Apple TV 4K (2021, 32GB) full review

It has been over three years since we got the first Apple TV model with 4K resolution. That was a real upgrade with not only higher resolution, but support for HDR and eventually Dolby Atmos sound. Since then, the wishes have been piled high on the improvements and hopes we had for a new model. Apple also launched Apple Arcade, which gave us hope that the Apple TV could become a gaming platform. Especially as rumours have been circulating about new powerful hardware. Is this the game changer we've been waiting for?

If you've been expecting the game console-like Apple TV that rumours have suggested prepare to be disappointed. Apart from a few small changes and a new remote control nothing is new. Should you buy a new one? It is still a good choice, but it is not worth upgrading to. We have to keep waiting for the launch of the real game model.

Remote control

When the biggest news about a new Apple product is the remote control you know there is a problem. Many complained that the old remote had poor ergonomics, that using touch for navigation was fiddly, and that the buttons were incomprehensible to inexperienced users.

So hooray, the Apple TV has a new remote control. This new remote has returned to the original delicious aluminium finish, which makes it feel like a premium control again. It has also become larger and above all thicker, which makes it fit better in the hand.

The remote's touchpad has been replaced by an old-fashioned four-way control where you can click in all directions to select the icon and scroll through lists, and select by clicking in the middle. It is much more intuitive and provides fewer error navigations, but it's also smart - it is actually also a touch control! So you can swipe in all directions to quickly browse lists. For example, with playback paused you can rest your finger on the outer ring and then move your finger in a circle to fast forward and rewind movies and music. It is both smart and practical.

The menu button has been replaced by a back button, because that is actually what it is used for. The Siri button has been moved to the side. In addition, we have a mute button and a real on / off button. It's very easy to know what button to press.

New and old Apple TV remote

Sounds good, but there is a catch. The new remote control no longer contains a gyroscope or accelerometer. This means that games where you could previously wave the remote control to control, in the Nintendo Wii way, will no longer work! It doesn't fit with Apple's ambitions for Apple Arcade.

The other thing people might have hoped for with the Apple Remote is a way to locate it when lost, especially we now have the AirTags. At the moment we cannot use the Find My service to locate a lost remote control, however such a feature could be on the way: If you ask Siri to locate the remote control, it answers that "you have not set up an Apple TV remote control in your iCloud account". Hopefully this is a feature that is coming soon.

Picture, sound and features

The other new feature of the 6th generation Apple TV is improved video output - it's been upgraded to the modern HDMI 2.1 standard. This should enable it to support both 4K and 8K resolution video at a full 120 hertz. This is a must for action games, and was another clue supporting Apple's gaming plans.

But before you get too excited, once we read the specifications, we discovered that the "high frame rate" that Apple advertises is that HDR video can be played in 60 hertz. Previously this was only SDR video. Admittedly, it will be great to be able to enjoy HDR videos filmed with new iPhones, but compared to our hopes this is a letdown.

Apple TV Ports

In addition, there is not a particularly good supply of HDR videos in 60 hertz yet. If you want to get a feel for it, some can be seen on Red Bull TV, and sports with their fast image movements benefit from it.

The one thing that does improve the image quality is the ability to set the colour balance using your iPhone. The process is really simple. Just activate the function in settings on your iPhone X or newer and then hold it against your TV screen. The iPhone uses its light sensor to determine how close the displayed colour corresponds to the intended colour. It then generates a colour profile that allows your Apple TV to compensate for errors in your screen's colour reproduction. It is an easy way to get a better picture from bad or incorrectly set up TVs. However, since this is a feature of tvOS 14.5 the same trick can be performed for the old Apple TV.

Apple TV Colour balance

As for the sound, nothing new has happened here since tvOS 12 in 2018 when we got Dolby Atmos. It may be worth pointing out that the Apple TV has supported Dolby Atmos for some time - Dolby Atmos being one of the new features coming to Apple Music (which is being upgraded to support higher 'lossless' sound quality).  Indeed it may be the only Apple device that can enjoy the new audio support.

What is also mentioned by Apple in passing, but which deserves a little more attention, is that Apple TV is now a more competent central for the smart home. It has already functioned as an excellent HomeKit hub. But now it gets support for Thread, the new open standard for "internet of things". This is a low-power mesh network that allows devices from different manufacturers to collaborate and extend the wireless range. Thus, Apple TV continues to be highly relevant for the smart home.

Performance

The wired network performance is the same as before, but the wireless is now upgraded to WiFi 6. This makes it more suitable for homes with very busy wireless networks and many connected smart home gadgets. It also coexists better with multiple video streams on the network.

On the inside, the old Apple A10X Fusion circuit (same as in iPad Pro from 2017) has been upgraded to Apple A12 Bionic (same as in iPhone XS from 2018). But that's hardly something to get excited about - it's a really old system circuit! Is it even an upgrade? It simply means that computational performance has increased to the 2018 level.

Geekbench Apple TV 4K 2021

Since there are no benchmark apps on Apple TV, we picked out our measurements from iPad Pro 2017 and iPhone XS. It turns out that the computing power has increased by 24–34 percent, but that graphics performance has actually decreased by 22–29 percent according to our tests! This is the final nail in the coffin for this to be Apple's new game-oriented model.

Apple TV Graphics benchmarks

What just happened?

Now we have to get into speculation about why Apple did this. It is quite obvious that this is not, or has been meant to be, a giant launch. Probably the date for the upcoming gaming model has been delayed and in the meantime, the old model has become unsustainably outdated.

Probably for logistical reasons, Apple wanted to shut down the production of the old A10X system circuit and plug in the more energy-efficient A12 Bionic, and take the opportunity to update some standards such as a modern HDMI port and faster wireless network, as well as support for Thread in HomeKit. This is obviously the "light model" that would be the budget option for those who did not want to buy the more expensive games model.

But then they wanted to accommodate the users and launch the new remote control. And suddenly, in the absence of the top model, it became this budget model Apple had to show off. It would have been better to just sneak it out of the store because then no one would have been disappointed.

Verdict

The 2021 Apple TV 4K is basically a repeat. There is nothing really new when compared to the 2017 Apple TV 4K model, so if you were planning to upgrade from that we would advise that you don't. (See our comparison of the two models for more info: Apple TV 4K 2021 vs Apple TV 4K 2017).

Even if you are upgrading from an older Apple TV model this is a tough sell, partly because we do think something better is coming and partly because these days you don't actually need an Apple TV - so many TVs and streamers offer the Apple TV app and support AirPlay.

This review is adapted from the iMac review by Macworld Sweden. Macworld UK's full review is coming!

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