Apple TV 4K review: Almost perfect

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So how do the souped-up movies look on the new Apple TV? In a word, fantastic. Kong: Skull Island ended up being the ideal 4K HDR demo on my LG OLED TV set. It features scenes with plenty of bright elements, as well as detailed dark portions. At times, both extreme brightness and darkness show up at the same time, thanks to the versatility of HDR. I had to shield my eyes a bit when Kong stands in front of the bright tropical sun, but I could still make out details in his dark fur. The film’s many explosions, not to mention other giant monsters, also looked incredible thanks to all of the new video technology.

Quality-wise, Kong looked on-par with what I’ve seen from Vudu’s 4K streaming, but there was still the occasional compression artifact. That’s simply the reality of streaming video, though — if you want to be rid of blocky compression completely, you’d have to upgrade to 4K Blu-ray discs. When comparing the ITunes 4K version of Arrival to my 4K Blu copy, I didn’t notice any significant differences, aside from the occasional artifact on the streaming side.

Baby Driver is a much brighter film than Kong, but its colorful palette almost pops off the screen with 4K/HDR. The formats also help with the film’s many action sequences — there was a bit more oomph as every gun fired, and I could make out even more detail during the long chase sequences. In many ways, the film looked more impressive than it did in an actual theater.

The Apple TV also surprised me by how quickly it loaded up 4K films. Typically they’d launch in less than a second, and most of the time they also loaded up in 4K from the start. With Vudu, it would typically take a second or two before things got started. That’s not a huge difference, but it makes for a practically seamless viewing experience. Apple recommends that you have at least a 25 Mbps internet connection to stream 4K, which should technically be doable for many consumers in the US. I’d also recommend using a modern 802.11ac router to push all of that data — things could easily get stuttery on older gear.

On Netflix, I ran through my usual 4K/HDR demos and came away impressed. Daredevil, a show that tends to be very dark, looked just as good as it did on my TV’s built-in app. The new formats come in especially handy for the show’s night-time fight scenes — on my old 1080p plasma set, it was sometimes difficult to make out the intricacies of its incredible choreography. And I could almost taste the gorgeous meals on Chef’s Table.

Unfortunately, the Apple TV 4K is still way behind when it comes to third-party support. Netflix is the only app with 4K/HDR enabled today. There’s an Amazon Prime Video app coming, which will likely include that service’s UHD titles . There’s no 4K YouTube support either, because Apple hasn’t adopted Google’s open VP9 codec. Given that YouTube is home to plenty of 4K video, it’s something both companies will want to fix soon. Hulu also offers 4K streaming on game consoles, and Apple says it’s in talks with enabling that on the TV. And of course, there’s the recently launched Vudu app, which is also stuck with HD titles.

There weren’t any new games to show off, but Transistor did run a bit more smoothly than on the last model. In the future, you can look forward to Sky, the next game from Journey creator Jenova Chen, as well as an adaptation of the creepy indie game Inside. Apple TV’s gaming ecosystem has floundered the past few years, but the added horsepower here might help it recover. It could give developers just the push they need to port their games over without compromises.

Of course, there’s still plenty of room for Apple to improve. Its 4K library is missing major films from studios like Disney and franchises like The Fast and the Furious, and the company clearly needs to get more 4K-enabled services aboard. I also noticed some weird quirks with the Apple TV’s video processing — for some HD shows on Sling and HBO Now, it tended to over-emphasize sharpened edges and some lighting elements. It’d be nice to be able to turn off that image correction completely.

Perhaps strangest of all, the Apple TV 4K doesn’t support next-generation audio formats like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X yet. That’s something plenty of devices, including the Xbox One S and lower-end Roku boxes, have offered for a while now. Netflix is also offering it with some newer releases, like the film Okja. Apple says Atmos is coming eventually, according to The Verge, but it’s unclear when we should expect it. I’m currently running a 5.1.2 (5.1 with two upward firing speakers) Atmos configuration, and it’s simply disappointing that such a high-end device can’t take advantage of it properly.

Pricing and the competition

The Apple TV 4K starts at $179 for the 32GB model, up from $149 for the last version. There’s also a 64GB model for $199, but that’s mainly meant for people who plan to download plenty of games. In comparison, you’d have access to more 4K HDR content with a $100 Roku box or Amazon Fire TV.

The very idea of using a set-top box is beginning to seem anachronistic, now that more TVs are including most of the popular streaming apps. But the Apple TV’s ease of use, together with iTunes’ inexpensive 4K offerings and free upgrades, makes the case for investing in a separate device.

Wrap-up

The Apple TV 4K does everything you’d expect it to do — what’s surprising is how Apple is undercutting the competition in 4K pricing. In a world where people are buying fewer films, and the current best physical media format might not be sticking around for long, it serves an important role by making 4K and HDR films more accessible. It’s just a shame that we still have to wait for Apple to score more licensing deals, get more third-party support and fix curious omissions, like its lack of Atmos support.



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