If you have the previous-gen Apple TV 4K and are happy with it, then this probably isn’t for you. For everyone else, this is the best overall streaming box around thanks to fantastic app support, great pictures quality and plenty of welcome extras.
- Excellent app selection
- Fantastic picture
- Wide HDR and audio support
- Vastly improved remote
- It is expensive when streaming sticks are so cheap
- Minor upgrade over previous model
- Wide HDR supportSupport for HDR standards like Dolby Vision
- Updated remoteThe new remote is a massive upgrade over the previous iteration
- Loads of apps and servicesAll the VOD apps are available and AirPlay helps with those not supported
The Apple TV 4K 2021 is the latest high-end, high-priced and high-performing streaming box from the makers of the iPhone 12.
While Amazon, Roku and Google are in a race to the bottom when it comes to pricing for streaming sticks and boxes, Apple is heading in a different direction. Similar to the Nvidia TV Pro, this is a pricey box that focuses on quality and performance.
If you want the best streaming box experience and aren’t fussed about saving a few pennies in the process, then this is the one to go for. It’s even better if you’re in the Apple ecosystem, and a no-brainer if you, like me, have invested heavily in iTunes content over the years.
- Black box is fairly discrete
- Unchanged from previous version
- One of the larger streaming devices
The new 2021 edition of the Apple TV 4K looks identical to the outgoing model. It also looks just like the 1080p model that’s available (but is very overpriced and worth ignoring).
This isn’t a bad thing as it remains a sleek, minimalist black box that’ll blend into your media unit without much hassle.
It would have been nice if Apple had swapped out the glossy finish for a matte one to try and stem the sheer amount of dust that gathers around the sides – but that’s my only complaint about the design.
The fact that this is a streaming box at all sets it apart from the competition, many of which are now purely stuck that plug directly into a spare HDMI port. Options like the Chromecast with Google TV, Fire TV Stick and so on take up less space than the Apple TV 4K and are far more portable. However, unless you’re really tight on space this isn’t really an issue.
Inside the Apple TV 4K 2021’s box, you’ll find, well, very little. There’s the new remote and a charging cable, plus a plug. Basic, straightforward stuff. You won’t find an HDMI cable included which, for the price, seems stingy.
- Completely redesigned and a big improvement
- Has a power button for your TV
- Charges via Lightning
The Siri Remote that shipped with the previous Apple TV 4K was a thing of ridicule. It was too thin, too light and the trackpad too prone to accidental touches. The merest of swipes would bring it to life and it was an absolute nightmare if you had a wandering dog that liked to jump on it.
It’s taken a few years, but Apple has finally redesigned the remote and it’s a huge improvement. It’s far from the best remote I have ever used, but considering just how bad the older one was, it makes all the difference.
Instead of being a thin, slippery and light remote that seemed to have a great skill at getting caught between in a sofa, this new version is a thick slab of aluminium. It’s longer, weightier and now has a slightly curved back.
Apple hasn’t completely killed the trackpad and it clearly still believes swiping is a better than clicking. The pad is now centred in the middle of a click wheel that’s not too dissimilar to the classic iPod. You can navigate through the menus either by swiping or by clicking, and it’s more responsive than before.
Below the wheel, you’ve got a selection of very clicky buttons. There’s one for altering the volume, another for playing/pausing and a welcome mute switch that’s a nice addition. There’s also a new ‘Back’ button that sits alongside a TV button that’ll either take you to the main app screen or to Apple’s TV app.
The Siri key has been moved to the side, just like on an iPhone, and there’s a very small power button right at the top that’ll turn a TV off or on. At the bottom, there’s a Lightning port for charging. After an initial charge, I have been using the remote every day for weeks and it’s barely used up any juice.
It’s nice to see a remote that isn’t overloaded with branded buttons for random streaming services you’ll never use. I guess that’s just not necessary when the Apple TV 4K is quite so expensive.
You can also buy it separately if have the previous Apple TV 4K or HD model and just want the new remote. At £55 / $59 it’s pricey. As a comparison, the remote alone is roughly the same price as the whole Google TV with Chromecast package.
While it’s most definitely nicer to use, the new remote isn’t as smart as the previous model and in my opinion, not as smart as it should be. The accelerometers that let you use the remote as a game controller have been ditched. Hardly a big deal, but a bit odd nevertheless. It also seems even stranger Apple hasn’t fitted this remote with the UWB tech that powers the AirTag. Being able to precisely find the remote with your iPhone when its caught behind a cushion would make so much sense.
Interface and apps
- Sleek UI with the excellent TV app
- Most big (and smaller) streaming services supported
- Ties in well to an iPhone
Apple’s software approach to its TV box is the same as its takes with its phones and tablets. The basic operating system is the same on this new box as the previous generation and it’ll get frequent updates. The TvOS slated for release later this year will add Spatial Audio, a feature I was surprised to learn wasn’t already present.
That means that if you’re upgrading from an older Apple TV you won’t notice anything particularly different.
Setup is easy if you have an iPhone handy – just hold it close to the Apple TV 4K and most of the initial setup can be done from the phone. This is very welcome when installing and logging in to multiple streaming apps. No iPhone? It’s still all fairly straightforward but with more remote text input.
The home screen is a big grid of apps, with a top portion highlighting certain content from supported apps. Click into the Apple TV app and things get a bit more interesting.
This is Apple’s content hub, pulling together shows from multiple streaming services and an iTunes film and TV library. You’ve got a watch list, plus rows upon rows of recommended shows. Clicking on something to watch takes you right into it, even if it’s from another app. Big streaming services like Disney Plus, Now, Prime, iPlayer and more are available so if you play things right you’ll spend most of your time in this TV app. Netflix, however, does not.
A lot of this app is taken up by Apple TV Plus, and the original shows that come along with the £4.99 / $4.99 per month streaming service. It’s not quite as in-your-face as Prime Video on an Amazon Fire Stick, but if you don’t subscribe to TV Plus you’ll find the constant mentions of it annoying.
In terms of app support, the Apple TV 4K is up there with Roku and Fire TV in terms of broad app support, and I so far haven’t spotted a missing service. In the UK, you’ve got all for the major TV channels (iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4 and Channel 5) plus the usual stalwarts like Disney+, Prime Video and Netflix.
There’s also Now, which supports the higher frame rate playback of sports if you subscribe to the Boost add-on and BT Sport. While the BT Sport app does support 4K, it is missing HDR. There’s also AirPlay, a handy way of streaming other content from your phone to the box.
The only obvious missing app I noticed was Google Play Movies, however you’ll be able to playback your purchased Google content through the YouTube app so that’s far from a big loss.
You’ll get 4K and HDR (either through HDR10 or Dolby Vision) through any app that supports it too. The only missing trick here is that there’s no HLG HDR support in iPlayer, meaning this box won’t stream events like Wimbledon in UHD. That’s a shame.
- Excellent picture
- Wide HDR support
- Very fast and capable
So far, remote aside, there hasn’t been much to separate this Apple TV 4K from the last version. It has the same design, the same software and with the remote being sold separately there’s little to warrant the upgrade.
Hardware-wise though, there are some improvements. The chipset powering the box has been upgraded, from the A10X to the A12 and while this isn’t Apple’s latest chip (it was first used in the iPhone XS in 2018) it makes for the snappiest streaming box around.
There’s also Wi-Fi 6 if you have the right router and support for Thread – a new smart home protocol that Apple already supports with the HomePod Mini. The Apple TV 4K can already act as a hub for your smart home tech and this will help futureproof that.
Around the back of the box is an HDMI 2.1 port and gigabit ethernet which you should use if your home Wi-Fi isn’t that reliable.
While those consoles can push out 4K 120fps content, the Apple TV 4K tops out at 4K HDR 60fps – which Apple labels as ‘high frame rate HDR’. Content that plays in this format is tough to find, with YouTube and RedBull TV so far the only places I have spotted it. Still, hopefully in the future this tech will be helpful in sport-focussed streaming services.
You don’t need an iPhone nor any other Apple tech to use an Apple TV, however being part of the ecosystem does expand the functionality of this box. The remote control app for iOS lets you use a keyboard for text entry and if you’ve got some AirPods you can funnel the audio from the TV to the buds.
The Apple TV 4K supports a whole load of HDR formats, including HDR10, HLG (not supported via iPlayer, though) and Dolby Vision. The only missing format is HDR10+, which isn’t widely used anyway. For audio, you’ve got all the usual standards (MP3, AAC, ALAC) along with surround formats up to Dolby Atmos.
If you used the previous Apple TV 4K you will be familiar with the slightly quirky way the box handles HDR. If you set the box up with the 4K HDR option selected, everything that comes out of the box will be in this format – even if the content you’re viewing is SDR. This is particularly odd if you’re watching something from an app like iPlayer as colours appear washed-out. I’d recommend you select the output at 4K, and then select the ‘Match Dynamic Range’ option. This will only output in HDR when the source supports it.
I’ve been reviewing this Apple TV 4K on a number of different TVs. A higher-end Samsung Q85T with an HDMI 2.1 port, mid-range 2017 LG Nanocell and a budget Hisense 4K model.
Obviously, the strength of the picture will vary depending on your setup, but with each TV I tested the Apple TV 4K pumped out out a better picture than the built-in streaming apps. It’s also the best for pure picture quality when compared to other streaming devices, like the Chromecast with Google TV. When compared to Google’s offering, the Apple TV 4K offers more brightness and more vibrant colours. But then you should be expecting that, considering the price.
I have also been comparing the previous Apple TV 4K to the new model and while there are improvements, I am not sure you’d notice them unless you go looking. The biggest difference is with the contrast in HDR movies, with the Samsung Q85T providing deeper blacks with the newer model plugged in. Still, the older model remains better than much of the competition.
A new feature Apple introduced alongside the new Apple TV 4K (but that works on older models too) is Adjust Colour Balance. This uses the Face ID sensor on an iPhone (X or newer, but not the SE 2) to calibrate your television to provide a better picture – or at least that’s the idea.
It’s a very quick process; you just need to hold your phone up to the display for a few seconds while numerous colours pop in and out. While the results didn’t make much difference on my higher-end or mid-range televisions, they added a notable extra pop to the colour on the budget Hisense model. These settings only work for the Apple TV though, so it’s not calibrating the whole TV.
Should you buy it?
You want the best, no-compromise streaming box: The Apple TV 4K is great at streaming content in excellent quality. It supports Dolby Vision, Dolby Atmos and has the App Store for all the big apps.
You’re on a budget: There’s no getting around the fact that even though this is a fully-featured box, there is a myriad of cheaper options available that do very much the same thing.
The Apple TV 4K 2021 is the best streaming box around and a worthy purchase if you’re happy to dismiss the much cheaper competition. It’s less of an instant recommendation for those who have the previous-gen model, though.
Yes, the remote is a big upgrade, but you can buy that separately, and the new model isn’t a big upgrade unless you really want the futureproofing of HDM 2.1, Thread and Wi-Fi 6.
Still, if you’re looking to upgrade your home cinema setup or you’ve recently bagged one of the best TVs around, this is an ideal companion. The breadth of 4K HDR content is ace, the UI slick and quick and you’ll get plenty of updates from Apple.
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