After all, 4K technology was already around when the previous Apple TV launched in 2015. Apple simply chose to ignore it.
But focusing on the past would be to ignore the bigger, and brighter, picture. Apple embracing 4K and HDR is great news because it shines a light on specs that we want to see become as popular as possible.
What’s more, the Apple TV 4K box itself brings with it a whole load of 4K HDR movies to streaming for the first time.
The Apple TV 4K looks practically identical to the previous Apple TV, but flip the little black box over and you’ll notice a ring of small cutouts on the 4K model that weren’t present on its predecessor.
These allow cool air to get to the more powerful A10X chip. It gets quite warm to the touch while in action, but it’s extremely quiet - even when playing a game or streaming 4K content.
There’s just 32GB storage in the standard £180 model, and 64GB in the £200 version we have on test here.
That sounds paltry, particularly as it can’t be expanded by the addition of an external hard drive - but as the Apple TV 4K doesn’t download movies, TV shows or music, instead exclusively streaming them, the only storage it needs is for the apps themselves.
The apps tend to be pretty small – Netflix is just 41.6MB, for example – and though games files tend to be significantly bigger (Hitman GO is 1.21GB), we think the 32GB model should be sufficient for most people.
Once switched on you’re treated to a typically slick Apple experience, particularly if you have an iPhone or other iOS device, which can be used to share all of your account and wi-fi info.
The device then detects if your TV supports 4K resolution and adjusts its output accordingly. It also tests for HDR support, sending an HDR signal to the TV. If you can receive it, everything the Apple TV 4K sends to your TV from this point forth will be in 4K and HDR, even if the content is natively of a lower resolution or in standard dynamic range.
The menu system itself is neat, clean and intuitive, as you’d expect.
One advantage the Apple TV 4K has over alternatives from the likes of Samsung and LG is a voice control that is genuinely useful at times.
Hold the mic button on the sliver of a remote and say “show me action movies” and you’re taken to iTunes’ library. Siri is fairly aware of context these days, too, so follow up with “only those in 4K” and the list of action movies will be whittled down to only those available in UHD.
Siri is a powerful search tool, but that contextual awareness can also be useful when you’re already watching something.
Missed a mumbly bit of dialogue? “What did he/she say?” will repeat it with subtitles activated so you can get it the second time around. “Who’s that actor?” will tell you the name of the performers in the scene you’re watching. It’s really rather clever.
However, the user experience isn’t flawless. The fact that searches (whether spoken or typed) don’t include results from the likes of iPlayer and Now TV undermines their usefulness somewhat, and the touchpad on the remote is still a bit skittish in action.
We generally prefer to use the simple remote control from the TV that’s connected to the Apple TV 4K, but that means not having the Apple remote handy for a Siri-based shortcut.
Apple TVs in the US also get an app that isn’t yet available in the UK – rather confusingly called ‘TV’. This essentially consolidates all of the content available across all of the apps you’ve installed and have subscriptions to, and allows you to quickly dip back into the last thing you were watching.
It also provides recommendations of what to watch next based on your favourites and recent activity. It certainly looks like a winning idea, but is currently lacking full Netflix integration. Here’s hoping that this, and UK-specific services such as iPlayer and Now TV, are included when it arrives.
On the subject of apps, it’s worth mentioning that Amazon still hasn’t launched Prime Video on the tvOS platform. The good news is that it’s also due to be added this year, and that it will be fully integrated with Apple’s TV app.
ITV Player, All 4 and My5 are all absent, but you can at least access some live content from the providers via the TVPlayer app.
More after the break
While having a device that acts as a hub for all of your content is neat, it doesn’t need to duplicate apps that your TV already has – it’s difficult to find a TV without Amazon Prime Video onboard these days.
But hands-down, the new Apple TV 4K’s biggest selling point is its library of 4K HDR movies. At the time of writing there were around 70 films, including recent blockbusters such as Wonder Woman, Alien Covenant and Logan, which are otherwise only available on 4K Blu-ray.
Sky Q has a similar quantity of 4K films, with TV shows and sport added into the mix, but HDR isn’t featured - and you obviously need a Sky dish and subscription.
Apple TV’s simple pay-as-you-go model will be more appealing to many, particularly as the extra pixels don’t cost any extra.
What’s more, if you’ve already bought a film on iTunes that’s subsequently upgraded on the store to 4K, you automatically get the new version at no extra cost. All of which is good news for those who want more affordable 4K content.
But not all 4K content is born equal, and an Apple TV 4K stream is no match for the equivalent UHD disc when it comes to picture quality. Play Deadpool on 4K Blu-ray and there’s an extra layer of crispness and detail in the foul-mouthed anti-hero’s red suit.
There’s a little more punch and insight into the darker areas of the picture too, which is an unavoidable consequence of streaming. With the alternative being downloading uncompressed 4K films onto a hard drive, it’s no surprise Apple chose streaming.
However, 4K movies streamed via iTunes look rather lovely in their own right. Compared to a Full HD stream there’s a clear step-up in sharpness and definition, giving the image much more solidity and depth.
Detail is also lifted significantly, making clothing textures, such as the furs and leather in the early scenes of Wonder Woman, appear more natural, realistic and distinct.
But the addition of HDR is undoubtedly an even bigger upgrade, as it makes movies really pop from the screen. Whites are pure and bright, colours are vastly more vibrant and vivid, and blacks deeper and more solid. It’s simply a more exciting and enticing picture.
So far, we’re only really talking about HDR10 content, but the Apple TV 4K also carries some movies with Dolby Vision, a more advanced version of HDR that’s applied on a frame-by-frame basis and capable of better results.
If you’ve not experienced 4K HDR from Netflix before, you’re in for a treat. If you have, the performance is essentially the same as that provided by your TV. The extra power of the A10X chip doesn’t translate into an enhanced Netflix performance, but perhaps that’s not really a surprise.
Things get interesting when you play something that isn’t natively 4K or HDR, because this will be upscaled and upsampled to match the global setting of the Apple TV.
Generally speaking, the results aren’t bad, but some content looks artificially sharpened and overly bright. Early episodes of Peep Show and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia are a couple of good examples.
This shouldn’t be a huge issue, as these are low-quality streams to begin with. Of course, the problem could be avoided if the Apple TV 4K simply switched its output to match the content playing, but the company says it wants to avoid your TV constantly switching modes.
That Apple has gone as far as supporting not just HDR10, but even Dolby Vision, is cause for plenty of celebration, but it also makes the decision to not support Dolby Atmos a bit perplexing.
After all, why not go the whole hog at that point? In fact, even Dolby True HD and DTS Master Audio miss the cut. What’s more, the Apple TV 4K insists on doing its own decoding, passing to your receiver only either PCM or Dolby Digital 5.1, depending on the setting you’ve selected.
It may be evidence that Apple feels picture performance is more important than audio performance, and perhaps it’s right – surround-sound systems aren’t exactly commonplace, let alone Atmos systems.
But whatever the reasoning, the Apple TV 4K does at least sound good, delivering a crisp, clear, weighty and solid sound. When fed into an appropriate system, it produces a surround-sound field that’s accurate and atmospheric.
It just feels that a few minor adjustments – simply bitstreaming Dolby Digital Plus would be a start – would lift it further.
The Apple TV 4K is a tricky bit of kit to deliver a verdict on. On the one hand it lacks a number of obvious, popular apps.
On the other it delivers one of the best and most affordable 4K HDR movie streaming libraries currently available in the UK, and that’s a really rather precious thing.
It also supports the most advanced HDR format out there right now, but completely ignores the more advanced audio formats. It’s expensive for a streamer, but significantly cheaper and less fussy than a 4K Blu-ray player. See? It’s a device that’s hard to pin down.
Ultimately, we’re settling on a four-star verdict – that library of 4K content is almost worth that alone. But the fifth star is out of reach, at least for now.
Once Apple has integrated Amazon and those missing catch-up services into the TV app, perhaps we’ll reconsider, but right now this is a case of close, but not close enough.
Read all our Apple reviews