At its September 2017 event Apple unveiled the Apple TV 4K, the latest generation of its set-top TV device, which brings Apple’s smart TV functionality to any old television - and now with support for 4K and HDR.
It’s a welcome (and probably overdue) update to the Apple TV hardware, but it highlights a major questions that’s hanging over the device: should you buy an Apple TV at all, let alone a new 4K model? For more information, take a look at our Apple TV 4K review.
What is the Apple TV 4K?
Apple TV is, despite the name, not a TV at all. Instead it’s a small box that plugs into an HDMI port on a TV (though Apple doesn’t actually include an HDMI cable in the box - you’ll have to buy that separately) and lets you access a range of apps so that you can stream and download TV content.
It includes apps for Netflix and other streaming services, catch-up apps for TV channels like BBC iPlayer or All 4, and iTunes and other platforms to let you buy or rent digital copies of films and TV shows.
In the US - and soon in the rest of the world - it also includes the Apple TV app, which consolidates content from a variety of providers into one seamless app, while also giving you access to live content like sports.
Finally, you can use Apple TV to share photos and videos directly from your iPhone or iPad to the big screen, or play your music through your TV sound system.
As for the ‘4K’ side of things, the latest Apple TV allows you to do all of the above but enjoy content that’s available in HDR and 4K - aka Ultra HD - so long as you have a 4K TV to take advantage of it.
All of that sounds like a lot of functionality, but it comes at a price: £179, to be specific. That goes up to £199 if you want to jump from 32GB to 64GB storage, or down to £149 if you don’t mind ditching the 4K support.
But do you really need to spend all that to get Netflix on the telly? Probably not…
Apple TV 4K vs Apple TV
The first scenario is a simple one: you already own an older Apple TV, and want to decide whether to upgrade to the 4K model or not.
This is pretty easy to answer. If you don’t have a 4K TV anyway, then definitely don’t upgrade - you won’t get any benefit from the new model.
If you do have a 4K TV, and use your Apple TV a lot, then it might be worth the investment to watch TV and films in higher quality - but first read on to find out if you could get all the same functionality for an awful lot less.
Apple TV 4K vs smart TVs
Here’s the main reason you might not need to buy the Apple TV: you probably have all that functionality already.
Most new TVs include smart functionality by default, which means that they already include a load of apps for Netflix, Amazon Prime, iPlayer, and more without you needing to spend a penny extra.
That’s even more true for 4K, so if you already have a 4K TV - or are planning on buying one - odds are that the TV itself does almost everything that the Apple TV offers, and will happily let you stream TV and films to your heart’s content. You'll also likely find very similar functionality on a PlayStation 4 or Xbox One in case you own either of those consoles.
Still, there are a few things Apple TV offers that your regular smart TV might not. For one, it includes a hard drive, which means you can download films and TV from iTunes or its equivalents to watch later - ideal if your internet connection isn’t quite fast enough for streaming.
There’s also the gaming side. Sure, most serious gamers aren’t likely to be too fussed about the Apple TV’s processing power, but it does let you play a range of iOS games on the big screen, and that’s something that not many of its equivalents can manage.
Apple TV also offers better integration with Apple’s own services (surprise surprise). That means small things like being able to cast photos and videos from your iPhone to the TV, but more importantly means iTunes support. There’s no iTunes app for other smart TVs, so if you’ve already sunk money into TV and films on iTunes, the Apple TV is the only easy way to directly play them from your TV.
Then again, even in that situation it’s worth thinking about how much those shows are worth. After all, it’s unlikely you’ve bought £180 worth of movies on iTunes, so rebuying them all on another service would probably still work out cheaper than buying an Apple TV.
What if you don’t have a smart TV at all though? Is Apple TV your best bet, or are there cheaper - or better - alternatives?
Apple TV 4K vs Chromecast and Fire TV
The key rivals to the Apple TV - especially in its new 4K variant - are Google’s Chromecast and Amazon’s Fire TV, both of which offer roughly the same functionality.
Both plug directly into a TV’s HDMI port, and come loaded with a selection of apps to stream content. Both also offer more expensive 4K-compatible models, and the Chromecast will let you cast content from a phone or tablet, while Fire TV will let you use Alexa to navigate.
It’s a similar story with Amazon. The regular Fire TV Stick is currently £39.99, and the 4K Fire TV is £79 - though that’s currently listed as out of stock on Amazon’s own site, amid speculation it’s about to release an updated version - though you can still buy it refurbished for £74.99.
Again, Apple TV offers a few features that arguably justify the higher price, but only for select users - mostly the same as above. If you want to download films, play iOS games, or access your iTunes library, then Apple TV is the best bet - but are those features really worth a £100 premium? Not for most people.