It’s easy to be impressed with the new Apple TV 4K. It looks identical to Apple’s first 4K streaming box introduced in 2017, and the day-to-day usage experience doesn’t feel much better when compared to that device. The biggest improvement is undoubtedly the redesigned second-generation Siri remote that comes with the new Apple TV 4K, but you can buy it separately for $ 59.
Those who have long praised the Apple TV will have more fun with this updated hardware. It now has Wi-Fi 6 for faster, more robust wireless performance. (A gigabit ethernet jack remains on the back for wired connectivity.) Apple has also built in support for Thread, the smart home networking protocol that finally widely supported throughout the industry, even if it is good for relatively little at the moment. The biggest internal change in the latest model is an improved chipset: Apple has switched from the A10X Fusion to the A12 Bionic. But the A12 is far from Apple’s latest and greatest silicon; it first appeared in the iPhone XS line in 2018 and is currently still used in the entry-level iPad and iPad Mini. It’s an improvement, but not a game changer for Apple’s set-top box.
On the outside, Apple TV 4K is indistinguishable from its predecessor. It’s still the same nondescript black box that draws little attention to a TV stand. I wish Apple had done away with the glossy, fabric magnet edges, but we’re not so lucky. The company is sticking to the traditional set-top box form factor, even as many competitors have moved to more discrete HDMI dongles that are usually hidden from view behind the TV.
There are also more subtle tech improvements that aren’t advertised, but it’s the kind of thing that video geeks will notice. Apple has largely resolved a problem with increased blacks in Dolby Vision content, according to HDTVTest’s Vincent Teoh. However, the 2021 Apple TV 4K still doesn’t support bitstream audio pass-through, so the company hasn’t fulfilled all the wishes of home theater enthusiasts. But it still controls the essentials, such as Dolby Vision, Atmos and HDR10.
The tvOS software experience is identical between this Apple TV 4K and its predecessor. Navigating menus and voice searches via Siri both go with an extra pinch of speed, and apps seem to load faster than before. But the differences are often marginal; the 2017 Apple TV 4K is still doing well in terms of performance today. That’s largely because tvOS is very polished at the moment and it doesn’t diminish the viewing experience with in-your-face ads or sponsored content.
The Apple TV home screen is still the same old static grid of apps, and Apple is committed to helping you use the Apple TV app, which collects TV shows and movies from a variety of services and wherever you go. TV Plus can find originals. Ted Lasso will be back soon, in case Apple hasn’t hammered that message into your head enough already. The Apple TV app is fine and more than proficient at recommendations (provided you’re not looking for anything from Netflix), but other than the Apple TV Plus section, it hasn’t changed much and feels stuck in place.
Fortunately, Apple has evolved and added to tvOS elsewhere in recent years with new features such as multi-user support, Apple Fitness Plus, and HomePod home theater audio. Speaking of which, the new Apple TV 4K lets you play audio through any HDMI device through the original HomePod. I don’t have Apple speakers to try this myself, but early reports suggest that ARC audio works fine for video content. However, latency can be a deal breaker if you’re trying to game with HomePods as speakers.
Another new trick from tvOS that is also available on older Apple TV devices is an auto calibration feature that uses your iPhone’s camera to process on-screen color patterns and adjust the image to look the best it can. see. This doesn’t actually change the settings of your TV; the Apple TV optimizes its own picture settings and you can switch between this calibrated “balanced” result and the standard result to see the difference. The consensus seems to be that Apple’s feature can lead to improvements – which often produce a warmer picture – although most more expensive TVs have fine-tuned settings by default, especially in cinema or calibrated mode. If you’re serious about picture quality, it’s worth doing a legit calibration to get the best result for all of your TV’s different inputs.
As before, the second-generation Apple TV 4K can serve as a hub for your HomeKit accessories; a hub allows you to control those devices remotely when you are not at home. When you to be home, you can quickly access smart home gadgets or display camera feeds on the screen with a voice command on the Apple TV 4K. Apple has also included Thread, a wireless communication standard specially developed for smart home purposes, in the new Apple TV 4K, which makes it a hub for Thread devices to connect to and access the Internet. Thread should lead to more reliable connections and faster response times between devices that support the protocol; Apple also built it into the HomePod Mini, and it’s the foundation of the upcoming multiplatform Matter standard. But other tricks that were once the benefits of the Apple TV, such as AirPlay, can now be found on many smart TVs and even Roku devices.
Video streams on the Apple TV 4K still deliver exceptional quality, but some of the frustrations we mentioned nearly four years ago are still present in tvOS. Apple has long adapted the box for the dynamic range and frame rate of content playback, but not all apps have taken advantage of this feature. So if your preference in video settings is Dolby Vision with dynamic range tuning enabled, you will still encounter situations where SDR content looks unattractive due to forced HDR processing. (There is also a strange bug on the new Apple TV 4K where some movies are labeled as ‘HD’ – even if it’s very clear that a 4K file is streaming.) Setting tvOS to SDR with matching enabled by default leads to the best result, although annoyingly YouTube doesn’t switch to HDR when you do this.
Live TV integration with Siri will remain limited to a frustratingly small list of carriers and apps, although at least ESPN is there. I’d love to see tvOS provide deeper support for live TV apps like Sling TV, YouTube TV, and Hulu with Live TV, including these in single sign-on.
One argument that Apple TV owners often make in support of the premium cost of the hardware is that they appreciate Apple’s strict privacy policies. The new App Tracking Transparency feature recently introduced on iOS is also present in tvOS. And let me tell you, the number of apps asking for tracking privileges is quite eye-opening. It feels like on this platform more than any other, I’ve been bombarded with the popup asking me if an app is allowed to track me through other apps and websites.
Here’s just a sampling of the streaming apps that have featured it so far:
- AT&T TV
- CNN Go
- Comedy Central
- Discovery Plus
- Fox now
- FX now
- Nat Geo TV
- Paramount Plus
- Sling TV
In my experience, Apple does not sync your chosen preference between iOS and tvOS when it comes to ATT. I get the prompts again for all these streaming apps after seeing them on my iPhone already. It’s almost as if Apple wants to emphasize how common data tracking and sharing has become among popular streaming services.
The new Apple TV 4K comes with an HDMI 2.1 port, but it’s fair to say that Apple isn’t exploiting the full potential of that upgrade. If you’ve been following the next-gen console hype for the past year, you know that the latest Xbox consoles and PlayStation 5 can hit high frame rates of up to 120fps. The Apple TV 4K, in the meantime, scores with 60 fps HDR. Apple still considers this “high frame rate,” and it gives a noticeable smoothness to sports, nature documentaries, and other videos originally shot at higher frame rates. (YouTube now also supports 60fps on Apple TV 4K.)
However, that 60fps ceiling is a bummer for games on the platform. No one realistically expects the Apple TV 4K to rival or get anywhere near the latest home consoles, but 120Hz can still make a difference in responsiveness for titles with simpler graphics. As for games, it’s worth noting that the new Siri Remote cannot be used as a controller like the previous one. you must now use a third-party gamepad. The latest Xbox and PlayStation controllers are supported (including haptics) and tvOS works with a wide mix of others too. It’s generally an improvement if you really want to play games on an Apple TV.
I’ve covered the new Siri Remote in its own review, but since it comes with the Apple TV 4K, here’s a summary: it’s very, very good. The bigger, thicker design is easier to handle (and harder to lose), and the circular D-pad will prove to be more intuitive for many who were perplexed by the trackpad on the old remote. The center button still lets you navigate the same way by pushing around with your thumb, but if you liked the large area of motion on the original Siri Remote, it might feel more limited. Overall, I think Apple definitely took the right step in changing the design. It is much easier to use.
One feature I still wish for the Apple TV 4K to be offered is spatial audio for AirPods owners. Having a private bubble of surround sound when you look at the largest screen in your home makes it seem like it could be a visceral experience. I know there are technical challenges and the Apple TV doesn’t have the same sensors as an iPhone or iPad, but I hope that one day Apple will bring spatial audio to the platform.
If you have the original Apple TV 4K, there’s really no good reason to upgrade to the new one. Wi-Fi 6 is nice to have, and Thread may one day prove to be important to the smart home, but that time isn’t right now. Otherwise, you will get a slightly faster experience than the old box is capable of. Just buy the Siri Remote and give it a call for a day.
But if you’re from something older or the overpriced Apple TV HD, the proposal is the same as ever: you can get a very good 4K streaming gadget for a fraction of the price of the Apple TV 4K. But it is unlikely to provide the same user experience or reliable performance. Or maybe some apps don’t support Dolby Vision or Atmos to the same extent as on Apple TV. The Apple TV 4K is still overpriced, but it’s also still arguably the best streaming experience you’ll find in a single box, especially if you’re anchored in Apple’s ecosystem. Does this new hardware feel like a real upgrade or leap forward from the 2017 Apple TV 4K? No not really. But at least they have the right remote.
Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge