Still the best streaming box in the long run

Still the best streaming box in the long run

After Apple finally gave us a decent Siri remote last year, I couldn’t imagine the Apple TV 4K getting much better. It’s not like anyone is clamoring for an 8K upgrade – all we need these days is support for fast 4K streaming, as well as the variety of HDR (high definition range) formats out there. The new Apple TV 4K can easily meet these demands, but what’s really impressive is that it’s far faster than before and it’s much cheaper at $129 (down from $179)! Finally, there is an Apple TV that I can recommend to everyone without hesitation.

Let’s start with what’s new: This year’s Apple TV 4K is powered by an A15 Bionic chip, which launched with the iPhone 13 (and is still used in the iPhone 14). It’s a big leap forward from the 2018-era A12 in the previous model. The new box also comes with 64GB of storage, instead of a measly 32GB. If you plan to load up loads of games and apps, there’s also a 128GB model for $149, which adds an Ethernet port and support for the Thread internet-of-things protocol. Finally, Apple has integrated HDR10+ support, which works similarly to Dolby Vision to deliver more accurate HDR in every scene.

At first glance, the Apple TV 4K looks like the previous models: a smooth black box with obscenely rounded corners. Look a little closer, though, and you’ll notice that it’s actually smaller, like a prop reproduction of its predecessor. Apple says it has 20 percent less volume than before, a result of losing the fan from previous models (it runs quietly) and is powered by more efficient hardware. Apple would not say exactly what led to the dramatic price drop. But I would bet that it is due to simpler production, as well as a decrease in component prices across the board.

If you want to hear me wax poetic about Apple’s Siri Remote, check out my review of the latest Apple TV. I’m still in love with it a year later: It’s easy to hold, has all the basic features you want, and is far harder to lose than the previous super-slim remote. I’m still confused as to why we were forced to use a glass-backed remote with a messy trackpad on the original Apple TV 4K. Long live the new model and it’s touch-sensitive, directional click surface.

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Apple TV 4K (2022)

Apple TV 4K (2022)

So sure, the hardware is great, but how is the software? Setting up Apple TV 4K is now surprisingly easy, assuming you’re already addicted to Apple’s ecosystem. After plugging it in, all I had to do was tap my iPhone to the box to send my WiFi and iCloud credentials. I chose to sync my home screens, which made all the apps from my current Apple TV appear. At that point I just needed to log into my usual streaming sites and I was good to go.

Having used every Apple TV the company has put out over the past decade, I had an immediate thought when I started using this new model: Holy shit, this thing is fast. That’s not to say that the last version was slow, by any means. But there is a twist to this year’s box that just feels liberating. I can easily swipe through all the apps on the home screen, launch Netflix a few seconds faster than before, and drill through my movie library without breaking a sweat. No more little loading delays or wheels.

It could just be that I’m experiencing the rush of a brand new device, a neat one with a year of use. But using the new Apple TV 4K feels like the difference between using an iPhone X and an iPhone 14 – it all just happens faster, with a greater sense of urgency. I found it most useful when switching between apps and different videos. While I was catching up Guillermo del Toro’s curiosities on Netflix, I could quickly skip over to check out my YouTube channels while my wife needed a bathroom break, then resume the horror when she returned. Again, this is something I did often with the previous box, but now the Apple TV feels completely uninhibited.

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Apple TV 4K (2022)

Apple TV 4K (2022)

In the midst of my speed preview, I was also impressed to see that the Apple TV handles HDR 10+ without issue. The opening rushes in No time to die looked brilliant, with excellent highlights in the brightly lit European streets, but also solid shadow detail in darker scenes. That’s the main attraction of HDR10+. Like the original HDR 10 standard, it delivers both brighter light and darker darkness. But, it can also adjust these settings based on the scene you’re watching, just like Dolby Vision. It avoids some issues often seen with HDR 10, where one HDR profile setting may not work well across a range of scenes.

While testing Apple TV 4K on Samsung’s 55-inch Odyssey Ark display, I was also able to watch Dolby Vision titles from iTunes via HDR10+. This feature is particularly useful on the Ark, as it does not support Dolby Vision alone. You can expect HDR10+ to work across Apple TV+ offerings, as well as many titles available for rent or purchase. Amazon has also been pushing the standard for years, so you’ll find native HDR10+ support across all of its originals. (It looked especially great during the opening of The peripheral.)

If you weren’t a fan of the Apple TV interface before, this new model won’t change your mind. But as someone who has tested a lot of streaming devices, I still feel most at home with the Apple TV. I appreciate the wide selection of apps, the seamless integration with iOS devices, and the overall polish you don’t see on Roku’s software. Sure, you can use the Apple TV app on competing devices today (including Roku!), but that’s just a gateway to content. It’s not the same as living with an elegantly designed streaming interface from day to day.

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Apple TV 4K (2022)

Apple TV 4K (2022)

Another plus? Apple TV actually has games you might want to play. I was able to load up Sonic Racing in a few seconds, pair an Xbox controller, and start zooming around the track without much trouble. The A15 Bionic should provide smoother performance on more demanding games, but I personally have never seen anything stress these boxes much.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of Apple TV this year: you don’t have to pay that much of a premium to own it. At $129, it’s slightly more expensive than the $100 Roku Ultra, but in exchange you get a far more robust app platform and more features. The $149 model we reviewed is a smarter buy if you require Ethernet, or want to start using Thread IoT devices. (Unfortunately, I didn’t have any wire-compatible hardware to test.) But even that model is slightly less expensive than the previous $179 Apple TV.

If you already bought last year’s Apple TV 4K for the new Siri remote, this new box probably isn’t worth the upgrade. But if you recently bought an HDR10+ TV, it might be worth going up, just so you see the best possible HDR picture.

It’s taken a while, but Apple has finally managed to create the ideal streaming box: one that’s relatively cheap, packed with modern features and fast. So damn fast.

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