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There are plenty of digital media players out there, but few have come close to being the ultimate home entertainment box the way Apple’s pucks have become. They aren’t perfect, but through the years the constantly refined Apple TV boxes have inched closer and closer to delivering of an seamless all-streaming platform at the highest resolutions, framerates, and sound quality possible. And when binging isn’t enough, why not game a little?
The 2021 Apple TV 4K, the first since 2017’s perfectly fine version, continues this inching forward without much fuss, upgrading what needed upgrading and refining what needed refining. This means you’ll get the same superlative performance streaming 4K movies from pretty much every popular service, vivid HDR and Dolby Vision color enhancements, listening to music at the highest quality, and even playing a nice selection of games through the App Store or via Apple’s propriety Arcade subscription service. All of these things were nice before and they’re just as nice now.
This is very much an iterative product, meaning your overall satisfaction will vary, depending on what hardware you currently own.
Same Box, New Insides
Aesthetically, little has changed about the outward appearance of the black box itself, so much of what I said about the 2017 version fits here: it has identical measurements of 1.4 x 3.9 x 3.9-inches and weighs 15 ounces. Ventilation is handled on the bottom, and physical HDMI, Ethernet and AC power ports sit in the rear. A tiny I/O white status light sits in the front and is the only visible indicator of it being turned on.
The 6th-generation Apple TV gets most of the upgrades you’d expect after a four-year gap: it’s powered by the beefier A12 Bionic processor and now sports HDMI 2.1, and Wi-Fi 6 802.11ax connectivity. However, the biggest change isn’t internal but with the new Siri voice remote, which I’ll be focusing on throughout most of this quick review. It is that much of a game-changer? Yes, in relation to the previous Siri remote.
The Biggest Upgrade: Siri Remote
The Siri remote is clearly where Apple directed its attention, and it’s a huge improvement. To be honest, the last Siri remote was…pretty bad, favoring an ultra-minimalist design and accelerometer/gyroscopic touch controls over practical functionality. We’ve now got a new 2.2oz (63g) all-aluminum design that rights many of the wrongs that plagued the previous iteration.
The body is still lightweight but feels more substantial in your hand, and the reliance of buttons is logical and makes more sense than a clumsy touchpad. Everything has a place from the added power button, mute button, to the intuitive relocation of the Siri voice command button on the upper-right side are welcome changes.
Apple has moved onto a clickpad-type setup for navigation, basically a concave circular directional ring with center ‘OK’ button. You can use this like a traditional D-pad where you click to press, while the circle is still touch-sensitive and can be used to tap, swipe, or rotate clockwise/counter-clockwise, which is great for people acclimated to thumbing through menus or fast-forward/rewind playback.
I also appreciate the overall look of the remote too, which has an unmistakable styling of a vintage iPod click wheel or pre-HD Apple TV remote. It is comfortably retro-looking and intentionally oozes nostalgia.
But this new Siri remote isn’t perfect, and still has some glaring omissions, most of which involve lighting – or lack thereof. First off, I wish Apple would have added some type of charging indicator, I find it irritating that I can’t look at the remote to see any confirmation that it’s low on battery or actually charging (both are relegated to onscreen prompts only); a simple light that changes color status would’ve been more than enough. Backlighting is still absent on the new remote, too, which is sorely missed for nighttime bingers.
Finally, an implementation of AirTag would have been fantastic here, considering how easy it still is to lose the remote. A stylish leatherette AirTag glove that fits over the remote would do wonders here.
Beyond the Siri remote, everything remains business as usual for the Apple TV 4K. storage comes in either 32GB or 64GB, and the A12 Bionic CPU is indeed quicker in terms of navigation, launching apps, streaming local content. Responsiveness is excellent but indistinguishable when matching it against my first-gen Apple TV 4K.
Granted, most of these apps aren’t resource hogs, save for Apple Arcade and maybe Plex. On that basis, improvements are marginal at best for most existing apps like Netflix, Hulu, Prime Video, and Apple’s own ‘TV’ app. There have also been reports that certain apps aren’t entirely compatible with media scrubbing features just yet, especially those apps who use their own propriety media players instead of stock Apple provided APIs. Software updates can fix this, but just be aware that not everything may work 100% at first.
There’s also a calibration tool that can measure HDR content and color accuracy based on your current TV output and adjust accordingly using your iPhone, which doesn’t change your TV settings but those on the box itself. This is a very cool and unique feature that will take some of the guesswork out of DIY picture correction, a process that regular people loathe and I hate doing for other people. You’ll need to have iOS 14.5 and FaceID enabled, and it’s not exclusive as it will also rolling out to the existing Apple TV 4K and Apple TV HD through an eventual software update.
Plenty of Formats Like Before
Available formats include HDR10 (Rec.2020), HLG Dolby Vision, and Dolby Atmos (7.1.4 ch) just like in the previous model, and can (obviously) play 4K/60p video in HDR 4.2.2 chroma subsampling depending on the app. Audio is also well equipped with HE-AAC (V1), AAC (up to 320 Kbps), protected AAC (from iTunes Store), MP3 (up to 320 Kbps), MP3 VBR, Apple Lossless, FLAC, AIFF, and WAV; AC-3 (Dolby Digital 5.1), E-AC-3 (Dolby Digital Plus 7.1 surround sound). Again, software trumps hardware as there’s little “new” to lust over.
The only tentative draw might be HDMI 2.1 and the ability to play Apple Arcade games at a maximum 4K/120p (120 fps). I say tentative because this option isn’t readily available (as of tvOS 14.6) so it couldn’t be tested at the time of this review. Given the upgraded specs of this latest Apple 4K TV it should have more than enough horsepower, so I doubt there will be major issues for most titles onward.
Upgrade: Box or Remote?
So, should upgrade your current-gen Apple TV box for the 2021 model? That depends, both on which version you currently have and what your expectations are. If you’re currently a 4th-generation (2015) HD version, the newer 2021 Apple TV 4K will be a definitive upgrade, especially if you have the correct display to take advantage of what it’s offering. Everything obviously will perform better, and this could be the right time to step up to a cleaner and more vivid 4K world.
Those with 5th-generation 4K boxes may want to consider a few things, namely there won’t be much of an improvement right out of the box. While there’s some future-proofing incorporated into the hardware, chiefly Wi-Fi 6 and support for smoother refresh rates, taking full advantage requires you upgrading a lot more than just the one box. Honestly, I’d recommend just getting the newest and vastly superior Siri Remote for $60 and leave it at that.