Last week, Apple held a little event at the newly constructed Steve Jobs Theater on their campus in Cupertino, California. While the release of the iPhone 8 and iPhone X was the reason most tuned in, Apple brought more than just a $1000 smartphone to the table.
As expected, Apple unveiled the new Apple Watch 3 and along with it the latest iteration of their set-top box the Apple TV 4K. The upgrade to the fifth generation Apple TV didn’t bring any revolutionary changes but instead brought the streaming platform on par with other devices on the market.
What Apple TV did do was offer up some new services and perks that give it some slight advantages over competitors like the Chromecast Ultra and Roku 4, with a caveat. We’ll cover those in a moment but first, let’s do what we came here to do and put the new Apple TV 4K up next to the Chromecast Ultra from Google.
The Apple TV 4K and the Chromecast Ultra both support the industry standard H.264 (MPEG4 Part-10) which covers a large percentage of current video content, local and web-based. Both devices can also handle High Dynamic Range (HDR10, Dolby Vision) and offer HDR content through their respective app stores.
Along with these, Apple and Google both offer support for most common formats such as AAC, MP3 and MP4. Chromecast gains an edge by supporting the .WEBM format that Google has been steadily expanding across the web. The Chromecast Ultra will also play the latest H.265 video format while Apple TV 4K support page does not have this codec listed. Likely, support is there but due to the minimal distribution, it isn’t reflected in the product information.
This is where the paths diverge a bit for the two media devices. From a consumption stand point, Apple TV and the Chromecast Ultra will deliver similar experiences and while they share similar capabilities, they differ greatly at their core.
The Apple TV is a set-top box. Meaning it is designed to be a stand-alone device that is capable of running a multitude of applications, all controlled with the included remote. Streaming to Apple TV comes in the form of mirroring other devices like your MacBook, iPhone or iPod. To use the system outside of Apple products, you need a third-party app like AirParrot or 5KPlayer.
When using a Chromecast, the content you sent to the dongle uses the Google Cast protocol which is available across multiple platforms and is implemented into applications by the developer. That simply means that if a third-party developer wants their app to be Chromecast compatible, they can do so regardless of the OS. The Chromecast receives the Cast and handles everything via its own internet connection.
To read more about the finer details of how the two work and how they differ, check out Robby’s article.
All that being said, the somewhat closed environment of Apple TV gives Chromecast a bit of an advantage in the versatility department.
This very well may be the deciding factor for many of you weighing your options for streaming 4K content. The Chromecast Ultra will cost you $69 from the Google Store or various retailers like WalMart, Target or Best Buy.
Buy it. Hook it up to your television. Plug it in. Download the Google Home app on your phone and set it up. From there, any device you have that has access to Google Cast compatible content can now be used as a remote control for your Chromecast. Included in the box is the Chromecast (not much bigger than a half-dollar so it’s easy to hide), a power cable and an Ethernet port w/power adapter.
I will note at this point, the second generation Chromecast is capable of being powered by the USB port on your TV and is listed as such in the technical specs. The Chromecast Ultra does not “officially” support USB power but some users have reported being able to do so. Regardless, plan on freeing up a plug for the 4K Chromecast.
The Apple TV is going to set you back a tad more than the Chromecast. Becuase of its stand-alone nature, Apple’s device is designed to download apps from the iTunes store and run them independently. Therefore, storage comes into play. There are two models to choose from.
The entry-level, 32GB model comes in at a beefy $179 with the 64GB version taking you up to $199. Unfortunately, the buck doesn’t stop there. In the box you will get your Apple TV, power cord, SIRI enabled remote (that’s kind of cool if you’re an Apple person) and a USB to Lightning cable for charging the remote.
How do you connect the Apple box to your television you ask? You don’t. That is, not until you purchase an HDMI cable because it isn’t included with Apple TV. Sorry, I know Apple gets a lot of grief over dongles and accessories but this is a little ridiculous. Apple TV serves one purpose; to deliver media content to your television. Not including the necessary hardware to do so out of the box is a bit of a joke.
If you want my opinion, there’s really no question here as to which streaming device you should buy. I understand that there are many of you who live fully inside the Apple ecosystem and for you, an Apple TV just makes sense. I’m not saying don’t buy it. If you don’t mind dropping $200 so all of your “things” can be tied together by iOS and MacOS then, by all means, the Apple TV 4K will serve its purpose and I see no reason why it won’t do it well.
However, the Chromecast Ultra should give the same 4K, HDR experience at a fraction of the cost. Plus, if you use any kind of Google services be it Android, Chrome, Cast-capable apps on iOS, etc., spending $200 on an Apple TV 4K just doesn’t make any sense to me.
I can Cast to my TV from any device I own using my Chromecast and simply walk away. Once the stream is enabled, I can power down my Chromebook, shut off my phone or throw my Google Home in the toilet and the Chromecast keeps streaming.
*Update*– I forgot to mention this and for that, I apologize Apple. One thing Apple has done that Google needs to take notes from is the announcement that any previously purchased, HD media from iTunes would automatically be upgraded to 4K. That was a classy move on Apple’s part and it would be nice to see Google follow suit. Good form, Apple.