Teardown: Apple TV 4K
The Apple TV 4K sees Apple returning to simplicity over performance in set-top-box design.
The new Apple TV 4K streaming set-top box places emphasis on the user experience over bundling all the latest video standards. Nevertheless, it commands a substantial price premium over the competition – $179 (£179 in the UK) v $100 for the 32GB version.
After a series of iLaunches that have highlighted differentiation through performance, this could seem surprising. Really, it shows Apple going back to an established model. The original iPod was not the most technologically advanced music player, but it did have the best interface.
That doesn’t mean that the box lacks muscle. As its name suggests, it offers 4K resolution (a fourfold increase in pixel count on 1080p HDTV), and runs off the same 64-bit A10X Fusion processor as the latest iPad Pro. That upgrade has required the integration of a much bigger fan – crunching 4K video is a sweaty task.
The box also has HDR capability, including the Dolby Vision variant, which offers major improvements in both colour and contrast.
Meanwhile, the tvOS variant of the iOS operating system used in the company’s portable devices does make life much easier for the owner. Once connected to Wi-Fi or Ethernet, the box takes minutes to set up. If you own an iPhone or iPad, you can run set-up through those and tvOS will automatically copy across settings and content from the Apple store.
Once the box is configured, tvOS presents both your content and its sources for easy browsing, and Apple has tweaked the remote by placing a white ring around the main ‘Menu’ button. On that last point, it can indeed be hard to know which way is up on the small handsets that accompany streaming boxes, a typical and welcome bit of Apple industrial design.
However, there have been some curious decisions. As noted, Dolby Vision is present, but the latest release of Dolby Atmos sound processing is not. The box cannot yet stream 4K content from YouTube because it does not support the Google-promoted VP9 codec, even though VP9 is open source.
But what is most immediately striking for the user is the fact that, once connected to an HDR set, the Apple TV streams all content in that format. There is no option to downscale the output.
Professional AV benchmarking reviewers have claimed that, as a result, upscaled 1080p content from the new box can appear darker and include more artefacts than would be the case if it were streamed native.
An important point is that many 4K HDR TVs can upscale content but with algorithms and settings optimised for that particular display. Apple TV necessarily applies a one-size-fits-all approach.
Apple argues that the transition between formats can introduce stuttering and delays. It has made the trade-off to improve the viewing experience at the cost of, it says, a slight loss in image quality.
Moreover, the company points out that a number of upgrades – including Dolby Atmos, VP9 and the ability to switch output formats – may be implemented in software upgrades.
The evolution of the 4K HDR market suggests Apple may not be far off the mark in prioritising the user experience. The technology is seen as emerging, though today this largely comes down to a limited amount of content. From a display point of view, it is a different story.
Sub-$1,000 4K HDR displays are widely available and some of the more aggressive ‘cost-down’ players, such as Vizio, have offerings at closer to $500 for models as big as 55in. 4K HDR capability is reaching beyond early adopters and AV enthusiasts and rapidly becoming a standard TV feature.
Moreover, while Apple TV is substantially more expensive than rival boxes, the company is giving owners the opportunity to offset that with their content purchases. Apple is offering 4K HDR movies to buy at a $10 discount against competitors and, unlike rival sources, will automatically upgrade purchased 1080p content free-of-charge.
In terms of design, the Apple TV 4K resembles its predecessors. The main changes concern thermal management.
The iFixit Teardown team found that in addition to the large fan, driven by a Nidec brushless motor, there is a circular series of venting ports on the base. The fan itself is physically integrated with the heat sink and EMI shield to further enhance cooling.
Beyond that, the insides are modular, including the 12V, 1.083A power supply with a removable AC-in jack. Replacement for a number of key parts is relatively straightforward, with the exception of some key silicon components that are soldered in place. iFixit rates the Apple TV at a solid 8 out of 10 for repairability.
Apple’s designers have also sought to control the real estate within this more powerful box by using conductive posts instead of wiring between the power supply and the logic board.
Is all this enough to differentiate the Apple TV 4K from offerings such as the Roku range and Amazon Fire TV – or to get users to trade up beyond streaming and upscaling features already bundled within their new displays?
Arguably yes, but chiefly within two particular segments: existing Apple ecosystem members and consumers who accept the company’s higher prices because they see its devices as easier to use.
Even here, it seems likely that customers will expect further software and firmware upgrades in the short- rather than medium-term to fill out the device’s capabilities.
Apple TV 4K
1 AC-in jack
2 Heat sink
4 Power board
5 Conductive posts
6 Main housing
7 Fan assembly support
8 Base panel
10 Brushless motor
11 Gigabit Ethernet controller, Broadcom
12 RAM (1x2GB, 1x1GB), SK Hynix
13 Processor, Apple
14 Custom memory controller (possible), Apple