Apple TV 4K (2021) full review

At the Apple's April 2021 Spring Loaded event, we were treated to a new version of the Apple TV 4K (6th-generation), replete with a redesigned remote control plus other internal upgrades to the previous model that launched back in 2017. But, with stock of the old 5th generation Apple TV 4K still available from a few retailers, is it worth saving money on the now discontinued unit or, if you already own one, is the new model an upgrade you should be considering?

Price

The new 6th generation Apple TV 4K will go on pre-order from Friday 30 April and shipping will start in the second half of May, according to Apple.

There are two models available:

  • 32GB - £169/US$179/AU$249
  • 64GB - £189/US$199/AU$279

When these new Apple TV models go on sale you will be able to buy one on Apple's website here. You'll also see the best deals right now in the section at the top of this article.

While it's true that you can't buy the old Apple TV 4K from Apple anymore, you may find it on sale elsewhere. In which case, it's worth knowing what the RRP was so you can make an informed decision about any models you find on sale. When released in 2017, it came in these variants:

  • 32GB - £179/US$179/AU$249
  • 64GB - £199/US$199/AU$279

Yes, you are right! There has been a price decrease of £10 in the UK for both models! Other regions don't appear to have seen a price decrease. Read: For once Apple's not ripping off Britain.

With this in mind, should you see a £20, or even a £50 discount on the price of the 2017 4K Apple TV you definitely shoulnd't buy it!

If there are any deals you'll see them below:

32GB Apple TV 4K:

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64GB Apple TV 4K:

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Other than the slight price drop the 4K Apple TV still offers either a 32GB or 64GB option. What else has, or hasn't, changed?

Design

In the aesthetics department, practically nothing has changed with the Apple TV itself. It's still the square hockey-puck chassis that we've all seen across the years. Dimensions on both the 2017 and 2021 models remain identical at 98mm x 98mm x 35mm with a weight of 425g.

Apple TV 4K 2021 vs Apple TV 4K 2017: 2021 model

Ports are also unchanged, with just power, HDMI and Ethernet connectors on the rear of the unit. The HDMI port on the newer version is 2.1 rather than the 2.0 found on the 2017 device, but that's about it in terms of the outer shell.

Remotely Different

One area that has seen a significant redesign is the remote control. The 2017 version has been much derided, with the touch surface at the top of the unit proving quite finicky to use. This has been removed on the new design and replaced with touch enabled click-pad that surrounds the circular select button in the upper part of the remote.

It's a call back to the first Apple TV remote, with the circular control area itself also somewhat reminiscent of the old iPod controls of yesteryear.

Apple TV remotes compared

Buttons have also been overhauled, with the basic arrangement of Menu, Home, Siri, Play/Pause and volume of the 2017 remote being replaced with a more functional arrangement on the 2021 update.

Now, you have a dedicated Power button in the upper corner of the control, plus a Siri button on the side of the unit. The upper area is home to the Select button and touch-enabled surround, while beneath these are buttons for Back, Home, Play/Pause, Mute and volume.

The mute button is a nice addition, allowing you to quickly duck the sound if you want to listen out for something, plus the Back button should make navigation through the menus a little easier.

Internally, the new remote control moves from the old Bluetooth 4.0 of the 2017 model to a more stable Bluetooth 5.0, which should also see it maintain connections over further distances. You'll also be able to control your TV or receiver via IR or CEC, a feature the old Remote didn't offer.

It's worth noting that you don't have to buy the new Apple TV 4K to get this remote: Apple is still selling the Apple TV HD (which came out in 2015) but Apple is now selling this new remote with that device. You can buy that for £139/$149 here UK and here US. (Yes, there has been a £10 price drop for that model in the UK too).

You will also be able to buy this new Siri Remote separately for when you inevitably lose it. Alternatively you can just control your Apple TV using the Remote on your iPhone.

Features and specs

Other than those points there's a very similar spec sheet for the rest of the Apple TV 4K units, but there are some key differences.

Processor

The main area, remote control aside, where Apple has applied updates is to the specs on the new TV 4K. Where the older 4K model came with an A10X processor, as found in the 2017 iPad Pros, the new iteration boasts an A12 Bionic chip that also appeared in the iPhone XS, iPhone XR, iPad Mini (2019), iPad Air (2019), as well as the 10.2in iPad (2020).

In fairness, the A10X was more than enough for the kind of duties required by an Apple TV 4K, so there's not a huge advantage in moving up to the faster chip, but it does mean that the 2021 model is all set for the years ahead, plus if you enjoy Apple Arcade then the extra power will ensure games run smoothly on the Apple TV 4K. Those who had heard the rumours that Apple was planning to turn the Apple TV into a games console to rival the Switch and Xbox will be disappointed though.

High Frame Rate 4K

The HDMI port, as we already mentioned, gets upgraded from 2.0 to 2.1, which brings with it support for High Frame Rate 4K video. When paired with the A12 Bionic, this results in the new model being able to deliver 4K HDR video at 60fps, plus iPhone 12 users can stream Dolby Vision 4K video (again at 60fps) directly to the Apple TV 4K (2021) over AirPlay.

Naturally, you'll need a TV that can display all of this, but if you do then we're sure it will all be rendered beautifully. Sound remains the same on both, with Dolby Atmos available through HDMI and there's AirPlay for wireless speakers.

If you don't care about 4K, then Apple still sells the Apple TV HD (4th generation), which costs £139/US$139/AU$209 for a 32GB model that has been revamped to include the new, improved, remote control but no other new features. It's a good saving, but the unit is getting pretty dated in terms of its specs these days - it still features the A8 chip - so maybe save a little longer and plump for the 4K model if you can.

Should you be thinking of buying any of the current devices, be sure to check out our guide to the best Apple TV deals.

Thread

There's also support for Thread included in the specs of the new model. Thread is a new IP-based smart home mesh-based networking standard that is also included in the HomePod mini. It means that compatible HomeKit devices can connect via Thread rather than relying on Bluetooth and WiFi, which should offer a more stable connection. It should also mean is that we are a step closer to the Apple TV being a home hub.

Wi-Fi 6

The newer model also benefits from Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) over the Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) on the 2017 version. You'll need to have a Wi-Fi 6 capable router to access the faster speeds. Other than that, there's the same innards for the two different versions of Apple's set-top box.

TV calibration

One interesting new feature is the ability to use the camera in your iPhone to calibrate the colour balance from the new Apple TV 4K. Just use the Apple TV app, point the iPhone at the screen and you'll be able to fine tune hues so you get the best possible video displayed.

This new feature isn't reserved for the new Apple TV though, you can use it with both Apple TV 4K models and the Apple TV HD. Macworld US explains how to use that feature here: How to calibrate your TV's picture.

Software

tvOS works the same on both systems, enabling you to stream content from a wide variety of services, including Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV+, iPlayer and more. 

You can also use both models with Apple Fitness+, provided you also have an Apple Watch that supports the app.

Obviously, with the newer A12 Bionic processor, the 2021 model is bound to outlast its predecessor when it comes to moving up to the next few versions of tvOS, but at the moment they both deliver pretty much the same experience. 

Verdict

If you already have the 2017 Apple TV 4K, then there's not a lot that will be drawing you towards spending the best part of £200/$200 for a few subtle enhancements. Yes, you get 4K HDR video at 60fps, a faster processor, and Wi-Fi 6, but unless you have TVs and routers that can handle those upgrades, then you'll get the same performance as on the older model.

Should you be in the market for a new Apple TV, then the 2021 4K model is the one to buy. The old HD model is ageing badly, with the spec sheet getting embarrassing now when you consider the price, but the 2021 4K option is bang up to date.

If all you want is a device to stream Apple TV+ shows and use AirPlay to stream content from your iPhone or iPad or Mac to your TV screen you don't need an Apple TV to do that. There are now lots of compatible devices that are a lot cheaper, and a number of TVs that have the Apple TV app built in. Read: Which smart TVs are compatible with AirPlay or have Apple TV?

Specs

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