TV Reviews & Buying Guides
Summary: Apple provided us with a review unit for one of our writers to test. Read on for their full take.
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The Apple TV 4K 2021 is Cupertino’s second stab at a 4K streaming box, following up on a very solid 2017 effort. It packs in a more powerful processor than the previous version of the hardware, and it features a redesigned Siri remote. The overall design of the box itself remains unchanged, as does the tvOS experience, and it’s still the most expensive option in a sea of budget-priced competitors. It also offers the best integration with the overall Apple ecosystem, including HomeKit support and the option to use your iPhone or iPad to navigate and type, marking it out as solidly aimed at Apple-heavy households.
With a slate of Apple TV Originals set to drop long-awaited second seasons, I eagerly unpacked a second generation Apple TV 4K and hooked it up to my office TV. Over the course of about a month, I spent about 60 hours testing it for usability and performance, paying special attention to the functionality of the redesigned Siri remote. The new remote ended up being the highlight of the experience, and the good news is that it’s actually backward compatible with both the 2017 Apple TV 4K and the Apple TV HD.
The two big changes from the first generation of the hardware are an improved processor and a redesigned remote. The overall experience isn’t that different, but the new processor is undeniably more powerful, and the remote is far more usable.
The Apple TV 4K 2021 comes equipped with Apple’s powerful A12 Bionic processor, which is a definite improvement over the A10X processor that powered the first generation of the hardware. The A12 has a slightly higher clock speed, more efficient power handling, and typically scores about 10 to 25 percent higher in benchmarks.
The new Siri remote has a big impact on the day-to-day experience of using the Apple TV 4K. It’s easier to use, more intuitive, and more ergonomic, with a longer, thinner body, new button arrangement, and a touch-enabled clickpad instead of a featureless touchpad. The remote is also compatible with the first generation Apple TV 4K, and it’s available as a separate purchase.
The Apple TV 4K 2021 is the best streaming box money can buy, but it’s impossible to ignore the fact that alternatives like Fire Stick and Roku fit the same niche and cost a whole lot less. You get more out of it if you’re an Apple TV subscriber, HomeKit user, iPhone owner, and are otherwise plugged into the Apple ecosystem, but owners of the first generation Apple TV 4K can safely skip the upgrade and just pick up the excellent new Siri remote that’s backward compatible and available as a separate purchase.
The Apple TV 4K 2021 looks exactly the same as the 2017 version of the hardware. Apple stuck with the same black box-with-rounded-corners look that’s been around since 2010. The sides are a mirror finish, the top is matte black emblazoned with a glossy black Apple TV logo, and the bottom features a bit of a circular standoff to accommodate large vents.
Like its predecessor, the second generation Apple TV 4K has all of its connectors placed on the back. And like its predecessor, those connections are fairly sparse. There’s a power input for the internal power supply, an HDMI port that supports eARC, and an ethernet port for wired connectivity.
The biggest change from last generation is hidden inside, as the Apple TV 4K 2021 is powered by Apple’s A12 Bionic chip. This is the same chip you get in the 2020 iPad and 2019 iPad Air, and it’s a bit more powerful than the old processor. The previous version of the hardware already felt snappier than most other streaming boxes, and the A12 Bionic chip helps to continue that trend.
The first-generation Apple TV 4K is a decent piece of hardware, but the experience of using it is severely hampered by its remote. The first-generation Siri remote was a disaster thanks to an overly thin profile that made it tough to hold comfortably, an extremely sensitive touchpad, and a button layout that made it difficult to tell which end was which without looking at it.
The second-generation Siri remote that comes with the Apple TV 4K 2021 could be the strongest example I’ve ever seen of a company listening to complaints and answering them. The body of the remote is back to the slightly chunkier profile of earlier Apple TV remotes, and it’s been completely redesigned.
The touchpad from the first-generation Siri remote is gone, with a comfortable circle button and clickpad in its place. The circle button makes for easy digital menu navigation, while the touch-enabled clickpad lets you use limited touch inputs if you like. If you don’t, you can turn off the touch functionality and just use it as a clicky button for navigating menus.
The Siri button on the first Siri remote was also a common source of complaints, as it was far too easy to tap it when reaching for other buttons accidentally. The redesigned remote places this important button on the side of the controller. It’s still within easy reach, but you won’t push it accidentally.
The redesigned remote has a few other buttons that have been changed and repositioned, but the biggest deal is the power button. This new addition lets you turn the Apple TV 4K on and off, and you can also use it to turn your TV on and off if it's compatible.
If you have an iPhone handy, the Apple TV 4K setup process is exceedingly simple and streamlined. Plug it into power, connect it to your TV via HDMI, set your TV to the appropriate input, and the Apple TV 4K flares to life with a language selection screen.
I ran into a bit of a bump on the language selection screen, since my review unit displayed the screen in Hindi, which I don't understand. Google Lens translated it easily enough, though, allowing me to cancel out and change languages, and I was off to the races. The benefits of having both a Pixel phone and an iPhone on hand.
With the language set, the Apple TV 4K prompts to continue setup with an iPhone. This option allows the Apple TV to retrieve your Wi-Fi network connection information from your phone via Bluetooth, and it streamlines the rest of the setup process.
Once you finish with the prompts on your phone, the Apple TV is technically ready to use. In practice, you may want to color balance the device with help from your iPhone, download all of your streaming apps, and sign into everything. The Apple TV app is ready to go right away, but everything else requires manual action.
The second-generation Apple TV 4K supports Wi-Fi 6 and also includes an ethernet port, both great options when streaming Ultra High Definition (UHD) content in High Dynamic Range (HDR). These features paired with the A12 Bionic chip result in a snappy, seamless streaming experience. Apps download and load fast, menus and other user interface (UI) elements breeze by effortlessly, and I didn’t experience any slowdown or buffering.
Taking a look at the raw numbers, the Apple TV 4K 2021 is capable of putting out video at a resolution of up to 4K at 60 frames per second. That UHD capability is matched with HDR10, Dolby Vision, and Hybrid Log Gamma support. There's a bit of an issue when switching between standard dynamic range (SDR) and HDR content, but Apple provides you with finer control over that behavior in the latest version of tvOS than they used to.
I was impressed with how well Siri performs on the Apple TV 4K in terms of responsiveness. It starts listening the moment you hold down the Siri button on the remote, and it honored navigation requests effortlessly.
I had some trouble with other functionality, like asking it to find stuff. Asking Siri on my iMac or iPhone to "find Jeremy's AirPods" results in the assurance that they're nearby and an offer to ping them, while Siri on the Apple TV translates the same request, nonsensically, as "Find Jeremy's iMac pods" and immediately starts pinging my iMac. Other requests, like "download the YouTube app," were parsed perfectly for a remarkably smooth voice-control experience.
The Apple TV 4K 2021 ships with the same version of tvOS that’s currently available on the first generation of the hardware. It’s a slick implementation that looks and feels better than a lot of the competition's interfaces, but it also tends to push you toward the Apple TV app. That’s fine if you’re a heavy user of the Apple TV app, but it’s just one of a dozen streaming services I use on a regular basis.
The tvOS home screen consists of a grid of the apps you have installed, plus the App store and a search function. However, the default functionality of the home button on the Siri remote takes you to the Apple TV app instead. You can switch it back if you want or rely on Apple TV to aggregate content from your other apps in addition to the content you can only get from Apple TV. I prefer loading up the actual app I want and ended up switching the home button to open the home screen, so I appreciate that the option is there.
With an MSRP of $179 for the 32GB model and $199 for the 64GB model, the Apple TV 4K 2021 is clearly an expensive device. It lives in a world where you can get 4K Dolby Vision streaming from a $50 competitor or a basic HD streamer for under $30, and that’s a big gulf to close. The Apple TV 4K is more powerful than those competitors, provides a slick streaming experience, and is highly integrated with the Apple ecosystem, but none of those factors change the fact that it’s a very expensive device.
The Fire TV Stick 4K puts up fierce competition, with an MSRP of $49.99 and impressive capabilities. It’s capable of putting out 4K UHD video, and it supports Dolby Vision. It also has an Alexa voice remote that provides access to Amazon’s virtual assistant and enables voice controls, the same way the Siri remote does for the Apple TV 4K.
While the Fire TV Stick 4K has the same technical capabilities as the Apple TV 4K, and a much more affordable price tag, the hardware isn’t as powerful. That means the Apple TV 4K is likely to provide a smoother experience, with faster loading apps and fewer issues when streaming.