There are generally two distinct categories of ‘boxes’ that we end up connecting to our TVs — gaming consoles and media streamers. There’s also the cable or direct to home (DTH) STBs. For the most part, the two have remained distinct devices, albeit with some functionalities in overlap. But streamers haven’t earnestly intruded into the space of gaming consoles (the Nvidia Shield series being a rare example, let down by Android TV’s game library). That is, until now.
To be fair, we had seen hints of this with the second-generation Apple TV 4K from 2021. It must be said that the gaming credentials have dialled up the seriousness. We have Apple Arcade to thank for it. Also, this remains the slickest (at least in terms of streaming quality and simplicity of experience) media streaming device that money can buy.
Mind you, the Amazon Fire TV Cube (the 2021 edition is still on sale in India for ₹12,999) may have something to say about it. But, going by facts, gaming is the trump card for the 2022 refresh of the Apple TV 4K, something Amazon hasn’t attempted to replicate thus far. Apple Arcade, meanwhile, continues to strengthen its game library.
Choose wisely: Smart home on the horizon?
There are two variants of the Apple TV 4K that you must take your pick from. The Wi-Fi only-spec with 64GB storage is priced at ₹14,900 while the higher configured Wi-Fi + Ethernet connectivity with 128GB storage has a sticker price of ₹16,900. The latter is a better bet if you have inconsistent Wi-Fi coverage (that’s not good for Ultra HD streaming as well as gaming) and would prefer to run an Ethernet cable from the router to the Apple TV 4K.
Interestingly enough, the Ethernet version also adds support for Thread and Matter-enabled smart home accessories. Don’t get us wrong, both models support some level of smart home hub functionality, but for the more inexpensive model, Matter smart home devices will require an additional hub for seamless controls.
Not much has changed visually, but what it is worth, the new iteration has done some serious weight and bulk reduction. That aside, the specifics of the ports (HDMI 2.1 takes care of the connection with the TV) remain consistent.
The remote testifies to the attention to detail
The remote that accompanies the Apple TV 4K continues to be the best in business. Perfectly chiseled out of a piece of aluminium, soft touch buttons that are quite precise with responsiveness, and you have the option of enabling the trackpad too. More as an eventual regulatory requirement than anything else, the Lightning Port has made way for a USB-C port to charge the Siri Remote’s battery.
For what is your primary mode of interacting with the tvOS software, the Apple Siri Remote is miles ahead of anything that Amazon bundles with the Fire TV devices or any smart TV offer, the only exception to that rule being OnePlus, which pairs a high-quality metal remote with the OnePlus TV Q1 series.
Power? Apple Arcade’s truest gaming console yet
The processor is the biggest upgrade in this edition of the Apple TV 4K. It is powered by the A15 Bionic chip, which you’d be familiar with, if you have used the iPhone 13 series. That chip has barely aged a year, and a slightly tweaked version is still well and truly in use with the iPhone 14 Plus device. It may feel like an overkill for a media streamer, yet that’s the solid foundation for the inevitable tryst with gaming.
Before we get to that, we must illustrate our observations about the streaming experience. While the predecessor topped out with HDR10 standard (alongside Dolby Vision in the high dynamic range stakes), this edition adds HDR10+ too. That additional support will come in quite handy as you embark on HDR content across Netflix, Amazon Video, Disney+ Hotstar, Zee5 and JioCinema.
Be it standard definition, high definition or ultra-high definition content across apps, there is the distinct feeling that all apps deliver streaming quality that is half a notch above the Fire TV Cube. That is, in terms of the dynamic range, to be specific, which has a positive spin on detailing as well as colours across different scenes.
The predecessor was no slouch, and the tvOS interface was snappy. We encountered no sluggishness, at any point. The only difference between then and now, in that regard, is the multitasking screen which now doesn’t exhibit the hints of sluggishness from before, particularly if a lot of apps remained open.
If you haven’t tried out Apple Arcade yet, it is time you must. That, we feel, is a crucial app to unlock the complete potential of Apple TV 4K. Gear.Club Stradale is as much fun as Lego Brawls, as long as you have a game controller paired. We had a Sony PlayStation 5 controller at hand – the only shortcoming being, the controller’s battery level isn’t indicated in the bluetooth devices list.
Gameplay was smooth on the previous generation Apple TV 4K and is a notch better now. With more performance headroom, this will be in a good place as mobile games become more complex and graphics heavy.
tvOS is simple – Consistent or is it lack of excitement?
In comparison with Google’s Android TV or Google TV platforms, there is the definite sense that tvOS hasn’t tried to get into the fun stuff. Apple TV 4K continues to not dabble with any sort of content curations or recommendations. The interface hasn’t changed much over time either, the only dynamic element being the carousel that changes as you jump from one streaming app icon to the next.
Within the tvOS interface, all streaming apps reside in their own real estate. We did not see any melding of content recommendations or watchlists on the home screen (you can get a whiff of it in the TV app, but that’s about it). Netflix remains within its own app. So does Amazon Prime Video. Much like Apple TV+, which doesn’t seem to have any unfair advantage either.
What’s a big miss, perhaps with this generation, is the handling of Live TV services. In Amazon’s Fire TV OS, for instance, “Live” gets its own tab on the home screen – any apps you’ve subscribed to which also have Live TV channels (Voot, Sony Liv and Zee5, for instance) will offer separate channel listing within that. That’s intuitive, convenient and opens more content without having to specifically search for it.
But all said and done, tvOS does not clutter the home screen with any sort of third-party advertising or even suggestions from any of its family of apps. A stark contrast to Amazon’s Fire TV home screen treatment, which is littered with advertising.
Extra features add genuine value
There’s more to Apple TV 4K than it meets your eye, even after you’ve spent some time with it. You can use your iPhone to calibrate your TVs display, if you are worried that the picture settings aren’t up to the mark (and most likely, they wouldn’t be). It’ll calibrate the colour of the TV screen, which should help with separation and richness.
Secondly, if you face any issues with source switching or resolution on the HDMI you’ve connected the Apple TV 4K with, you can head to settings and troubleshoot the HDMI connection. We noticed that when the Apple TV 4K and our OnePlus TV were powered on, there was no display for a few minutes. Changing the resolution on the Apple TV 4K didn’t help. Troubleshooting, and allowing the Apple TV to manage the HDMI connection worked wonders.
There’s the rather helpful voice search key on the remote (this resides on the right spine) which gets you quick access to Siri search. Important to observe here that the key is easy to press by mistake while gripping the remote.
The hidden gem, true only if you have a HomePod speaker too, is the Bluetooth functionality that makes the HomePod (as long as it is connected to the same Wi-Fi too, and in range) the default speaker for the Apple TV 4K. Think of this as double the fun, if you have the two HomePod speakers set up in stereo mode.
How much power do you need in the Apple TV 4K?
Much like many of the other product lines this year, the Apple TV family has been put into the incremental refinement bucket. A new and more powerful processor, two distinct variants (one with futureproofing around smart home standards) and the widening of content support with HDR10+ standard are the standout changes.
Anyone with last year’s Apple TV 4K doesn’t need to immediately upgrade. For everyone else, irrespective of whatever streamer you may be using right now, this is a definite upgrade. But one thing is clear – we are setting ourselves up for a pretty major refresh for the Apple TV family. Think of this as the year when the ball just rolls forward with minimal effort. Whether the next evolution happens in 2023 or sometime later, is anyone’s guess.
- ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Vishal Mathur is Technology Editor for Hindustan Times. When not making sense of technology, he often searches for an elusive analog space in a digital world.