“With a better remote and a faster CPU, it's still a pricey way to stream movies.”
- Snappy performance
- Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos
- Much improved remote control
With the new Apple TV 4K, Apple did what it does best: It took an already good product and found a few ways to make it just a bit better.
The Apple TV 4K Gen 2 is simply a faster, more powerful version of the original 2017 device, largely thanks to its newer A12 Bionic CPU. But the biggest change isn’t found in the little black box at all — it’s in the new Siri voice remote. Even the relatively high prices that Apple charges for its 4K streamer ($179 for a 32GB version and $199 for the 64GB model) have stayed the same.
But 2021 is a long way from 2017, and to say the streaming landscape has changed in the intervening years is an understatement. Can the new Apple TV 4K maintain its halo now that Google, Roku, Nvidia, and even Walmart are pumping out affordable and capable streaming media devices? Is the new remote that much better than the original?
I’d argue yes on both fronts. But you need to be a serious Apple fan to be willing to pay the premium the company is charging.
Inside the fully recyclable cardboard box, you’ll find the Apple TV 4K, a power cable, the new Siri remote, a USB-to-Lighting cable for charging the remote (or any other Lightning-based Apple devices you may own), some printed warranty and safety material, and Apple’s ubiquitous white logo stickers.
The new remote finally makes using an Apple TV 4K a pleasant experience for everyone.
What you won’t find is an HDMI cable. Apple’s ongoing decision to omit a cable, especially at the prices it charges, feels stingy, even if there’s no lack of high-quality HDMI cables at affordable prices from Amazon.
If I handed you both the new Apple TV 4K and its predecessor, you’d need a magnifying glass to tell them apart (the model number printed on the bottom is the only real giveaway). The dimensions, glossy black plastic trim, and the three ports on the back panel (power/Ethernet/HDMI) are all identical. But it’s hard to complain: The classic design becomes an almost invisible part of your home theater.
The biggest change is the new Siri remote. Much has already been written about the new all-aluminum design: The way it feels more substantial in your hand, the fact that you no longer have to torture yourself with a touchpad that many people found too difficult to use, and the inclusion of dedicated TV power and mute buttons. I agree with all of these observations — the new remote is a welcome change and the design is classic Apple: simple and elegant.
The new model is a snappy performer, with fast responses to navigation, launching apps, and starting streams.
But in reengineering the Siri remote, Apple missed two big opportunities for further improvement. It should have added a remote-finder feature (an obvious miss given the rollout of its AirTags tech), and I’m stunned that there’s still no charging indicator of any kind. It remains the only device I’ve encountered that offers no confirmation that charging is actually happening or when it’s complete.
If you’ve ever struggled with the original Siri remote’s touchpad, the new version is a revelation, especially for on-screen keyboards. The touchpad has been replaced with a “clickpad” — a circular directional ring and a central OK button. Both can be clicked with a press, but they’re also touch-sensitive. You can use the entire area to tap and swipe just like on the original touchpad, or click it like a traditional remote.
It’s a better interface regardless of how you choose to use it. Using the ring portion of the clickpad as a video scrubbing control is my favorite new feature. When playing a video, simply place your finger or thumb on the ring (don’t click) and a playback timeline appears on the TV. As you slide your thumb around the ring’s circumference, you’ll slide the progress indicator forward or back. It’s easy, intuitive, and makes jumping to a specific moment in a movie or show a snap.
This, in a nutshell, is what the second-gen remote fixes, and it finally makes using an Apple TV 4K a pleasant experience for everyone. Putting the Siri mic button on the side of the remote was silly — it requires you to alter your grip on the remote to trigger it with your thumb — but it’s forgivable.
The TV power and mute buttons are also welcome additions, though seasoned Apple TV users know that putting the device to sleep will also trigger your TV to power down.
With Apple’s new A12 Bionic chip aboard, there’s no question that the new model is a snappy performer, with fast responses to navigation, launching apps, and starting streams. But so was the previous version. The Apple TV — except for its support for gaming via Apple Arcade — doesn’t actually need a ton of extra horsepower for the vast majority of the things you’ll want it to do.
The extra detail your eye can perceive when shown high frame rate HDR is remarkable.
Yes, Siri seems to respond a little faster than before, and it’s possible that when I clicked to start a Netflix movie there was a slightly shorter delay before it began streaming, but honestly, it’s not very noticeable.
I suspect the inclusion of Apple’s hottest new chip has more to do with the company’s future ambitions — like turning the Apple TV 4K into a smart home hub that acts as the nexus for its HomeKit platform — than it has to do with the relatively straightforward act of streaming movies, music, and TV shows.
Watching video on the Apple TV 4K has always been an absolute pleasure. Especially when viewing Dolby Vision material in 4K, color, contrast, and brightness are superb. It depends on the capabilities of your specific TV, but after watching countless hours of streaming content on competitors from Roku, Nvidia, Amazon, and Google, and even gaming consoles like the PlayStation 4, I have to say the Apple TV 4K still looks the best to me.
With tvOS 14.5, Apple added a color-balance calibration tool that uses a FaceID-equipped iPhone to improve picture accuracy when viewing non-Dolby Vision content. When I tried it, I found it made almost no difference at all whether I was using a 4K OLED TV or a 720p LED TV, but I give Apple props for trying something new, especially given how fast and easy it was to try out the tool.
If Dolby Atmos matters to you, there’s no better streamer than the Apple TV 4K.
The new A12 Bionic chip lets the new Apple TV 4K support Dolby Vision and HDR10 at a so-called high frame rate (HFR) of 60 frames per second (fps) — again, assuming your TV supports it too. If it does, you’ll eventually be able to watch all kinds of movies, TV shows, and sports events in this ultra-smooth format. I tried it out using some sample videos on YouTube. It works beautifully. The extra detail your eye can perceive when shown more than twice as many frames per second is remarkable. But it’s also weird.
An unfortunate side effect of high frame rate video is that filmed entertainment tends to look hyper-real. In a sample from Will Smith’s Gemini Man, I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly with FilmmakerIQ’s John P Hess: It felt like I was looking through a window at Will Smith while he performed the role of a highly trained assassin. In other words, it creates a version of the soap opera effect, something that movie fans and filmmakers have been struggling with ever since TV makers started introducing motion-smoothing technologies.
When 60fps HDR becomes the standard for sports streaming, it will be huge, and the new Apple TV is ready for it, but I can’t say I’m looking forward to movies shot in HFR video.
Audio is another standout area for the Apple TV 4K. Ever since an update in 2018, it has been able to natively support Dolby Atmos, the leading format for immersive surround sound.
It’s not alone — Nvidia’s 2019 Shield TV models, Roku’s Ultra (2020), and several other streamers also support Atmos natively — but more streaming apps deliver Atmos to the Apple TV 4K than any other streaming device.
And since Apple Music is about to get thousands of songs in Dolby Atmos (and millions in lossless audio quality) the Apple TV 4K is about to become an even better music streaming device (the Tidal app already lets you stream Dolby Atmos Music). If Dolby Atmos matters to you, there’s no better streamer than the Apple TV 4K.
And while the new version doesn’t add any additional audio formats (there’s still no support for DTS, DTS:X, or Dolby TrueHD), it does expand your choices for how you listen to audio. Thanks to a partial implementation of HDMI 2.1, the new model can now receive audio via HDMI ARC/eARC from a connected TV. If you use a soundbar, an A/V receiver, or even your TV’s built-in speakers for your sound, this new feature won’t matter much.
But, if you happen to own one or two Apple HomePods connected wirelessly to the Apple TV 4K, they can now act as your sound system for all content that hits your TV screen — from your cable box to your game consoles. Unfortunately, without any HomePods on hand, I couldn’t test this. This may feel like a bizarre feature to introduce given that Apple decided to discontinue the HomePod, but I don’t think we’ve heard the last from Apple when it comes to wireless home audio.
The Apple TV 4K user experience is controlled by tvOS, now in version 14.5. As Google, Amazon, and Roku have wrestled with the seemingly contradictory missions of giving people a curated and personalized content experience, while also giving them easy and direct access to their favorite streaming apps, Apple’s solution is by far the most elegant.
Using the remote’s TV/Control Center button, you can toggle between the original icon grid of apps, and the newer Apple TV App interface. You can also choose which one you’d like to be shown by default. If you use the Apple TV App view, you’ll see recommendations from your existing subscriptions like Disney+, HBO Max, and Amazon Prime Video (though not Netflix), while also being able to track your progress through episodic series with a convenient Up Next row of thumbnails as the top row. And since Apple added multi-user support to tvOS, these options (along with GameCenter data) are personalized to the selected user. It tends to promote content from Apple TV+, which could get annoying if you don’t subscribe to this service, but in fairness, the Amazon Fire TV user experience does the same thing but with Amazon content.
Probably one of the most underappreciated features of the Apple TV 4K is the Control Center. Accessible via a long press on the TV/Control Center button, the Control Center side panel gives you easy access to a variety of functions like switching users, controlling music playback, accessing HomeKit-compatible security camera feeds, selecting HomeKit scenes, changing AirPlay speakers, using the search app, and putting the Apple TV into sleep mode.
The security camera function is particularly useful and fun. It’s amazingly easy to pull up feeds from HomeKit-enabled cameras, and doorbells will even send notifications to the Apple TV so you can instantly see who’s at the door (sadly, you can’t use the Siri remote to talk to your visitor).
There still aren’t many apps that support it, but you can shrink down a playing video into a smaller window, letting you navigate the rest of the Apple TV interface in the larger part of the screen. From there, you can launch a second stream and play them simultaneously, swap which one is larger, or close the PiP window.
Though still very expensive, the second-generation Apple TV 4K is a streaming technological tour de force, and the new Siri remote finally fixes one of its least appealing features. If you’re already invested in Apple’s ecosystem and you value its many capabilities, the new Apple TV 4K is a worthwhile investment.
Is there a better alternative?
No other streaming media device has the Apple TV 4K’s full contingent of features, but then again, not everyone needs what Apple has to offer.
For less than $100, the Roku Ultra (2020) comes incredibly close, with tons of streaming app support, Dolby Vision, Dolby Atmos, a voice-enabled remote control, and even some of Apple’s own technologies: AirPlay, HomeKit, and the Apple TV App are all included.
If you want a powerhouse streamer with even better gaming chops than the Apple TV 4K, both the Nvidia Shield TV (2019) and Nvidia Shield TV Pro (2019) can run circles around Apple’s streamer, but they’re still on the pricey side, and not everyone will love its bare-bones Android TV interface.
At a highly affordable $50, the Google Chromecast with Google TV does everything that most folks need a streaming device to do, including Dolby Vision and Atmos, but it’s not as refined (or as feature-rich) as the Apple TV 4K.
How long will it last?
Apple is very good about long-term support for its products. I expect the new Apple TV 4K will continue to get software updates for at least four years, if not longer. The hardware itself is very high-quality, especially the Siri remote, which I expect will last for many years — assuming it doesn’t get lost between the couch cushions. Apple backs the Apple TV 4K with a one-year warranty, but like all Apple products, you can extend this with an optional, paid AppleCare warranty.
Should you buy it?
Yes, but only if you value the features that are unique to the Apple TV 4K. Otherwise, the less expensive options we list above are a better buy.
Because you can buy the new Siri remote on its own for $59, first-gen Apple TV 4K owners are better off paying that than dropping $179 on a whole new box.
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