Apple TV 4K is the most essential product Apple makes

By Chris Taylor

Essentials Week spotlights unexpected items that make our daily lives just a little bit better.

What is the most essential Apple gadget? Put another way: Which of the trillion-dollar company's beautifully-designed devices would a jaded Apple fanboy like me most miss, if I was forced to switch to competing products?

Not the iPhone (pause for gasps). For more of us than the company cares to admit, that device became inessential after the 6S. I'd weep a little if I had to replace it with a Galaxy S9, but at least I'd get my headphone jack back. The iPad Pro may be superior to a Surface, but a better keyboard cover would arrive in that trade-off. You can have my  MacBook when you pry it from my stiff cold fingers, but I know plenty of Windows 10 laptops that could handle everything I do on that ultralight device. 

No, the most irreplaceable Apple device in my house right now is the little streaming engine that could: the $179 Apple TV 4K. My wife and I were skeptics, but took the plunge and bought one this time last year, back when Amazon Prime (finally!) became available on Apple TVs. And for almost every day of the 365 since then, its smart features, accurate voice-based search and jaw-dropping visuals have surprised and delighted us — more than enough to make up for the price tag. 

None of the cheaper streaming boxes come anywhere close. We used to own a Roku until we got tired of all the ads baked into the interface; I'd relished the ability to plug headphones into the Roku remote for late-night viewing, but it turned out that drained the batteries like crazy. Amazon's Fire TV also has ads, bugs (especially its super-slow version of Alexa), and almost no 4K content. Chromecast? Uh, yeah, sure, if you want your phone to do all the heavy lifting, and if your WiFi has more bandwidth than an ethernet jack. (Hint: It doesn't.)

As soon as we plugged it into the HDMI and  ethernet cables, the Apple TV 4K did something that used to be synonymous with all the company's technology: it just worked. We have a pretty complex AV receiver and speaker setup that had foxed earlier, inferior generations of Apple TV. But the 4K version effortlessly placed itself in charge, switching the receiver on and off with it, without us having to program a thing. 

We used to have to use a universal remote; now the Apple TV remote is our universal remote. 

Neither my wife nor I are fans of Siri in its iPhone iteration; for everyday questions, we find our Alexa devices to be more intelligent and understanding. So it was a shock to discover that the Apple TV version of Siri, where you talk into the remote, is by far the most accurate voice assistant I've ever used. 

I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times Siri has misunderstood which movie or TV show I was looking for over the past year. As a result, pretty much the only time I ever have to use the on-screen keyboard is when entering a password that is too hard to spell out. 

Speaking of search, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Apple TV is no longer a walled garden. If a show or a movie is available on an app other than the iTunes store, Apple's search will show you where to find it — even if you haven't downloaded the app in question yet

Trustworthy universal search was one of the main selling points of the Roku, and it's heartening to see Apple is willing to take a hit on iTunes store sales in order to become your neutral viewing companion. 

Such neutrality is helpful when it comes to the device's TV app — again, not something I ever imagined I'd actually use. But it turns out the TV app is better at tracking our viewing habits than the individual services it is aggregating. 

For instance, about the only thing I watch regularly on Hulu is The Good Place. Hulu should be smart enough to know this, and every new Good Place episode should be front and center when I launch the app; instead, every time, it makes me ID myself (yes, Hulu, it's Chris again!) and scroll past a supposedly personalized "lineup" of shows I would not watch if you paid me. (To be fair to Hulu, it's not alone on this score; why does HBO Go make me flick through multiple screens when I just want to see if there's a new John Oliver?)

But with the TV app, I don't need to bother with Hulu's too-cool-for-school interface (not to mention Netflix and its bizarre "we're going to blast loud trailers at you whether you like it or not!" setup). At the top of the home screen are the shows Apple thinks I'll want to watch next. It's mostly accurate and always up to date, new Good Places and John Olivers included. Click on them and they start playing, cutting out the need for a middleman app. It just works. 

I've barely mentioned the biggest selling point of the Apple TV 4K, which is right there in the name — the 4K. Words fail me in describing how beautiful its content looks on a 4K screen, how precise the detail, how radiant the colors. It's one of those things you just have to see. 

No other streaming device comes close to looking this good, which is why I'm amazed that any reviewer would advise you to save money and get fewer pixels with an inferior streaming box or stick. You'll spend $80 a month (or more!) on your cable package, but you won't drop a one-time cost of $180 to ensure every aspect of your viewing is the most gorgeous it can possibly be?

Case in point: the 4K screensavers, which are so delightful I will sometimes turn the TV on just to look at them. Feel free to laugh, but we're not talking flying toasters here. We're talking about some of the most beautiful places on Earth, rendered in detail that is beyond real, with you gliding through them as if you're dangling from a drone. Forget spending thousands of dollars on an artsy conversation piece for your living room; just turn on the Apple TV 4K any time friends come over and you'll hear many an awestruck "what's that?"

A new screensaver drops every day, so they never get boring. This fall, Apple updated the TV OS with incredible moving imagery from the International Space Station. Given the clarity and quality, the company was right to boast about it at WWDC. Nothing puts your troubles (or those of your favorite TV characters) in perspective faster than seeing the soap-bubble of Earth's atmosphere as you swoop over the deserts and contrails of California and Mexico, barely able to tell where the border is, or when China floats by in seconds and you notice the stark difference between the two Koreas at night. 

Is the Apple TV 4K the perfect streaming device, then? Not exactly. There's plenty of room for improvement, most of that having to do with the remote. The touchpad is fine and has lots of hidden tricks (click on the left edge to go back 10 seconds!), but the remote desperately needs a mute button — which I would mash like crazy to solve the noisy Netflix interface problem. 

And I never thought I'd say this about TV remotes, but it is far too small. Apple seems to have designed its remote specifically to be slimmer than the gap between sofa segments, with the result being exactly what you'd expect. When we try to pause playback, there's at least a 1-in-10 chance this will involve a hunt that sends cushions and blankets and phones flying. (Good thing you can use the Remote app on your iPhone too). 

Our cat is generally better at locating the remote than we are, which we discovered when shows started pausing independently of us. Maybe don't make your buttons the same size as the pad of a small pet's paw? 

Still, occasional feline control over our viewing habits is a small price to pay for the clearest, cleanest on-screen interface around. I've got my  apps as obsessively arranged in folders on my TV screen as they are on my iPhone. No one is asking me to choose between the two, but if they did, there's little doubt which one I would ditch first. Sorry, iPhone. 

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