There’s no denying the immense appeal of the Apple TV 4K, the company’s top streaming box, and one that offers all the best things an A/V enthusiast could ask for. Just for starters, it can handle 4K high frame rate video, provides Dolby Vision HDR and Atmos support, and offers useful match video frame rate and match dynamic range options.
I’m just getting rolling. Apple’s streamer also features tight integration with iCloud, Apple Fitness+, Apple Watch, and AirPods. It supports Bluetooth controllers when playing Apple Arcade games, and has a Lightning-charged Siri remote for voice control and searches. Taking all that into consideration, the Apple TV 4K is a lot.
But at the same time, the Apple TV 4K is too much. And by that, I mainly mean price. Apple charges $179 / £169 for a 32GB version and $199 / £189 for a 64GB version of its streaming box. Compare that to the Roku Ultra and Amazon Fire TV Cube, which sell in the US for $99 and $70, respectively. What does the Apple TV 4K have that those other players lack?
If we look at all three devices purely in terms of specs, each one hits the high points: 4K video with Dolby Vision HDR, Dolby Atmos audio, a library of all the most desirable apps and then some. The Fire TV Cube even tosses in HDR10+ support. Each also offers its own baked-in voice search and playback command capabilities, with Roku further offering compatibility with Alexa, Hey Google, and Siri along with Apple’s own HomeKit smart home protocol.
What really separates Apple from its competition – aside from sky-high pricing – is that the latter also offers streaming hardware in compact stick form. Streaming sticks, which plug directly into a TV or projector’s HDMI port where they can do their thing unobtrusively, are an even less expensive option than standalone boxes. And while they may not have the same processing power – a factor that can affect both browsing responsiveness and picture quality – as their boxy brethren, what they do offer is enough to satisfy the needs of 99% of viewers.
Why doesn’t Apple sell a cheap streaming stick?
The Apple TV box has traditionally been a side project for the company – Steve Jobs once referred to it as a “hobby” – and not something it updates on a regular basis. (Four years elapsed between the arrival of the first Apple TV 4K in 2017 and the latest-gen version in 2021.) So it’s not completely surprising to see Apple out of step with its Roku, Amazon, and Chromecast streaming hardware competition. At the same time, Apple appears to also be out of step with current social and economic trends.
Top Gun: Maverick aside, people aren’t going out to the movies these days in the same numbers as they did in the pre-pandemic times, and that’s a trend that looks to be permanent. Along with that, people have less expendable income for going out in general as a result of rising global inflation. And I’m not even going to mention the high price of gasoline, which, depending on where you live, could make a cruise to the mall to check out a movie all that much more expensive.
Given these factors, viewers are more inclined than ever to turn to the best 4K TVs for entertainment, whether it’s to stream movies, sports, or the latest shows. And while almost all newer TVs provide built-in apps for direct streaming – including Apple’s own Apple TV+ service in some instances – the smart TV interface on many sets can be overly crowded, confusing, and generally off-putting.
That’s where the best streaming devices come in. I’ve long been a user of both Roku (my last upgrade was to the Streaming Stick Plus, which supports Dolby Atmos and HDR10, making it a good match for my projector-based home theater setup) and Apple TV streamers. Of the two, I gravitate to using the latest Apple TV 4K, which offers more powerful and reliable Wi-Fi and generally better image quality compared to the Roku. But I have to add I admire the clean on-screen interface and general usability of both streamers equally, and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the Roku or any of its successors.
What I wouldn’t be so quick to recommend to a regular viewer asking me for buying advice is the Apple TV 4K. And that’s not because it’s not a fantastic streamer – it really is. But the only other people I know of who own one are TV reviewers, and we’re a limited lot.
With prices topping out at $199, the Apple TV 4K is the streaming box for the 1%. And while I’m encouraged by the prospect of the company releasing a less pricey version later this year, what I really want to see is a $50 streaming stick. You can do it, Apple. Get to work.
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Al Griffin has been writing about and reviewing A/V tech since the days LaserDiscs roamed the earth, and was previously the editor of Sound & Vision magazine.
When not reviewing the latest and greatest gear or watching movies at home, he can usually be found out and about on a bike.