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With AirPlay coming to smart TVs, is Apple TV still worth it?

Apple's streaming box is great investment—for some people.

An Apple TV streaming box Credit: Reviewed / TJ Donegan

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When we did our round-up of the best streaming devices you can buy, the latest version of Apple's streaming device—Apple TV 4K—was (and remains) our pick for best high-end device. There are certainly more affordable options on the market, but the Apple TV 4K's arsenal of features and the quality of its software make it a wise investment for folks who don't mind paying a premium.

This year, the landscape of streaming content is shifting. Take, for example, AirPlay—the proprietary wireless functionality baked into just about every iPhone, iPad, and Apple computer. Last month, we took a peek at a list of new smart TVs that will support AirPlay in 2019, and it was lengthier than expected, with TVs from heavy-hitters like Samsung, Vizio, and LG.

With all of these Air-based names floating around, it's understandable that one might be hazy on whether or not an Apple TV is still worth it, especially if you happen to have a smart TV that's about to get AirPlay functionality. The short answer? Yes, Apple TV is still worth it, but it's not the best fit for everyone. Most importantly, just because the names sound the same doesn't mean that one is a replacement for the other.

What's the difference between AirPlay and Apple TV?

Apple TV 4K Interface
Credit: Reviewed / TJ Donegan

AirPlay is a way for your devices to talk to one another via a wireless network. Apple TV, on the other hand, is more like a Roku—it pipes in content from various streaming platforms.

AirPlay has been around for a while, but in case you're not familiar, it's essentially a service that links together all of your Apple devices across a single wireless network. In practice, you might've found yourself using AirPlay to control which music was playing in each room of your home, especially if you decided that Apple's HomePod was the best smart speaker for your lifestyle.

The details surrounding the inaugural AirPlay TV integration are still relatively scarce, but it'll most likely work in a similar fashion; as long as your TV and your AirPlay-enabled device are on the same WiFi network, you can control the content on your TV via your iPhone, iPad, or Mac, or ask Siri to carry out commands on your behalf.

AirPlay will stream content on your TV from connected devices, but it won't offer access to libraries of content and apps on its own.

Apple TV, on the other hand, is a physical streaming device that connects to your TV and pipes in content from multiple streaming platforms. This is the biggest difference between AirPlay and Apple TV: AirPlay will stream content on your TV from connected devices, but it won't offer access to libraries of content and apps on its own the way an Apple TV streaming box will.

So, to re-cap: There's a good chance your current TV (or the next TV you buy) will support AirPlay 2 in the coming months.To find out, check the updated list of TVs that support AirPlay 2. With AirPlay, you can connect your smart TV to select Apple devices and, presumably, stream video from that device to your TV.

That said, even if your smart TV is on the list of TVs getting an AirPlay upgrade this year, it won't replace the core functionality of a dedicated streaming device, especially if what you're looking for is HDR support.

Does Apple TV support 4K?

Yes, the newest version of Apple TV—dubbed Apple TV 4K—supports 4K HDR streaming, provided your TV is of the 4K HDR variety.

Additionally, if you're a regular iTunes user and you already own a library of previously purchased movies and TV shows linked to your iTunes account, there's a good chance they've already been upgraded—free of charge—to higher-quality 4K versions. There's a strong case to be made that people who already have an extensive collection of media purchased through Apple are best off adopting an Apple TV 4K as their go-to streaming device.

Because the newest version of Apple TV supports HDR (including Dolby Vision), you should also consider your TV's HDR functionality and how important high dynamic range is to your overall viewing experience.

What is Dolby Vision and why should I care?

Apple TV Dolby Vision
Credit: Reviewed / TJ Donegan

Apple TV 4K is one of the few streaming devices that supports Dolby Vision.

You can learn more about HDR if you head over to my colleague Lee's guide to HDR TVs, but here's what you need to know: The newest, 4K version of Apple TV supports HDR10 and Dolby Vision, the two HDR standards you're likely to encounter in your travels. Of the two HDR standards, Dolby Vision's criteria are slightly harder to meet, so you're less likely to come across Dolby Vision TVs and Dolby Vision content—the upside here is that a more rigorous standard often yields better picture quality.

As I mentioned, Apple TV 4K supports both HDR10 and Dolby Vision, making it one of the few streaming devices that supports the higher of the two HDR standards, giving it a serious advantage over just about every other high-profile streaming device, including the Roku Ultra.

If you're interested in learning more about Dolby Vision TVs, check out our round-up of the best Dolby Vision TVs you can buy.

Apple TV 4K Remote Control
Credit: Reviewed / TJ Donegan

Apple TV isn't the most affordable streaming device on the market, but it's an option worth pursuing if your priority is HDR and DolbyVision.

Should I buy an Apple TV?

Maybe, but the recent addition of AirPlay to popular smart TVs shouldn't factor into your decision.

To put it another way, it makes more sense to reject a streaming box on the basis of AirPlay than it does to reject Apple TV specifically.

Don't assume that AirPlay is an air-tight replacement for the Apple TV streaming box.

With so many affordable streaming devices out there, I find it tough to recommend an Apple TV to everyone, regardless of their priorities and streaming habits. You should probably get an Apple TV 4K if you own a TV that supports Dolby Vision, if most of your video library is tied up in Apple's streaming platforms, or if you just have an affinity for Apple's hardware and software integration. If this doesn't sound like you, you should explore more affordable options—start with our round-up of the best streaming devices you can buy.

Whatever you do, just don't assume that AirPlay is an air-tight replacement for the Apple TV streaming box—it's a bit more complicated than that.