Apple TV 4K is great for streaming but there's no compelling reason to upgrade

Looks identical to the previous version, although the amazing new remote is a complete redesign
Apple TV 4K is great for streaming but there's no compelling reason to upgrade

Apple TV 4K.

I’ve been using the new 2021 Apple TV 4K for a while now and comparing it to the previous model from 2017 as well as many of the other streaming devices out there.

One of the biggest questions many people ask is, do they need to buy an additional streaming box when their TV already comes with the apps they want. For those who love the Apple ecosystem and have a lot of Apple devices, the answer is still probably yes.

Design

There’s not too much to say about the new version of the Apple TV because it looks identical to the previous version. However, the remote is a complete redesign and I love how it looks and feels in the hand. I’m a little disappointed that the Apple TV device wasn’t redesigned to match the gorgeous anodised aluminium remote. The mostly black remote from 2017 is in keeping with the Apple TV 4K but looks aside, the improvements in design, ergonomics and button placement make it easy to overlook this minor design inconsistency.

Around the back and under the hood

For ports, you get a power socket, HDMI 2.1 rather than just HDMI 2.0 and an ethernet port. It’s good to see the latter still present but in reality, even when streaming at the highest quality in 4K HDR, my WiFi never struggled to deliver the content. Of course, some will insist on using a wired connection but the new model has upgraded the hardware to support WiFi 6 to make it future proof.

HDMI 2.1 means it can support up to 4K resolutions at 120Hz refresh rates. This means 4K HDR up to 60fps instead of 30fps on the older model. You’ve also got the full spectrum of support for HDR in HDR10, HLG and Dolby Vision formats.

In terms of audio compatibility, you’ve got MP3, AAC, Apple Lossless, FLAC and WAV for stereo and surround formats with Dolby Atmos as well as Dolby Digital and Dolby Digital Plus 7.1.

If you own a set of AirPods Pro or AirPods Max you’ll be treated to spatial audio. This works with the upcoming tvOS 15 that I’ve been running since it became available as a beta update. This works astonishing well when used with Dolby Atmos content from streaming services such as Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Disney + and Netflix. For content with 5.1 surround sound, the Apple TV can still use the spatial audio feature but this multichannel support isn’t as effective as Dolby Atmos.

You also get the dynamic head tracking which allows headphones like the AirPods Pro or AirPods Max to track the motion of where your head is pointing in relation to where the sound and video content is coming from. This makes the soundstage more natural and realistic. You can also share audio so if you have two AirPods Pro or AirPods Max, two people can watch the same content late at night at max volume without worrying about the neighbours.

The processor has been upgraded from the A10X to the A12 Bionic. I did notice a slight improvement in speed and overall snappiness when navigating the UI and when switching between and loading apps but the difference wasn’t night and day.

New remote

The most standout update is the new remote. You still get buttons like the home and back buttons to return you to the previous window. There are volume buttons that obviously controls the volume on your TV, soundbar or AirPlay connected audio speakers or headphones. Then there’s the play/pause button and it still has this Siri mic at the top and the charging port out the bottom which is now USB-C instead of lightning. The dedicated Siri button has been moved to the right side and there is now a dedicated power button that turns off/on the TV and the Apple TV in one go.

The new remote looks great and feels a little beefier in the hand. I also think you’re less likely to misplace it. The biggest change to the remote is the control wheel which is like the clickpad from the old iPod. It has a physical click but can also be controlled with swipe gestures on the centre of the navigation wheel which works like the touchpad on the previous remote. However, I found having both touch gestures and buttons for navigation was confusing. I would accidentally swipe when I didn’t intend to, so I just disabled it.

For those who would love to get the new remote but don’t want to splash out on a new Apple TV you can buy it separately for €65. It will work on the last-gen and even the previous to that, full-HD model.

Setup and features

It takes minutes to get the Apple TV setup. Turn it on and bring an Apple device close to it like an iPhone or an iPad and it will set it up automatically. If you had a previous Apple TV it will install your apps and layout the home-screen as you had it previously.

The screen layout is clean and easy to navigate and you can organise apps into folders.

To jump between apps or to see what other apps you've got open just double-tap the home button and you’ll get a task view at the top. You can navigate through the different apps or if you want to close them just swipe up and it will close those apps.

The new hardware now also comes with the new built-in smart home hub with Apple Homekit support.

Colour calibration

There’s a new tvOS 15 feature that uses your iPhone to calibrate the picture settings for your TV. It uses your iPhone proximity sensor, camera and light sensor to read your TV's current picture profile to create a colour accurate colour profile. This only works on the Apple TV and doesn’t mess with your actual TV colour settings and you can see a before the preview to see if you like the new settings. I found the difference was negligible but perhaps this is because my TV was already close to good enough already.

This feature also works on the 2017 Apple TV 4K with tvOS 15 but if you have your TV set to Dolby Vision it will tell you that you don't need to calibrate since it's already accurate.

Apple Fitness +

Choose from a catalogue of workouts led by expert trainers. In-session metrics from your Apple Watch, like heart rate and calories burned, are shown on your big screen in real-time, so you can focus on your workout and see how you’re doing. This isn’t, of course, exclusive to the new Apple TV 4K but it’s still worth mentioning especially for those who are looking to shake off some of those lockdown Kgs. You can try it for a month for free and then pay either €9.99 per month or €79.99 for the year and it can be shared with up to five family members.

Games

If you’re into some casual gaming on your TV but don’t want to go all-out and buy a dedicated game console the Apple TV has you covered. Apple arcade games on your iPad, or your iPhone, for example, will also play on Apple TV. You can also use either a PS4 or PS5 or your Xbox controller straight to the Apple TV. I’ve tested this with a PS4 Dualshock 4 and it works flawlessly.

Apple Arcade is only €5 a month and there are over 180 games to choose from. There are also a lot of excellent games that you can purchase for a once-off payment. I love that you can start a game on your TV and then continue playing on your iPhone later.

Verdict

The new Apple TV 4K is easily the best streaming box out there but if you already own the previous version, I don’t see enough compelling reasons to update. The new remote is one of my favourite things about the new Apple TV but I can’t say I even had a problem with the previous version either. 

This is all testament to the fact that Apple makes products that are designed to be future proof and last for years. For those who are already in the Apple ecosystem and are considering a new streaming box then the decision is a lot easier. The only real downside is the cost which starts at €199 for the 32GB model and an extra €20 for the 64GB version.

Available now from apple.com

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