Better late than never: the Apple TV 4K is a fantastic upgrade

On Sept. 12, Apple finally rolled out a product that I’ve been waiting for: the Apple TV 4K with HDR. I have a 4K TV (but it lacks HDR support — darn it!), so it’s a welcome upgrade. And one that helps Apple catch up with the competition.

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4K is known as Ultra High Definition (UHD), while 1080P is simply labelled High Definition (HD). As their names imply, 4K UHD has a considerably higher resolution than 1080P HD video. 4K resolution is exactly 3840 x 2160 pixels, whilst 1080P consists of 1920 x 1080 pixels.

High-dynamic-range imaging (HDRI or HDR) is a set of techniques used in imaging and photography to reproduce a greater dynamic range of luminositythan possible using standard digital imaging or photographic techniques. HDR images can represent more accurately the range of intensity levels found in real scenes, from direct sunlight to faint starlight, and is often captured by way of a plurality of differently exposed pictures of the same subject matter. 

Apple TV has an A10X chip supports both Dolby Vision and HDR10. Which means, when it’s connected to a 4K television, 4K content looks fantastic. (Cheeck out the new 4K screensavers that come with tvOS 11). The A10X makes it the most powerful product of its kind on the market — which is appropriate since it’s one of the most pricey.

Conveniently, the Apple TV 4K always outputs to the highest resolution possible allows viewers to get the most out of their TV, whether it’s an older HDTV or the latest 4K Dolby Vision OLED. It also offers automatic detection of a 4K TV’s capabilities, which optimizes setup for the best quality picture.

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You should note that you won’t be able to enjoy 4K content on YouTube.  Apple doesn’t support the VP9 video format that YouTube uses, so the best you’ll get is 1080p. Apple blames YouTube and YouTube blames Apple for the problem, so who knows when it will be resolved.

I do hope — and expect — to see the new Apple TV add support for Dolby Atmos, which it currently lacks. Apple tells The Verge that the lack of Atmos isn’t a hardware limitation, and that support is on the roadmap. I expect we’ll see it in an upcoming tvOS upgrade.

Dolby Atmos is an audio format for creating and playing back multichannel movie soundtracks. It was developed to give movie sound a more three-dimensional effect. Traditional 5.1- and 7.1-channel surround setups deliver captivating sound using speakers placed all around your room. Dolby Atmos takes this to another level with speakers to create a "height" layer of sound above the listener.

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I also must point out that Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president of Internet Software and Services, said on Sept. 12 that Apple has been working with major studios to bring 4K HDR movies to iTunes as the same price as the HD titles. And he says that those HD movies you’ve purchased will automatically be upgraded. 

However, there’s a gotcha to this. Though the new Apple TV with 4K offers both 4K and HDR support, you’ll only be able to steam the high-quality films, not purchase ‘em on iTunes. In a support document, Apple says you can buy or rent movies from the iTunes Store in high-definition (HD) or 4K resolution formats. These videos might also feature high dynamic range (HDR) or Dolby Vision.

Apple says you can download a local copy of an HD movie, and you might be able to download HDR and Dolby Vision versions, but you can’t download a 4K version. This is likely due to licensing issues with film studios, but still it’s disappointing (at least to a film buff like me).

But my biggest gripe about the latest incarnation of the set-top box is the lack of a redesign of the Siri Remote. I like most aspects of the remote, but it’s impossible to tell if you’re holding it correctly — ie, having the right side pointing to the Apple TV — unless you’re looking at the remote.

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The raised white ring around the Menu button is an improvement, but a slight one. Why not add texture to denote orientation along the back and sides?

Other things you should know about the Apple TV with 4K: setup is just as simple as with previous models. Plug in the power cable, connect it to your TV over HDMI, and you’re good to go. There’s also an Ethernet port if you need it (you might for streaming 4K video), but Apple has done away with the USB-C connector. 

Also, the new set-top box is the first to have a fan to cool its enhanced innards. The fan is, for all practical purposes, totally silent (you may can hear it running if you press your ear against the device).

The Apple TV 4K starts at $179 for 32GB or $199 for 64GB, joining Apple TV (4th generation) 32GB at $149, available from Apple.com and Apple Stores, as well as through select Apple Authorized Resellers. Spring for the bigger one if you buy lots of games and movies. 

It’s not quite perfect, but the Apple TV 4K is the streaming box Apple fans have been waiting for.

Apple World Today Rating (out of 5 stars): ★★★★★