The Apple TV is Apple's set-top box that enables you to watch films and TV shows on your big-screen telly through a raft of other online services including Apple TV+, Netflix, Amazon Prime and many of the OnDemand channels. Now in its sixth generation, the Apple TV has evolved a lot over the years; there are currently three models to choose from, and a number of buying options for each.
In this feature, we'll look at the different models of Apple TV and what each one offers - and costs - to help you decide which is the best for you. So before handing your cash over to Apple, let's take a look at the different Apple TV models.
It's important to note that various TV manufacturers now include the Apple TV app and AirPlay 2 support with their sets, plus Roku and the Amazon Fire include the Apple TV app. So you don't need to buy an Apple TV in order to watch Apple's content, or to stream to your TV from your iPad or iPhone. Read more about the TVs that offer Apple TV app and AirPlay 2.
What Apple TV models are there?
Apple currently sells two types of Apple TV: the fourth-generation Apple TV HD from 2015 (which now ships with the 2021 Siri remote); and the sixth-generation 2021 Apple TV 4K.
You may also hear these two devices referred to as the fourth- and sixth-gen Apple TVs. Or simply as the Apple TV HD and Apple TV 4K.
There could be some confusion though because the fifth generation Apple TV, which launched in 2017, was also called Apple TV 4K. We have a separate comparison of the Apple TV 4K (2021) vs Apple TV 4K (2017).
You may be wondering which Apple TV you have, or which one to buy, so we will start by running through the different Apple TV versions.
Apple TV versions
- 1st gen - launched in 2007. AirPort Extreme-like silver and white design (see image below). 40GB or 160GB hard drive. 720p output. Intel processor. Initially worked with a Mac and Front Row software. No longer supported by Apple. Discontinued in 2010.
- 2nd gen - launched in 2010. Smaller black case - today's Apple TV design is the same. A4 chip. 8GB SSD. Focus on streaming. 720p output. No longer runs YouTube. Discontinued in 2012.
- 3rd gen - launched in 2012. A5 processor. 8GB SSD. 1080p output. No longer runs YouTube. Discontinued in 2016. This model sold for just $99/£79.
- 4th gen (Apple TV HD) - launched in 2015. Introduced tvOS and App Store. A8 processor. 32GB or 64GB SSD. 1080p output. Shipped with touchpad Siri Remote (which has now been discontinued and replaced with the 2021 remote). Still on sale. (Read our review of the Apple TV HD.)
- 5th gen (Apple TV 4K) - launched in 2017. A10X Fusion processor. 32GB or 64GB SSD. Supports 2160p output. Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos support. Discontinued in 2021. (Read our review of the 2017 Apple TV 4K.)
- 6th gen (Apple TV 4K) - launched in 2021. A12 Bionic processor. 32GB or 64GB SSD. High frame rate HDR playback. New Siri Remote. On sale now. (Read our review of the 2021 Apple TV 4K.)
Picture below shows the original Apple TV and today's Apple TV, the design of which is unchanged from the second generation:
When Apple TV was introduced in 2007 it started life as a device that provided a simple way to sync content from the iTunes library on your Mac to watch on your television screen.
Since then it's advanced a lot. It now runs tvOS and includes an App Store with a full suite of apps for streaming and downloading video content - including Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+, all the On Demand channels (such as iPlayer in the UK) and, of course, Apple TV+. Check out what's on Apple TV+ in our guide to the service. The App Store also include games and you can also access Apple Arcade for subscription gaming.
You can also play music from your own Music library and Apple Music (if you subscribe) and you can stream content directly from your iPhone, iPad or Mac using AirPlay.
Apple TV HD vs 4K (4th gen vs 6th gen)
There are two Apple TV models that currently on sale: the 4th generation and the 6th generation Apple TV: also known as Apple TV HD and Apple TV 4K 2021. There was also a Apple TV 4K that launched in 2017, but that is no longer on sale. We've included the Apple TV 4K 2017 in the table below so you can see how that compares to the current models.
As you might have guessed, the biggest difference between the HD and 4K models is support for 4K video, although there are a few other differences too. The Apple TV 4K is also available in two storage options, so you essentially have three models to pick from:
|Model||Apple TV HD (4th generation)||Apple TV 4K (6th generation)||Apple TV 4K (5th generation)|
|Storage||32GB||32GB or 64GB||32GB or 64GB|
|Picture quality||1080p, HD, H.264, MPEG-4||4K, 2160p, 60fps, HDR10, HEVC Dolby Vision, H.264, MPEG-4||4K, 2160p, HDR10, HEVC Dolby Vision, H.264, MPEG-4|
|Sound||Dolby Digital Plus
7.1 surround sound
802.11ax Wi‑Fi 6
Simultaneous dual band
Simultaneous dual band
|Ports||HDMI 1.4||HDMI 2.1||HDMI 2.0a|
|Price||£149/$149||£169/$179 and £189/$199||£179/$179 and £199/$199|
|Buy||Buy||Not on sale|
As you can see, other than 4K and, in the case of the 2021 model, 60fps. The other difference is the processor: the Apple TV HD has the A8, the 5th generation shipped with the A10X, and the new 4K model has the A12 Bionic. Here's how those processors compare:
- A8 - launched in 2014, also featured in iPhone 6, iPad mini 4
- A10X - launched in 2017, also featured in iPad Pro (2017)
- A12 Bionic - launched in 2018, also featured in iPhone XS, XS Max and XR, iPad Air (2019) and iPad mini (2019)
As you can see, the A12 Bionic in the new Apple TV 4K is not particularly new. It's not clear why Apple didn't use a newer chip, such as the A4 Bionic that features in the iPhone 12 generation, but the A12 should be sufficient for the needs of the Apple TV user.
Another difference is the remote control that shipped with the different Apple TV models. The 1st gen Apple TV had a white remote, the 2nd and 3rd gen models shipped with a slim aluminium remote, the 4th generation Apple TV launched with the Siri Remote that also shipped with the Apple TV 4K in 2017. The original Siri Remote had a trackpad area at the top and included an accelerometer for game play.
The Siri Remote was then updated again with the 2021 Apple TV 4K, the new aluminium remote now ships with the 4th gen Apple TV HD.
Broadly speaking, both models of Apple TV on the Apple Store right now are similar - and aesthetically, they're identical. The chief difference between the two models is that the Apple TV 4K supports 4K and HDR content. The key difference between the Apple TV 4K 2021 and the 2017 model is the capability to show 60fps content.
The powerful A12 Bionic processor and faster networking capabilities (Gigabit Ethernet or 802.11ac WI-Fi) should make sure it runs that content smoothly.
The Apple TV 4K models are able to play films and TV shows at 2160p, while the fourth-generation HS model only offers 1080p. This means you can get more pixels with the 4K model, which results in more detailed images in those films and TV shows (and TVs) that support the format.
Many - though not all - Apple TV apps offer 4K content, and Apple charges the same for 4K films as it does for HD, and offers free, automatic upgrades for anyone who's already bought HD content that has a 4K version available. However, it's worth noting that you can only stream 4K content, not download it to watch offline (the files would quickly fill up your storage) - though you can still download HD releases.
In addition to 4K, the Apple TV 4K also supports Dolby Vision and HDR10, which are both different formats of HDR - high dynamic range. Separate and distinct from 4K, HDR delivers richer, more vibrant colours and increased contrast between blacks and white so that you can see more detail in the darker areas of the image. Essentially 4K means more pixels while HDR means that the TV can display millions more colours.
Most 4K content is likely to support HDR - though there may be some exceptions - and some regular HD content will also support one or other of the formats. Obviously to benefit from 4K and HDR you will need a TV that supports it too.
As for audio, the fourth generation Apple TV model supports Dolby 7.1 surround sound, while the 4K devices support Dolby Atmos 360-degree cinema sound.
Dolby Atmos uses object-oriented audio engineering to fire sound in different directions to give you a more immersive audio experience. It creates an effect that means you hear the sound moving around you - assuming that the film you are watching has that effect and that you have the necessary speakers to produce the effect.
Recent films that offer Dolby Atmos include Wonder Woman 1984, Onward, The Invisible Man, Sonic The Hedgehog, Birds of Prey, 1917, Raya and the Last Dragon, Godzilla vs Kong and Top Gun. Apple will update your copy of the film to the Dolby Atmos version if you have already bought it from the iTunes Store.
You can listen to shows playing on your Apple TV via your AirPods - here's how: How to pair AirPods with Apple TV.
Networking and Ports
The other major differences between the fourth, fifth and sixth generation models are the addition of components and technologies required to support the delivery of the 4K HDR content.
As we explained above, there are differences in terms of processor used in each model, with each being faster and more capable than the next. The A12 Bionic and the A10X in the 4K models will be more capable than the A8 in the Apple TV HD.
But a smooth, high quality picture, requires more than a fast processor. The networking capabilities are also important, especially for delivering 4K content. The 4K versions of the Apple TV both offer faster Gigabit Ethernet compared to the 10/100BASE-T Ethernet offered by the 4th generation model. This means that if you plug it straight into the network using a cable the 4K Apple TV can support a maximum bandwidth of 1000Mbps (1gigabit a second) while the 100BASE-T means that the 4th generation model can only support 100Mbps.
If you are relying on wireless networking the Apple TV HD (and older 2017 4K model) offer 802.11ac Wi‑F. The newer Apple TV 4K goes a step further offering next generation Wi-Fi 6: 802.11ax. Both the old and new 4K models offer simultaneous dual band, which means they can use both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency bands at the same time and double the available bandwidth, or choose 5GHz over 2.4GHz for a dedicated WiFi network. That should make it less likely that your film will start buffering because of overcrowding and interference on your network.
The other difference is that the 4K Apple TV offers Bluetooth 5.0 while the 4th generation model has Bluetooth 4.0. Bluetooth 5 transmits data faster than Bluetooth 4, it also requires less power. Bluetooth 5 also has a wider range, 200m outside or 40m indoors compared to 50m outdoors and 10m in indoors.
Storage capacity is another distinction between the HD and 4K models. The question is how much storage do you actually need? While the fourth-gen Apple TV is only available with 32GB, the 4K model can come with either 32GB or 64GB, so you have a decision to make.
At first blush, you might think that the larger storage capacity is worth it to fit all those giant 4K files, but remember that you won't be able to download any 4K films or TV shows from iTunes. So in fact, if you plan to mainly watch 4K content, you might need less storage than before, because you'll be sticking to streaming only.
Still, in favour of the larger capacity model, it's only a £20/$20 price hike for the extra storage, which isn't too severe - so if you think you're likely to benefit from having a collection of HD (not 4K) TV shows and films downloaded to watch offline, it won't exactly break the bank.
Apple TV price
Many years ago Apple sold the Apple TV for £79/$99. Sadly the cheapest Apple TV is now £139/$149 - and that model is six years old.
The newer Apple TV 4K models are even pricier at £169/$179 or £189/$199. Apple did at least reduce the price in the UK by £10 when this model was introduced in April 2021, but it's still a lot to pay when you consider that there are alternative TV streamers that have a much lower price.
However, from time to time resellers may discount the Apple TV further, in which case you will see the best prices right now below:
The 32GB Apple TV HD is sold by Apple for £139/$149.
Apple TV 4K 2021, 32GB is sold by Apple for £169/$179.
Apple TV 4K 2021, 64GB is sold by Apple for £189/$199.
Should I buy the 4K Apple TV?
If you're deciding between the Apple TV HD and 4K Apple TV models, there are a few things to consider.
First up: how much do you care about picture quality? Are you antsy to make sure you watch movies in the highest possible quality, with 4K and HDR enabled? Or are you perfectly happy watching standard HD? If the latter, there's really no reason to spend extra money.
You also need to make sure you can actually take advantage of the new features. You can only watch 4K and HDR content if your TV set supports those features, so now's the time to make sure exactly what your TV is capable of. If your TV is only HD, you won't get much benefit from the Apple TV 4K - unless you're planning an upgrade soon, and just want to future-proof.
Finally, you'll need fast internet too. Apple recommends connections of at least 25Mbps for streaming 4K content (and remember, you can't download it ahead of time to watch offline). If your internet isn't fast enough, the quality will automatically be lowered and you'll end up watching content in standard HD anyway.
If you have the capacity to take advantage of the capabilities of the Apple TV 4K the other question to answer is whether you actually need the hardware at all. Before you purchase an Apple TV set-top-box check to see if your TV actually already offers the Apple TV app and AirPlay streaming. If it does the Apple TV hardware is only really going to give you access to the App Store and Apple Arcade.
Should I buy the Apple TV HD?
The Apple TV HD was introduced in 2015. It's old. It's also expensive for what it is. £139/$149 is a high price to pay for a TV streaming box when you can buy a Fire TV Stick 4K for £49.99 at Amazon here or the Fire TV Stick Lite (HD) for £29.99 here. Similarly the Roku Streaming Stick can play Apple TV+ shows and other Apple content, and is often discounted. The 4K model is normally £49.99 and available from the likes of Currys PC World, but you may find a bigger discount on Amazon.
As with the Apple TV 4K, the only reason to buy an Apple TV is if you want to use the App Store or Apple Arcade gaming service. If you have a recently purchased smart TV or one of the alternative streaming sticks mentioned above you don't really need the Apple TV.
Should I buy an older Apple TV?
The specs of the 2021 Apple TV 4K are very similar to the 2017 Apple TV 4K, although there are some significant differences: the faster A12 processor, the ability to play 60fps, and the newer Wi-Fi standard. If you find one of these previous generation Apple TVs you may be tempted to buy. OUr advice would be that if the price is good enough then by all means buy one, but keep in mind that, at least in the UK, the newer 4K model is now £10 cheaper than it was, so the saving needs to take that into consideration.
If there are any deals on the 2017 Apple TV 4K they will appear below:
Apple TV 4K 2017, 32GB, was £179/$179
Apple TV 4K 2017, 64GB, was £199/$199
It's also worth checking the Apple TV section of Apple's refurbished store to see if there are any cheaper fourth-gen or fifth-gen models, and there's always eBay - where you might even find an older third-gen model for a lot less.
As for whether you should buy the third-gen Apple TV, or an even older model, the answer is no. These models do not include the App Store and we aren't confident that access to the streaming services that are available via these older devices will continue.
If you're committed to buying an Apple TV, hopefully by now you have an idea of what model to opt for. But if not, it's worth considering whether you should really buy one at all.
The question basically boils down to figuring out if your TV already does everything you would use the Apple TV for, or if you could buy a similar competing device for an awful lot less.
You should also bear in mind that Apple may have bigger plans for the Apple TV. Read our round up of the Apple games console rumours.