New Apple TV 4K 2021 review: Great new remote, but not many reasons to upgrade
Quick verdict: Apple’s streaming set top box is a premium choice with a hugely improved remote control, but existing Apple TV owners probably don’t need to upgrade at all.
- Updated remote is much better
- Easy screen calibration
- Faster chip leads to quicker app loading
- Can be very finicky about HDMI switches
- Comparatively expensive
- No dedicated Foxtel app
The Apple TV set top box has been around for 14 years in various guises, but it's been a few years since we've seen any updates to Apple's TV hardware, despite the appearance of the Apple TV+ streaming service.
The "New" (or 2nd Generation 4K, if you want to be specific about it) Apple TV 4K doesn't make massive changes to the whole Apple TV experience, and outside the redesigned remote, there's not much here for existing Apple TV 4K owners. It's also a rather premium-priced device if all you want is the streaming basics.
Place the New Apple TV 4K next to the model that first started selling back in 2017 and you'd be hard put to pick the difference between the two. It remains, as it has done for years, a squat black box that almost feels under-designed for an Apple product. Without the Apple logo on it, would you even know that it was an Apple product at all?
Then again, in the case of the Apple TV 4K, that's very much the point.
You shouldn't spend much time at all looking at the set top box because it's simply a conduit for your streaming and gaming and Apple TV app usage, after all.
What you will notice about the new Apple TV 4K is the remote control. There's a word to describe the remote control that came with the first generation 2017 Apple TV 4K, but it contains four letters and I'd rather keep this review polite if that's at all possible.
Apple seems to have heard my profane howls, and those of many other Apple TV 4K users, because it's gone mostly back to basics with the redesigned remote control that ships with the new Apple TV 4K.
Instead of that horrible overly-twitchy glass panel that never worked properly, you get a control dial that also incorporates a small touch section, so you can still scroll and select where appropriate. The new remote is a little heavier than on the 1st Generation Apple TV 4K, but I tend to see that as a benefit as well because it's a little less likely to slip in-between the seat cushions and become lost as a result.
Oddly, although it's thicker and heavier than the remote it replaces, you do lose the accelerometer and gyroscope features found in the older remote. That may have an impact if you use tvOS games that rely on those functions, although I struggled to find too many of those that it would truly impact. If you've got the older Apple TV 4K, it's well worth tracking down the new Siri remote, which Apple pleasingly does sell separately for $79.
While the exterior of the Apple TV 4K hasn't changed in any appreciable way, Apple has made changes under the hood. The 2017 Apple TV 4K used an Apple A10X chip, making it basically a fancier iPhone 7 without a screen in processor terms. The 2021 Apple TV 4K runs on an A12 Bionic processor, which means it's jumped up in processor terms to be the effective equivalent of an iPhone XS.
What that means in practical terms is that there's a fairly big jump in processing power under the hood, although you might not automatically pick that up depending on what you use the Apple TV 4K for, and the TV you connect it to.
As an example, the new Apple TV 4K has support for high frame rate video, but to take advantage of that, you'll not only need a content source but also a TV panel with HDMI 2.1 and frame rate support at that level. If you're using a TV with more than a year or so on it, that's an advantage you're most likely going to have to wait to enjoy, if at all. It varies depending on your tolerances, but some viewers do find that high frame rate video has a glossy, unnatural look to it.
The new Apple TV 4K does also up the ante on the wireless front with Wi-Fi 6 if you're not tethering it with an Ethernet cable, and there, more consumers are likely to see the benefits – again, if you've got home Wi-Fi gear that's also Wi-Fi 6 ready. Likewise, if you're heavily in the Apple HomeKit ecosystem, the new Apple TV 4K also acts as a HomeKit Hub with support for the new Thread standard built in.
One of the headline features of the new Apple TV 4K that Apple announced at its "Spring Surprise" event was the ability to magically calibrate your TV using only the new Apple TV 4K and a compatible iPhone.
For many people, the art of calibrating a 4K panel may as well be witchcraft, and a lot of TVs get regrettably left on factory settings where just a little tweaking can result in a massively improved picture. However, that typically involves knowing what you're doing and having patience to work through settings for an optimal picture outcome.
The Apple TV 4K approach is considerably simpler, and that has its appeal. Set it into Color Balance mode, place your iPhone in the coloured rectangle that it draws on the screen and it'll flash up an array of colours likely to make you dizzy if you stare at them too long. The iPhone sends what it sees to the Apple TV 4K, and it adjusts the picture as a result. All simple, right?
What I found when running the colour balance system across a few TVs was that it didn't much like smaller TVs or older and cheaper panels, often saying it simply couldn't manage calibration in those cases. For a more modern 4K panel, it did manage calibration, adding a little warmth to the overall picture, but this is an effect that the Apple TV is outputting itself, not a permanent TV change.
Switch to a different input and you'll lose that warm effect entirely. It's also worth noting that if your Apple TV model supports tvOS 14.5 and you've got a FaceID compatible iPhone, you can run the same calibration set-up as well. It's in the new Apple TV 4K – and the old one as well.
Apple's tvOS, the underlying operating system that runs the Apple TV hasn't undergone some massive revision just for the new Apple TV 4K, and that's something that has both benefits and drawbacks. It's a mostly slick system that, as you'd expect, has a pleasant user interface design for the most part and a wide array of apps on offer.
That includes access to Apple Arcade, and it's in the gaming space that you'll arguably see the biggest difference from that A12 Bionic processor. Games load faster on the new Apple TV 4K and can have up to 60fps support, although that's a little puny next to current generation console or PC-gaming standards. You can also use the Apple TV 4K with an Apple Fitness+ subscription if you want a more visual approach to your workouts and stats tracking.
Realistically, however, most consumers buy these kinds of set top boxes for their video streaming prowess, and here the Apple TV 4K mostly does well. There's support for most of the big players, both internationally and locally, so you can easily get your Netflix, Disney+, ABC iview, SBS on Demand or Stan fix in from the comfort of your sofa.
The notable exception here is Foxtel in the weirdest possible way. There are dedicated Apple TV apps for Kayo and BINGE, but not for Foxtel itself. What makes this really strange is that the Foxtel app for iOS/ipadOS does support Apple AirPlay to send content to an Apple TV. So you can get Foxtel content onto it, but in a more convoluted way than with a dedicated app. If Foxtel is important to you, look elsewhere for the easiest possible viewing solution.
The new Apple TV 4K supports HDMI 2.1, but I was disappointed to see that it doesn't play all that well with other HDMI sources. Specifically, I connected it through an HDMI switch with full 4K support that happily works with other devices including a PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X and Nvidia Shield TV. All cables used were fully 4K HDMI 2.1 compliant.
The Apple TV 4K worked most of the time, except when it would randomly decide to cut the screen out every once in a while, seemingly for HDMI-compliance issues.
No other device on the same switch – even the notoriously fiddly PlayStation – had any complaints, and it wasn't a consistent issue, but the only solution I could find that reliably worked was to entirely unplug the Apple TV 4K, let it sit idle for a minute or two and then power it up again.
This isn't an entirely new issue for the Apple TV 4K family, but it's a dead set annoyance. Nobody wants to fiddle with broken images when they really just want to binge-watch Ted Lasso again!
Fundamentally, Apple hasn't made any big UI changes just for the Apple TV 4K, and that means that the good things, such as Siri searches, work pretty well, while the bad things, like the stupid single-line alphabetical search field, are still present too.
Apple pretty much always sets a course for its products that you either accept and work within or wait for them to make changes. I've been waiting years for a full on-screen keyboard, but Apple's position here is more that you should use your iPhone or iPad as the virtual keyboard instead. That does work – but I'd love it if it did both.
Should you buy the New Apple TV 4K 2021?
- Buy it if you want an Apple-centric streaming box with futureproofing.
- Don't buy it if you're using an HDMI Switch or want a simple cheap set top box.
That does put it in a rather unusual niche.
If you're more heavily in the Apple ecosystem, specifically for Apple Arcade or Apple Fitness+, there's some appeal here but only if you don't already own the existing 2017 Apple TV 4K. If you do, the remote control is well worth tracking down because the existing one is horrid, but there's not really enough here to warrant an upgrade.
If you're not an existing Apple TV 4K owner and you do want an exclusive Apple TV set top box experience, it's now replaced that 2017 model entirely. It's mostly a fine player as long as you keep it away from HDMI switches, but one with a serious price tag to deal with.
Pricing and availability
Images: Alex Kidman
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