 4K isn’t nearly as good as it could (or should) be
The Apple TV 4K can’t match that. It gets you some of the way there: you can tell Siri to pull up channels in apps like FuboTV and DirecTV Stream, but most other popular live TV services aren’t supported to begin with. Some providers like Spectrum let you use the Apple TV as a set-top box and access your full channel package through their software, but that’s different from integrating these apps and programming into the core tvOS software.
In my review of the latest Fire TV Cube earlier this week, I mentioned that I could say “Alexa, tune to ESPN on Sling TV.” From an off state, my TV would turn on, the right HDMI input would take control, and the Fire TV jumped into live programming in seconds. I wish I could say the same for the Apple TV 4K, but the cohesion isn’t as strong. The hands-free voice component is there if you’ve got a HomePod or HomePod Mini, and you can pull up individual apps like ESPN, CNN, or CBS using your single sign-on credentials. But it’s time for Apple to more tightly accommodate some of these streaming TV platforms. A guide of live programming in the Apple TV app would definitely get me using it more regularly.
All of this is to say that if you’re seeking some trailblazing makeover of TV consumption as you know it today, the Apple TV 4K isn’t that. But for people deeply rooted in Apple’s hardware and services ecosystem, it can deliver a blissful experience, at times, and impressive cross-device functionality.
tvOS is one of the best demonstrations of Apple’s cross-device conveniences
This starts with the setup process: you just hold an iPhone near the Apple TV after plugging it in, and your Apple account, Wi-Fi credentials, and settings preferences are transferred to the new device. It took under two minutes for it to fully restore my homescreen layout and download every app I’d had on the old one. Your iPhone can play the role of remote control and, more usefully, you can use its familiar keyboard when logging in to all of those apps. Purchases and rentals can be authenticated with Face ID or Touch ID. You can pair AirPods with an Apple TV for private listening or watch something together from afar with friends using SharePlay. Other platforms support Bluetooth earbuds and have similar remote capabilities, but having tried all of them, Apple’s execution is the most seamless. Apple Fitness Plus can sync with an Apple Watch — and now an iPhone, for those who don’t own a watch — to show workout metrics on your TV. AirPlay remains present for easily beaming content from another device onto the big screen, and you can control HomeKit-compatible smart home gadgets with the Siri Remote.
It’d be great to have a proper Home app on the Apple TV 4K itself, especially when it serves as a hub for that universe, but for now, you’re stuck with Siri commands and running your favorite scenes and viewing camera feeds in Control Center. The Apple TV 4K still supports multiple user profiles, and later this year, Siri will be able to distinguish between the voices of up to six people to switch profiles or bring up personalized suggestions. But Apple’s approach to profiles still needs more refinement, like separate homescreens for each person. Streaming app developers also tend to be lazy about linking their individual user profiles with tvOS profiles, leaving the whole concept useful for Apple’s first-party services and not much else.
Speaking of Siri, tvOS 16.1 recently introduced a more compact on-screen interface for Apple’s voice assistant. When activated, the pulsating Siri logo appears in the lower right of the screen, and any visual responses (movie search results, weather forecasts, etc.) are pushed to the right side in a vertical list to avoid getting in the way of whatever you’re watching. It’s a welcome streamlining that makes Siri feel helpful but not obtrusive. However, there are still many queries that produce an “I can’t help you search for that here” response. I understand that Siri is focused on entertainment on the Apple TV, but it’s too rigid of a cutoff compared to Alexa and Google Assistant. Asking for sports scores is okay, but Siri on tvOS will refuse to do a simple math equation or tell you who the president of the United States is. Apple’s assistant needs more consistency across platforms.
Other than ditching Lightning for USB-C, the included Siri Remote is identical to the prior generation. This is largely positive: it’s ergonomic and easy to use, and once you get down the clickpad’s rotational gesture for quickly scrubbing through a movie or show, you’ll rarely bother with the old less efficient way of fast-forwarding and rewinding. I do badly wish that Apple had included a U1 chip in the new remote that would’ve made it easy to hunt down with precision using a nearby iPhone. Failing that, even a built-in speaker would’ve been nice for a “Siri, find my remote” command. This remote isn’t as easy to lose as the previous stupidly thin version, but it still happens to the best of us. You can add backlighting and a raised nub on the play / pause button (making it easier to find by feel) to my wish list for the next iteration of the Siri Remote.
As for its home theater chops, everything is pretty much the same as it was with the second-gen Apple TV 4K, but now, HDR10 Plus is added to the video mix along with Dolby Vision. This will be welcome news to Samsung TV owners, as Apple’s original programming is now streaming in the format, and many movies that you can rent or buy in Dolby Vision should also fall back to HDR10 Plus on compatible TV sets. HDR10 Plus offers the same main benefit of Dolby Vision, using dynamic metadata to allow for per-frame adjustments to the picture that align with a filmmaker’s intent. The usual settings for matching dynamic range and frame rate are still available, and you should use the former to keep the Apple TV 4K from running in HDR at all times.
The third-gen Apple TV 4K has another bit of future proofing up its sleeve: later this year, a software update will add support for what’s known as QMS VRR. This enables compatible TVs to switch between different frame rates without any black screens or noticeable picture interruptions. How many TVs work with QMS VRR, you ask? Well, zero at the moment. But you’ll start seeing them hit the market next year; stay tuned for more news about this feature at CES. I’ve never been that bothered by the short flicker when changing frame rates, but I won’t miss it, either.
The $129 Apple TV 4K is a worthwhile upgrade for anyone still stuck on the ancient HD model. It’s a speed demon of a streaming box that ticks off all the crucial boxes if you want to enjoy the richest possible home theater experience. And the price is now more reasonable. It’s still more expensive than the budget Roku and Fire TV streaming sticks of the world, but that added cost frees you from ads plastered on the homescreen and comes with some reassurance that Apple isn’t as interested in tracking your viewing habits at every waking moment like some rivals. If you count yourself as an A/V nerd, I wouldn’t hesitate to spend the extra 20 bucks for the 128GB model that includes ethernet and Thread support. It will only help the Apple TV 4K last longer in your media cabinet. That step-up $149 model is still cheaper than the previous-gen 4K, which sold for $179 and only came with 32GB of storage.
As for existing Apple TV 4K owners, unless you’ve got a Samsung 4K TV in your living room and have been waiting with bated breath for HDR10 Plus, there’s no compelling reason to upgrade from a prior model to this one. You’re unlikely to perceive any of the speed improvements, and Thread / Matter is only just getting off the ground, so there’s plenty of time to wait for whatever Apple’s got next in the Apple TV pipeline. It’s not about reinventing TV anymore. Like many of Apple’s products this year, the Apple TV 4K makes its case with gradual refinement.
Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge